A History of Lies and Broken Promises
What a staggering change has taken place here! And in such a short space of time! Cities which now throb with growth were only dots fifteen years ago, swallowed in the vast panorama of mountain and desert. People who had only vaguely heard of such names as Phoenix, Tucson, El Paso fifteen years ago, are now living in these cities in the hundreds of thousands.1960s Deming Ranchettes sales brochure
When my father died on Christmas Day in 1989, he left his Deming Ranchettes to me in his will. Select Western Lands, Inc., a company that endures today primarily in the archived records of the lawsuits filed against it, had subdivided pristine New Mexican desert fifteen miles east of the city of Deming, population eight thousand at the time my parents bought their ranchettes, into a crazy quilt of eighty thousand half-acre lots. Infrastructure—paved roads, water, utilities—was nonexistent. I was the sudden new owner of two of those lots.
I have no good explanation for why I didn’t visit my ranchettes immediately. I was curious—just not curious enough to make the three-hundred-mile trip from Phoenix, where I was living when my father died, or the eight-hundred-fifty-mile one from Houston, where I moved ten years later for graduate school. Even when I occasionally drove back and forth between Phoenix and Houston on Interstate 10, which goes right through Deming, I couldn’t be bothered to take the exit. I glanced over my shoulder, south toward the mountains, and imagined my ranchettes somewhere in the heat shimmer emanating off the desert floor, but all I caught were glimpses of a small dusty town stuck in time. I would squint and try to visualize what my father thought he had seen out there, and I saw nothing but the mirage of possibility. And then the moment would pass and I would drive on, until one spring day in 2004 I stopped at the Luna County Courthouse and asked the friendly clerk in the assessor’s office for help.
“I’m looking for my father’s Deming Ranchettes,” I told her. “I’d like to sell them.”
“You and everyone else,” she said and handed me a new map that was identical to the old map my father had tucked into his files thirty-five years earlier.
DON’T BE MISLED BY OUR LOW PRICES—Just as there is need for good family style restaurants as well as the more fancy type of restaurants, so there is need for good honest, unimproved, low-priced property. . . .
We wish we could keep this up forever. . . . This is the plain truth. We will not offer any more half-acre Ranchettes when our present inventory is sold.Display ad, Chicago Tribune, March 3, 1974
I was eighteen years old when my father retired from the Chicago Police Department in 1971. He had raised three daughters on the South Side, teaching us to be as cautious as cops walking the night beat. Now that my two older sisters were married and I was a freshman in college downstate, he could finally be free from the weight of the city and the ordeals of policing. He and my mother looked to the south, to the border states, searching for a welcoming warmth.
My parents had begun scouting properties in Arizona and South Texas in the fall of 1968, cruising with real estate agents down streets lined with newly planted palm trees. They were looking for a life where the static of a scanner, the clang of a jail cell door, the wail of a squad car’s siren would be replaced by the rustle of leaves in an Emory oak or birdsong in a desert willow. Where the wind carried a hint of hope instead of despair. They longed for a new home as different as they could afford, away from tiny Chicago lots crowded with two-flats separated only by narrow gangways. A marketing campaign led them to the broad vistas of southern New Mexico desert, to an openness they had never felt. In June 1969 they signed a contract with Select Western Lands and put ten dollars down on two half-acre Deming Ranchettes. They agreed to pay a total of $598 in ten-dollar monthly installments.
I still have the sales brochure that promised that my parents would “live longer and better in New Mexico,” a soon-to-be booming destination. It described a bright future that awaited my parents at the base of the Florida Mountains, which my father pronounced—practicing the Spanish he learned from a WGN special—the “flor-EE-duh” mountains. In Spanish, florida means “full of flowers,” which sounds like a name dreamed up by an imaginative copywriter who had never seen the monochrome mountains that lurk on the Deming horizon. In reality, the mountains were probably named by a Spanish conquistador roaming the Southwest looking for gold in the mid-1500s. The brochure promoted camping and boating in “the healthiest, sunniest climate in all America,” although the closest state parks and lakes were more than sixty miles away. A 1960s black-and-white line drawing showed a smiling white everyman dressed in a plaid shirt with rolled-up sleeves standing knee-deep in a stream, wearing waders, a fedora, and a fly fisherman’s vest, landing a trout, to be deposited in a creel at his waist. “You can rent a boat, and fish and swim, or just laze away a wonderful day (and get back home to Deming Ranchettes in plenty of time for dinner),” the brochure boasted. To my knowledge, my father never boated, fished, or camped, not even as a boy, although he did once get shot on the job.
I have no time to speak of Chicago’s morals, and the less time for that the better for Chicago….
Deming morals are not to be discussed in a newspaper—till she has some.C. M. Chase, The Editor’s Run in New Mexico and Colorado, 1881
When it was founded in 1881, Deming’s nickname was “New Chicago,” an homage of sorts to the city it dreamed of becoming—a vibrant economic hub driven by a railroad. In the 1880s and 1890s, New Mexican ranchers used railcars to ship three thousand head of cattle a day to Chicago; the convergence of railroads in Chicago led the city to become the meatpacking center of the world. The new technology of assembly lines enabled millions of hogs, cattle, and sheep to be butchered and processed every year at packinghouses on the South Side. My grandfather worked at Union Stock Yard for ten years—first herding cattle on horseback, later as a foreman—until his death in 1920. It was not a bad job for an immigrant Irishman. The odors of the killing floors branded my childhood: a Windy City summer breeze carried the stench of manure, sweat, and terrified animals from their pens to my high school, just a mile away, and through my bedroom window, less than five miles away. Sustained by refrigerated railroad cars, the stockyards supplied the meatpacking industry for more than a hundred years.
