El Malpais
In the Land of Frozen Fires: A History of Occupation in El Malpais Country
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Chapter IV:

On the day New Mexico surrendered, August 19, 1846, Stephen W. Kearny, now a General, proclaimed in a speech before a throng of New Mexicans that he and his government were committed to protecting the rights of all citizens. In official reports, a triumphant Kearny declared the conversion of New Mexico to American control an orderly undertaking. He appointed an interim civil government and promulgated a code of laws. But as Col. Alexander Doniphan, commanding the First Missouri Volunteers retorted, "A people conquered but yesterday, could have no friendly feeling for their conquerors who have taken possession of their country." [1] Disposed Mexican officials and Indians resented the surly attitude and presence of the invading Americans on their soil. Moreover, Kearny had assured the citizens that in exchange for their support he would provide protection from marauding Indians. It was a promise he could not keep. A revolt was eminent.

Kearny detached the First Missouri Mounted Volunteers under Col. Doniphan to help suppress the Navajos and stand ready to offer assistance to the new civil government headed by acting-governor Charles Bent. Earlier, in mid-September, Kearny dispersed his remaining occupation forces to cover the approaches to the Rio Grande settlements. At Cebolleta about ten miles east of El Malpais, Doniphan stationed three companies of his First Missouri, with Lt. Col. Charles F. Ruff commanding.

Kearny's stay in New Mexico was scheduled to be brief. California remained his primary objective and he proceeded with plans to conquer California. Kearny barely disappeared from view when trouble erupted particularly with the Navajos, Utes, and Apaches. The three tribes resisted encroachments on their territory by initiating punitive raids on New Mexican settlements. The Navajos utilized three routes to approach the Rio Grande villages and towns. All three avenues dusted the borders of the malpais. One trail followed the Rio Puerco watershed east of Mount Taylor. A second path passed north of the small outpost of Cebolleta. The third approach lay west of Mount Taylor and led directly into the Rio San Jose drainage. [2]

When the Dine, as the Navajos called themselves, persisted in their resistance, Col. Doniphan plunged headlong into a fall campaign. His plan was simple. The troops would converge on the Navajos by separate routes, "chastising the Navajos wherever they appeared hostile." [3] Captain John W. Reid from the Cebolleta outpost took 30 men into the heart of Navajo country to negotiate a treaty. At Ojo del Oso (Bear Spring) located 15 miles east of present-day Gallup on the site of Fort Wingate, Reid conferred with more than 800 Navajos. He convinced the assemblage to enter a treaty with the United States, and he then retired to Cubero with the Navajos promising to follow. [4] The nervous Navajos, fearing an attack from Doniphan, returned to Ojo del Oso before reaching Cubero, or consummating a treaty. [5]

On November 21 Doniphan followed the Navajos to Ojo del Oso hoping to conclude a treaty. Navajos converged on the site to confer with the Long Knife soldiers. Some confusion existed initially in the negotiations. The Navajos failed to understand why they were viewed as the aggressors toward the New Mexicans. After all, as the Navajos pointed out, the Americans had made war against the New Mexicans. Some delay was incurred as Doniphan attempted to explain the difference, presumably with only partial success. Ultimately the assembled Navajos agreed to a treaty. The Bear Spring Treaty stipulated that the Navajos would live in peace with the United States, the Pueblo tribes, and the New Mexicans. [6] Leaving Ojo del Oso, Doniphan made a similar treaty with the Zunis. Doniphan returned to Cebolleta via the headwaters of the Rio Pescado rather than circumventing the Acoma-Zuni corridor. [7]

Doniphan's treaty was but one in a long line of failed negotiations with the Navajos. Hostilities between the two races worsened. Frustration heaped upon more frustration ripened into a embittered attitude that allowed no solution. [8] In 1851, Col. Edwin V. Sumner reached Santa Fe as commander of the Ninth Military Department of New Mexico. Sumner, an Army Regular, earned a reputation as a tough frontier-hardened officer. He also possessed a reputation for being intelligent as well as stubborn. The totally unabashed Sumner did not endear himself to the citizens of New Mexico when he unflatteringly reported that the, "New Mexicans are thoroughly debased and totally incapable of self-government, and there is no latent quality about them that can ever make them respectable. They have more Indian blood than Spanish, and in some respects are below the Pueblo Indians, for they are not as honest or as industrious." [9]

