Putting the Cart Before the Horse (or the Stagecoach Before the Team)

As mentioned previously my current novel, Moonlight Water, will cover the period leading up to the Long Walk of the Navajo (1860-1863) rather than actual event. However a recent business trip brought me close enough to Bosque Redondo that I could not resist making a side trip. 

Since I will not be writing about the actual Long Walk and subsequent internment until my sequel to Moonlight Water (Hey come on…you have to love my optimism) I could be accused of “putting the cart before the horse” (or the “stagecoach before the team” ..OK, I admit I just made that one up, but more on that later.)

I decided on the excursion while driving from Albuquerque to Carlsbad.  My decision to turn what would have been a leisurely four hour drive into a grueling six hour plus motoring marathon was driven by a deeply held personal belief : when one is writing about a given subject exposure to any and all relevant influences and experiences are beneficial.  For the purposes of my present endeavor Bosque Redondo (or Round Forest in English, Hweeldi in Navajo) is definitely relevant (Understatement alert!)

2014-01-15 Bosque Rendondo Pecos River by Gary Fillmore
Pecos River, Bosque Redondo. View is looking north. The west bank was “home” to over 8,000 Navajo from 1864 to 1868.

As I wrote briefly in a previous post When Life Gives You Lemons.., Bosque Redondo was the ultimate destination for a great majority of the Dineh in 1864 after the Kit Carson’s expedition against the tribe, implemented by General James S. Carleton’s General Orders No. 15. 

At the time, while  another minor event called the Civil War was raging, Carlton was the head of the U.S. Military in New Mexico.  His vision was to convert both the hunter-gathering Mescalero Apaches, and the Navajos, a semi-nomadic pastoral society, into permanent farmers. All of this was to take place on a forty square mile tract along the Pecos River in east-central New Mexico.  According to Carlton, it was there the they would be gathered “little by little..away from the haunts and hills and hiding places of their country, and there be kind to them: there teach them how to read and write: teach them the art of peace: teach them the truths of Christianity.”[1]

Needless to say history has proven his plan to be idealistic and unrealistic to the point of being outright absurd. Although it was not from lack of trying on his part. He sincerely believed that long term “you can feed them cheaper than you can fight them.”[2]  But a combination of worm infestation of the crops, poor water, a smallpox outbreak, corruption among political officials (what a surprise) and lack of timber doomed his experiment, derisively referred to as “Fair Carletonia” by the army troops, to inevitable failure.

Four years later the Navajo were allowed to return home. (The Mescaleros had already slipped out one night several years earlier, returning to their “haunts and hills”.)

Fort Sumner 1868 Treaty signing site by Gary Fillmore
Centennial re-enactment site of the 1868 treaty which allowed the Navajo to return to their homeland. The remains of Fort Sumner can be seen in the background.

Much has been written about Bosque Redondo so I will cease rehashing here. Rather what I wish to impart with this post is that the Bosque Redondo Memorial at Fort Sumner State Monument is well worth a visit. I was pleasantly surprised at the size and scope of the museum, the quiet beauty of the surrounding grounds and the depth of coverage it gives to the topic. (Check out the link for a more detailed description.)  Added bonuses close by are the remains of Fort Sumner and the grave of Billy the Kid.

The interpretatives, videos, exhibits, etc. etc. in total give a very accurate and balanced account of not  only the years of hardship endured by the tribes, but also of the events which led to their relocation. (By contrast I find the historical pages on the memorial’s website describing the events which led up Carlton’s GO 15 site very slanted and lacking a broader perspective. Then again, that opens up more opportunity for me. Plenty of that will be covered in my novel.)

Enough of the history lessons for now –back to the road trip.  I spent the night in Carlsbad because I had a meeting in town first thing the following morning.  It was my first visit there in well over fifteen years.  My memories of Carlsbad, New Mexico were of a sleepy, little Southwestern village which was primarily a stopover for people visiting the famous caverns of the same name.  

Oh what a difference a few years makes.

The town is currently booming, primarily due to the development and production of the Artesia Oil field to the north.  I shouldn’t have been that surprised. I know what a difference $100 per barrel oil can make. While no doubt very beneficial for the local economy, the town seems to be growing in a manner where it will soon resemble sister Oil and Gas boom towns like Bakersfield, Odessa, and Farmington.  Speaking as an ex-Bakersfield resident, enough said.

After spending the previous two nights at the Doubletree in Albuquerque for $80 a night (I love Priceline’s Name Your Price) I was forced to pay $125 for a room at the Super 8, which had one of the few vacancies I could find. Fortunately A&E was running a Duck Dynasty Marathon, so the evening passed quickly.

Now for the stagecoach portion of our little adventure: The following day my meeting ended early. The only objective I had left was to make it back home to Cave Creek.  Having never driven from southeastern New Mexico to my home in Arizona, I was surprised to find the shortest route passed through El Paso, Texas.  So after leaving Carlsbad I headed south.

2014-01-15 Butterfield remains Pinery by Gary Fillmore
Remains of Pinery Butterfield station. Guadalupe Peak in the background.

While driving through Guadalupe Pass I was pleasantly surprised to come across the ruins of an original Butterfield Overland stage stop. Called The Pinery, the experience would have been a more “relevant influence” when I was writing my first book, All Aboard-The Life and Work of Marjorie Reed.  

However writing the book did give me extensive knowledge and experience of stops along the Butterfield Trail. I know it is very unusual to find stage stations with any of the ruins remaining save perhaps the foundation. The few exceptions are those that have been professionally restored (i.e. Vallecito and Warner’s Ranch in California)  Hard as it may be to believe, compared to nearly all of the sister stations, the old Pinery stop is remarkably well preserved.

Waterman Ormsby, the first passenger to travel the entire west bound route, wrote in September 1858, “We were obliged to beat our mules with rocks to make them go the remaining five miles to the station, which is called the Pinery on account of the number of pine trees that grow in the gorge of the mountain in which it is situated.  As we approached the mountain, the hills and gulleys bore the appearance of having been created by some vast, fierce torrent rushing around the base of the peak, and tearing its way through the loose earth.”[3]

Fortunately I didn’t have to throw rocks at my Ford Escape to make it through the pass. She ran just fine, all the way back to Cave Creek.


[1] General James H. Carlton. Letter to Brig. General Lorenzo Thomas, Adjutant General U.S.A. September 6, 1863

[2] Ibid

[3] Waterman L. Ormsby, The Butterfield Overland Mail, Pasadena, California. Henry E. Huntington Library and Art Gallery, 1942

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