On the morning of September 3, 1779, in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, Spanish Captain Juan Bautista de Anza and Comanche Chief Cuerno Verde met in mortal combat to decide the fate of a century of rivalry between the two peoples. Anza was the scion of a Spanish family with a long and honorable history of service to the Crown. Cuerno Verde had inherited from his father the particular headdress surmounted by a bison horn painted green, but also his deep hatred towards the Spaniards.
By the time darkness fell, fate was already fulfilled. One man lay lifeless at the foot of Greenhorn Mountain, while the other won a crucial victory for his people. But the events that led the two leaders to this decisive battle had unfolded for almost a century.
De Anza and the Comanches
In the years following the founding of New Mexico in 1598, explorers and missionaries penetrated deep into the northern territories, traversing the canyons, mountains and plains of present-day Kansas, Colorado and Utah. For more than a century the Utes and Apaches who occupied the mountains and valleys of the northern regions tolerated and, at times, traded with the white foreigners who came to their domains. With horses, swords and firearms, the Spanish had an early advantage over their Indian neighbors. But the revolt of the Pueblos, in 1680, caused hundreds of horses to be dispersed throughout the American territory. In the early 1700s a fierce warrior people called, by the Spanish, Comanche, showed up on the northern frontier of New Mexico, driving out the Apache bands.
New Mexico, in the mid-1700s, was unable to evade or stop the depredations of the Comanches. The province, 1,000 miles of barren desert, was isolated from the nearest New Spain settlements.
Every three years a caravan of supplies was sent from the south, via the Jornada del Muerto, to assist the Franciscan missions and settlers, but weapons and ammunition remained scarce and the settlers had to decide whether to use the scarce amounts of iron to make spearheads or horseshoes.
Santa fe, nestled on the western flank of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. it had been the capital for a century and a half and one of the few fortified settlements. Other missions and villages were more exposed to Indian attacks. To the north was Taos, with its mission built near the massive Indian pueblo. Further south was Albuquerque, which had its own problems with Navahos and Apaches. North of Santa Fe were the missions of Abiquiu and Ojo Caliente. South Galisteo. East of the mountains the pueblo and mission of Pecos made a perfect target for raiding by the Comanches. Scattered among these centers were isolated ranches, whose herds of horses and cattle whetted the appetite of the mobile Comanches. With few professional soldiers, the defense was entrusted to poorly armed and equipped local militias. But the time spent fighting the Indians could not be spent with cattle and crops. When the Comanches swept into New Mexico they found a poorly defended territory. And fight after fight. inconvenient neighbors became deadly enemies.
New Mexico's defensive prowess was challenged by the organization of the Comanche culture. Comanche warriors were independent and not afraid to die. They learned to lead both through acts of persuasion and valor. There was no central authority. Furthermore, the death of a warrior had to be avenged by his sons and brothers. The death of a chief demanded the vengeance of the entire tribe. By assaulting a Comanche band, one ran the risk of an immediate counterattack.
Year after year the raids against New Mexico became more and more incessant. During the 5 years of Joachin Codallos y Rabal's governorship, the Comanches killed 150 people in Pecos alone. It seems that they were led by a leader called, by the Spaniards, Luigi the Apostate. In 1747 a Comanche band assaulted Abiquiu in the Chama Valley, and ravaged the surrounding region, taking many prisoners. Codallos pursued them as far as the Rio Napestle, Arkansas River, and claimed to have killed more than 100 warriors. The following year, 1748, the Comanches attacked the pueblo of Pecos. The Governor managed to intercept them. A furious battle ensued and only the arrival of reinforcements from Santa Fe saved Codallos from defeat. In 1749 it was the turn of Galisteo, where eight people died. In 1751 they raided Taos, Picuris and Galisteo again, taking many prisoners.
Codallos' successor, Tomas Velez Cachupin decided to reinforce the pueblos of Pecos and Galisteo, which were particularly exposed, ordering the construction of trenches, towers at the gates and sending thirty garrison soldiers.
