Water fight on the Tularosa

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Water has always been New Mexico’s most precious commodity. Through history Indians, Spaniards and Anglos have struggled for possession of the land’s limited water resources. Some were even willing to kill for it.

That was the case in the 1870s and ’80s at the town of Tularosa situated on the eastern edge of the White Sands. The site took its name from the tules (reeds or cattails) growing in marshes about a mile from where the little Tularosa River left its canyon and disappeared into the sands.

As early as 1858 some New Mexicans from the Rio Grande settled here and put in their crops. But before harvest they were chased out by Mescalero Apaches.

Then in the early 1860s a new band of Hispanic pioneers arrived. They were from the Mesilla Valley and El Paso, where a Rio Grande flood had washed away their homes and fields. Wanting a new start and willing to work for it, they founded the community of Tularosa. Other settlers from Socorro soon established the neighboring village of La Luz.

The people built adobe homes, dug irrigation ditches to tap the river and organized a municipal government with an alcalde, or mayor. They also had occasional run-ins with the Mescaleros.

But life was generally serene and the desert blossomed with orchards and a huge vineyard. Travelers regarded Tularosa as an oasis.

Trouble loomed on the horizon, however. Anglos began moving into the area and with them was born competition for scarce water.

Among the first to enter was one Joseph Blazer, who had started his professional life as an Iowa dentist and went on to serve in the Union Army. In 1866 he acquired an old sawmill up Tularosa Canyon and diverted some of the river water to power the wheel. He was careful, though, to turn it back into the main channel after use so that people below would not be shorted.

Other newcomers were not so charitable. Several farmers occupied lands above Tularosa and placed small irrigation dams across the river, in total disregard of the rights of downstream users.

Leader of the interlopers was Andrew J. Wilson. When Tularosa citizens came up one night and destroyed the offending dams, Wilson assembled work parties and put them right back.

That was too much for the plucky Tularosans, and they launched an attack on the farmers. Wilson sent an urgent plea for help to nearby Fort Stanton. Lt. John Wilkinson and five men of the 8th Cavalry responded.

That force was not sufficient to restore order. In fact, the soldiers and farmers retreated to Blazer’s Mill where they were besieged by the Tularosa mob. It was becoming painfully clear that local folks were not going to tolerate a theft of their water supply.

Once more an appeal for aid was dispatched to Fort Stanton. This time the post commander, Capt. C.H. McKibbin, answered the call with a troop and a piece of artillery.

When he reached the mill, general firing was in progress, but at the sight of his soldiers the Tularosa attackers retreated back to town. Capt. McKibbin followed.

On the outskirts of the community he was confronted by the parish priest who demanded he withdraw. The officer observed about 40 armed men behind barricades. It appeared a pitched battle was in the offing.

The captain, nevertheless, was not easily intimidated. He told the priest to remove the women and children as he intended to capture the town by force. And, he added that if fired upon, he would hang the priest.

That grim announcement, plus the wheeling of the small cannon into position, quickly smothered the flames of resistance. The troops were allowed to march into the center of Tularosa unopposed.

The captain’s action in this incident was clearly beyond the law. Later a grand jury investigation charged him with “outrageous and tyrannical conduct” by interference in a civil matter. But there is no record his superiors even reprimanded him.

Over the years other episodes of violence occurred along the Tularosa River, including the shooting of an entire posse. One historian has characterized the series of incidents as the “Tularosa Ditch War.”

While not as celebrated or as bloody as the Lincoln County War, the conflict still left its mark on the people and upon the history of southern New Mexico.