By the mid-1800s, US government and commercial interests had been desperate to transport people and their things from coast to coast in a way that didn’t involve a cramped stagecoach, a wooden seat in a wagon train, or a five-month cargo ship voyage around South America. Their attention turned to railroads, which had already successfully transformed travel and commerce along the East Coast. They believed a railroad that connected the coasts would power the country’s western migration and help fulfill its manifest destiny.
On January 6, 1853, US president-elect Franklin Pierce and his wife survived a train wreck that violently killed their only surviving child. Pierce’s wife, Jane, never recovered from her grief; Pierce drank heavily. His presidency quickly got tangled up with both slavery and the building of the railroad, issues twisted together as the country expanded westward. In one of his first cabinet appointments, Pierce named Jefferson Davis secretary of war and made him responsible for the future of the railroad—a decision fraught with political and moral complications.
Congress immediately authorized Davis to conduct surveys to “ascertain the most practicable and economical route” for a new transcontinental railroad. In a country so intensely divided over the issue of slavery, politicians couldn’t agree on much, including the rail route to connect the coasts. Three routes were under consideration: a northern, a central, and a southern route. Every industrialist and investor had his own reasons for his choice while politicians rushed to buy land along the route they advocated as the best for the country.
Davis, who by the 1850s owned more than a hundred slaves on his Mississippi plantation, favored the southern route. A Library of Congress photograph shows Davis and his family twenty years after the end of the Civil War, whose first battle he had ordered and during which he had served as president of the Confederate States. A proud man sits front and center with a toddler on his lap, surrounded by his daughter, wife, and grandchildren. Behind the family in the doorway leading into the house stands an unnamed black woman in a maid’s uniform, her right arm behind her back clasping her left elbow. She stares directly into the camera with a penetrating look of apprehension, disillusionment, and smoldering defiance.
Although Davis publicly argued that a railroad could carry troops to California to defend the newly discovered gold there, he personally believed a southern route would open the West for slavery and help the South compete commercially against the North. The surveys showed that the southern route would be the least expensive if it skirted through passes in the Peloncillo and Chiricahua Mountains south of the border of the New Mexico Territory, across land that still belonged to Mexico. Under the terms of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which ended the Mexican-American War in 1848, Mexico had already ceded land north of that border that would become seven U
.S . states. But one of the few things US politicians did agree on was that they wanted more. Pierce appointed Davis’s friend and fellow Southerner James Gadsden as US minister to Mexico to negotiate moving the international border even farther south.
Gadsden had been the president of a railroad in South Carolina from 1840 until 1850 and, like Davis, favored the southern route to California, where he planned to run a plantation supported by slave labor. He also intended to use slave labor to build the railroad. Also like Davis, Gadsden was a slave owner; a year after his death in 1858, his estate auctioned off 235 slaves ranging from infants to seniors to fourteen bidders in Charleston.
Gadsden traveled to Mexico City in 1853 to negotiate with Mexican president Antonio López de Santa Anna. Santa Anna thought Gadsden was an arrogant jerk; Gadsden believed Santa Anna was an incompetent narcissist. Both were probably right. Santa Anna ultimately accepted $10 million for the thirty-thousand-square-mile Mesilla Valley—a fertile floodplain west of El Paso that included the area that would become Deming—largely because he needed the money.
After the purchase moved the border, locals realized that remaining where they were would make them US citizens; to maintain their status as Mexicans, they would have to move south. Some landowners had inherited their property via land grants, title to which was considered irrevocable. The governments first of Spain and then of Mexico had granted large tracts of land to anyone who would settle them. Land was granted to individuals as well as to entire communities, who shared common spaces for grazing, hunting, and water rights. By 1850, more than 280 land grants covered fifteen million acres in New Mexico Territory.
The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo guaranteed protection of all property rights for Mexican citizens living in the New Mexico Territory, including land grants. But a 2004 report from the US General Accounting Office admits: “Whether the United States has fulfilled its obligations under the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, with respect to property rights held by traditional communities in New Mexico, has been a source of continuing controversy for over a century. . . .The effect of this alleged failure to implement the treaty properly, heirs contend, is that the United States either inappropriately acquired millions of acres of land for the public domain or else confirmed acreage to the wrong parties.”
Open land not deeded through a land grant could be claimed through squatting rights. Spanish and Mexican custom allowed “unused” land—a description that completely ignored evidence of a recognizable lifestyle among Native people who hunted pronghorn and mule deer on a landscape that doubled as defense—to be claimed. Squatters, in turn, often sold land to speculators for huge profits, if they weren’t run off first. Some settlers naive to the burgeoning corruption in territories where laws were still being written bought phony deeds from the Santa Fe Ring, a group of lawyers and speculators who sold land they didn’t own and then foreclosed on the properties when the buyers missed their payments. By 1885, the Santa Fe Land Office was found to be approving fraudulent property claims; the surveyor general of the New Mexico Territory called it “systematic robbery” and “the wholesale plunder of the public domain.” Territorial governor Edmund Ross determined that the problem was so serious he recommended the repeal of all laws for the disposal of public lands in New Mexico.
