The Box S Canyon Fight

Not Your Usual Cowboys & Indians Story


In the 1990s, while cleaning up a collection of early pottery from a site near Zuni Pueblo, I came across a bag of artifacts collected by archaeologist Bertha Dutton and her “Dirty Diggers”—Girl Scout archaeologists-in-training. The bag contained a number of brass cartridge cases. Curious about this evidence of some sort of armed altercation, I talked to Edmund Ladd, the Laboratory of Anthropology’s curator of ethnography. Ed was one of the most knowledgeable people I knew and a Zuni elder.

“Where were these collected?” he asked.

“The Box S Site.”

Ed laughed and told me a wonderful cowboys-and-Indians story from the late nineteenth century that should be better known in New Mexico history.

In 1889 three cowboys came up the Outlaw Trail, in western New Mexico, from the south. We all know about the Old Santa Fe Trail, the Old Spanish Trail, and the Camino Real, and some of us know the old trails to Pecos and Galisteo, the Butterfield stage route, and other trails. But few know about the Outlaw Trail. It is said to have run from Montana to the southern part of New Mexico. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid used it. Cassidy was a foreman at the WS ranch at Alma, New Mexico, and ran a bar there while he was hiding out from the Pinkertons. As one might expect, no one stole horses or cattle from the ranch while Cassidy was there.

The cowboys’ horses were tired, so they rode over to the Pueblo of Zuni in search of fresh mounts. They had no intention of buying them.

The Zuni horse herd was there for the taking. The cowboys had no compunction about catching the best horses they could find and taking a good number of the rest, as well. Their first mistake was stealing horses. Their second was stealing horses from Zuni Pueblo—a serious misjudgment, as they were soon to realize. If they thought that stealing Pueblo Indian horses would be easy, they were wrong. They may have held the unwise opinion that Indians in general and “village Indians” in particular were a pushover, unlike the “wild” Plains Indians or the wilder Apaches. Stealing horses in the Gila Mountains seems to have been a common way to make money, but Zunis were even less forgiving than the ranchers in Grant and Catron Counties, and they were better trackers.

The cowboys’ third mistake was not stealing all the horses at the pueblo while they were at it. The outraged Zunis mounted up and followed their trail in hot pursuit. A running fight ensued, with both sides shooting wildly. The cowboys managed to kill four of their pursuers—Cahcaptiva, Coonah, Lipoutch, and Captain Lochi—thereby guaranteeing that the Zunis were not going to give up any time in that millennium. The chase headed north along a trail that would take the cowboys east, near Albuquerque, or north toward the wild lands of the Chaco Canyon area and the Navajo lands beyond.

If you look at a map now, you can guess what they were thinking. The cowboys took their ill-gotten herd up the Zuni River and the open land beyond it, almost due east along what is now State Highway 53. They then cut off at the junction of the Nutria River and began to follow it northeast toward a gap in the hogback called the Stonewall, now filled by Nutria Reservoir. If they could get through that gap, they could follow the river almost to the Continental Divide and then north to the wild lands beyond. They would be east of Fort Wingate and in the clear all the way to the Colorado border.

The Zunis were not impressed. They knew the land far better than the cowboys did, and they were not going to let these guys get to that gap. This was not only their ancestral land, but also the site of their summer farms, where people lived all summer while tending some of the pueblo’s gardens. It appears that the Zunis “headed them off at the pass,” for the stolen horses and their herders were stopped just short of the gap.

The Zunis had spent the last 200 years chasing Apache and Navajo raiders, and they knew exactly what they were doing. The cowboys were outmanned and outmaneuvered. At the junction of two small canyons, they took refuge within the walls of a ruined Pueblo village and a small cabin nearby. The place had long since been abandoned, but the walls still were intact, and there was a place to run in the horses. The walls were high enough to protect the three if they were careful, but it would be very tricky getting out again. While there was open land all around the ruin, making it difficult for the Zunis to make a frontal assault, there were several promontories close at hand, allowing them to take shots at the cowboys from above.

To backtrack thirty years, in 1868 the US military had finally allowed the Navajo people to leave the disastrous experiment of the Apache/Navajo reservation at Bosque Redondo, out on the plains of eastern New Mexico. The Navajos were finally able to return to the red rock country of eastern Arizona and western New Mexico. A number of these Navajo families settled down near the newly reactivated Fort Wingate, at Bear Springs between Gallup and a new railroad town, Thoreau. A number of Navajos from there and the Ramah area heard the gunfire and hurried over to investigate.

The story gets a bit muddled at this point. The Zunis said that the Navajos upped the scale of the attack, while the Navajos accused the Zunis of instigating heavier fire. Both versions are reasonable: the Zunis were in a righteous fury over the death of four of their men, and the Navajos, newly out of their onerous captivity, would have welcomed a legitimate reason to shoot at any cowboy they found.

While all this was going on, James Wilson, the schoolteacher at Zuni, notified the Indian agent in Gallup that some rustlers had stolen the Zunis’ horse herd and killed some people along the way. In turn the agent notified General Eugene Carr, the recently assigned commander at Fort Wingate, about the trouble and warned him that more people were about to get seriously hurt.

