Cremony’s Ride through the Jornada del Muerto


Paul Harden


This is the story of a young newspaperman turned adventurer who became highly involved in the American conquest of the Southwest.

John Carey Cremony was born in Portland, Maine, in 1815. Little is known about his early life except he chose journalism as a career and worked as a reporter for the Boston Globe in the 1840s. In 1846, Cremony departed his newspaper job to join the Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry as a lieutenant. The “Fighting Irish,” as they were called, were sent to Metamoros, Mexico, under Brig. Gen. Caleb Cushing to fight in the Mexican-American War.

The Mexican-American War

The actions of the Mexican-American War in northern Mexico and along the Rio Grande are well reported in the Boston Globe, presumably due to regular reports filed by reporter, now soldier, Lt. John Cremony.

However, the service of the Massachusetts Volunteers proved to be less than stellar. About a third of the regiment, consisting of Irish immigrants, became notorious for their continual drunkenness, rowdiness and absences from military duty for days at a time. After several murders in local bars, including the fatal stabbing of a barmaid that outraged the citizenry, Brig. Gen. Cushing was forced to issue the following order from his headquarters in Vera Cruz, Mexico: “The following (65 men) of 1st Regiment Massachusetts Infantry, being incorrigibly mutinous and insubordinate, will of course prove cowards in the hour of danger and they cannot be permitted to march with the column of the army. They are disarmed and detached from the Regiment … who are found unworthy to carry arms, and are a disgrace and a nuisance to the army.”

Lt. Cremony was not part of the regiment “drummed out” of the army. He served Brig. Gen. Cushing with distinction. He learned the Spanish language and served as an army interpreter.

Cremony’s enlistment ended in July 1848. He returned to his job as a reporter at the Boston Globe, and shortly thereafter for the Boston Herald.

This was an interesting time in American history. With the opening of the Santa Fe Trail in 1821, Americans got their first peek into the unknown Spanish world of the Southwest. Newspaper and magazine articles were the first to describe the roaming herds of buffalo, the magnificent Indian Pueblos, and the charming Mexican villages along the Rio Grande to the Americans “back East.” Upon the conclusion of the Mexican-American War, the doors were opened to visit the Territory of New Mexico. For years, newspapers were filled with stories and images of New Mexico wonders.

John Cremony had a unique perspective as a journalist, and as a soldier that experienced life along the Rio Grande, to write stories of the American West. In learning the Spanish language it showed he had a deep respect for the heritage and culture of the native people. One wonders if he yearned to return to the West.

That question is answered by Cremony himself, who wrote: “In the year 1849, I was prevailed upon by Dr. Thomas H. Webb, Secretary of the Massachusetts Historical Society, to forego my position on the Boston Herald, and accept an appointment on the United States Boundary Commission, then being re-organized under the Hon. John K. Bartlett.”

Cremony accepted the position as Spanish translator for the Boundary Commission and packed his bags for Doña Ana.

Finding the Mexican Border

The Mexican-American War ended on Feb. 2, 1848, with the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. Article 5 of the treaty set the boundary between Mexico and the United States, and provided for the establishment of a joint Mexican-United States Boundary Commission to survey and mark that boundary.

The western side of the territory was easy. The border was drawn from San Diego bay eastward to the Gila River. From there, the Gila River became the boundary between the two countries. In New Mexico, the boundary was a line drawn from the Gila River to El Paso, the border then following the Rio Grande River to the Gulf of Mexico.

There was only one problem. The map submitted with the treaty, known as the 1847 Disturnell map, misplaced El Paso by a mere 100 miles. It was shown located on the Rio Grande near the Big Bend region, which gave the United States an unfair claim to thousands of square miles of land. This would have transferred the northern portion of the province of Chihuahua to the United States. The Mexicans were quick to note this “small” discrepancy.

This second Mexico-United States Boundary Commission was led by John Bartlett and his Mexican counterpart, Pedro Garcia-Conde. They were joined by interpreter Cremony to settle this dispute. The commission made their headquarters in Doña Ana — which at this time, was the border town between the United States and Mexico. They spent the second half of 1850 surveying the new border. Bartlett was careful to ensure the Santa Rita copper mines remained in the United States. He did so by giving Mexico the Mesilla Valley and everything south of Doña Ana.

