Pioneers of the Penasco Valley  from the Museum

Prehistoric Pueblo Indians (of the Glencoe Phase of the Southern Jornado Sequence of the Mogollon Culture) inhabited the eastern slopes of the Sacramento Mountains as early as 1150 AD, but abandoned the region around 1350. The ancestors of the modern Apaches migrated from the north into the American Southwest between 1450 and 1500. Early expeditions of Spanish Conquistadors, beginning with Alvar Nunez Cabeza De Vaca, 1528-1536, traveled up the Pecos Valley and reported Apache Indians in the area. During the years of Spanish occupation in New Mexico, the newcomers established settlements in the Rio Grande Valley, but avoided the Apache strongholds in the Sacramento and Guadalupe Mountains.

The war between Mexico and the United States of America culminated with the Treaty of Guadalupe Hildago in 1848. Under the terms of the treaty the United States took possession of a block of land that was divided into the territories of Arizona and New Mexico in 1850. A treaty negotiated by official of the United States government with the leaders of the Mescalero Apache Indian tribe in 1852, recognizing the Apache’s claim to all the land that is now southeastern New Mexico, was not ratified by the US Congress.

The first descriptions of the Penasco Valley were noted in reports filed by military officials early in 1855, when they detailed their encounters with the Apache Indians on their own turf. Following the military incursion, a new treaty was negotiated with the tribe. It promised the creation of a Mescalero Apache Reserve for the tribe, a portion of land greatly reduced in size from the original Apache claim. Surveyors were sent into the mountains and a fort was constructed. The administration of tribal affairs was assigned to the military authorities. The 1855 treaty also failed ratification by the US Congress, and militant factions of the Apache tribe continued to control the land.

A concerted effort by the US military to conquer the contentious Indians within the territory was introduced in 1862, and the starving Apaches were rounded up and sent to a newly created reservation on the Pecos River near Fort Sumner. As the threat from hostile Indians diminished, miners, hunters, trappers and homesteaders wandered into the mountains. When the Apaches fled the Bosque Redondo Reservation in 1865 they drove out, or killed, the people who had invaded their lands.

Lincoln County was created in 1869 and the Mescalero Apache Indian Reservation was reactivated. The administration of Indian affairs was removed from military authority and an Indian agency office was established on the south fork of Tularosa Creek. Negotiations for a new treaty began. These negotiations led to the Prsidential Proclamation of 1873, issued by President Ulysses S. Grant, authorizing a smaller reservation for the Mescalero Apaches.

The Presidential decree released thousands of acres of land for settlement by Anglo homesteaders. By 1874 the first intrepid settlers, cattlemen who also established cow camps near primary waterings, turned their herds of cattle loose on the surrounding range. The boundaries for the new reservation were obscure until surveys were begun along the banks of the Lower Penasco in 1876. These townships were the first in the relinquished area to be surveyed and opened for entry. The survey maps filed with the US Department of Interior by WH McBoom in November, 1876 indicate the claims of JB Matthews and Frank Freeman, Walker Whitfield, Paul and John Riley, Frank Coe, Alfred and Austin Coe, and William J Smith were among the first to file homestead applications for their claims. They were followed by Thomas Tillotson, John Delany and James Walters.

Many of the residents of Lincoln County, during the late 1870s, were caught in the tangles of the Lincoln County War, including some who lived in the Penasco Valley. As the decade wound to a close, the last semblance of law and order crumbled when military officials were ordered not to intervene in civil matters. Courts failed to meet, warrants could not be served, and many of the remaining law abiding citizens abandoned their homes, farms and ranches to flee to safer locals. Outlaws of all descriptions roamed freely, looting and killing.

The 1880 Penasco Valley census, enumerated by Thomas C Tillotson, listed only 42 people remaining on the eastern slopes of the mountains. Included with the previously named were Mary Smith Barlow (daughter of William J Smith) and her two children, Melvin Richardson and two companions (in charge of the Delany herd at Blue Water), Frau Weathered and his wife (on the Frank Coe claim), Robert Black (later killed by Susan Yonkers, a.k.a. Bronco Sue, in Socorro), Robert Dixon (boarding in the Weathered home), John Paul (living with his brother), William Warren and his two sons, John James with his wife and five children, Robert McGee, Frederick Asbreck and Fedrich Kohn (miners), Thomas Many, John Kelly and Oliver Dampier. Note - By 1878 Tom Tillotson had moved from the Upper Penasco to the Lower Penasco, and Al and Austin Coe had moved up the river where they were soon joined by John James and Robert McGee.

Late in 1880, a petition to establish a separate precinct for the people of the Felix and Penasco Valleys was circulated by Thomas C Tillotson. Fifty men signed the document which requested a legal means to provide security for their area through a justice of the peace and a constable. As law and order returned, settlers poured into the mountains. The special census enumerated in 1885 indicates approximately 1250 residents in the Penasco precinct.

This document appears to have been written by Lillian Hirsch Bidal, and was found in the archives of the Sacramento Mountains Museum in Cloudcroft.