The bloodiest episode occurred in 1760, when 3,000 Comanches invaded the Alcadia of Taos. The village, which the friar Francisco Atanasio Dominguez described "as resembling the walled cities with ramparts and towers told to us from the Bible", resisted. The Comanches then swarmed into the Taos Valley, moving from ranch to ranch. The terrified residents sought refuge and safety in the large
fortified house of Pablo Villalpando. Despite a strenuous defense, in which even the women, including Tamaron, Villalpando's wife, fought alongside the men, the Comanches managed to overcome the parapets and enter the walls. They killed all the men, 64 according to some witnesses, and took 56 women and children captive. Governor Marin del Valle assembled a large expedition made up of Spaniards. Later the situation worsened further. In 1757, according to an official census, New Mexico had more than 7,000 horses. In 1775 the Governatote Pedro Fermin de Mendinueta wrote, in a report to the viceroy, that he did not have enough horses for an effective defense and begged him to send 1500 animals from Nueva Vizcaya, otherwise a complete desolation would have followed. There was a real risk of losing New Mexico.
Particularly exposed was the frontier sector of Ojo Caliente, a village located near the Rio Chama, west of Taos. In May 1768, Mendinueta decided to send a garrison of 50 soldados de cuera up Cerro de San Antonio, 18 miles north of Abiquiu, to garrison the ford over the Rio Grande that the Comanches usually used on their way to Ojo Caliente. In June of that year, 100 Comanches moved against the pueblo, but at the ford they were unexpectedly ambushed by the new garrison and forced to flee.
On September 26, a group of 24 Comanches showed up under the walls, having killed a settler, and challenged the soldiers. The garrison, to which some Utes had been added, confronted them and, quite unusual, managed to kill all but one of them. By interrogating the prisoner, Mendinueta learned that one leader had risen above all others. The Governor called him a little king, with a personal guard of armed men and pages who helped him mount and dismount and spread buffalo skins when he sat down. The Spanish called him Cuerno Verde, after the headdress topped with a single green painted bison horn that he wore. In October 1768, 500 Comanches assaulted Ojo Caliente.
This is a portrait of Roman Nose, the Cheyenne chief. He wore a single horned bison headdress, due to a vision. Probably the emblem of Cuerno Verde was like this, without the tail of feathers, with a bison horn painted green
The revenge of the Comanches was not long in coming. On August 31, 1768, they killed Lieutenant General Don Nicola Ortiz, second in command only to the Governor, in a battle at the Cerro de San Antonio.
That same year the Comanches raided Picuris. a village located between Santa Fe and Taos. and they sacked the church, stealing the sacred furnishings and religious books, which were then recovered in very bad conditions.
In the summer of 1772 500 Comanches attacked Pecos, and there were 5 raids against Picuris and 4 against Galisteo. In July 1773 the Comanches raided Cochiti. Mendinueta pursued them to the Rio Conejos and was able to recover some horses.
In the summer of 1774 there were more invasions. On June 23, the Comanches killed two inhabitants of Picuris, surprised in the fields. The next day they stole Nambè's entire herd of horses.
A month later a war party of 1,000 warriors descended the Chama River to strike at the pueblos of Santa Clara and San Juan. During the assault on Santa Cruz de la Canada, the alcade mayor and some settlers took refuge in a field. They managed to kill the Comanches leader and some warriors sacrificed their lives to recover his body.
On August 15, 100 Comanches assaulted Pecos and surprised some settlers working in the fields. They killed nine and captured seven and stole the herd of horses.
Governor Mendinueta organized the pursuit and sent an expedition of 114 soldiers and Pueblos. Five days later the Spaniards attacked a village "with so many tents that there was no end in sight". Due to the Comanche counterattack, they were forced to defend themselves, forming a square and were able to retreat in good order.
At the same time 100 Comanches stormed Albuquerque killing five people and 400 sheep. The local militia was engaged in a campaign against the Navahos and there was no pursuit.
There were other clashes in 1775. On May 1, a Comanche band attacked Pecos and killed three Indians surprised in the fields, the following week it was the turn of Nambè. Two were killed and two girls were taken prisoner.
On June 23, the Comanches advanced as far as Alameda on the Rio Grande, where they killed three inhabitants and some of the cattle.
Residents of nearby Sandia pueblo mounted a foot pursuit. Suddenly the Comanches halted and fell upon their exhausted pursuers, killing 33. The same day a war party surrounded Pecos pueblo firing at the buildings. One resident was killed.
Governor Mendinueta was forced to admit that he did not have enough horses to organize an effective defense.
n the mid-1970s, Nuevo Mexico seemed to disintegrate under the pressure of Comanche raiding parties.