It was through this patchwork of rights that the country was planning a railroad. Congress had agreed on a route only after the Southern states, whose lawmakers opposed the central route, seceded from the Union. Although faced with the staggering costs of the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln, a former railroad lawyer, signed the Pacific Railway Act of 1862, authorizing the construction of the first transcontinental railroad along the central route; the work began in 1963 and took six painful years to complete. Over time, the federal government granted 91.2 million acres of “public land” to an expanding network of large and small railroad companies; Western states granted an additional 37.8 million acres.
Not everyone was happy to watch as a variety of change agents carved up the landscape, especially locals who owned ranchos on the half-million-acre Las Vegas Land Grant in northern New Mexico Territory. New Mexican homesteaders and cattle ranchers new to the area and unsympathetic to the concept of common-use property started to erect fences in the late 1870s to keep their livestock in and all others out. Las Gorras Blancas—the “White Caps”—formed a vigilante group in response to what they considered an attack on their traditional way of life. They recognized how differently they valued land—for its usefulness for farming and grazing—from the newcomers’ view of land as commodity. Land grant owners viewed their property as the inheritance they would pass down to future generations; the new Americans saw the large expanses of land in New Mexico as an easy way to accumulate wealth. From 1889 to 1891, these hooded night riders surreptitiously cut fences and burned railroad bridges. They coerced Spanish-speaking New Mexicans to stand with them against the wealthy and powerful Anglo newcomers. A member of Las Gorras Blancas who had been elected to the New Mexico Territorial Legislature said in a speech to the House of Representatives in February 1891, “Gentlemen, I have served several years’ time in the penitentiary but only sixty days in the legislature. . . . I have watched the proceedings here carefully. I would like to say that the time I spent in the penitentiary was more enjoyable than the time I spent here. There is more honesty in the halls of the territorial prison than in the halls of the legislature. I would prefer another term in prison than another election to the House.”
A citizen, simply as a citizen, commits an impertinence when he questions the right of any corporation to capitalize its properties at any sum whatever. . . . Land has been given to these railways. . . . The land was at the time almost worthless, and but for these railways would have remained so during a long period.Sidney Dillon, president of the Union Pacific Railway Company, “The West and the Railroads,” April 1891
By the time my parents discovered Deming in 1969, marketeers were promoting the city as the historic site where the Southern Pacific Railroad had met the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway. By 1965, Interstate 10 had replaced an older highway system through southern New Mexico, putting Deming on cartoon maps gracing place mats in Howard Johnson’s restaurants from coast to coast.
Deming was named after Mary Ann Deming Crocker, wife of Charles Crocker, one of the railroad industry’s “Big Four” executives. Little is known about Mary Ann, a Gilded Age woman with a pile of white curls, beyond her philanthropy in San Francisco. She never visited the city that bears her name; she never stepped onto the planked platform at the train depot or paused in front of the Santo Niño Chapel, an adobe church with a lopsided bell tower.
Unlike Mary Ann, I have been to Deming and have traveled down wide, paved streets named Zinc and Lead and Tin, under the overpasses that carry the railroad tracks over Gold Avenue. I’ve seen the memorial that commemorates the site of that adobe church, the first Catholic church in Deming, now long gone. I have walked past the building on the corner of Pine and Silver that was the home of the first bank in Deming. Its once-red bricks are now painted beige; the second-story window arches and keystones are painted white. An antiques store occupies the second floor, and the Italian restaurant on the main floor offers a Sunday buffet for $10.95. I’ve tried to picture my parents enjoying this buffet, after driving up Pine Street from the Butterfield Stage Motel, named for the Wells Fargo stagecoaches that operated for the Butterfield Overland Mail Company. I’ve imagined them discussing, over lasagna and chicken parmigiana, their frustration at the delays and red tape stopping them from building on their lots. I’ve wondered when they began to realize their dream would not come true. I’ve wondered if Mary Ann Crocker dreamed of Deming, or if she thought about Deming at all.
Records are sketchy, but her New Yorker husband probably came to Deming only once. After capitalizing on the gold rush in Sacramento, Charles Crocker started his railroading career as an investor and got on board by managing the construction of the Central Pacific from California to Utah. It was Crocker’s idea to bring thousands of Chinese workers to replace the few hundred Irish laborers laying track. The Irish had immigrated to Boston to escape the Great Hunger of 1845 to 1849; men looking for jobs were shipped west to work for the Union Pacific, the rival rail line that ultimately met the Central Pacific at Promontory Point, Utah in 1869. After striking for more pay and better working conditions, the Irish workers were replaced by Cantonese immigrants who were fleeing their own bloody civil war. The Cantonese men did the dangerous work of blasting tunnels through granite, cutting grade, and laying track through deep snow. Under pressure from the ruthless construction foreman James Harvey Strobridge, crews got the job done seven years ahead of the government’s deadline, winning huge bonuses for the company. Hundreds of Chinese workers died in the process.
The Big Four gained control of the Southern Pacific Railroad in 1868, three years after the end of the Civil War. The southern halves of what would become the states of Arizona and New Mexico joined the Confederacy in 1861, partly because the residents were convinced the US Army was not doing enough to protect them from the Apaches. The four bands of the Chiricahua Apache had been resisting encroachment on their land from both American and Mexican settlers, believing that land was not something that could be owned and therefore could not be stolen.