Cremony spent much of his time at the Santa Rita copper mines and became fascinated by the nearby Mimbres Apache Indians. In short order, he began to learn their language, culture and customs. In later years, Cremony was the first to compose an Apache-English dictionary that is still in use.

As the winter of 1850 approached, the boundary commission, and the 100 soldiers assigned to them, left the cold Santa Rita mines and returned to warmer Doña Ana. Running low on food and supplies, John Cremony volunteered to travel to Socorro to purchase sheep to sustain the men. It is not known precisely when Cremony made his trek to Socorro except that it was very early in 1851.

Cremony described his journey as follows: “At that time Fort Craig had no existence, and the space between Doña Ana and Socorro a distance of one hundred and twenty-five miles is a large desert, well supplied with fine grama grass in some portions, but absolutely destitute of water or shade for ninety-six miles. This intervening strip of territory is known by the unattractive appellation of the Jornada del Muerto, or the Dead Man’s Journey. Why it ever received this title I never distinctly learned, but suppose it was on account of the very numerous massacres committed on it by the Apache Indians.

“On the east the road is fringed for about sixty miles by the Sierra Blanca, a noted strong hold of that people; and from its heights they are enabled distinctly to perceive any party of travelers coming-over the wide and unsheltered expanse of the Jornada del Muerto. As the plain affords no opportunity for ambush, they come sweeping upon the unsuspecting immigrant in more than usual numbers, and if successful in their attack, invariably destroy all of the party; for there is no possible chance of escape, and the Apaches never take any prisoners but women and young children, and they become captives for life.”

In spite of this dismal, though accurate, description of the Jornada del Muerto, Cremony embarked on the journey alone with his trusted horse. He departed Doña Ana about 3 a.m., and spent 13 hours in the saddle, and stopped about 4 o’clock in the afternoon to make camp. When he and his horse were fairly well rested, they took to the trail again about midnight. Cremony took advantage of the light of the moon and the cool evening hours to maintain a steady pace.

Cremony arrived in Socorro about 11 a.m., he wrote: “At Socorro was a small American garrison, consisting of about half a company of the Second Dragoons, commanded by Lieut. Reuben Campbell, an officer whose acquaintance I had made during the Mexican war, and for whom I entertained a sincere regard.”

Cremony spends two days in Socorro visiting with Lt. Campbell, reminiscing about the Mexican-American War, and made arrangements with a local rancher to have a small herd of sheep sent to Doña Ana.

On the third day, Cremony prepared for his journey back to Doña Ana, and hoped it would be as uneventful as his trip to Socorro. Such was not to be the case.

Cremony’s Ride

Cremony departed Socorro about 3 o’clock in the morning. This was common for those who traveled the Camino Real through the Jornada del Muerto. Even in January or February, one wanted to avoid the heat of the day as much as possible. Cremony recorded “I saved my noble beast all I could, frequently dismounting and leading him by the bridle, so as to retain his strength and speed in case of necessity.”

By 3 p.m., Cremony had traveled about 50 miles, with 75 miles yet to go. This would place him on the Camino Real on the east side of the Fray Cristobal Mountains about 20 miles north of present day Engle.

Spotting a stand of grass, Cremony departed the trail to rest himself and his horse. As he turned his horse toward the grass, he noticed a column of dust in the direction of the Sierra Blanca that was quickly crossing the desert in his direction. Every traveler along the Jornada del Muerto knew what this meant: Apaches were attacking.

Instinctively, Cremony tightened his horse’s girths, and properly positioned and tightened the saddle for a possible wild ride. Ensuring his four six-shooters were properly loaded, he placed two of his pistols in their holsters and tucked the other two in his belt for the ready. For protection against arrows, he folded his serape in two, wrapped it around his back and tied it under his chin.

A quick glance at the approaching thunder verified the Apaches were only a few hundred yards away. A quick slap of the reins and Cremony’s horse bolted down the trail, and spoiled the Apaches’ attempt to overtake him on the trail.

Cremony knew his horse was fresh, while the Apaches’ horses were tiring from several minutes of a heavy run, which would hopefully give him an advantage. Once he was easily able to maintain a 50-yard lead, he drew in his rein to save his horse all he could. With this slight advantage, he surveyed his pursuers. He counted about 40 Apaches, none with firearms, but supplied with bows, arrows and lances.

