Ancestral Apache in Otero Mesa

Cerro Rojo: A Large Mountain-Top Ancestral Apache Site in Southern New Mexico

By Deni J. Seymour
From the New Mexico Office of the State Historian

A large ancestral Apache ranchería has been documented in the mountains of southern New Mexico, east of El Paso and north of the Rio Grande. Occupied by various Apache bands and recalcitrant members of local nomadic tribes, this site—complete with stone walls and ramparts—was used as a defense against Comanche and Spanish aggressors and as a meeting place for routinely dispersed localized residential groups.

The chronicles of early explorers and later military campaigns noted the occasional visit to exceptionally large Apache rancherías, where they observed hundreds of huts and many hundreds of warriors. These high-elevation base camps served as places where many different bands congregated to take advantage of an abundance of resources, for a communal hunt, to plan a raid, to assist in their mutual defense, or to participate in an important ceremony. Until recently these large high-elevation habitation sites were known only from these often-obscure exploration reports. Now additional large rendezvous sites are known, but the first to be documented was the Cerro Rojo Site in the far southern portion of New Mexico.

The Cerro Rojo Site is located in the secluded and rugged Hueco Mountains, where 275 features (houses, fire pits, etc.) lie within a 130-acre area on the Fort Bliss military reservation. Two-hundred-and-twelve huts were built on the rocky slopes and saddles. These huts were made in a variety of shapes and sizes, owing in part to the fact that the Apache, like other highly mobile people, tended to build their houses using whatever was immediately available. This is one of the primary reasons they selected rocky locations, because the nearby cobbles and boulders could be rearranged with little effort to form the base of the shelter. The walls and roof of the hut could be easily fashioned by collecting brush and branches from the low-growing vegetation on and surrounding the site. This type of construction usually served the needs of these temporary residents but some of the hut outlines show indications that perhaps hides or skins were stabilized and held taut against the wind and weather by upright stones and slabs. These were not tipis in the sense of those straight-sided conical tents known to have been used by the plains hunters, but instead were probably dome-shaped constructions built with a relatively low profile. All of these dome-shaped houses, whether made of brush or skins, were well suited to the needs of their inhabitants. The structure outlines would blend into the rocky background making them invisible from afar.

The Cerro Rojo Site is situated on and near a prominent peak, which was undoubtedly an easily recognized landmark. Distinctive landforms were especially important for mobile groups, like the ancestral Apache, as they provided recognizable features on the landscape that conveyed a sense of place and belonging. More critically however, these distinctive landmarks allowed mobile individuals and groups to find each other in circumstances where encounters with fellow Apaches outside one’s local group would otherwise be unlikely. Group members kept a low profile to avoid notice of enemies so as to ensure safety and obscurity. Moreover, because the Apache lived in small local groups that were spread out throughout a large territory for much of the year, encounters with other Apaches did not routinely take place. Consequently, places were designated where people would coalesce at specific times of the year, for specific events, or so that people could meet after an attack. This focus on prominent landmarks is common for mobile people across the globe and relates to this desire to remain connected to others, the need to find mates outside one’s family group, to find solace in social interaction, and to find one another in emergency situations. These landforms provided a common way to organize the landscape.

Large encampments like Cerro Rojo existed beyond the view of the Spanish, providing refuge and safety. This residential site specifically served as a defensible retreat, as indicated by its remote setting and high elevation, as well as the numerous defensive walls, ramparts, and look-out stations. Historical accounts mention this specific mountain range as military personnel pursued the illusive Apache into the ‘wilderness.’ People from the riverside mission settlements went to such places to interact with their unconverted kin, either during uprisings or as they became waylaid during hunting-and-gathering trips while away from the missions. One particularly touching account from 1792 relates that an Apache girl, having been traded by her captors to a Spanish family in exchange for animals or goods, had temporarily escaped her life as a domestic servant. She found refuge in a Hueco Mountain settlement, perhaps Cerro Rojo, only to be retrieved and sent back to her Spanish home along the Rio Grande.

The Cerro Rojo Site functioned not only as a defensive refuge but served as home for many people. A wide range of daily activities were carried out on this hilltop retreat, as indicated by the abundance and diversity of refuse left behind. Like many people who stay for only a short time at any one location, the temporary residents of the Cerro Rojo Site did not designate special areas to discard their waste, but instead when they broke a clay pot they left it where it fell, moving their activities to an adjacent location. Each time they returned they broke, lost, or discarded additional materials and through the 400 years of intermittent use a fairly high density of pottery, flaked stone, and groundstone accumulated, along with a few non-traditional metal and ceramic items. Their stationary features, such as houses, also mark the terrain more clearly than on some sites used for an even shorter period of time.  Year after year, as bands came in from different locations throughout their territories they set up camp in the same location, each spatially separated from the encampments of other bands, as indicated by open areas with no huts between housing loci. Through time the hut outlines became clearer and more durable as people rebuilt in the same place when they returned.

