You Can't Get There from Here; the McComas Massacre

I like to look for places where history happened.  I’m not content to find the general vicinity of an event, I want to stand on the same spot and look for rocks or coins or belt buckles.  Which artifacts, of course, I would turn over forthwith to the proper authorities; yes, I would (although I do have a rusty old nail from an old stage coach station around here somewhere). I set off for New Mexico yesterday to find such a place – an obscure place, to be sure, but one which did have some significance, especially for the three people involved and the perpetrators of the crime. 

Unfortunately, dating even from the time of the McComas family’s murders, this is ranch land that is jealously guarded against outside interlopers like me.  Oh, I tried, from this way then that; but you cannot get there from here, or from anywhere else, not legally anyway.  The spot in question was marked by a walnut tree and it is on a dusty old road over in Grant County, New Mexico. 

The western end of Thompson Canyon

In frontier times, this road was part of the Lordsburg to Silver City stage road – today, it is difficult to tell what parts of the roads in the immediate vicinity were used by the stage road.  I know, however, about where the murders occurred and that spot is on Thompson Canyon Road just beyond where it exits the western end of its namesake, about 17 miles north of Lordsburg, NM.

Back in 1883, Hamilton Calhoun McComas  (or H.C., as he was known) was pursuing his American dream of making himself and his heirs successful by mining ventures in southwestern New Mexico.  It was wild country and still being contested by some extremely wily, contumacious former inhabitants. 

H.C., part of a large family, had moved west from Virginia, Illinois, Kansas and Missouri, in that order. He was an attorney by profession and I’ve read that he was a good one.  He may have worked with Abraham Lincoln at one time in his life – and he had served as a judge back in Illinois. Thereafter, everywhere he went, people called him “Judge” McComas. 

By late 1882, H.C., now 52,  had bought a red-brick house in Silver City at 500 North Hudson Street (where the post office is now), moved his second wife and some of his children there and was pursuing multiple endeavors relating to the practice of law and mining – even mixing the two up, which to me seems a natural thing to do.  His wife, Juniata, had presented him with two daughters and a little boy, Charley, who was then about six years of age – plus H.C. had some (older) sons through a first, failed marriage.

Silver City is situated at a place that was considered home by a good number of the "Chiricahua" Apaches.  In fact, the people we now collectively call "Chiricahuas" consisted of several groups of closely-related Indians and the ones who lived in the Silver City area were mostly the Chihenne, or "Red Paint People;" the Mimbres and the Warm Springs bands.

By the late 1870’s, these peoples had mostly been driven out of the area because of their fierce resistance to an almost complete white take-over of their lands, and the equally aggressive nature of the newcomers who were flooding the territory in overwhelming numbers.  Rather than meekly accept this eventuality, some of the Apaches continued to fight long after most others had given up and moved to reservation life. 

These outsiders' (or "renegades'") means of survival was increasingly centered on raiding against the ones who were forcing them out.  The Apaches were always a raiding people, but as their way of life became more and more threatened and uncertain, they couldn’t live any other way.  As a result of this pressure, they lost their lands, their way of life, almost their entire culture – it was lost since they had no peaceful time to teach their children and in many cases they had no children left to teach.

In later years, the raiding included an increased resort to violence and murder – which in earlier years had not been as much a part of that mode of subsistence (war was war, and raiding was raiding, and killing was a part of war, not of raiding). 

But as more and more Americans infiltrated the southwestern lands, the more the vengeful Apaches resorted to raiding and violence - and that was the one thing that was certain to turn virtually all Americans violently against them.  In the view of most southwestern whites the Apaches weren’t fighting for the land, they were simply vicious thieves and murderers; so there wasn't any understanding or empathy for them.  These were unhappy years, for both sides.

