November 11, 2013

A Tale of Two Canyons

Mark B. Thompson, III

It seems fair to state that my great-grandfather, and Hillsboro, New Mexico politician, Nicholas Galles, was undoubtedly proud of his association with what I would call the defense against the Apache insurgency, 1860-1886. For example, both a 1902 Santa Fe New Mexican article, and his 19ll obituary in The Rio Grande Republican published in Las Cruces mention his involvement from 1877 through 1886. I have previously written that by time of the 1902 newspaper article he was certainly not “trumpeting” his involvement in the 1885, Geronimo, campaign. I decided to take a closer look at the 1881 encounter with Nana.

As described in the Saturday, August 27, 1881, edition of The Rio Grande Republican, Galles was reported as “missing in action” after the August 19, 1881, battle with the Apaches:  “Mr. Elias Blain of Hillsboro, who arrived here last Sunday furnishes the Republican the particulars of the fight at Gabilan cañon, between Lake Valley and Georgetown, a brief account of which was given in last Saturday’s Republican. [Note: Phonetic spelling of Gavilan and Spanish for canyon in original.]

“It appears the Indians rode right into Hillsboro and from a hill overlooking the town fired into the houses. Lt. G.W. Smith, with twenty troops and thirty-five merchants and miners of Hillsboro and Lake Valley started in pursuit of the Indians and when passing through Gabilan cañon, nine miles from Lake Valley, they were fired upon by the Indians concealed in the rocks. They were completely surprised and Lt. Smith and Mr. Daly and three soldiers were killed and four soldiers wounded. The troops and citizens scattered and twelve of the most prominent citizens are still missing, among them Mr. Nicholas Galles, one of the county commissioners of this county.” [Note: Hillsboro was part of Doña Ana County until Sierra County was created in 1884.]

Both the 1902 and 191l newspaper accounts arguably cover the story of 1881 but without a clear date reference. The Galles 1911 obituary describes a battle in Grant County which could be a reference to the August 1881 encounter because it states that Galles had his horse shot out from under him but that he was able to hide from the enemy for the rest of the battle, was missing for several days and thought dead until his reemergence.  [Ironically, it was the report of his death in the New Ulm, Minnesota newspaper in September of 1881 that provided us with more background information on why the Minnesotan Galles had come to New Mexico about 1875.]  The obituary, however, says that 65 soldiers and “militia” died in the otherwise unidentified encounter which clearly did not happened in August 1881. The 1902 New Mexican article merely states that Galles was “present” at the encounter in which Lt. Smith and George Daly were killed.

If that tale seems strange, the fact is that the civilians at “Gavilan Canyon” generally come off looking bad. Historian Charles L. Kenner, Buffalo Soldiers and Officers of the Ninth Cavalry, 1867-1898 (1999), pp. 225-31, claims that Lt. Smith knew he was to wait for reinforcements but that George Daly called him a coward and threatened to lead the civilians out of Lake Valley in pursuit of Chief Nana and the Apaches with or without the cavalry. Kenner says that when the cavalry entered the canyon at 9:30 A.M. on the 19th with the “motley train of miners and cowboys,” many of the civilians “were still drinking.” He says that after Smith and Daly were killed in the opening salvo, “the miners either fled madly down the canyon or collapsed in fright behind boulders.” Historian Frank N. Schubert, Black Valor: Buffalo Soldiers and the Medal of Honor, 1870-1898  (1997), pp. 76-89, says that Lt. Smith knew better but had followed the “eager cowboys” into Gavilan Canyon and does not mention the “cowboys” continuing the fight after the initial killing of Daly.

Battles between Buffalo Soldiers and
Apaches in NM made national news.

One of New Mexico’s earliest history writers, Ralph Emerson Twitchell, apparently thought this was a story about the leadership of John B. McPherson, a Hillsboro merchant and saloon keeper. Twitchell claims that McPherson was the leader of a group of forty citizens who accompanied the troop of forty soldiers into “Gavalan [sic] Canyon,” misstating the date, but mentioning the deaths of Lt. Smith and George Daly. The Leading Facts of New Mexican History (Vol. 2, 1912), pp.  438-39, n. 359. No other historian or history writer mentions McPherson and I suspect that McPherson’s living in Hillsboro until his death there in 1921 may have something to do with Twitchell making him the leader, when all others seemed to think it was George Daly.

Both Kenner and Schubert rely upon a documents found in the Medal of Honor files, documents available on microfilm at the National Archives & Records Administration in Washington D.C. or at three regional offices, but not the office in Broomfield, Colorado. I am guessing that Lee Silva, in his essay,  “Warm Springs Apache Leader Nana: The 80-Year-Old Warrior Turned the Tables,” also made use of the Medal of Honor affidavits and reports. Silva makes sense of the story by stating that the group left Lake Valley shortly after midnight, having spent the evening drinking at a local saloon, and that the ambush took place at about 10:30 A.M. He states one or two other civilians were killed and that George Gamble of Lake Valley, like Nicholas Galles, was also late getting back home and only after Gamble’s spouse had been told that Gamble was dead. 