It didn’t take long before he could hear arrows whistling past his head. Then, he felt an arrow strike him in the back on his serape blanket, but the double folds kept it from penetrating his skin. Turning halfway around on his saddle, he drew a pistol from one of his holsters and fired off a couple of shots. This caused the Apaches to fall back, and allowed Cremony to demand the most from his horse, doubling his speed for about a mile. Once gaining about 600 yards on his pursuers, he again reined in to save his horse.

It took many miles down the trail for the Apaches to close the gap. As they closed in, again arrows and a lance or two whizzed past him. Again Cremony responded with his pistol, and when his attackers retreated, commanded his trusty horse to bolt into another full run that left the Apaches far behind on the trail.

After several repetitions of this tactic, Cremony found himself with several arrows stuck into his blanket and arrow grazes on his right arm and left thigh — but he was otherwise uninjured. He then wondered why his horse had escaped the Apaches deadly arrows.

Cremony explained this mystery in his own words: “I then became convinced that my horse was the main object of their pursuit. His value and unequaled qualities were well known to the Apaches, and they resolved to have him, if possible. Of course, my life would have been sacrificed, if they could only manage that little affair. I had bought the horse of Capt. A. Buford, First United States Dragoons, who assured me that his equal did not exist in the Territory.”

The race across the desert continued for many hours. By 8 p.m., with a clear sky and bright moon, Cremony began to enter the area around the Point of Rocks, a region with rugged small hills and deep ravines. After several miles through these hills, there was no sign of his pursuers. Had they finally given up the chase?

Cremony then realized they had taken a shorter route to cut him off farther up the trail.

Upon realizing this, Cremony “struck my rowels into the reeking flanks of my poor steed, and most gallantly did he respond to this last call. He fairly flew over the road. Hill after hill was passed with wonderful rapidity until nearly a quarter of an hour had elapsed, when I again heard my Apache friends, about eighty yards in my rear.”

The chase through the hills continued until 11 o’clock at night. Cremony’s horse somehow managed to sustain his pace to maintain a healthy lead ahead of the Apaches. Cremony knew their horses were exhausted, and so was his. As soon as the flicker of a few lanterns in Doña Ana came into view, he fired his pistols blindly into the dark until the Apaches had retreated far out of reach.

Cremony describes the conclusion: “The remainder of my journey was made without company, and I reached Doña Ana about twelve o’clock midnight, having made the distance of one hundred and twenty-five miles, on one horse, in the space of twenty-one hours, the last seventy miles being performed at a run.” As any horse owner will tell you, this is an astonishing feat.

However, the journey wasn’t completely over. Without immediate and proper attention, the loyal steed that saved his life would soon die from exhaustion. Cremony obtain the services of a young Mexican horse handler named Jose, who began working the horse. So impressed with the skill of Jose, Cremony documented the procedure.

“Jose … rubbed my horse down dry with good, soft straw. This operation required about two hours. I then washed him all over with strong whiskey and water, and again rubbed him dry. This was followed by taking off his shoes, and giving him about two quarts of whiskey and water as a draught. His whole body and limbs were then swathed in blankets, a mess of cut hay, sprinkled with water and mixed with a couple of pounds of raw steak, cut into small pieces, was given him to eat, and a deep bed of clean dry straw prepared for him to sink into. These duties kept me up until five o’clock A. M.”

Cremony then admits he indulged in a little of the leftover whiskey himself, which allowed him to sleep the rest of that day and into the next. When he finally awoke, he found his horse had fully recovered and was in excellent health.

Cremony’s ride became somewhat of a local legend. He always gave full credit to his horse, even though the animal’s name was never recorded. It was not the last time the Apaches, or others, tried to steal his now famous horse.

Back to the Border

Following his wild ride, the boundary survey continued. Finally, it was fully agreed upon. On April 24, 1851, John Bartlett and Pedro Garcia-Conde signed the agreement and erected a small monument to establish the official border between New Mexico and Mexico. The border was placed at 32 degrees 22 minutes north latitude, or several miles north of present day Interstate 10. This left Doña Ana in the United States and Mesilla (present day Las Cruces) and the Mesilla valley to Mexico.