By the early 80’s, the Apaches had been driven either onto reservations, or in the case of the most resistant ones, south of the border into the mountains of the Sierra Madre.  Their wisest, most influential leaders were dead (Cheis and Mangas Coloradas) – only some much older chiefs and some younger, less diplomatically-savvy hotheads were left to lead (along with the firebrands Victorio, Nana, Geronimo and Juh).  The other Indian wars were mostly over -- so the Army concentrated all its attentions and resources on the few Apaches left -- even so, it took until September 1886 to subdue them.

The Apaches that were still off-reservation were being pressured by American troops on this side of the border and Mexican troops on the other side -- until finally each side was given the authority to continue a “hot pursuit” across the borders.  After that, the Apaches got no rest at all.  It wasn’t just the troops – both Mexican citizens and American citizens alike were very apt to organize pursuit of the Apaches both with and independently of the governments’ troops. In order to continue to resist and fight, the Indians had to have several things – namely horses, weapons, and ammunition. In the last years and months these were all in short supply as were food and subsistence supplies – blankets, cookware, etc.  The Apaches had no place left to rest, a demoralizing fact which soon became clear to them.

In early 1883, these Indians were in a desperate condition; Victorio had been killed – and while some of them (led by Geronimo) raided in Mexico, a few others under Chato and Bonito rode north into Arizona and New Mexico to raid for weapons, horses and ammunition.  Chato’s raiders, who are the subject of the rest of this story, decided before they rode north that they would kill everyone they encountered.  They moved fast and hard – as the Apaches were uniquely skilled at doing; no other people have ever been as suited (or adapted) to live on this desert land and survive – not without electricity anyway.

As Chato and Bonito led their few raiders north, they left a trail of death and destruction behind them.  Word got around about the raid and the violence, and the population was alarmed, if not ready.  These Indians were known to be headed east from Arizona into southwestern New Mexico and the “boot heel,” so it is somewhat surprising that any travelers were out on the roads given the rather likely threat of tortured, violent death – still, the Silver City stage ran as usual – and life went on for most – save for a few drovers or miners caught far from the relative safety of town (it was not uncommon that Apaches would come right into a town and kill or terrorize some of its inhabitants).  The Army had a couple of regiments out searching for the Indians and some citizen volunteers were also patrolling. None of them succeeded in finding Chato's raiding party.

Sometime immediately before March 27, 1883, in the middle of Chato’s raid, H.C. got word from an older son, David, then working in a McComas’ enterprise in Pyramid City, that his legal advice was needed with some kind of business circumstance and would he come at once. 

Apparently, H.C. thought the Apaches were nothing that couldn’t be handled with a Winchester rifle and a side arm – and he rented a buckboard, bundled little Charley into the back, and set off toward Lordsburg (about 55 or 60 wagon miles away) with his wife, Juniata (or “Jenny”) beside him. Thankfully (for them), the two girls were left behind in the care of a close friend with instructions to practice for an upcoming piano recital. Perhaps, H.C. discounted the threat -- as a relative newcomer to the southwest he may not have had a clear-enough idea of the critical threat the Apaches could pose -- the depredations and dangers of the Cochise War (1860's and early 1870's) were not a first-person memory for him.

The first day, H.C. trotted the horses and the buckboard west and then south from Silver City, along and across Mangas Creek and toward the Burro Mountains.  Declining an invitation to stop and stay with his friend the sheriff in Paschal (a small mining community), he drove the team on to the Mountain Home Inn, a lonely lodging in a dell immediately below Burro Peak.  He was perhaps about halfway with the drive to Lordsburg at that point – and after a very pleasant and companionable evening with another guest and the proprietors, the McComas family set out at 9:00 am  on March 28th for the remaining thirty miles or so to Lordsburg.

Unknown to them, or any other whites who were still alive, Chato’s raiders were headed toward the same area – the Burro Mountains – and planned to use “hidden” trails in that area to move safely southward toward Mexico with the spoils of their raiding.