A few years earlier, officers from Fort Wingate, including the commanding officer, Luther P. Bradley, recognizing the potential of the forest and grasslands between the fort and the Zuni reservation, had purchased land along the northeast edge of the reservation and named the home ranch the Box S. Carr had taken over this ranch when he was assigned to the fort.

At once, Carr called out his newest lieutenant, John Pershing, recently transferred from Fort Stanton, and instructed him to take ten troopers and find out what all the noise was about. Pershing mustered his men, probably mounted infantry, and headed for the Nutria Gap. The cavalry literally came over the hill as the gunfight reached its peak. Pershing later wrote in his report that the cowboys had reached the small log cabin near the ruins, but they were pinned down by at least a hundred well-armed Indians.

It took him a while to find out who was at least nominally in charge of the siege. At his request, several Zuni elders called for a ceasefire until the military could be brought up to speed on the case. They said the fight wasn’t their fault. These guys had stolen their horses and killed their people, and they were not going to let them get away with it. At this point there was a lot of finger-pointing and a lot of shouting. The Zunis accused the Navajos of exacerbating the battle. The Navajos said they were just helping the Zunis get their horses back. After all, what are neighbors for? Besides, these guys clearly needed killing.

Pershing had no doubt that unless he talked the rustlers into coming out under armed guard, they were going to end up as mincemeat. The consequences of that would not be good for anyone. He told the Zuni elders that his orders were to rescue the cowboys and take them to the fort under arrest. The Zunis were not very happy with the idea that these guys might get out of this whole. They had seen what happened when Indians and Anglos went to court. Generally, the Indians lost, big time. Arrest and a civil trial was not the way the Anglos would have treated Navajo or Apache horse thieves. Nevertheless, the Zunis reluctantly called a ceasefire.

For Pershing, the next trick was to winkle out the cowboys. There he was with at least a hundred Indians, ten troopers, and three cowboys. What the Navajos thought about all of this is hard to imagine, but I am of the opinion they were probably amused. The Zunis were furious, believing that Pershing’s plan was just another scam. It didn’t matter that they had been supplying the fort with food for years. The railroad was doing that now, so what did the soldiers need them for anymore?

Somehow, Pershing got the attention of the three miscreants, and they let him into their cabin. He ordered his men to keep their rifles at the ready, for the situation was extremely tense. The cowboys said they were totally innocent: the Zunis were trying to kill them and steal their horses. Pershing found their claim dubious but assured them they would get a fair trial. He was very young, then. He convinced the cowboys that he could protect them, but they had to give up their firearms. By this time the cowboys, who could see a lot more Indians than troopers out there, were scared to death. Pershing suggested that if they didn’t give up their weapons, he could always go home and leave them to the Zunis. The cowboys came without a fight. The scary part was getting the prisoners out without anyone getting hurt, but Pershing kept his cool. Putting the three into a buckboard, he surrounded it with his troops and drove slowly and carefully back to Fort Wingate.

Back at the fort, the three cowboys were escorted to the guardhouse, as much to keep them safe as to incarcerate them. The Navajos went home, probably feeling pleased to have had a good, legal excuse for shooting at the enemy. The Zunis took their horses home and buried their dead, hoping the events would discourage similar raids in the future. The fort had jurisdiction but preferred to let the courts decide, so the military eventually turned the prisoners over to the civil authorities. As it turned out, one of the cowboys knew one of the soldiers assigned to guard them. One night, that cowboy vanished from Fort Wingate. It appears that he “lit a shuck,” as they used to say, rode north as fast as he could, and was never seen again.

The other two cowboys carried their bluff to its full extent and continued to insist that they were innocent and that the horses were theirs. The local Indian agent was not able to supply paperwork to prove otherwise. In typical fashion, the local courts acquitted the men, to the disgust of the military, and they rode back to Zuni with a court order for their horses. How many they were able to steal a second time is not recorded, but General Carr had already advised the Zunis not to give up even one horse, saying the fort would back them up. The cowboys were probably able to get back the ones they rode in on.

I wonder if Pershing was surprised by it all; lamentably the court’s decision was typical of the times.

The Box S Ranch was known as a hideout for thieves and outlaws as long as it continued. The officers from the fort who had founded it called it the Cibola Cattle Company. Even before 1889, they had started clear-cutting the upper watersheds of the Zuni and Nutria Rivers, as well as putting a dam on the Nutria River to divert Zuni Pueblo water to their farms instead. The Cibola Cattle Company continued to dam the Nutria River and divert water from Zuni. The Carr family and their partners continued to clear-cut the Zuni River watershed and overgraze the whole region until the Zunis received clear ownership of their land in the 1890s. The Nutria Reservoir is now a source of water for the Zuni Reservation. The Box S ruin still stands nearby, a reminder of a time when “Cowboys and Indians” was not a game with cap pistols, and unlike in the Saturday matinees, the cowboys and the cavalry were not always the good guys.

As for the brass cartridge cases, whose type, age, and condition, all suggest that they were used by the Zunis during the fight, they are still in the collections of the Museum of New Mexico, mute testimony to a little-known showdown at Box S Canyon.

Dody Fugate is the curator of the H. P. Mera Collection at the Laboratory of Anthropology. The New Mexico Association of Museums recognized her with its 2012 Centennial Hewett Award for leadership and service to New Mexico museums.