The Path to Hembrillo

The Myth of Bad Water

In 2016, Historian Paul Andrew Hutton wrote:

Captain Carroll’s column from Fort Stanton marched west across the Malpais, a lava-rock badland between the Sierra Blanca and the Rio Grande. Carroll was to rendezvous on April 7 with Morrow in the San Andres near a spring in Hembrillo Canyon, but water, or the lack of it, quickly frustrated this plan. Carroll on April 4 camped at a spring in the Malpais where the heavy mineral content of the water sickened half his men and most of his horses. Carroll divided his column and led his suffering troops toward the spring in Hembrillo Canyon. He reached the canyon just before dark and blundered right into Victorio’s main camp. Carroll had found water, all right, but Victorio controlled it.

Hutton’s work is just the most recent in a long line of writing to perpetuate the myth of bad water contributing to the “ineffectiveness” of Carroll and his men on the battlefield, which probably began with Cruse’s memoirs in 1941; he writes:

Pursuant to orders, Carroll camped on the evening of April 5 at the Malpais Spring – which flowed water beautifully clear and cool, but dangerously charged with gypsum. As a result of watering here, nearly all of Carroll’s horses and half his men were deathly ill before morning. So he hastily broke camp and moved into the mountains. He expected to find a spring where he had camped the fall before, while on a scout against these same Indians. But when he reached the locality, not a drop of water was found there.

“Openwater habitat in the upper marsh at Malpais Spring. View is looking west,” 24 April 2014. Photograph by J. S. Pittenger.

Since then, many authors have claimed that the bad water at Malpais Spring led to Carroll’s walking into an “ambush” while searching for water – Monroe Billington, Kathleen Chamberlain, Janne Lahti, William and Shirley Leckie, C. L. Sonnichson, and Dan Thrapp are only a few. Many of these authors paraphrase Cruse’s comment of the water flowing beautifully and clear, Chamberlain even writes, “Much to Victorio’s amusement, Carroll’s regiment had unknowingly drunk from a spring that only hours before he had forbidden his people to touch. It was gypsum water. Men and horses alike were badly affected.” Carroll’s command, as well as the 9th Cavalry, knew the water at the spring was bad. There are several reasons why the “bad water myth” is not true and, as Laumbach writes, “Following Cruse, all subsequent researchers have made much of Cruse’s account of the bad water at Malpais Springs and its effect on the Battle of Hembrillo. Curiously, none of the other primary accounts mention it.

Laumbach continues:

In particular, Conline’s lengthy account never discusses sickness from bad water at Malpais Spring and all his troopers did after drinking it was ride thirty-seven miles, have a two-hour skirmish with the Apache, disengage and rejoin Carroll in the middle of the night, get up the next morning, ride back to the mouth of Hembrillo, turn around and ride into the mountains until dark, camp, wake up the next morning, and participate in a frontal assault on Victorio Ridge. If the Buffalo Soldiers were suffering from the water, there is no telling what they might have accomplished had the water been good!

Lieutenant Finley’s letter, mentioned previously, specifically states that he was guarding two wagons loaded with water barrels. On 1 January 1878, a Table of Distances was published for “The Troops Serving in the District of New Mexico with Remarks and information necessary for Camping Parties.” The list compiles data from routes between locations such as towns and Army posts and contains information such as distances to watering holes, grazing, wood, and other such materials as needed while in the field. Historian Watt summarizes the water issue quite well:

The District of New Mexico included at least six water wagons in its November 1880 listing of transportation allocated to specific posts. They were essential equipment for this area of New Mexico, as it had suffered a period of drought since at least March 1879. Even if there had been water available, a Table of Distances produced for the troops in 1878 stated that the waterholes were slightly alkaline, but could be much worse along he routes between Fort Stanton and Forts McRae and Craig (Route 21) and Fort Stanton and Fort Selden (Route 22.) In other words, the water sources along these routes between the Sacramento Mountains and the San Andres Mountains were already known to contain water that was alkaline to varying degrees Finally, Hatch notified Hooker, on 4 April, “It is not probable there is any water between Annaya Springs & Malpais Spring at [Location unknown] if so it will be necessary to make a dry camp. The implication is that Hatch had also warned Hooker that he should make sure that his battalion was carrying enough water to complete the operation. As each Battalion was operating in the same area, it would seem safe to assume that Carroll had been given the same instructions. Lieutenant Finley’s letter confirms that Carroll was operating with water wagons.

The pack train that supported the Apache Scouts at Hembrillo. Photograph from the Arizona Historical Society/Tucson.

The troopers who fought in Hembrillo Basin fought gallantly and honorably against a numerically superior force that reacted very differently than they had previously experienced. By the end of the battle, water was acquired from the two springs in Hembrillo as well as from holes dug in the sandy arroyo bottom. Without doubt, once they returned to the Tularosa Basin, they quickly paid Lieutenant Finley and his water wagon a visit.

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