In 1766 Nicolas de Lafora, the engineer who had accompanied the Marquis de Rubi's expedition, had described New Mexico as "an impenetrable defense against hostile Indians."
The Alcadia of Albuquerque. Note the inscription on the right "frontier and entry of the Comanche enemies"
But just a decade later, the most powerful of the Spanish colonies in North America was reduced to a captive territory, where horseless and ill-armed troops were forced to watch, often helpless, as Comanche invasions destroyed villages and farms.
Governor Mendinueta ordered settlers to reoccupy and rebuild the villages, calling them pusillanimous and cowards, and threatened to confiscate the lands, but the vast region between the Rio Chama and the Rio Grande was abandoned "destroyed by hostile Comanches," as a map explained of the time. On the eastern side of the Rio Grande La Trampas de Taos, La Truchas and Chimayo were repeatedly abandoned and reoccupied, while Picuris remained isolated and almost indefensible.
But even the largest pueblos were in constant danger. At Pecos, the eastern stronghold, surrounded by fertile lands in all four directions, the fields could not be cultivated because the village was under siege by the enemy. The settlers were forced to plant corn near the walls, where the land was not very productive. Nearby Galisteo fared no better. Of the 80 families present in 1760, half had left.
In 1776, the year of the American Revolution, Charles III of Spain set out a series of reforms to modernize New Spain, streamline administration, limit the power of the Church, and tame the wild and lawless northern frontier.
One of these was the creation of the General Command of the Inland Provinces of the North. The concept was to unify the direction of this immense territory to better defend itself against hostile Indians.
At the head of this new jurisdiction was appointed Teodoro de Croix, a very experienced and capable officer who set to work "with intelligence and vigor, something little known in the northern provinces".
Pecos pueblo was especially affected by the Comanches. It was finally abandoned in 1838
Meanwhile the Comanches were getting bolder and more ruthless.
In 1777, in a series of raids, they killed 23 New Mexicans at Valencia, 8 at Taos, 14 at Isleta, and "many more everywhere."
The small community of Tomè, south of Isleta, was particularly tormented.
In May, 21 residents were killed. They were in church listening to mass. The Comanches burned the door and exterminated everyone, including the priest, filled with arrows in front of the altar. In a second attack, in August, 30 people died.
According to a legend, the fury of the Indians was caused by the refusal of the alcade to marry his daughter to a Comanche chief.
The next year, 1778, raiders killed or captured 127 settlers and Pueblos.
They seemed unstoppable.
One of Croix's first decisions was to appoint the new Governor of Nuevo Mexico. The choice fell on Don Juan Bautista de Anza.
Anza was a Sonorense born at the Jesuit mission of Cuquiarachi, near Fronteras. He wasn't even four when the Apaches killed his father. Raised among the Basque elite of Sonora, he had embarked on a brilliant military career from cadet to lieutenant colonel. As Captain in Tubac, he had fulfilled his father's dream. In 1774 he led an expedition across the Yuma Desert to Mission San Gabriel in Alta California, proving the feasibility of an overland route to supply California. In 1775 Anza escorted a party of colonists to Monterey Bay and established a garrison in San Francisco. He arrived in Santa Fe at the end of 1778 with the main task of stopping the invasions of the Comanches and, in particular, of the great paraibo Cuerno Verde "the scourge of the kingdom.
Instead of waiting for the annual invasions, which occurred mostly in the summer during harvest time, Anza decided to counterattack.
The punitive expeditions of his predecessors followed two easily predictable paths. One east to Pecos, and then north to southern Colorado, the other northeast from Santa Fe to Taos and then, passing the foothills of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, north to the Rio Napestle, the Arkansas River.
After consulting with his officers and more experienced merchants, Anza decided to choose an alternative route, more difficult but unusual, "through different regions from those previously crossed", the only chance of victory for Nuevo Mexico.
The route from Santa Fe went through the Chama Valley to the abandoned village of Ojo Caliente. Then, passing through the Utes-controlled San Luis Valley and skirting the San Juan Mountains, one arrived at Poncha Pass. Crossing the pass, one entered present-day Colorado's South Park and, turning east, into Comancheria.
On August 15, 1779, the expedition, made up of 103 soldiers of cuera, veterans of the frontier, departed from Santa Fe. Anza's chosen general muster site was San Juan de los Caballeros.
