The Battle of Cieneguilla — Nearly Fifty Lives Lost

by Don Bullis,
New Mexico Author


In late March of 1854, a troop of First United States Army Dragoons from Cantonment Burgwin, about sixty strong, encountered a band of Jicarilla Apaches at Cieneguilla (“little marsh”) near the village of Pilar in Taos County.

Some sources reported that the troops, under the command of Lieutenant John Wynn Davidson, were searching for the Apaches in response to reported horse and cattle thefts from local settlers. Davidson’s orders were to observe the Jicarilla; not to attack them. Other sources report that the Dragoons were simply on a routine patrol ordered by Major George Alexander Blake.

Archbishop John Baptist Salpointe in his book The Indians of Arizona and New Mexico wrote that the Jicarillas retaliated after Lt. Davidson ordered the executions of two elderly Indians, a man and a woman, bearing a cross, who approached the troops asking for “peace and mercy.” That appears to be a bit fanciful.

Historian James Haley wrote in Apaches: A History and Culture Portrait that the Jicarillas were seeking revenge for the killing of Apache chief Lobo Blanco who had been slain in a skirmish with a troop of dragoons under the command of Lieutenant David Bell earlier the same month. This appears to have been a likely scenario although there is much to suggest that the Indian actions in the Battle of Cienequilla were not offensive at all but were defensive in the face of an advance on their encampment by United States Army Dragoons.

Toward the end of March, Lieutenant Davidson had been ordered to locate the Jicarilla and to prevent them from fleeing to the west of the Rio Grande. That he was instructed to avoid a fight is demonstrated by the fact that Davidson’s troopers were issued as few as 20 rounds of ammunition. On the morning of the 30th, Davidson’s scouts located the Indian encampment and rather than move his troops into a position which would have prevented them moving to the west, Davidson moved toward the encampment; into a narrow canyon below the village. The din created by the soldier’s advance alerted the Indians to the presence of their enemies.

The fact that the troops were noisy was not unusual. The equipment carried by mounted dragoons of the day explains why: a .69 caliber Musketoon carbine on a shoulder sling, a single-shot .54 caliber percussion pistol or a .44 caliber Colt revolver, a saber, a cartridge box, a pouch of percussion caps, a haversack, and a wooden canteen. Also, horses were shod with iron shoes which created a significant clatter as they traversed the rocky canyon floor.

The Jicarillas may have numbered as many as 200 to 300 warriors under Chief Flechas Rayada, although some sources reported that the Apache leader was Chacón and that the Apache fighting contingent could not have exceeded 150. Some have reported that there were even fewer warriors than that. Whatever the case, the Apaches successfully ambushed the soldiers, at least according to popular legend. Some writers have averred that it was not an ambush at all; that the Jicarillas, with their superior knowledge of the terrain, simply out maneuvered Davidson and his troops as they attempted to attack the Indian camp.

Sources generally agree that about two dozen soldiers were killed in the four-hour battle, but they do not agree on the number of wounded who survived. Some, including Lt. Davidson, reported as few as five, while other estimates range as high as thirty-six. Twenty or so Jicarillas were also killed in the fighting (although Davidson claimed that fifty Indians were killed and some Indian sources claimed only four Jicarillas died in the fight).

It was the third worst battle loss for the United States military during the so-called Indian Wars on the Western Frontier (1846-1890). The others were the Fetterman Masscre near Fort Phil Kerney, Wyoming, which claimed eighty-one lives in December 1861 and the Battle at the Little Bighorn in southeastern Montana in June 1876 which claimed more than 260 soldiers, including Lt. Col George Armstrong Custer.

A court of inquiry on the Cieneguilla fight held two years later cleared Lt. Davidson of any wrong-doing, although many at the time, including some military officers, believed that Davidson could well have avoided the ambush, and that he recklessly endangered the lives of his men because of personal bias against the Apaches, and because he disobeyed his orders. It is noteworthy that modern historians tend to believe that the inquiry was flawed from the beginning; that the army wanted public awareness of the massacre to go away for political reasons, namely to maintain congressional appropriations. Lieutenant Bell, who was the most knowledgeable soldier of the day about Jicarilla Apaches in the region, was not allowed to testify, and he believed that Davidson was completely at fault. Davidson’s career did not suffer, however; he was promoted to captain the following year and retired from the United States Army in 1881 with the rank of brigadier general. (Lieutenant Bell died in 1861.)

An archaeological survey of the battle area done by the United States Forest Service in 2009 supports the notion that the fault of the fight rests much more with Lieutenant Davidson than it does with the Jicarilla Apache people.

Selected Sources:

Dennison, Andy. The Taos News, October 16, 2009

David M. Johnson, Chris Adams, Larry Ludwig & Hawk, Charles C., “Taos, the Jicarilla Apache, and the Battle of Cieneguilla,” Taos: A Topical History

Rathbun & Alexander, New Mexico Frontier Military Place Names

Utley, Frontiersmen in Blue: The United States Army and the Indian, 1848-1865

Wetherington & Levine, eds., Battles and Massacres on the Southwestern Frontier

Don Bullis’ newest book, New Mexico Historical Encyclopedia, is now available from Rio Grande Books at