October 16, 2011

Army of the West (or this day in history 1846)

By Harley Shaw
On State Highway 152, about six road miles east of Hillsboro stands a large kiosk, with a spacious pull-out for curious travelers to stop and read. The kiosk pays homage to much local history, but it fails to mention the passing at this point of the most important military expedition that ever traversed New Mexico, and perhaps of the entire U.S. Had you stood at this site the afternoon of October 15, 1846, you would have viewed up close some 140 mounted members of General Stephen Watts Kearny’s Army of the West leading pack mules and dragging two cannons. In fact, you might well have been forced to move aside, for, according to an analysis made in 1957 by retired Army Colonel George Ruhlen (scroll down page to read Ruhlen's article), Kearny and his troops passed roughly at this point, led by the legendary Kit Carson. They descended southward into Percha Creek where they camped for the night. That camp was probably just upstream from the present Percha Creek Ranch, which shows up as Clark’s Ranch on the 1996 Skute Stone topographic map, within sight of present-day Copper Flat mine.  
After a bloodless defeat of the Mexican army near Santa Fe, Kearny had claimed New Mexico for the United States. He and his men then headed westward to invade California. By the time Kearny reached Percha Creek, however, he was expecting to meet no more resistance in taking California than he had in taking Santa Fe—a misconception that nearly cost Kearny his life and resulted in the death of 18 of his men. Only nine days before camping on Percha Creek, Kearny had encountered Kit Carson between present-day Truth or Consequences and Socorro, carrying news that John Charles Fremont had already captured California, leading Kearny to reduce his force, abandon his wagons and speed westward with mounted soldiers and a pack train. Carson knew the way over this unpopulated territory.    

After camping a night on Percha Creek, Kearny moved out southwesterly and followed the route of present State Highway 27 for perhaps six miles before turning westward to follow Berrenda Creek to the low pass between the Black Range and Cooke’s Peak.  This pass would be the site of infamous raids by Apaches Nana, Geronimo, and Chihuahua in the early 1880s, and then a short-lived state highway in the 1920s. Note that none of these landmarks bore those names in 1846 and at least one, Cooke’s Peak, resulted from the passing of another branch of Kearny’s Army, the Mormon Battalion. A small obolisk a few miles south of Lake Valley on State Highway 27 stands in silent tribute to their privations. The peak at the south end of the Mimbres Mountains is named for Lieutenant Colonel Phillip Saint George Cooke, who led some 350 Mormon volunteers, traveling afoot from Iowa to Californian, down the Rio Grande and south around that peak north of Deming.  Cooke’s infantry followed the Rio Grande through present Sierra County, thereby crossing Percha Creek about 20 miles east of Hillsboro and three weeks later than Kearny’s crossing.  This infantry fought no battles other than a somewhat humorous encounter with wild cattle in southern Arizona, but they suffered many hardships before they reached San Diego—and after California had been claimed for the United States. They disbanded in San Diego, and most of them found their way to Salt Lake City to join their Mormon brethren.

Paso por aquí. This 1957 map shows the camps sites and route that Kearney's army, guided by Kit Carson, took around Hillsboro in October 1846.

The stories of Kearny’s near-defeat at San Pasqual, the subsequent court marshal of Fremont, the 1849 gold rush, and subsequent growth of California as a state fill many books, but I find it strange that the only highway marker in our area that acknowledges the Army of the West is a U.S. Forest Service sign at Emory Pass, some 25 miles north and west of the actual Kearny route. This pass is named for Lieutenant William H. Emory who was with Kearny when the Army of the West passed our way. During Emory’s lifetime, he earned ample renown to justify naming a pass in his honor. He is credited with saving Kearny’s life at San Pasqual; he assumed the chief surveyor’s job later on the Mexican Boundary Survey, interceding when Commissioner Bartlett’s inattention nearly cost the U.S. the key railroad route across the southern deserts; he performed honorably in the War Between the States and later served as a Commissioner, risking his reputation amidst the messy politics of the Southern Reformation.  Through it all, he left a written body of biological, geological, and archaeological observations unmatched by many full-time scientists unencumbered by military or political responsibilities.  Aside from the pass, Emory oak is named for him. The sign at Emory Pass notes that Emory and the Army of the West “passed by here,” leaving the impression, perhaps, that the troops crossed the rugged Black Range rather than following the easier route to the south.

To return to my original theme, it seems to me that a historic marker near the present kiosk on Highway 157, along with a strategically placed marker on Highway 27 would be appropriate, considering the importance of Kearny’s expedition and the history of the United States. Such a pair of signs would inform travelers of the significance of the route in American history, as well as help correct the misconception advanced by the sign at Emory Pass.

If you want to learn more, here are some recommended texts.

Cooke, Phillip St. George. 1878.  The Conquest of New Mexico and California in 1846-1848.  G. P. Putnam’s Sons, New York.  This was reprinted in 1964 by Rio Grande Press, Inc.  Chicago.  
Calvin, Ross.  1951.  Lieutenant Emory Reports:  The University of New Mexico Press, Albuquerque.  
Clarke, Dwight L.  1966.  The Original Journals of Henry Smith Turner.  University of Oklahoma Press, Norman.  
Clarke, Dwight L.  1961.  Stephen Watts Kearny:  Soldier of the West.  University of Oklahoma Press, Norman.  
Norris, L. David, James C. Milligan, and Odie B. Faulk.  1998.  William H. Emory—Soldier-Scientist.  University of Arizona Press, Tucson.

Ricketts, Norma. The Mormon Battalion: United States Army of the West 1846-1848

Sides, Hampton. Blood and Thunder: An Epic of the American West.