November 2013 – Metaphorical or Literal?

The first chapter in my novel will be based on a very little known but interesting event that occurred in the Chuska Mountains in New Mexico in 1860.  In July of that year a slave raiding party consisting of around fifty New Mexicans and several Dine’ Ana’aii (or “enemy Navajo”) scouts  led by Joaquin Candelario left Cubero.
They intended to surprise the Navajo at their summer sheep camps near Whiskey Lake, high in the Chuska Mountains and procure several young “servants” as they  were called in New Mexico then and “sell them over the river”. (Translation, the expedition intended to kidnap the young children and women and take them to Albuquerque where in some cases they were sold for prices exceeding $400 -quite the sum in those days.)
If you take the time to read the article on the link below, it was a surprise indeed, but not in the way that Sig~nor Candelario intended.

 Massacre in the Mountains

Little Water Creek leading to Chuskas photo by Gary Fillmore
Approaching the Chuskas…Little Water Creek (appropriately named) on the left.


One of the many interesting aspects about this skirmish is outside of the 1947 Desert Magazine article and a two paragraph mention in Navajo Wars by Frank McNitt, I can find no other written record of the event.

But thanks to the descriptions of Naltsos Nalyai, who witnessed the event as a small boy (and, of course, the detailed map in the article)  I thought it would be both possible and interesting to find the actual site.

After unsuccessful attempts to 1) find a way to Whiskey Lake myself and 2) to hook up with the guide recommended by the Tohatchi Chapter, I  contacted Vee Browne an old friend who lives near Blue Gap in the heart of the Navajo Reservation. Several years ago when I was writing my first book, All Aboard-The Life and Work of Marjorie Reed, Vee did an outstanding job in guiding us to some of Reed’s favorite painting spots near Black Mesa.  Vee, a well known writer of children’s books, knew Marjorie personally, having met the artist several times as a young girl.

Once again Vee came through although it sure wasn’t easy.  As you can probably ascertain from the photos, over 150 years later it is still very remote and scenic country.

Barbara (my wife, if you didn’t already know that) and I hooked up with Vee in Window Rock on a beautiful October morning.  After going north on BIA 12 for about ten miles, we took a right at Red Lake on BIA 31 and, like the Candelario party in 1860, headed deep into the heart of the Chuskas.

Well OK, there are a whole lot of differences: We were approaching from the west, they from the east, we were in an SUV, they were on horseback, they had lots of guns, the only thing we had to shoot were cameras, etc. etc. etc. – perhaps the most important difference was they had evil intentions. We had none of those.

Along the Trail
Autumn Glory Along the Trail

After about two miles the paved road turned to dirt. Then, for the next nine plus miles, we only encountered two other human beings -a couple of young Navajo women who we “serendipitously” (as Barbara described it) ran into at an “intersection” near mile ten.

Until they came along we had no idea if we were on the right “track” -or even where we were for that matter. As it turned out they were going to Whiskey Lake to meet with their boyfriends who just happened to  be logging south of the lake.  How convenient!   “Follow us”, they politely told us.

We did. For the next ten miles we drove behind their pickup along a very steep, rugged incline until we finally arrived at the lake.


Knoll where the last stand took place photo by Gary Fillmore
Knoll where the last stand took place. Whiskey Lake in the foreground.

After arriving we spent the next hour or so hiking around the lake, eventually reaching the edge of the plateau where Whiskey Lake is located.  Vee commented a couple times how convenient it would be if only “trees could talk. I know many of them are old enough to have been here then.”  I concurred, although I suspect in some places walking around talking to trees would cause some to wonder if I should be committed.

Check out the view below. Although my camera didn’t have a wide enough angle lens, we could see Shiprock (the formation, not the town) to the north and Chaco Canyon straight ahead.

Manuelito and his warriors were watching the Candelario party approach for several days before they arrived.  Although I have no idea if it was from this spot, it would have served the purpose very well. The New Mexicans entered the Chuskas on a trail through the present day Naschitti, which can be seen in the center left of the photo on the plains in the distance.


view from the edge of the top Chaco Canyon in the distance
View from the edge. Chaco Canyon in the distance.


I’m pretty sure we found the spot where the “massacre” took place although it was not until I returned home and re-read the article that I became certain.  What convinced me were the following comments by Naltsos Nalyai:

“The Mexicans beat their plunging horses. Down the valley they stampeded. Like Jadi, the antelope, they were being herded into a hunting corral with no outlet.”

The first several times I read the article I thought Naltsos was speaking metaphorically, the “corral” being a wall of Navajo ambushers on all sides.  However, as can be seen in the photo below, there actually was and still is a giant corral on the north side of the knoll north of Whiskey Lake.  My first thought upon seeing the fence was it was most frequently used for livestock, both then and now. But in the 1860s it was also used to “corral” deer, antelope and slave raiders for the purpose of making the kill that much easier.


Ambush site photo by Gary Fillmore
View from the edge. Chaco Canyon in the distance.


In other words, Naltsos Nalyai was speaking literally when I thought he was speaking metaphorically.  My premise was confirmed when I received the following in an email from Vee a few days later. “I think we were in the right area…My sister said it (the corral) is (still) used for hunting deer.”


Vee Browne-Guide
Vee Browne, seated in the middle of the ambush corral.

Suffice to say a good time was had by all. It was both an educational and enjoyable experience, one of the first of many I’m sure I’ll experience on my current writing adventure.

Gary and Barb
Gary and Barbara Fillmore in the ambush corral


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