The Bartlett-Conde survey point immediately caused controversy, particularly among the railroad capitalists who planned on building the southern route. The land earmarked for a nearly non-mountainous, all-weather railroad line to California now belonged to Mexico. Bartlett defended the survey by claiming the land lost to Mexico was only “a desert, with scarcely a tree … and little other vegetation than the chaparral or thorny bushes,” but pointed out his survey had kept the lucrative Santa Rita copper mines. Few were impressed with his logic.

This land squabble was settled in 1853, when President Franklin Pierce sent railroad man James Gadsden to purchase the disputed land from Mexico for $10 million. This is the Gadsden Purchase, which moved the boundary to 31 degrees 47 minutes north latitude, adding 45,000 acres to New Mexico and was, more or less, the boundaries we have with Mexico today. A few other adjustments were made in later years, which is the reason why the southern boundary of New Mexico is noticeably irregular and forms the famous “boot heel” in the southwest corner.

The shifting of the Rio Grande was another source of tensions between the United States and Mexico. It was not until after Elephant Butte dam and reservoir was built that the two countries finally agreed to ignore future changes in the Rio Grande. Of course, since then, the course of the river that defines the border has changed little.

Following the Bartlett-Conde survey, John Cremony was released from the Boundary Commission. Rather than return to Boston, he ventured on to San Francisco, where once again he found employment as a newspaper reporter and later as an editor. He married Ella Hunt in 1857.

Civil War Service

However, it seemed Cremony could not refuse another call for adventure. When the Civil War broke out, he joined the California Volunteers, and eventually received the rank of major. He commanded Company B of artillery under Maj. Gen. James Henry Carleton’s famous march of the “California Column” through southern Arizona and New Mexico.

It was along this march, in 1862, that the army and Chiricahua Apaches clashed at the battle of Apache Pass. This was the first time the Apaches experienced the deadly effects of mountain howitzers. It was Cremony’s cannons that fired these famous shots. Upon arriving in New Mexico, Cremony’s company reclaimed many forts once occupied by the Confederates in New Mexico and Texas after their retreat back to San Antonio, Texas.

Afterward, the California Column got involved in restoring order in New Mexico, including subduing the Navajo and Apache Indians. Cremony’s command of the Apache language became invaluable to Gen. Carleton in negotiating with the Apaches.

Although he always did his job, Cremony became outspoken with his opposition on how the army treated both the Apache and Navajo. Because he could speak their language, he was well respected by the Apaches. Likewise, Cremony developed a deep respect for them and admired their characteristics in many ways, though admittedly, he never let down his guard with them.

Toward the end of his enlistment with the California Column, he was negotiating with a band of the Mescalero Apaches. A couple of Mescaleros seemed to take special interest in Cremony, and finally revealed they had taken part in the chase along the Jornada del Muerto many years before.

Once convinced Cremony harbored no vindictive feelings over the matter, a warrior led him to an old squaw and her adult children. It was explained that these were the wife and children of the man who led the chase against Cremony 13 years before. Cremony received them kindly and they both agreed it turned out for the better that no one was killed in the chase.

Cremony’s Last Days

Major John Cremony was discharged from the army in March 1866, and immediately returned to his family in San Francisco, where he worked again as a newspaper man and contributed articles to other journals. In 1868, he wrote his book, “Life Among the Apaches” that chronicled years of his experiences with the Boundary Commission, service in the army, and his extensive dealings with the Apache. His pages of descriptions of the Apache culture, marriage practices and other aspects of their society remains one of the few insights into the Apache culture ever written.

John Cremony was also one of the founders of the Bohemian Club in San Francisco, an elite men’s club that is still in existence today. He died in San Francisco on Aug. 24, 1879, of tuberculosis at age 64. Being a journalist, and sitting on the front row of history, his writings have given us a unique look into this era of New Mexico history – including the famous El Camino Real.

Some of the references used in this article: “Life among the Apaches” by John C. Cremony, 1868; “Roadside Guide to Historic Markers,” by David Pike; “A Review of the Causes and Consequences of the Mexican War,” by William Jay (1849); and “Turmoil in New Mexico,” by William Keleher.

Author’s Note: El Defensor Chieftain’s history articles are generally published on the first weekend issue of the month. Next month’s history article will be about some of Socorro’s haunted buildings, and will appear in the Saturday, Oct. 31 (Halloween) issue. If you have a Socorro ghost story, please contact the author.