Lee Silva also deals with what is a “major distraction” with this story, where did the ambush take place? The original reports of the Army talk about “Gavilan Pass,” “Cavalaus Canon,” probably a misreading of a Spanish name, and “McEwer’s Ranch,” undoubtedly a misspelling of an early name for Lake Valley, McEvers Ranch. Historian Dan L. Thrapp, The Conquest of Apacheria (U. of Okla. 1967), p. 215, places the ambush at “Guerillo Canyon, fifteen miles from McEver’s Ranch.” Because there is no Guerillo Canyon on modern maps or in the USGS place name tables, I have no idea where he came up with that story. A more serious “problem” is that there is also no “Gavilan Canyon,” the name most often used in the histories, often misspelled and sometimes using the Spanish name.  [“Gavilán” is Spanish for “sparrow-hawk,” but has other meanings and uses.]

Silva describes a route to “Gavilan Canyon” that probably would have taken about ten hours from Lake Valley and would be consistent with his story that the posse and Cavalry left the saloon shortly after midnight and encountered the Apaches about 10:30 AM.  Just as importantly, Silva’s description is more or less consistent with the August 27th newspaper account putting the event about nine miles west of Lake Valley. Silva has the group going north to Berrenda Creek, then west to an unnamed spot, then south to Pollock Creek, which could then be followed almost to the summit of the Mimbres Mountains, then over the mountain (and the Grant/Sierra county boundary today) to Dry Gavilan Creek. The map below, courtesy of Gary O’Dowd, outlines what that route might have looked like. But some questions, given all of the factors described by Silva, still exist.

Potential route taken by Nana, posse, and Cavlary from Lake Valley,
over the Mimbres Mountains, August 1881. Courtesy Gary O'Dowd
If this is a story of not just two but multiple canyons, it is also a story of at least two tales with the second being the more important. As you might have guessed, the second tale is what happened after Lt. George W. Smith was killed in opening minutes of the ambush. Both Kenner and Schubert, as well as Silva, tell us the story of the African-American “Buffalo Soldier” Brent Woods and how he was awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions at “Gavilan Canyon.” See also, Bob Barnes' excellent portrayal in a “Tale of Lake Valley.”

Although these authors of “military history” vary somewhat in the detail, they all explain how Brent Woods rallied the troops after the death of Lt. Smith and held off Nana and the Apaches for several hours before Nana decided that the better part of his valor was to abandon the fight. Another “side bar” story concerns the fact that it took the Army until 1894 to recommend Woods for the Medal of Honor. Kenner concedes that the contemporary Army record of Gavilan Pass barely acknowledges Woods valor. Schubert notes that, in reviewing the medal proposal in 1894, Major General John M. Schofield questioned the absence of contemporary reports on Woods and Gavilan Canyon but eventually decided the post-1881 evidence was persuasive. In reporting the awarding of the medal, The Washington Times on July 14, 1894, says it was awarded “By direction of the President.”

Buffalo Soldier and Medal of Honor recipient, Brent Woods, is honored at the New Mexico Memorial Garden in Albuquerque. Mark B. Thompson photo
In addition to the sources cited above, Wikipedia has an article on Brent Woods, and there are several photos online, most probably taken at or near the time he was awarded the medal. When he died in 1906 he was not given a military funeral nor a veteran’s grave marker and it was only in 1984 that his remains were reinterred in the Mills Springs National Cemetery in Kentucky. In 2011 he was honored by the creation of a statue now standing in the New Mexico Veterans Memorial Gardens in Albuquerque. I could be wrong, of course, but it seems to me that the “Buffalo Soldier” awarded a Medal of Honor for his bravery in an encounter with the Apaches in 1881 is largely ignored in New Mexico history.


  1. Had a look at the article and it’s very interesting (I don’t have the detail about Galles having his horse shot from under him and having to lay low for some time. This all fits but….

    ….the argument that Nana gave up the fight after a number of hours while the soldiers held him off is somewhat off the mark.

    Woods led a fighting retreat to a spot after both civilians and some of the cavalry fled. This is not surprising as (if I’ve got the location correct) the Apaches opened up at point blank range with devastating effect. This left the Apaches ample time to loot the shot and captured horses and bodies before leaving. From where Woods made his stand the original ambush positions were out of sight. My guess is that a lot of the later skirmishing was between a small rearguard left by Nana while the balance of the Apaches, laden with loot vacated the area.

    I’m also sure that Nana did not shoot up Hillsboro but the camp at Gold Dust. There is a story of Victorio doing something similar in 1880 at Hillsboro.

    Overall, very nice article - as I say I hadn't come across the point that Galles had had his horse shot from under him - but that would be fairly standard practice for the Chihennes.


    Dr Robert N. Watt
    The University of Birmingham