Despite his advanced age, he was 54 years old in 1851, Sumner exhibited zeal and enthusiasm in carrying out his assignment. Immediately he reorganized the placement of his troops. He established Fort Union near Las Vegas as departmental headquarters supplanting Fort Marcy at Santa Fe. He removed troops from the Cebolleta garrison and began construction of a post near the Defiance Mountains at a Navajo shrine dubbed Tse Hot' Sohih (Meadows between the Rocks). Sumner dubbed the new five-company garrison Fort Defiance. Situated deep within Navajo domain, the fort had the desired effect of reducing raids. To augment his new forts, the indefatigable colonel initiated the dispersal of provisions to supplement the tribe's meager food during the winter months. [10]

In addition to the development and placement of military posts in New Mexico, the United States Army engaged in a host of scientific explorations to learn more about their newly acquired territory. Lt. James W. Abert had accompanied Kearny into New Mexico for the expressed purpose of mapping and writing a comprehensive scientific report on New Mexico. Abert, son of Col. John J. Abert, Chief of the Corps of Topographical Engineers, possessed a keen eye and a scholarly mind. Abert toured the new territory but spent the bulk of his time in the Rio Grande Valley. Abert visited the western edges of New Mexico including Acoma but did not go into El Malpais. [11]

Three years later in 1849, Lt. James H. Simpson of the Topographical Engineers, Ninth Military Department, attached himself to a punitive expedition against the Navajo under the command of military governor Lt. Col. John M. Washington. The assembled military represented a formidable force, consisting of four companies of infantry, two of artillery, and a detachment of Mexican and Indian volunteers. The command proceeded west roughly coinciding with the 36th parallel. By accident, the expedition stumbled on the extensive ruins of Chaco Canyon. Through the descriptive pen of Simpson and his scribes, the ruins and their condition were described. Continuing westward, the army made contact with a band of Navajos at the foot of the Chuska Mountains. An exchange of gunfire erupted between the two forces. Washington positioned his artillery and fired several salvos towards the Indians. The artillery shells produced the desired psychological impact to sufficiently demoralize and scatter the Indians. Six Indians were reported killed including one aged chief, Norbana.

Washington's column marched undisturbed into the very abyss of Navajo strongholds--Canyon de Chelly. Navajos under Martinez sued for immediate peace. Meanwhile, Simpson and his crew of scientists duplicated their accomplishments at Chaco Canyon by recording for posterity Navajo hogans and customs. In addition, the scientists collected an assortment of potsherds and other scientific and archeological specimens. Exiting Canyon de Chelly, Washington proceeded south via Canyon Bonita, future site of Fort Defiance. The expedition continued south stopping at the historic pueblo of Zuni. From Zuni the column plodded along the well-worn Acoma-Zuni Trail camping at El Morro. Through Simpson's foresight, he and his team copied to the delight of future historians every legible inscription found on the rock. Before departing Simpson left his own inscription, the first in English: "Lt. J.H. Simpson USA & R.H. Kern Artist, visited and copied these inscriptions, September 17th 18th 1849."

Upon leaving El Morro, Simpson's crew followed behind the main column. The route carried them to the vicinity of the future village of Tinaja located about 12 miles west of Bandera Crater. Proceeding eastward, Simpson crested the Zuni Mountains along Oso Ridge. At the summit Simpson gazed north and caught sight of a towering mountain peak about 30 miles distance. So impressed with the dominant character of the mountain he named it Mount Taylor, in honor of President Zachary Taylor and proclaimed it, "an ever-enduring monument of his patriotism and integrity." [12]

Ascending Zuni Mountain, the caravan reached the cool waters of Ojo de Gallinas. Here Simpson and his fatigued men found "some good water and grass." Three miles farther through hills of pine-barren country brought Simpson his first glimpse of El Malpais. Unlike earlier explorers who casually referenced the malpais, Simpson recorded every minute detail of their wonder. He referred to them as, "some unseemly piles of blackened scoriaceous volcanic rocks." [13] Following the narrow course of Canon de Gallo (Zuni Canyon), the little band of intrepid explorers entered the fertile valley of Ojo del Gallo to camp with the main body of troops. Washington's campsite was situated about a mile northwest of the future site of the first Fort Wingate. On September 19, 1849, the command departed Ojo del Gallo heading nearly due east. The first couple of miles traversed the rich and open meadows of the Gallo Valley interspersed with lava deposits. Simpson described the lava as, "A great deal of scoriaceous matter, in black angular fragments, lies scattered over the surface of this valley in piles and ridges; and it is doubtless owing to this source that its soil is so fertile; for wherever this igneous product is observable, there have I noticed the soil in proximity to it to be of this character." [14]

The journey from del Gallo took the travelers in the Rio San Jose Valley at a point about three miles east of present-day Grants near the intersection of Interstate 40 and New Mexico 117. On traversing the malpais, Simpson noted that with benefit of a few picks and shovels the valley could be negotiated by wagons. That visionary idea of Simpson would be planted with telling impact in the heads of his superiors. [15] Moreover, Simpson's eyewitness survey represented the first accurate data on northwestern New Mexico and northeastern Arizona. Simpson's scientific survey was significant for its discovery and description of the Chaco and Canyon de Chelly ruins and the new information on the puebloan Indians. Simpson laid the groundwork for future anthropologists, like Adolph Bandelier and Lewis Morgan.