H.C. negotiated the narrowest part of Thompson Canyon and after exiting its western end, was able to relax a little – thinking perhaps that if the Indians were in the area, the confines of the canyon were the best place for an ambush; he was beyond that now.  From where he was, the road to Lordsburg was a simple, fairly straight shot right down the valley. If the town had any two-story buildings, and it was a clear day, he probably could have seen them.

They had just passed the Lordsburg to Silver City stage, headed the other way at a good clip, perhaps giving him even more reason to think things were relatively safe. He stopped with his family a few minutes after 12:00 for a picnic lunch.  They spread a blanket under a very old and very large walnut tree and sat down to eat.  At that moment the Indians appeared. By sheer coincidence and merciless fate, H.C., Juniata and little Charley were at precisely the wrong place at precisely the right time; they were simply in the way.

H.C. fought desperately, perhaps trying to give his family a few moments to escape.  But he had no chance – and he was quickly killed by several bullets.  Juniata tried to escape with Charley in the buckboard, but was overtaken and bludgeoned to death in a few short seconds.  Two Apaches argued over who would take Charley – but Bonito, commanding the respect due a leader, solved the argument by taking him himself. 

Charley McComas was never seen by whites again – he probably lived a month or two in the Apaches' camps – but died or was killed – and the surviving Apaches wouldn’t talk much about it later – perhaps fearing reprisals. In the mid-twentieth century, a few did tell what they thought had happened to him, but many were not sure and said so, and in any event the details of their stories varied.  It is even possible, some said, that he lived among the Apaches into adulthood, although most Apaches who did talk about it, and later historians as well, refuted that presumption and for the most part think Charley was dead before summer was out that year.

The Apaches killed thousands of people during the almost 300 years that European settlers were invading and taking their lands. But the murders of Judge and Juniata McComas and the kidnapping of their son, more than any others, galvanized public opinion in the United States against the Apaches and as a result, energized attempts to force them into captivity – or kill them.  Many in those days wanted them all dead. 

It was hard to justify – and remains so today – the killing of innocent women and children, or other civilians, during “nothing” more than a raid to steal guns, horses and ammunition. The connection to survival for these Indians was at best indirect and in the minds of most western citizens, nonexistent. To be fair, the Apaches' desperate circumstances in 1883 were (although not entirely) directly related to the manner in which Mexicans and Americans had treated them  -- they had often been attacked and murdered by the newcomers in much the same way, often cruelly and treacherously. 

The Apaches were already a hard, vengeful people -- why would anyone think they would react to extremely violent ill-treatment in any other way?  But I have seen the words of no less a vengeful personage than Geronimo himself, that what he regretted most about his violent past was the killing of innocent children; with those words he admitted that he believed there were limits to the morality of killing -- that it was wrong to kill non-combatants (at least under some circumstances). 

Within three and a half years, the last of the “renegades” were hunted down, starved out and forced to give up – by then, even in their own fiercely resistant minds it seemed the only way for them to survive at all.  They were broken – and by the time they recovered any of their indomitable Apache spirit, it was no longer possible for them to resist.  They were, by then, thousands of miles away from home, imprisoned in Florida, Alabama and Oklahoma, demoralized and completely dependent on the government.

The McComases?  Their bodies were recovered, taken first to Silver City and then to Fort Scott, Kansas for burial.  The girls were charged to H.C.’s father-in-law and their interests guarded by Juniata’s brother – as well as H.C.’s business partner.  H.C.’s oldest son, David, the one in New Mexico, was dead within a couple of years himself – he apparently never recovered from the shock of his father’s death.  It is possible that he may have been a suicide – no cause of death was published. The other older son, William, became a personable cad for the most part, and drifted through life and jobs. He was implicated in a woman's murder later in life and was quite a scandalous character, capitalizing on his family's "story" to garner sympathy whenever he could. The daughters  (Ada and Mary) survived to adulthood and old age, but were forever scarred by the violent loss of their parents and brother.