[Indian removal] will separate the Indians from immediate contact with settlements of whites; free them from the power of the States; enable them to pursue happiness in their own way and under their own rude institutions; will retard the progress of decay, which is lessening their numbers, and perhaps cause them gradually, under the protection of the Government and through the influence of good counsels, to cast off their savage habits and become an interesting, civilized, and Christian community.President Andrew Jackson, “On Indian Removal,” Message to Congress, December 6, 1830
The history of conflict between the Chiricahua Apaches and the US military is mixed up with the struggle among the inhabitants of Mexico, New Mexico, and Arizona. A good place to begin to unravel the record is with Cochise, a leader of the Chokonen band of Chiricahua Apaches, and George Bascom, a young, inexperienced army lieutenant barely three years out of West Point. In 1861, Bascom accused Cochise of kidnapping a settler’s twelve-year-old stepson. Cochise insisted he had nothing to do with the boy’s disappearance but offered to help find him, believing that he had been taken by another band of Apaches. Bascom accused Cochise of lying; Cochise thought Bascom was joking. When Bascom arrested Cochise, his wife, his two children, his brother, and two nephews, Cochise escaped by slicing through the canvas tent where they were detained. Bascom held Cochise’s family hostage; in turn, Cochise took American hostages. Accounts of what happened next disagree. Some say Cochise killed his hostages first and that in retaliation, one of Bascom’s men hanged Cochise’s brother and nephews. Other versions say that Cochise’s brother and nephews were killed first and left hanging for days or weeks at Apache Pass until Cochise found their bodies. I trust a more nuanced view of cause and effect, although the odds were clearly stacked against Cochise.
Revenge was his goal when Cochise called on all four bands of Chiricahua Apaches—Bidanku, Chokonen, Chihende, and Ndendai—to join the fight against the incursion of the settlers and miners into Chiricahua land. His father-in-law, Mangas Coloradas, fought with Cochise for two years, but by 1863, he was more than seventy years old and ready for peace. He agreed to meet James Henry Carleton, an army general with a psychopathic hatred of Apaches, under the white flag of peace. Mangas Coloradas was tricked, captured, tortured, and murdered; his body was mutilated. His killing intensified the war between the Chiricahua Apaches and the American military. As the Apache Wars continued, Cochise believed he was winning as he saw forts being abandoned and fewer white settlers remaining. He was unaware that the Civil War was drawing the US military and consequently settlers back east.
In 1869, Cochise told Captain Frank Perry, “I have not one hundred Indians now. Ten years ago I had one thousand.” The Civil War had been over for four years, and army troops were returning to the territory. Cochise was beginning to realize that peace would be necessary for the survival of his people. In October 1872, in his sixties and suffering from what was probably cancer, Cochise met with General Oliver Howard and agreed to a settlement, saying, “No one wants peace more than I do.” Cochise asked for and was given food, supplies, and a homeland for his people that included the San Simon and Sulphur Springs Valleys from north of the Chiricahua Mountains to the Sonoran border between the Peloncillo Mountains and Dragoon Springs, a total of about fifty-five square miles.
Cochise remained on good terms with General Howard and Fred Hughes, the clerk at the new Chiricahua reservation, who described Cochise as a tall, handsome man of integrity. Upon meeting him, Hughes wrote, “[He] took me by the hand with both of his, told me he had heard of me before and that from this day on he was going to be my friend. He kept his word till the day of his death.” Cochise’s death, only two years after his surrender, split the Chokonen. Fewer than half, led by Cochise’s son Taza, moved to the San Carlos Reservation, which one Chiricahua Apache called “the worst place in all the great territory stolen from the Apaches.” Cochise’s younger son, Naiche, fled with Geronimo’s band to Mexico and renewed the fight against the Americans.
Geronimo was a Chiricahua Apache from the Bidanku band. Mexican troops had killed his mother, wife, and three young children during a raid in 1858. The first battle Geronimo led was an act of revenge. He had been told in a vision that weapons would never kill him, and in his later years he validated the prophecy by lifting his shirt to reveal bullet holes in his torso big enough to hold small pebbles. Geronimo expanded his fight for retribution against Americans and Mexicans until he and his warriors surrendered to General George Crook in March 1886 in the Sierra Madres. But when a liquor dealer with an interest in prolonging the Apache Wars told the prisoners that the army intended to murder them when they crossed the border into the US, they escaped back into Mexico.
Crook was immediately replaced by General Nelson Miles, who viewed Crook’s failure as a challenge. He deployed thousands of soldiers, hundreds of Apache and Navajo scouts, and thousands of civilians to hunt down Geronimo and his exhausted band. At dawn on September 4, 1886, Geronimo, Naiche, and several dozen other Chiricahua Apaches formally surrendered in Skeleton Canyon in the southern Peloncillo Mountains to Lieutenant Charles Gatewood, who turned them over to Miles. Geronimo’s understanding of the terms of surrender was that he and his men, as well as other Chiricahua Apaches, some of whom were being held prisoner at Fort Bowie, Arizona, would soon be reunited with their families. Like all Apaches, Geronimo expected his children to live on the land of his ancestors. Miles, however, put nothing in writing. Soldiers loaded the prisoners, including Naiche, Geronimo, their families, and dozens of Native scouts who had served the army, onto Southern Pacific prison cars at Fort Bowie. The six-day haul carried them through Deming to Fort Marion, Florida, a seventeenth-century Spanish fortress stinking of rot and disease.
Officers separated forty-four Apaches ages twelve to twenty-two from their families and sent them to the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania. The government moved three hundred surviving members of Geronimo’s band several more times before locating the prisoners of war at Fort Sill in Oklahoma Territory in 1894 and promising them land if the fort were ever decommissioned.