The military agreed with Simpson's recommendations. In 1851 Capt. Lorenzo Sitgreaves began a reconnaissance to scour the territory west of Zuni for the purpose of finding a suitable wagon road. Sitgreaves's caravan proceeded west to the Little Colorado River on a course that would carry them south of the Grand Canyon. Despite repeated assaults by Yampais, Cosnino, Mojaves, and Yumas Indians, the command reached the safety of Fort Yuma on the Colorado River. After a brief respite, they completed their travels to San Diego. Sitgreaves's final report, however, lacked the detail of Simpson's. Moreover, some of his route proved unfavorable for an overland wagon trail. Yet, Sitgreaves expedition was significant for it added to the knowledge of the region and supplied missing pieces to the landscape features of Arizona. His route from Zuni to the Colorado River confirmed the belief that portions of the territory were suitable for wagon traffic. Years later the Santa Fe Railroad benefitted from Sitgreaves's work and utilized a large segment of his route. [16]

Following Sitgreaves's endeavor, the United States government embarked on an ambitious plan to extensively survey the American West and to find suitable transcontinental railroad routes. Now referred to as the Pacific Railroad Surveys, five expeditions received congressional funding to test the suitability of constructing transcontinental roads. Potentially any of the routes could prove lucrative for the selected regions as well as the adjacent communities. Lt. Amiel W. Whipple received the assignment to head up the 35th parallel survey that originated from southwestern Missouri. Missouri Congressman, J.S. Phelps of Springfield, spearheaded the project since it was his constituents who stood to gain from the enterprise. Politics notwithstanding, the 35th parallel potentially represented an excellent route. It was strategically situated between the Midwest and the upper South and, thus, presented the best opportunity to secure a compromise between Northern and Southern politicians. [17]

Whipple like Simpson was a professional. Formerly he had served on the Mexican Boundary Commission as assistant astronomer. He assembled his crew at Fort Smith, Arkansas, leaving that garrison on July 14, 1853. Encumbered with scientific instruments, Whipple's crew group set their course for Albuquerque where they would pick up a military escort. Leaving Albuquerque, the survey party proceeded westward reaching Laguna Pueblo. On November 15, the command's route parallelled the Rio San Jose Valley passing within 6-8 miles of Mount Taylor. When the lava beds came into view a few miles west of Laguna, Whipple like Simpson, was intrigued by them. Approaching Ojo del Gallo Whipple noted: "The whole length of the valley followed to-day has been threaded by a sinuous stream of lava. It appears as if it had rolled down a viscous semi-fluid mass, had been arrested in its course, hardened, blackened, cracked, and in places broken, so as to allow the little brook to gush from below and gurgle along by its side. The lava bed is frequently a hundred yards in width, the cross-section being a semi-ellipse, in the centre probably thirty feet high." [18]

From the "Hay Camp," the name applied to the lush, grassy meadows found in the Ojo del Gallo Valley, Whipple divided his party to survey three converging roads. One column followed Simpson's 1849 route to Zuni; another command traveled the military road leading west to Fort Defiance. Whipple accompanied the third contingent, which traveled south, utilizing portions of the Acoma-Zuni trail. Whipple's party camped in the Zuni Mountains eight miles from Agua Fria Springs. Whipple continued to Zuni after camping at El Morro where he waited for the balance of his columns. [19]

From Zuni the survey crew examined the region to the Colorado River. Whipple's report spoke favorably of a railroad route along the 35th parallel. Because of an error in estimating cost of railroad construction, the original estimate submitted by Whipple approached an eye-popping $169,210,265. Congressional support wavered in the face of staggering cost figures. Later Whipple reevaluated his estimates and scaled down the costs to $94 million, making it more competitive with the other railroad surveys. As it turned out, all five routes were deemed practical, however, the impending sectional crisis splitting the nation placed an indefinite hold on all transcontinental construction.

