The Legend of War Tree Pass
By Will Ghormley
This story was told to me by my Granddad, who owned a small rancho outside of Santa Fe. I had always hoped the story had some basis in history, but never really knew until…
For generations the Comanche raided to the west, crossing over War Tree Pass to plunder the Pueblo Indian settlements and Mexican villages. After the raiding, the Comanche returned home over the pass, shooting their remaining arrows into a gnarled pine at the crest of the pass to show their contempt for their pursuers.
As fate would have it, they staged a raid on a settlement of Pueblo Indians during a big celebration. Fiestas, bartering and horse races occupied the Indians and Mexicans from miles around. Some Americanos had even stopped by to take part in the merriment and place bets on their favored ponies. As the Comanche opened up across the flats their terrifying cries scattered the assembled celebrants. Left standing to face the onslaught were those who never shrank from a fight. Among the Americanos were a number of powerful rifles capable of lifting a warrior from his saddle at a great distance. They did their work well as the Comanche closed the gap, despite the decimation in their ranks. The besieged, seeing the effectiveness of the long rifles, took heart and stood to face their attackers. As the remaining Comanche swarmed among the defenders it was a matter of steely nerves and chance. The assembled revelers gave better than they got and as the close bloody combat wore on, only one Comanche brave remained in the saddle.
His mount wheeled screaming as the warrior searched for any of his companions. With defiant resignation he whipped his horse to charge through the throng closing around him. The war pony's hooves cut a retreat through the carnage when the warrior, out of the corners of his wild eyes, sees one of his friends struggle to his feet. Jerking the reins and at the same time leaning low out of the saddle, the warrior snatches up his compatriot at a dead run. Together they close the distance to the pass. Back at the Pueblo, the would be revelers finished up their bloody handiwork with eyes turned towards their scattered ponies. With the festivities abruptly and effectively forgotten, only pursuit remained in their hearts. As soon as a stout handful had secured their mounts, they were off. The remainder, a little less enthusiastic, had more difficulty cornering their ponies.
The two Comanche pressed on towards the summit, the mustang stumbling and blowing. The wounded brave barely clung to his rescuer, who's arm twisted behind him, clamped upon his bleeding companion. On they climbed with little hope of gaining the pass. Not once did they glance back.
The hardened men knew well the goal of the retreating warriors. There was no need to follow the plain blood trail. They raced towards War Tree pass, sure they would encounter the two braves around the next ridge. Each ridge was rounded and each valley crossed and still the Comanche were not overtaken. When the riders cleared the last ridge and could see up the final steep accent to the pass, they glimpsed the weary warriors slipping between the rocky outcrop and out of view. With a cry of dismay they spurred their flagging mounts without much effect. As they neared the saddle where the trail passed over the range, they came close to the War Tree. What they saw gave them pause. Without spurs put to them, the weary mounts stopped in their tracks as the riders gazed at the tree. The Comanche, wounded, weary and hounded, had filled the old War Tree with their remaining arrows and hung their bows and quivers on it's branches in contempt of the death that would soon overtake them.
One by one the pursuers pulled away from the old tree and made their way to the crest of the pass. Below them the lone pony stumbled down the trail. Tall and proud the Comanche sat his saddle, unconcerned with the gathering at the pass. His companion slumped behind him. They were within easy rifle shot, yet not one of the men at the pass lifted his rifle. Then, without a word, the wounded Comanche lifted his head and turned to face them. Slowly, he lifted his clenched fist high above his head in his last act of defiance. A gruesome cry was rent from the throats of the Pueblo Indians in one deafening voice, causing the Mexicans and Americanos to jump in their saddles. The cry was sustained and heartfelt, yet no Pueblo whipped his horse over the edge. Not a rider moved. The Americanos glanced back and forth among themselves, but felt no compulsion to follow the trail. The Mexicans steadied their mounts with their knees. The solitary pony wearily plodded down the trail, the wounded warrior lowered his fist and turned his face from the pass. He never looked back again. One by one, the men on the pass turned their tails to the Comanche and nosed down the trail towards home. It is said the Comanche never again crossed War Tree Pass to raid in the west.
I told this story to Louis F. Serna; Historian, Author, Lecturer, Artist, Silver Artist, Wood Carver, SW Furniture Designer, and producer of The Sernas of New Mexico Newsletter, who lives in Albuquerque, NM. Louis responds to the story:
Your Comanche story does ring bells...As you may already know, a rancheria (Spanish word for "small ranch"...was a gathering of several tribes, Spanish, Americanos, and even Comancheros, solely for the purpose of trading their wares, collected over the past year... also much merry-making and plain old debauchery..!) was held yearly, or about that often, at Taos... sometimes referred to as the Taos trade fair... It was held there, because Taos was centrally located for most tribes in the area,...a truce was strictly enforced and even the Comanches, who raided Taos most often, were welcome under the terms of the truce... after the trade fair, certain tribes left their camp at one or two day entervals.... this to avoid ambush and warfare on the departing tribes leaving Taos... after about a week, all bets were off and it was back to the usual carnage and "open lifestyle".... Worth noting is that the Utes were never welcome as they were so treacherous and fierce they even fought among themselves... they obeyed no rules.... now and then some still managed to slip in...
Back to the Comanches..... they came in primarily from the plains east of "Rabbit Ears Peak"... (Southeast of Raton and northeast of Springer), up through the Rayado or the now Cimarron Canyon, crossed the beautiful Moreno Valley, and crossed over the Palo Flechado Pass... (Palo Flechado in Spanish means "tree with arrows shot into it...!!!) So this gives rise to your story, having some or much truth to it..!!! Once over the pass, the Comanches rode down through the Taos Canyon and proceeded to the Taos Pueblo…
The only large battle with the Comanches in the Taos area that I know of, was that led by my ancestor, Capitan Cristobal de la Serna, about 1715. He was the encomiendero, (Grantee) of the large Cristobal de la Serna Land Grant of Taos at that time. He was the responsible Officer, in charge of protecting the northern and eastern frontier of the Spanish Kingdom. The Comanche had mounted a large raid on the Taos Pueblo and de la Serna led a charge against them. He defeated them soundly, and chased the remainder, east along the route I described above...Complete with the chase over the Palo Flechado Pass... (War Tree Pass..??)
To learn more about Louis F. Serna, author of among other books, “Robert Clay Allison and The Colfax County War” visit his website: www.louisserna.com