Geronimo was around eighty years old when he fell from his horse after a night of heavy drinking in 1909. He caught pneumonia and died at Fort Sill. After Geronimo’s death, the War Department released the Chiricahua Apaches from their prisoner-of-war status. After twenty-eight years as prisoners, 163 people moved to the Mescalero Apache Reservation to join a people they barely knew and to whom they were only distantly related. Seventy-eight chose to stay near Fort Sill on scattered allotments of land that had once belonged to members of the Kiowa and Comanche tribes who had died.
• • •
The injustice that shaped the West haunts the unmarked graves and burial places of the people—Apache and military, rancher and farmer, settler and miner—who lost their lives here. I know that some voices have been lost to the winds that carry a palpable sense of grief. I do not know the truths of the past; I know only the stories told around campfires and corrals, in letters and in ledger books, that have survived. Stories repeated become history.
The Chiricahua Apaches keep their stories within their families; the histories available to non-Apaches like me often pass down over the years through channels with a point to prove, a perceived wrong to right, a reputation to uphold. In a gift to the historical record, S. M. Barrett, a white man in Oklahoma, received permission to record Geronimo’s story, saying, “I wrote to President Roosevelt that here was an old Indian who had been held a prisoner of war for twenty years and had never been given a chance to tell his side of the story, and asked that Geronimo be granted permission to tell for publication, in his own way, the story of his life.” Some of Geronimo’s descendants also grew to trust a white woman named Eve Ball, who lived near the Mescalero Apache Reservation. For more than twenty years she recorded the stories of the sons and daughters of the Chiricahua warriors and leaders. Generations of stories paint a larger picture; they combine to form a culture of memories I can only attempt to retell.
I was never a good history student—not in grade school, high school, or college. History felt so dry to me, drier than the desert, and older too. But owning a piece of land made me want to learn its story, and in doing so, I learned about the people before me who felt very differently about the same places where I now stood— some who believed that land could not be bought or sold, that it was a gift from the Creator to be cared for and grateful for, and others who wanted to own at all costs, including deception, theft, and murder. I have learned that history is not a compendium of facts about things that happened. History is alive with change as new facets of the truth are uncovered, as new voices are heard and new stories are told. I struggle to listen, knowing that our stories today create the histories of tomorrow.
My family does not share a memory culture; our links to the past were broken on ships that carried Irish emigrants far from a colonizer that had no more use for them. My grandparents found an alien landscape in the streets of Chicago after arriving from County Kerry in 1892. Their footsteps mingled with those of the millions of immigrants who preceded them. A seanchaí, a traditional Irish storyteller, keeps history alive by reciting entertaining tales tinged with sadness and longing. But my family descended from the quiet Irish. They told no stories. Instead, they hid the shame of An Gorta Mór, the Great Hunger, behind cupped hands, the way my grandmother covered her mouth when she occasionally laughed, unwilling to show too much mirth.
Do you know people who wake up to sunshine 355 days out of each year . . . people who don’t know what it is to be oppressed by humid heat in the summer or by the cold clutch of winter damp? Do you know people who can say that in their State the rate of cancer and heart disease is half of what the Nation as a whole faces? Do you know people to whom a suntan is a year ’round commonplace, who work and play in a climate called America’s healthiest?
We know such people. They live in New Mexico.1960s Deming Ranchettes sales brochure
My father’s fellow policemen threw a party for him at the station house on his last day on the force. His single-layer retirement cake sported pine trees made of dark green icing on a white buttercream field. It was as flat as the ranchettes and tasted like the refrigerator case at the Jewel. If the pastry chef had ever been to Deming, the cake would have been even drier, the frosting grittier. I’m certain no one at the bakery knew how to spin sugar into tumbleweed.
Retirement turned out to be not as sweet as my father had expected. Deming’s boom lasted only a century; the US Army closed a training camp there at the end of World War II, and passenger train travel dwindled and died. A third of the population, which has increased by only six thousand in the last fifty years, currently lives in poverty. The US Border Patrol is now the largest employer.
My parents never did build their dream house in the shadow of the Florida Mountains. They kept title to the land only because, like thousands of others who had also been deceived into buying a dream that was merely a mirage, they couldn’t sell their tiny piece of desert. Instead they doubled down and, in late 1970, subleased land in a planned new community in Cochiti, New Mexico, on the Pueblo de Cochiti, almost three hundred miles north of Deming.
Although Native families have lived on their land for hundreds of generations, the nineteen New Mexico pueblos trace their land claims to the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. Legal disputes continued beyond the US Supreme Court decision in 1913 that control of pueblo lands belonged to the federal government, well into the 1920s, a decade after New Mexico became a state.
The federal government had been planning since the 1930s to construct a dam on the Rio Grande on land belonging to Cochiti Pueblo. As they pushed their plan forward, they threatened to condemn both the Cochiti and Santo Domingo Pueblos under the authority of the Flood Control Act of 1960 and relocate everyone who lived there, a total of about three thousand people from both pueblos. The Cochiti elders resisted construction of the dam and reservoir until political and legal pressure proved overwhelming. The federal government bulldozed the farms and orchards along the river; pueblo residents lost their homes on the river and moved closer to the plaza in the center of the pueblo. The US Army Corps of Engineers began construction of the dam in 1965 and filled the reservoir with water in 1975.
In the years between the authorization of the dam and its completion, a development plan grew to include a residential/recreational community on half of what remained after the reservoir consumed most of the available agricultural land and seepage flooded the rest. In 1969 the pueblo signed a ninety-nine-year lease with a California developer for the creation of the 6,500-acre town of Cochiti Lake with lots subdivided and subleased to forty thousand non-Cochiti people. Regis Pecos, former Cochiti Pueblo governor, wrote in 2006 that the proposed community offered “all the amenities of a ‘seven-day weekend.’ . . . In this case the people of Cochiti Pueblo had very little to no experience with such a proposed development proposal of that magnitude. It became in time ‘the best, worst example of economic development.’ It would be a form of genocide led by our people.”
