Tinaja de las Palmas, Battle of

By: Douglas C. McChristian

Type: General Entry

Published: August 1, 1995

Updated: August 4, 2020

The battle of Tinaja de las Palmas (also known as the battle of Rocky Ridge), one of a series of skirmishes in the Victorio campaign, was fought on July 30, 1880, by Apaches and elements of the Tenth United States Cavalry. The site of the battle is in Hudspeth County fifteen miles southeast of Sierra Blanca, Texas. During 1876–77 Apache depredations in southern New Mexico, West Texas, and northern Mexico increased with alarming frequency. Apache raiders struck at ranches on both sides of the international border and at stagecoaches and travelers on the San Antonio-El Paso road. Many raids were attributed to Indians from the Mescalero reservation near Fort Stanton, New Mexico. To make matters worse, the Indian Bureau consolidated the Warm Springs Apaches with the Apaches on the San Carlos Reservation in Arizona, in spite of the fact that these two bands had long been antagonists. A few months later Victorio fled the reservation with nearly 300 of his people, and he eluded the army for the next two years. After they were eventually captured, Victorio and his band were allowed to settle in their native southern New Mexico. Nearly a year later, however, Indian Bureau officials decided once again that the Warm Springs people should be returned to Arizona, and the consequences were predictably explosive. Victorio, with a combined band of Warm Springs, Mescalero, and Chiricahua Apaches, raided into Mexico, striking at anything in their path.

Col. Benjamin H. Grierson, commander of the District of the Pecos in West Texas, was ordered to throw out a screen of troops from the Guadalupe Mountains to the Rio Grande in an attempt to thwart Victorio's passage through that region. In previous years Grierson had made a concerted effort to become familiar with his district, and he had made sure that the officers in his command were familiar with the locations of water holes, passes, and Indian campsites. After taking command of the troops in the field, Grierson established his headquarters at Eagle Spring, a stage stop on the San Antonio-El Paso road some 100 miles west of Fort Davis. From here he directed his troops to scout along the river and the adjacent country for any sign of the Apaches' crossing into United States territory. The campaign then turned into a waiting game. Late in July, the telegraph having gone dead between Eagle Spring and the station at abandoned Fort Quitman on the banks of the Rio Grande, Grierson and a small escort proceeded to Quitman to investigate. At Fort Quitman Grierson received reports from Mexican regulars opposite his camp that Victorio was making for the river and that for want of supplies the Mexicans could not intercept him. This prompted Grierson to return to Eagle Spring, now a more advantageous point from which to direct his operations. On the return trip his men sighted a lone Apache on a small hill overlooking Tinaja de las Palmas, a seasonal water hole that Grierson had previously considered too insignificant to guard. The warrior escaped, but Grierson realized that Victorio would probably try to get water at this place in order to slip through his net. He decided immediately to place himself and his eight men, including his nineteen-year-old son Robert, directly in the path of the northbound Apaches. Shortly after camp was established near the base of a commanding hill, dubbed Rocky Ridge, the eastbound stage rolled through. Grierson took advantage of this opportunity to send a message for the two cavalry troops at Eagle Spring to come to his assistance. Couriers from Eagle Spring arrived after midnight with information that Victorio and approximately 125 warriors had crossed the Rio Grande and skirmished with some scouts and were moving toward Tinaja de las Palmas. After forwarding the couriers to Fort Quitman for additional reinforcements, Grierson had his men put up stone breastworks atop Rocky Ridge and waited.

Early the following morning, July 30, Lt. Leighton Finley arrived from Eagle Spring with fifteen troopers. Grierson promptly sent two of these men back to the cavalry camp with orders for all of the remaining troops to proceed to Tinaja de las Palmas at once. Meanwhile, Finley's detachment constructed a third and larger fortification lower down on the ridge to command the waterhole. Shortly after eight o'clock the Apaches were sighted approaching Grierson's position. Knowing that troops already held the water hole, Victorio sent some of his warriors to the east to outflank the soldiers, whereupon Grierson ordered Finley to take ten of his men and charge this group. While Finley and his men skirmished briskly with the Apaches, the two companies from Eagle Spring made a timely arrival. Unfortunately these reinforcements, unable to distinguish their comrades amid the smoke and dust, opened fire on both them and the encircling Apaches. In the crossfire Finley's detachment was forced to make a headlong retreat to Rocky Ridge with the Indians in close pursuit. Covering fire from Grierson's position allowed the troopers to reach safety with only one man slightly wounded. Companies C and G continued to press their attack, but the enemy offered stubborn resistance. Only when the Apaches sighted the dust cloud of Company A coming in from Fort Quitman did they break off the engagement. For once, the army had blocked Victorio, though it was not the decisive victory for which Grierson had hoped. Grierson claimed to have killed seven Apaches and wounded an undetermined number. His own losses were one man killed, one officer and one private wounded, and ten horses killed. The setback at Tinaja de las Palmas and the later one at Rattlesnake Spring (August 6) forced the Apaches to fall back into Mexico and prevented their return to the reservation for sanctuary and additional recruits. This led a few months later to the defeat of Victorio and his band by Mexican troops at Tres Castillos, and consequently to the end of the Apache wars in Texas in early 1881.

Archeological excavations at Tinaja de las Palmas have failed to unearth any artifacts, but prehistoric petroglyphs have been discovered-circles and lines pecked into the exposed bedrock near the tinajas, or solution cavities, for which the site is named. They have been impossible to date or interpret.

William H. Leckie, The Buffalo Soldiers: A Narrative of the Negro Cavalry in the West (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1967). Douglas C. McChristian, "Grierson's Fight at Tinaja de las Palmas: An Episode in the Victoria Campaign," Red River Valley Historical Review 7 (Winter 1982). Robert M. Utley, Fort Davis National Historic Site (Washington: National Park Service, 1965).

  • Peoples
  • Native American
  • Military
  • Campaigns, Battles, Raids, and Massacres

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Douglas C. McChristian, “Tinaja de las Palmas, Battle of,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed August 14, 2022, https://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/entries/tinaja-de-las-palmas-battle-of.

Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

August 1, 1995
August 4, 2020