Documentary sources do not mention this mountain range until the late eighteenth century, which indicates to some historians that the Apache did not live here earlier, but chronometric dates indicate otherwise. Dates obtained from the Cerro Rojo Site provide evidence of an ancestral Apachean occupation at least three centuries before this, indicating that the Spanish simply did not have knowledge of this retreat prior to the 1770s. This anonymity explains why the encampment was used for so long, because once a place like this was discovered by an enemy it was no longer safe and would have been abandoned, unless of course the intruders were killed.

It is reasonable to conclude that the Spanish did not have knowledge of the presence of the Apache this far south because they did not venture into areas where the Apache lived (e.g., areas away from water courses and trails.) Cerro Hucco was first shown on the Bernardo de Miera y Pacheco map published in 1776, although salt fields noted as associated with the Cerro Hueco were mentioned in 1709. The first known mention is made in the 1770s of the Apache taking refuge in El Cerro Hueco. At about this time, during the 1766-1768 Marques de Rubi inspection, areas beyond the main roads were methodologically examined for the first time. Moreover, an increasing number of Apache seemingly took up residence in this range and in southern New Mexico in general, as they were pushed south and west by various pressures, including the Comanche. In 1778 Teodoro de Croix wrote that Apaches “seeking protection from the [Comanches] camped but ten leagues from El Paso at El Cerro Hueco.”

Using these historic records alone, one would not conclude that the Hueco Mountains would have been the source of a grand Apache ranchería prior to the 1770s. Yet many chronometric dates have been recovered from the Cerro Rojo Site indicating that mobile people lived here off and on between the 1400s and the early 1800s. One date that relates to the ancestral Apache falls in the A.D. 1340 to 1500 period, which predates the Spanish entrada. This date is consistent with dating results collected from throughout the southern Southwest, which place the Apache arrival in this area sometime around the 1400s, perhaps even the late 1200s or 1300s, clearly overlapping with the prehistoric period. Additional dates for the Cerro Rojo Site show its use from this time (A.D. 1340 to 1500) forward, until sometime in the late 1700s or early 1800s. Toward the end of this period disease was raging through the area, including through the Sacramento Mountains (and perhaps the Hueco Mountains) where people had fled to avoid the scourge effecting the mission settlements.

The distinctive way the landscape was used, chronometric dates, and artifacts and features define these late residents of Cerro Rojo as something other than Jornada Mogollon (prehistoric occupants of the region). Cross-regional comparative analysis indicates that the ancestral Apache occupied this encampment but that they were joined by defiant members of local nomadic tribes who used a different stone tool technology. The material culture of these people is referred to archaeologically as the Canutillo complex, which may relate to any of the numerous non-Apache mobile groups mentioned at first contact: Manso, Suma, Jano, or Jocome. The first officially sanctioned explorers to travel north into the far southern reaches of New Mexico (the Chamuscado-Rodriguez Expedition in 1581 and the Espejo Expedition in 1582), encountered native peoples along the trail along the Rio Grande. These and later Spaniards referred to these occupants by a variety of names, providing vague descriptions of some of their customs. Eventually the historic record tells us that these other mobile people merged with the Apache and missionized Indians, completely losing their distinct identities. Efforts to relate these early descriptions to modern tribes can be quite challenging and it is even a more complicated task to connect these early descriptions to archaeological evidence. Yet numerous other sites from throughout the southern Southwest have provided evidence that reinforces the pattern seen at Cerro Rojo. As a protected location within the ‘Apachería,’ historical and archaeological evidence suggest that the Cerro Rojo Site attracted people from many Apache and non-Apache groups who worked together, outside the Spanish world, to maintain their autonomous lifeway.

Sources Used:

Seymour, Deni J. A Ranchería in the Gran Apachería: Evidence of Intercultural Interaction at the Cerro Rojo Site. Plains Anthropologist 49(190):153-192, 2004

Seymour, Deni J. The Canutillo Complex: Evidence of Protohistoric Mobile Occupants in the Southern Southwest. Kiva 74(4), 2009.

Seymour, Deni J. Distinctive Places, Suitable Spaces: Conceptualizing Mobile Group Occupational Duration and Landscape Use. International Journal of Historical Archaeology 13(3), 2009

Seymour, Deni J. Nineteenth-Century Apache Wickiups: Historically Documented Models for Archaeological Signatures of the Dwellings of Mobile People. Antiquity 83(319):157-164, 2009.

Thomas, Alfred B. Forgotten Frontiers. A Study of the Spanish Indian Policy of Don Juan Bautista de Anza, Governor of New Mexico 1777-1787. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1932.


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