In the end, after the Pueblo de Cochiti sued the developer and the developer declared bankruptcy, my parents were released from their ninety-nine-year sublease. But the entire experience was “one of the most tragic episodes in recent history for the people of Cochiti,” Pecos wrote. “This was not supposed to happen. The Indian wars were over. . . . To see the devastation to all of the agricultural land upon which we had walked and had learned the lessons of life from our grandfathers destroyed before our eyes was like the world was coming to an end. And all we could do was watch.”
Today, Cochiti Lake exists as a federally controlled recreation area with a visitor center operated by the Army Corps of Engineers. Recreation.gov calls Cochiti Lake a popular fishing spot, although the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish and the New Mexico Department of Health issue advisories against eating fish from the lake owing to the contaminated runoff from canyons around Los Alamos. The area lies entirely within the boundaries of Cochiti Pueblo but is managed independently—one of the first non-Native residential communities on tribally owned land. Some non-Natives did build homes on their leased land; currently almost as many people (about six hundred) live on leaseholds in Cochiti Lake as there are registered members of the Cochiti Pueblo.
I drove through the town recently to see what, if anything, had changed since my parents had been here. I passed randomly placed houses dotting empty streets. The gray earthen dam replaces the horizon with an anonymous wall; the ghost of what was lost is reflected in water distilled by drought. The constant wind stirs up a despair that rises like ash.
Eventually, my parents bought a two-bedroom tract home in an Albuquerque subdivision named Paradise Hills, above the Rio Grande. With the first den anyone in my family had ever owned and sliding glass doors to a patio, it was nothing like the house where I grew up, a blond brick bungalow with a basement and an attic. They lived in Albuquerque until my father developed scleroderma, a disease that turns skin and internal organs to stone, and my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer. She died first, at age sixty-one. Weeks after my mother died, my father was diagnosed with prostate cancer. He died five years later, at age seventy-six. They did not, despite what the marketing literature had promised, live longer or better in New Mexico.
Cochise was very proud of making his word good. . . . Apaches hated liars.Asa Daklugie, son of Juh, leader of the Ndendai band of Chiricahua Apaches
Cochise would have liked my father, who was, in my opinion, the only honest cop in Chicago in the sixties, when yippies refused to play by anyone’s rules and angry students rioted in the streets. My father had gone to work for the predominately Catholic Chicago Police Department when he returned from the navy after World War II. A framed eight-by-ten photograph of his graduating class from the police academy hangs on my bedroom wall. When I was in grade school, he was promoted to the rank of lieutenant during a ceremony broadcast live on WGN, which I watched sitting on our dining room floor in front of our black-and-white TV. He was passed over for a promotion to captain later in his career, for reasons I never heard discussed in our family. I like to think he was asked to make one compromise too many. He took to heart his vow to serve and protect, although the battles he was fighting grew increasingly unwinnable.
In 1966, two years before he was assassinated, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. marched through Marquette Park on the South Side, just blocks from where I grew up. I was traveling on vacation with my godparents that summer, but my neighbors were there in the park. They shouted epithets and threw bricks and rocks at the marchers; one of the rocks hit but did not seriously injure Dr. King. In the wake of the riots that followed Dr. King’s death, Chicago mayor Richard J. Daley issued his infamous “shoot to kill” order, which was captured on tape at a press conference. Two days later, the mayor denied saying any such thing and blamed the reporters for misrepresenting the truth.
Such was the political climate leading into the Chicago summer of ’68. Friends who were old enough to dodge the draft joined anti-war protestors on a muggy August afternoon outside the Democratic National Convention. For reasons I can’t recall, I stayed home, either because of an awareness of the potential for violence or despite it. When the debate inside the smoke-filled International Amphitheatre turned into fistfights over the country’s role in the Vietnam War, the brawl spilled out the doors and up the streets. Thousands of demonstrators, including two of my cousins, had already gathered in Grant Park. Daley was at the height of his political audacity and had prepared for this moment. By the time the two groups met, twelve thousand Chicago policemen, six thousand US Army soldiers, and six thousand National Guardsmen were waiting in the fading light on Michigan Avenue across from the Conrad Hilton Hotel, where candidates and convention delegates were staying. Daley’s men attacked with tear gas and nightsticks, crushing everyone in their path, including journalists and anyone who tried to assist the wounded. Uniformed cops in riot helmets dragged bleeding men and women to waiting paddy wagons.
I can picture Hubert Humphrey watching the live broadcast of the convention on television in his room high in the hotel, awaiting his official nomination for president of the United States. I see him closing the open window as tear gas rose with chants of “The whole world is watching” from the street below. I can imagine his incomprehension when the news channel broadcasting the convention live broke into the announcement of the vote results to show a tape of police beating people who were identified by the Chicago Study Team in a 1968 report to the National Commission on the Causes and Prevention of Violence as “persons who had broken no law, disobeyed no order, made no threat. These included peaceful demonstrators, onlookers, and large numbers of residents who were simply passing through, or happened to live in, the areas where confrontations were occurring.” It was at that moment, some say, that Richard Nixon won the election.
