The Malpais
Photo: Lava FieldThe malpais or "Bad Lands" are lava beds of relatively recent geological origin which flank White Sands Missile Range´s northern area. These beds are found both in the Jornada del Muerto on the range´s west boundary and east of the Sierra Oscura Mountains which are close to the range´s eastern boundary. The black broken and rough lava streams remain much as they were at the time formed. They are aptly described as "rivers of black basalt." According to Indian lore, the lava beds are the blood and bones of monsters from the Age of the Gods, an era in Indian pre-history in which all living creatures were believed to be giants.
The malpais pose a thorny problem for White Sands Missile Range recovery crews bringing out missiles impacting in the rough terrain. Due to the nature of the lava streams, ordinary ground access is impossible. Deep crevasses appear to the eye as narrow fissures, and the lips of a crevasse are often crusts of volcanic ash which give way under a man´s weight. Therefore, missiles that impact in the lava beds are sought out by helicopter. Then, recovery crews fly in and harness the missile parts to the helicopter which flies both crew and missile parts to headquarters area.

U.S. Highway 380 passes through one of the lava beds between Carrizozo and Socorro, N.M. This highway, as well as U.S. Highway 70, is periodically closed during missile firings. The roadblocks are a safety precaution for motorists travelling across the range where missiles fly across the highway.

The Forts

Fort Bliss: Fort Bliss, located at El Paso, Tex., is today´s Army Air Defense Center and the home of the United States Army Sergeants Major Academy.

In 1849, after a year of reconnaissance, seven companies of the Third Infantry were ordered to the vital mountain pass, El Paso del Norte, which originally was a settlement divided by the Rio Grande. In time, the settlement became two separate cities, today´s El Paso and Ciudad Juarez. The troops came 673 miles from San Antonio, through hostile Indian country. Three months later they had established a military post on the banks north of the Rio Grande in an area north of today´s Union Depot.

In 1854, the Army post was named Fort Bliss in honor of Lieutenant Colonel W.W.S. Bliss, a scholar who was an aide to General Zachary Taylor.

During the first few decades of its existence, Fort Bliss was moved five times, twice abandoned as excess to military needs, and once, during the Civil War, flew the Confederate flag. Permanent buildings, of which a few still stand, were constructed at the post in 1892.

From 1902 on through World War I, Fort Bliss was one of the nation´s foremost cavalry posts. In 1914, General John J. Pershing assumed command of Fort Bliss and its 60,000 troops. Early Signal Corps aircraft were stationed there and the First Cavalry Division made its headquarters there from 1921 until departing for duty in the South Pacific during World War II.

Before the end of World War II, Fort Bliss became an antiaircraft artillery center and fully mechanized.

As the Army Air Defense Center, Fort Bliss firing and maneuver areas cover some 1,125,947 acres of land.

Fort Craig: The ruins of Ft. Craig stand at the north end of the Fra Cristobal Mountains and Jornada del Muerto and just off the White Sands Missile Range northwest corner.

Built originally to protect settlers from the Navajo and Apache Indians, Ft. Craig today is little more than piles of eroded adobe brick and volcanic rocks.

Captain Paddy Grayton, a commander of an independent company of scouts at the old fort, is alleged to have used a unique method in filling his ranks -- perhaps one of the first "involuntary induction" systems. According to legends, when one of his men was killed or deserted, the captain scouted the area for a peon or indigent person. Then, he accosted the man, calling him by the name of the missing scout, and hauled him back to the fort for duty.

Despite the unorthodox methods of induction, Fort Craig, in its heyday, was a favorite post for soldiers serving military duty.

The Civil War battle of Valverde was fought six miles north of Fort Craig on February 2, 1862. General Henry Hopkins Sibley led his confederate forces against Union troops led by Colonel Edward R.S. Canby. The Union forces retired within the fort in defeat while the Confederates bivouacked on the field. Twenty-five days later, after taking Albuquerque and Santa Fe, the Confederate forces met defeat at the Battle of Glorietta Pass and Apache Canyon west of Las Vegas, New Mexico.

The Union forces, having destroyed supplies which were irreplaceable, drove the Confederate troops back towards Socorro, N.M., cut them off from water, and forced them to find their ways back to Texas in small groups.

On May 14, 1862, General Sibley said goodbye to his troops at his headquarters at Magoffinsville near Fort Bliss, long since absorbed within the boundaries of El Paso.

Fort Stanton: On the Chisholm Trail southeast of Carrizozo, N.M., Fort Stanton was slated as the rendezvous for Civil War Union troops who abandoned Fort Fillmore, south of Las Cruces, ahead of the Confederate attack. Fort Stanton, however, was abandoned by its garrison upon receiving word that the Fort Fillmore had surrendered already.

Fort Stanton was established in 1855. It was named in memory of Captain Henry Whiting Stanton of the First Dragoons, who was killed by the Apaches in the Sacramento Mountains in January of that year.

Colonel Christopher (Kit) Carson, with five companies of New Mexico volunteers, was ordered to Fort Stanton in 1862 to operate against the Indians. The Indians had gone unchecked during the Confederate attempt to take the territory from the Union Army and were to be punished for their aggression.

Colonel Carson was ordered to "Kill all Indian men of the Mescalero tribe wherever you find them." The women and children were not to be harmed but were to be taken as prisoners to Fort Stanton and held for further instructions.

The Carson troops hunted Mescaleros within a 100-mile radius of Fort Stanton, which took in the mountains and valleys surrounding today´s White Sands Missile Range.

Fort McRae: Fort McRae, another old Army post in the White Sands Missile Range area, now lies beneath the surface of Elephant Butte Lake. The lake, formed by the damming of the Rio Grande, is west of the Fra Cristobal Mountains in the Jornada del Muerto. Through the Elephant Butte and Caballo Reservoirs, water in the Rio Grande is stored and used for irrigation in the Mesilla Valley and along the Rio Grande beyond El Paso towards Pecos, Tex.

Fort Selden: The ruins of Fort Selden, an important military post in its day, stands where U.S. Highway 85 crosses the Rio Grande northwest of Las Cruces. Established in 1865, Fort Selden´s primary mission was to protect settlers from marauding Gila Apache Indians. Through the years, ruins of the old fort have been continually searched for buried treasures. None were found and the site has been stabilized to prevent further erosion of the adobe walls. The old fort is a New Mexico state historical site and has a modern museum open to the public.

This page was last updated on 10/26/2018 2:23 PM