While I have much empathy for the Apaches and for other Indian peoples, these were senseless killings.  Despite their desperate plight at the time, this was criminal activity more than it was legitimate war-faring (which they had some moral right to engage in) and within a year of committing these murders, Chato was serving in Crook’s Army as an Apache Scout.  He lived well into the 1930’s.  H.C., Jenny and Charley McComas and their heirs never got justice. Chato and the others with him should rightfully have been hanged.

The McComas murders were a memorable event in the history of the Apache Wars – and I wanted to stand on the spot where they happened.  As late as 1994, that walnut tree they picnicked under, while dead, still stood. Yesterday, hoping the skeleton of that tree was still there, I tried to approach the site from Lordsburg on County Road B009 – I drove for nearly 15 miles (on a pretty good road) but right after I crossed the Hidalgo/Grant County line, the road got 4wd rough and I came to a padlocked gate.  I was at that point within two or three miles of the murder scene.  So I drove back south to Highway 90 and turned north to the Mill Canyon Road; I took that 5 or 6 miles west to… another locked gate... a few feet from Thompson Canyon Road and not 1½ miles from where that walnut tree stood.  Sigh. 

Just LOOK at this filthy car!
I thought about slipping under the fence and walking the rest of the way (I was that close) – but there were No Trespassing signs posted and I am, after all, a person who believes that laws are made to be obeyed and that property rights are to be respected.  That’s just the way it is.  If I ever get the chance, I may contact that rancher and see if perhaps he will take 15 minutes out of his day and accompany me there; who knows, he might if he possesses a generous spirit. Anyway, that was more dust than my new car had ever seen before and I was some disappointed by not being able to get to the exact place where the McComases were killed.

We cannot save every single historical site – and most people would probably consider this event to have been a minor one.  It was, in a sense, it’s just that what happened to these three ordinary Americans along that lonely road had such far-reaching effects.  While it pains my egalitarian soul to say so, it had far-reaching results because in their own place and time the McComases were prominent and well-known – I guess what you might call American upper-class; suffice it to say they were decent people and pillars of their community. Their deaths brought a lot of outrage and national attention to that little corner of the world.

On Highway 90, at the intersection of Gold Gulch Road, the New Mexicans have erected an historical marker commemorating the murders of H.C. McComas and his wife and the taking of their boy.  The marker is a little over 22 miles south of Silver City and about 8 air miles from the site of the murders on Thompson Canyon Road.  

Many people knowledgeable of the history of the Southwest instantly recognize the name, if not the details, of the McComas incident. Other books I have read mentioned the McComas killings in passing, as part of a larger story – simply as a recounting of fact, or a part of the death toll.  No one that I knew of had written about these murders with any depth, or presented H.C. and Juniata McComas as real people whose lives were cut short – until lately. 

My interest in visiting the McComas site and the walnut tree was sparked by a book, written by Dr. Marc Simmons. Most of the detail that I’ve learned (and included herein) as regards the McComas family comes from it  – if you are interested in the rest of the fascinating story, read this remarkable book...

Simmons, Marc.  Massacre on the Lordsburg Road; A Tragedy of the Apache Wars. College Station: Texas A&M University Press. 1997

Other books that contributed immeasurably to my ability to write this article were:

Ball, Eve. Indeh; An Apache Oddysey. Provo: Brigham Young University Press. 1980.

Ball, Eve. In the Days of Victorio. Tucson: Univ. of Arizona Press. 1970.

Betzinez, Jason.  I Fought With Geronimo.   New York: Bonanza Books. 1959

Thrapp, Dan. The Conquest of Apacheria. Norman and London: University of Oklahoma Press. 1967.


Unknown said...

I feel we share a kindred spirit on matters like this. why do I have this compulsion to be at the exact spot were incedents like this happened? I dream of finding some piece or thing that can connect me to this massacre.

Unknown said...

I need to travel and research and observe,actually BE at the exact place were things like this happened. I cant pass up an historical marker in texas along the highways and back roads of my home state. And I have found a number of very interesting ones on my road trips. I try to imagine myself as actually being at this location when this happened.