My father returned from work that night sick to his stomach. He sat heavy in his favorite corduroy armchair with a new tiredness tugging at the corners of his mouth; he rubbed one hand over the other, as if scrubbing them clean. From where I sat on the floor at his feet, I caught whiffs of the tear gas that clung to his uniform. My father was a reticent man, even for a quiet Irishman, but not that night. He spoke calmly, almost in a monotone, telling stories about the protestors who had occupied the Hilton, dropping baggies of what he genteelly referred to as “human excrement” on the cops below. His eyes asked, Why? Why? although he already knew the answer. But just asking the question changed him fundamentally.
The National Commission on the Causes and Prevention of Violence, formed three months before the convention, ultimately declared the Battle of Michigan Avenue a “police riot.” Of course, my father said that he had only been directing traffic that night. And, of course, I believed him. Within a year he had bought land in New Mexico, and within three years he had retired.
Many “land for sale” offers involve half-acre lots known as Deming Ranchettes. Thousands of tiny Ranchette lots were subdivided from the open range many years ago, and some of them are lovely, but to this day most Ranchette lots are vacant and unusable.The Code of the West: The Realities of Rural Living, Luna County Manager, 2013
After several missteps, I found my two half acres at the corner of Ironwood and Don Fernando Roads, barely discernible scratches in the desert marked only by a weathered stick that had fallen to the ground. The map given to me by the clerk in the assessor’s office had directed me down dead-end streets, unpaved roads with limited signage, and old tire tracks through sparse weeds. When I arrived at my lots, I understood how primitive land could be. There was no electricity, no water, no paved road. Broken glass and tumbleweed littered my land; wind whistled in my ears. I kicked the earth with the toe of my boot, surprised to find a hard-packed crust. The only sign of life was a burrowing owl that regarded me suspiciously.
For almost twenty years after my father’s death, I paid property taxes of five, six, twelve dollars a year to the Luna County Assessor’s Office while I tried unsuccessfully to sell my lots. An internet search revealed that Japanese investors were offering Deming Ranchettes for thousands of dollars per half acre. A crude website created for folks trying to sell their property showed many more listings than sales, and those sales seemed questionable. I researched the recorded owners of lots adjacent to mine and mailed handwritten letters to them asking if they were interested in buying more. No one replied.
But I had overlooked one property owner, who was doing his own research and called me in 2007. He said he was my neighbor, although he lived in South Dakota. He quickly got around to asking me if I wanted to sell my Deming Ranchettes.
“The property I purchased is no longer buildable due to the change in Ordinance 37, which Luna County approved last summer,” my neighbor said. “It requires a minimum of two acres to drill a well. I have one acre and you have one acre. Neither one of us can do anything without the other.”
This was the first time I had heard of this new ordinance, passed in 2006, requiring homeowners to have at least two contiguous acres before they could drill a well. The goal was to isolate wells from a neighbor’s septic system, but the effect was to render all single Deming Ranchette lots unbuildable. The information tainted my lots with a new shade of worthlessness.
“Well,” I said, “I don’t know . . .”
“The only solution is for property owners to work together on this so it is a win-win situation for everybody. You don’t have to give me an answer right away, but let me know what you think. I’ll give you my number—you can call me anytime.”
Faced with the opportunity to finally sell the property, I was surprised by the strength of my connection to it. Other than his policeman’s sweater and nightstick, it was the only possession of my father’s that I had. If I could have asked him, my father wouldn’t have hesitated to tell me to sell the lots. Like others who believed in the American dream, he had assumed that land automatically increased in value over time. I had been raised with the belief, the same one held by the new Americans who acquired New Mexico land 150 years before me, that buying land was accumulating wealth. It was a belief in a dream that was rapidly evaporating.
In all their correspondence, Select Western Lands addressed my father as “Dear Friend,” which should have pinged his cop radar. Would he admit to buying a con man’s pretty words? I think my father would acknowledge that he had been optimistic, but I’m sure he would stop short of labeling the copywriter a liar and the developer a thief. Sometimes I didn’t know what nagged at me the most—the fact that he was swindled or that tricking him was even possible. A religious man, he had so much faith in the promise implied by New Mexico skies that he allowed himself to be fooled. That realization was my biggest loss.
If I had known the extent of land fraud and corruption in New Mexico, I might not have been so surprised. I called my neighbor back, and we struck what we agreed was a fair deal. I sold both lots for $1,000, almost twice what my parents had paid for them forty years earlier. If I subtract the taxes paid over the years, I made about ninety dollars’ profit, or $2.25 per year. If I add up the decades of a gradually accrued respect for the Arizona/New Mexico borderlands and the life I am living here, I realized a net gain. My father would be proud.
We are vanishing from the earth, yet I cannot think we are useless or Usen would not have created us. He created all tribes of men and certainly had a righteous purpose in creating each. . . .
Thus it was in the beginning: the Apaches and their homes each created for the other by Usen himself. When they are taken from these homes they sicken and die. How long will it be until it is said, there are no Apaches?Geronimo’s Story of His Life, Taken Down and Edited by S. M. Barrett, 1907
Bidanku, Chokonen, Chihende, and Ndendai. Evocative names that trip my Anglo tongue every time. Names that describe and deceive. By some accounts, the name “Apache” is a Zuni word that means “Navajo.” Others believe it is a Yavapai word that means “enemy.” Geronimo said, “We call ourselves Nde’ meaning The People, but to nearly everyone else in the world we were known as The Enemy.” Warrior names: Taza, Naiche, Mangas Coloradas, Juh. Geronimo’s Apache name was Goyahkla, which means “one who yawns.” The story that survives suggests that the name “Geronimo” stuck when his Mexican enemies called out in fear to San Jerónimo as they were being attacked. The name “Cochise” means “strong as an oak,” which aptly describes the man whose dignified posture and direct demeanor commanded respect from all who met him. “Chiricahua” is most likely what fell from the mouths of Spanish speakers trying to pronounce the indigenous Mexican word for “wild turkey mountain.”
