Dog Canyon Apache Battle Sites Survey
Lincoln National Forest, New Mexico, 2002
by Gail Carbiener, PIT Volunteer
After four days of travel pulling my small travel trailer with the compass in the truck indicating south and southeast, I finally arrived at Oliver Lee State Park, 12 miles south of Alamorgordo, New Mexico. I was exchanging the ponderosa pines and bitterbrush of central Oregon for the Chihuahuan Desert terrain of mesquite, ocotillo, saltbush, yucca, and various species of cacti in southeastern New Mexico.
Lincoln NF’s archaeologist Christopher Adams had arranged for our base camp to be at Oliver Lee State Park for his Searching for Lost Apache War Battle Sites PIT project in September 2002. The park is at the mouth of the intimidating Dog Canyon, with walls that seemed to rise to the sky.
This PIT project appealed to me because Chris was planning to use metal detectors to look for Apache and U.S. Cavalry artifacts. This would be the first time metal detectors would be used in Dog Canyon by a professional archaeologist leading a group of PIT volunteers. To quote Chris: “If used in a controlled manner by professional archaeologists, they (metal detectors) are a cost-effective approach, and they save countless hours of testing and excavation.”
(Photo: Participants in the Searching for Lost Apache Wars Battle Sites PIT project, Lincoln NF, New Mexico, 2002)
Early the first day, our group started up the Dog Canyon trail. The first half mile was like climbing a ladder. We gained 500 feet in elevation. I carried my metal detector and critical items in my full backpack—an extra battery, rain jacket, gloves, magnet, trowel, and half a gallon of water plus lunch. I was gasping for air and my legs felt like wet noodles when the trail finally leveled out for the next mile. Just before the 2-mile marker, we made another climb of 1,000 feet to the second bench, where we were to do our surveying.
Apache skirmishes with the U.S. Cavalry, emigrants, Mexicans, and volunteer troops are documented from 1849 through 1880 in the Dog Canyon area. The fact that six significant encounters took place gave us hope that we would find either campsites or battle sites, or both.
After about 10 minutes—“beep, beep, beep”—off went my detector. I was not off the trail more than 10 feet, still trying to catch my breath. Carefully scraping the sandy soil away, at a depth of only 1 inch, I uncovered a coin. My first find was an 1833 Mexican Real! Even if the coin was lost 10 years after minting, it is one of the earliest dated coins found in the area. If that coin could only talk!
Our group climbed up that canyon for four more days, each day metal detecting a different section of the benches within the canyon walls. We had great success in finding both Apache and U.S. Cavalry artifacts. At midweek, we were pleased to have several members of the Mescalero Apache tribe join us.
We found several metal apache arrow points probably made from barrel hoops; two coscojos, or handmade adornments that were attached to a horse’s bit, and several “tinklers,” which are tin or brass ornaments originally attached to clothing. Apache wire bracelets made of brass, a knife blade, a military button, and several 45-70 and 50-70 cartridges were also recovered. All told, we found enough artifacts to be pretty certain of the location of an Apache campsite and a potential 1880 U.S. Cavalry skirmish line. Major sections of the canyon remain to be surveyed, and hopefully PIT volunteers will continue to be part of the adventure.