Quitman Canyon

Michael has a BA in History & American Studies and an MSc in American History from the University of Edinburgh. He comes from a proud military family and has spent most of his career as an educator in the Middle East and Asia. His passion is travel, and he seizes any opportunity to share his experiences in the most immersive way possible, whether at sea or on the land.

Part of our in-depth series exploring the forts of Apacheria

The following story of the October, 1880 Quitman Canyon fight is from the National Park Service web site.

The military authorities knew that Victorio would soon enter the United States once more and probably head straight for the Mescalero country of southern New Mexico. Colonel Grierson was determined that West Texas would not serve as the pathway. He concentrated eight troops of the 10th Cavalry at Fort Davis and went there himself. Also at his command were the four companies of the 24th Infantry under Lt. Col. John E. Yard already stationed at Davis, a troop of the 8th Cavalry, and a detachment of Pueblo scouts recruited at the old Indian towns of Socorro and Ysleta, below El Paso. Captain Baylor's Texas Rangers, based at Ysleta, stood ready to help. As it had in 1855, Fort Davis was to serve as a supply center and communications link with San Antonio. The infantrymen organized wagon and pack trains to shuttle supplies from Fort Davis to the cavalry columns lacing the deserts to the west.

Grierson strengthened the subposts along the Rio Grande at Viejo Pass, Eagle Springs, and old Fort Quitman, which had been abandoned as a permanent post 3 years earlier. On July 27 he was at Quitman, and the next day he learned that Victorio was headed north toward the Rio Grande. Determined to block the way with troops summoned from the subposts, the colonel and a small escort rode eastward from Quitman on July 29. They crossed the Quitman Mountains and dropped into Quitman Canyon. At a waterhole known as Tinaja de las Palmas, a courier from Capt. John C. Gilmore, commanding at Eagle Springs, rode up with word that Victorio and 150 warriors had crossed the river, fired on two patrols, and were riding up Quitman Canyon. Grierson knew that they would have to stop at Tinaja de las Palmas the next day for water. His escort—an officer, six men, and his teenage son Robert—fortified the waterhole and waited. That night Victorio and his warriors camped in the canyon 10 miles to the south.

Stagecoaches passed in the night, the drivers taking word to the subposts at Eagle Springs and Quitman to send reinforcements at once. At 4 a.m. Lt. Leighton Finley and 15 cavalrymen reached Grierson. Captain Gilmore had sent him to escort the colonel to Eagle Springs. "As I had no thought of being escorted there, or anywhere else," Grierson later wrote, "I immediately sent two of these men back with peremptory orders that all available cavalry be at once sent to my support." Twenty-three men now held the rock fortifications that had been erected.

At 9 on the morning of July 30 the Apaches approached the waterhole and, seeing the troopers, attempted to bypass it on the east. At Grierson's order, Lieutenant Finley with 10 men charged. The Indians stopped to return the fire. After a skirmish lasting about an hour, Captain Viele with Troops C and G of the 10th Cavalry charged down the road from Eagle Springs and joined the battle. His advance, however, mistook Finley's detachment for Indians and opened fire, forcing it to withdraw to the waterhole. The Apaches followed in a wild charge. "We then let fly from our fortifications at the Indians about 300 yards off," wrote young Robert Grierson in his diary, "& golly you ought to've seen 'em turn tail & strike for the hills. . . . As it was the sons of guns nearly jumped out of their skins getting away." In another hour of skirmishing, Viele fought his way through to Grierson. Again the Apaches tried to break through to the north; again the cavalry cut them off and forced them back. At this moment Capt. Nicholas Nolan and Troop A of the 10th, riding from Quitman in response to the colonel's summons, charged into the fight. The Indians gave up the struggle and scattered southward toward the Rio Grande.

Grierson had lost one man killed and Lt. R. S. Colladay wounded. The fight had cost Victorio seven killed and a large number wounded. It also turned him back to Mexico. But Grierson knew that his adversary would soon return, and he went to Eagle Springs to wait.

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