In the thirty-five years between my father’s purchase of his Deming Ranchettes and the day I stood at the intersection of Don Fernando and Ironwood, the descendants of the Chiricahua Apaches who survived the prisons of Florida, Alabama, and Oklahoma reorganized under the name Fort Sill Apache; they became a federally recognized tribe in 1976.
Laws written by white men to govern the status of Native Americans have morphed over decades. Tribes were considered sovereign nations when treaties were signed in the early 1800s, but that sovereign nation status was terminated in 1871. Native Americans were recognized as persons under the terms of the Fourteenth Amendment for the first time in 1879; they were given the opportunity of appealing to the courts in 1881; they were granted full US citizenship in 1924. Various bills were submitted and defeated in Congress to create courts, tribunals, and commissions to resolve, as one analysis put it, “claims involving history and anthropology as much as law.” Finally, in 1946, Congress formed the Indian Claims Commission to hear grievances against the government brought by Native American tribes. In its final report, written in 1978 and looking backward over its mission, the Indian Claims Commission wrote, “By the 1890s, the contest for America was over and its possession signed, sealed, and delivered. But, though the white man was contented with his record in these dealings, the Indian was not.”
One of the first claims decided by the commission was filed by the survivors of Geronimo’s band for unfair imprisonment; it was dismissed on a technicality. Most cases asked not for money but for the return of confiscated tribal land. Of the 118 claims filed between 1881 and 1950, only thirty-four tribes were awarded compensation and almost none got their land back. The Fort Sill Apaches filed two lawsuits in 1949—one for land and the other for mineral rights. After twenty-six years of government delays and red tape, the commission awarded the tribe $14 million—one dollar for each of their original fourteen million acres located within US borders.
Two-thirds of that money went to the members of the Mescalero Apache Tribe in New Mexico. Another 10 percent paid attorneys’ fees. Of the remaining $4.2 million, the tribe disbursed 80 percent to its members, about $4,800 each. In 1999 the tribe paid $30,000 to buy thirty acres of creosote and bunchgrass in Akela, New Mexico, nestled between Interstate 10 and the Southern Pacific Railroad tracks. In November 2011, Apache Homelands became the country’s newest and smallest Indian reservation, just six miles east of my father’s lots.
• • •
I drove through Deming recently, on the way from New Mexico to Arizona, and stopped at Apache Homelands, a stucco restaurant and smoke shop that sits on a gravel parking lot off a winding I-10 exit. The restaurant is open twenty-four hours, but at lunchtime I saw only two other customers—a pair of uniformed Border Patrol agents balancing a tray loaded with soft drinks under a neon Budweiser sign. Fluorescent lights against a low black ceiling lit the dining room, which smelled of fryer fat and spilled beer. Folding tables holding bottles of A.1. and Cholula hot sauce crowded a smoky corner. A locked glass case displayed Cuban cigars and cartons of American cigarettes at discount prices. Three abandoned betting windows along a far wall testified to two successive governors’ denials of the tribe’s requests for gaming. The recirculated air accentuated the feeling that time itself had surrendered.
I passed along two walls reading posters that narrated the history of the Chiricahua Apaches. In contrast to the versions I had read previously, these stories were told in the voice of Apache elders instead of the white man’s uncomprehending and often condescending point of view. Chief Naiche and Geronimo stared out from large sepia-toned photographs, as if still searching for something.
Unlike the Apaches, my father’s immigrant parents wanted to believe that land could be owned, although they never did. The Irish had lived more than two hundred years under the Penal Laws, which forbade Catholics from owning or leasing land, serving in the military, or owning a horse worth more than five British pounds. In 1792 Edmund Burke had referred to the Penal Laws as “a machine of wise and elaborate contrivance; and as well fitted for the oppression, impoverishment, and degradation of a people, and the debasement, in them, of human nature itself, as ever proceeded from the perverted ingenuity of man.” Although my father eventually became a homeowner, his parents and siblings spent most of their lives in apartments, unfamiliar with the joys and the burdens of owning land, but knowing all the while that the value of home is not measured in dollars.
Ultimately, my parents’ ill health forced them to leave New Mexico and return to Chicago. I never heard them say they were going “home.” The city they had left had changed in the ten years they were gone—first a white woman and then an African American man had become mayor. The stockyards closed and the Great America theme park opened north of the city. The tallest building in the world was erected in the Loop. Property values soared while my parents were in New Mexico; by the time they returned, they could afford only a third-floor walk-up in a south suburb. My sisters, aunts, cousins, nieces, and nephews enveloped them in that small condominium, as first my mother and then my father lost their battles against disease.
I turned from the posters of Apache history and approached the cash register, where paper menus in plastic sleeves lay stacked on the counter. I ran my finger down the list of burritos and chicken-fried steak and settled on a homemade brownie in a Ziploc baggie. I handed two dollars to a woman wearing a cap embroidered with “Apache Homelands” across the crown. “Sign our guest book?” she asked, pointing to a food-stained log. I added my name and email address under the last entry, made a year earlier. I imagined getting messages from Cochise and Geronimo, telling me their stories. I thanked the woman, headed to the exit, and pushed open the door, squinting hard in the unrelenting light.