Here Anza's dragoons were joined by 203 militiamen and 259 Indians from the villages of Canada, Queres and San Carlos. Anza's soldiers were well equipped. Each of them had three horses, at least ten loads of powder, and forty days' provisions. The same thing could not be said for the militiamen and the Indians. Because of their poverty, only a few owned two horses, poorly fed and almost useless, and three loads of powder.
Anza gave them a horse and a working weapon.
He then divided the soldiers into three groups of 200 men each, one in the vanguard, under his command, and the other two under the first and second lieutenants of the garrison of Santa Fe.
On August 17, the Spanish encamped in the abandoned pueblo of Ojo Caliente, the site where Cuerno Verde's father had been killed by a musket ball in 1768. That night Anza and his men slept among the ruined buildings and the ghosts of those who they had been victims of the Comanche vendetta.
On August 20, the Spanish arrived at the Rio de los Conejos, near the present New Mexico-Colorado border. Here they were joined by 200 Apaches and Utes who wanted to fight the common enemy. Anza immediately made an agreement with the bosses. They would have had to obey his orders, on the other hand the booty would then have been divided equally with the soldiers, except for personal captures.
From the 21st to the 23rd the expedition traveled only at night, to avoid enemy lookouts.
Anza ordered the fires not to be lit, despite the inclement weather. Because of the cold and frost, it felt like the middle of winter. The direction was north and the Spanish and their allies crossed Rio del Pino, Jaras, Timbres, San Lorenzo and finally the Rio Grande at El Paso de San Bartolomè.
On the 27th they arrived at Poncha Pass, a narrow canyon "rarely traversed previously", carved between the Continental Divide, and the Sawatch Mountains in particular, and the Sangre de Cristo Range. It was a very difficult day. Fog and snow made the passage of 800 men and more than 1,000 horses and mules extremely difficult.
After crossing the pass, one entered today's South Park in Colorado. Here the Spanish found a herd of bison, but no sign of Comanches.
On the 30th the expedition passed Sierra Almagre, the red ocher sierra, probably Pike Peak, although not all historians agree, through El Puerto de la Sierra Almagre (Ute Pass), and then camped on the bank of a torrent called, by Anza, Rio Santa Rosa.
On 31 August the scouts that Anza had sent to scout returned with the awaited news. They had located a large camp, consisting of more than 120 tents, on the Rio Sacramento (now Fountain Creek). Some Comanches had, however, discovered the tracks of the scouts and raised the alarm.
Anza wasted no time. Leaving 200 men to guard the horse herd and supply train, he ordered the attack.
There was no time to encircle the enemy, who were already fleeing across the prairie. All Comanches
were on horseback, including the women and children. The Spanish pursued them for eight miles, until the rearguard stopped to fight. A "running fight" ensued, a battle on the move, for another three miles. Eighteen warriors were killed, many more wounded, and 34 women and children were captured. The Comanches lost everything in their flight except the horses they rode.
Anza spent five hours interrogating prisoners to try to find out the whereabouts of other rancherias. Two prisoners told him that many villages were converging on that place to meet Cuerno Verde. The "general jefe", a few days earlier, had gone south with 250 warriors to assault Taos and the Rio Sacramento was the place chosen to celebrate the victory. Since the fugitives would certainly alert everyone else, Anza decided to turn back to New Mexico to intercept Cuerno.
Anza's men divided up the booty, 500 horses and goods which were loaded onto more than 100 pack train animals. Then the Spanish, on September 1, began their journey south. "I was determined to follow Cuerno Verde's trail to see if luck would allow me to meet him," Anza wrote in his campaign diary.
The Spanish continued to ride south on September 2, crossed the Arkansas River, and moved parallel to the Wet Mountains, southwest of today's Pueblo City, to Greenhorn Peak.
The day had not started, for Anza, in the best way. The Utes had abandoned the camp, satisfied with the booty they had received or perhaps reluctant to face Cuerno Verde and his warriors.
By midafternoon scouts informed him that a large band of Comanches was approaching. It could only be Cuerno Verde, returning from his last raid in New Mexico. The final showdown that the Spanish had long awaited was at hand.