In 1857, Lt. Edward F. Beale of the United States Navy conducted the last of the military's surveys through El Malpais. Congress appropriated more than a half million dollars to construct wagon roads to the Pacific coast of which $50,000 had been channeled to the wagon road along the 35th parallel. [20] Beale was no novice to the task. In 1853 he had been involved in a wagon road survey along a Central route that started in Westport, Missouri, and concluded in Los Angeles, California. Beale's journey consumed three months and 1,850 miles. [21] What separated Beale's 1857 expedition from the rest of the expeditions, was his means of transportation. A herd of 76 camels accompanied Beale's party. Herded by Turks, Greeks, and Armenians, the United States Government purchased the dromedaries in an experiment to test their practicability and adaptability to the Southwest environs. [22] Beale, an ardent proponent of camel travel, sold the concept to then Secretary of War Jefferson Davis. [23]

On June 25, 1857, Lt. Beale departed on his expedition from San Antonio. His route took him west to El Paso where he pushed north up the Rio Grande reaching Albuquerque in early August. From Albuquerque, Beale and his ships of the desert plodded westward. On August 16 the camel corps and construction crew reached Acoma Pueblo. The next day Beale observed the Rio San Jose and its abundance of agricultural crops of wheat and corn. [24] On the 18th camp was pitched on the Gallo presumably near the site of San Rafael. Captivated by the immense lava flows in the vicinity Beale reported: "The little valley of the Gallo presents a most singular appearance. Directly down the centre, and rising to a height of some twelve feet, a stream of lava has flowed, and apparently ceased somewhere near our camp of yesterday. . . . The whole valley is so completely filled with the solid lava as to leave only here and there a narrow belt of meadow." [25]

Beale continued his journey eventually reaching Los Angeles. To test the feasibility of his wagon route in the winter, Beale selected 20 men and promptly retraced his route. The return path carried Beale by Inscription Rock and his campsite on the Gallo. At Gallo Beale recorded: "Crossed many streams of lava, which appear to have rolled in a fiery torrent just as a mountain stream from the hills. . . . We encamped at 10 [February 21, 1858] near our old place on the Fort Defiance road, having been absent seven months. Here my labors ended; the main road to Fort Defiance being intersected at this point by that which I have explored and surveyed to Fort Tejon, California." [26]

Wagon-road superintendent Beale was not through with his El Malpais travels. Beale petitioned his friends to appropriate additional funding to solve engineering problems discovered along the 35th parallel. The Army Appropriation Act of 1858 granted $50,000 to build bridges and improve stream crossings between Fort Smith and Albuquerque. Congress appropriated one hundred thousand dollars to develop the highway from Albuquerque west. [27]

With an economic boost from the government, Beale was again trudging past the malpais with his camels. On March 12, 1859, he recorded in his notes that they camped at Ojo del Gallo. Beale, the hunter, together with his black servant, Absalom, bagged between 60-80 ducks--canvas-back, red-head, mallard, and spring-tail. [28] Beale's party spent nearly two weeks grading the road between Ojo del Gallo and Inscription Rock. The road construction crew continued their westward trek reaching the Colorado River in May. At the terminus Beale proudly proclaimed the wagon road complete and ready for six-mule team wagons and loads up to 3,500 pounds. [29] Beale requested more funding to fix the road west of Albuquerque but the Ways and Means Committee of the House of Representatives did not act on the measure bringing to an end Beale's road-building career.

The work of Beale and the other surveyors, explorers, and scientists of the 1850s impacted the future development of El Malpais region. In 1866, Congress provided land but no financial backing for a railroad route west along the 35th parallel. Initially a charter was awarded to the Atlantic and Pacific Railroad Company headquartered in Springfield, Missouri, but later the completion of the 35th parallel railroad became the task of the Santa Fe Railroad. [30]

The American survey explorations that came through the malpais proved vastly different from the earlier Spanish travels. Whereas the Spanish primarily explored the region for mineral exploitation, they attached no scientific importance to the region. The malpais merely represented an impediment to travel. The army explorations were detailed analysis of the United States' new acquisitions. The reports of Simpson, Sitgreaves, Whipple, and Beale provided the first in-depth information about the malpais themselves. No longer were lava beds just obstacles to travel, the surveys elevated them to a scientific plateau, albeit still somewhat of a natural curiosity. Moreover, military and civilian explorations provided the nation with new knowledge of the region's cultural past and insight into its geographic composition. The geographical data would prove invaluable when the private sector secured funding and grants for construction of trans-continental railroads.

The military probes also escalated contacts with Native Americans, particularly the Navajos and Apaches. Relations with the tribes continued to deteriorate, however, as the new American government in New Mexico sought to preserve a fragile peace between the Hispanics and the native tribes. Navajos and Apaches continued their raids on the Rio Grande settlements. New Mexicans countered with punitive expeditions of their own. To deal with the problem, the government built new forts in the region to preserve peace and reduce raiding from both sides.

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Last Updated: 10-Apr-2001