By the time Anza had captured the village on the Rio Sacramento, Cuerno Verde and his warriors had descended on Taos, but had been in for an unpleasant surprise. A few days earlier the Apaches had warned the mayor of the approach of the enemy, and the mayor had alerted the whole province. Furthermore, the pueblo's defenses had been improved with a rectangular palisade and triangular towers at the corners. By the evening of August 30, all valid inhabitants of Taos had gathered on the walls. The assault, no longer a surprise, was repulsed and seven warriors were killed by the Spanish counterattack. Having no alternative plans, Cuerno Verde and the Comanches, having burned their crops, left.
To return to their village on the Rio Sacramento, the Indians, unaware of the enemy's presence, were forced to cross a narrow valley surrounded by wooded hills. Anza set the trap. He divided his men into three columns, sent two to hide in the thick vegetation on the sides of the valley, and led the frontal assault. He had organized a perfect pincer movement, but Cuerno Verde saw the trap and the Comanches fled. The pursuit was interrupted by a deep crack in the ground.
“At sunset the barbarians reached the valley and we attacked them with the column under my command, as they seemed to expect. However, after seeing the other two columns that were about to surround them, they gave themselves to a blind and frantic flight".
Despite the negative opinion of his officers, who feared a Comanche-style night attack, Anza decided to rest the men inside the gully.
At dawn the Spaniards resumed their march. Anza sent two columns into the woods to left and right, and advanced with a third column to scout.
Suddenly, about forty Comanches appeared from the trees and began firing their muskets. In front of them, recognized for his "insignia and devices", ornaments and symbols, Cuerno Verde with his famous headgear. The great chief advanced, alone, towards the Spaniards, insulting them and making his horse twirl wildly.
“I was determined to have his life,” Anza wrote, “and her pride and his arrogance led to his death.”
Anza ordered the enemy to be surrounded and, in the event that the maneuver failed, to isolate Cuerno Verde and his personal guard from the main body of Comanches.
The leader saw the intent and began to flee, but was trapped with his followers in a dead-end gully or canyon. The Comanches, dismounted, tried to defend themselves by sheltering behind the animals, but they were all killed, Cuerno Verde, his eldest son, a medicine man, "sumo pujacante", who had predicted immortality, four of his chief , including Aguila Bolteada, second in command only to Cuerno, and ten warriors.
Anza took possession of the legendary hat to be presented to the Spanish authorities and, at 10.30 am on 3 September 1779, amidst the hurrahs of his soldiers, proclaimed victory in the name of Charles III and the Commander General Croix, and called the place of the battle, at the foot of Greenhorn Mountain, Los Dolores of Maria Santissima. The place is still unknown today.
On September 10, the Spaniards returned to Santa Fe greeted by cheering crowds.
Anza sent Croix the legendary headdress of Cuerno Verde, the feathered one of Aguila Bolteada, a map of the expedition, and a copy of the campaign diary. According to a legend, Cuerno's hat was then given to Charles III who gave it to Pope Pius VI in the Vatican.
In 1812 Pedro Pino wrote in "Exposicion sucinta y sencilla de la provincia del Nuevo Mexico" that Anza's opponent was called Tabivo Naritgante, a name translated by Thomas Kavanagh as "man dangerous to others". I don't know, however, whether this was Cuerno's real name or a description of him.
Nor is it known which group he belonged to. He probably he was a Jupe, due to the geographical location of the events.
Anza, in the years following his victory against Cuerno Verde, tried to consolidate the acquired advantage.
Beginning in 1783 he began negotiating a long-term peace with the Comanches. Although, after Cuerno's death, some bands had come to New Mexico to negotiate an armistice, Anza had refused to negotiate until the Comanches had chosen a leader to speak for them all.
Finally, in 1786, Anza concluded a treaty with Chief Ecueracapa. Peace between Nuevo Mexico and the Comanches was final.
In 1787, to prove their sincerity to the Governor, the Comanches asked for help building a permanent settlement on the Arkansas River.
Anza supplied them with a foreman, 30 laborers, farm tools, seeds, building materials, and livestock.
The settlement, called San Carlos de los Jupes, was located on the St Charles River in the foothills of the Wet Mountains near where Anza had defeated Cuerno Verde.
Anza's health deteriorated, however, and he was forced to return to Sonora. When the Comanches learned of his departure, they abandoned San Carlos, believing that their efforts to build a permanent colony were the result of a pact between them and Anza, not an agreement with New Mexico.
On December 19, 1788 Don Juan Bautista de Anza, the greatest Spanish frontiersman of those times, died in Arispe.
By Renalto Ruggert