Fort Stanton Cave


By Mike Bilbo (Outdoor Recreation Planner/Cave Specialist, BLM-Socorro Field Office)


In 1855, a patrol of the 1st Dragoons from Fort Stanton, New Mexico Territory, explore a large limestone cave located about one mile north of the fort. Their horses tied up and under guard, the men slowly and carefully make their way down the steep, loose entry sink talus. At the dripline the musty smell of the cave assails them. The soldiers are dressed in the military clothing typical of the period: white wool shirts under dark blue wool shell jackets, sky blue wool kersey trousers supported by cotton galluses, leather boots, and either non-descript campaign hats, brims flopped down in the slouched style of the western hat, or M1839 forage caps.

Down they descend into a dark, dank cavern for the first time – the first white men to explore this cave. Down into the gloom, carrying bulky whale oil lamps, ropes, haversacks, tin canteens, their heavy .44 caliber pistols belted around their waists and maybe carrying their musketoons, too. These men are young but they’re veterans – tough ‘ombres all right – they’ve been in some fights with Apaches, Comanches and Comancheros. They take it slow and cautious. Their lantern lights – their only outside reminder – flicker dimly on the walls, casting grotesque shadows all about.

Following a main passage south and east, the patrol treads first through mud and water, and then up onto massive piles of limestone blocks covered by white, powdery rubble – one of them mutters, “Shore and tis the Gates o’ Hell.” Another: “Nein, das ist der Backbone oaf zee Teufel.” Devil’s Backbone, an apt name in an appropriate place. “Knock it off and keep your eyes and ears open!” hisses the corporal. They continue the scout.

Caving is a part of their duty – they must understand all aspects of the topography they are to patrol in the coming years. Fort Stanton has been established to protect regional settlers from Plains Comanche and the nearby Mescalero Apache. Somewhere in the Guadalupe-Sacramento-Capitan mountain chain lies a cave the Apaches hold sacred. It is where the Mountain Spirits protected some Mescaleros from certain death. This event is commemorated every year by the dance of the Mountain Spirits. Religion is powerful medicine for any people. The military strategy is harsh and simple: destroy their religion and subsistence – there is a chance you can subdue the people – maybe.

Is this the cave…?

After some 1,200 feet of slow, careful progress and a slippery climb up a steep 20-foot mud slope, they are suddenly faced with a choice: the main passage bears away north and east, while to their right it pinches down into a crawl way. Being adventurous troopers, this intrepid band of recent recruits from Governor’s Isle, which includes some immigrant Germans and a Scot, choose the crawlway. On hands and knees, carrying their lanterns by the bales between their teeth and dragging their gear behind them, they enter a broad, low passage and behold a most amazing sight: like a carpet of grass, thousands and thousands of crystal clear gypsum needles, each almost a foot high, fill the passage.

The Dragoons push forward, but out of respect for this wonder of nature, they keep their passage shoulder-width only. This is not new to the Germans – they caved many times in Bavaria only a few years before. 600 feet later the party exits the crawl and stands up, “Let’s take five for a lit.” The soldiers have just come out of Crystal Crawl and are relaxing at the beginning of Decoration Passage.


So in March, 1975, one hundred twenty years later, with three friends, I go on one of my first caving trips. With a caving permit from the Bureau of Land Management, we are here in Fort Stanton Cave because we came to look for some reported military names associated with Fort Stanton. We are soldiers ourselves – all members of the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment at Fort Bliss, Texas. The ancestral unit, the illustrious Regiment of Mounted Rifles, had once been stationed at Fort Stanton in the 1850’s. With me is the regimental museum curator, Sgt. Dan Peterson, and his assistants, Specialists Ron Howie and Lisa Meyers. We’re thinking that maybe these reported names can be traced through post returns, hoping they turn out to be Mounted Rifles.

Supposing to be where the names were located and beginning to wonder about the accuracy of directions to the names, we had once again come the same way and had come to the same resting spot. “Well, no names here. Great, just great. Well, let’s push on and see what’s up ahea…Wait! Here they are, here they are! Wow, this great! Look, look at the dates – “1855.” And look at this: “K Co. 1st Dr(agoons) U.S.A.” So we had found the names. Not Mounted Rifles, but close enough.

In 1855 both units worked hand-in-hand in this region. The names were written in a characteristic mid-19th Century style. There were two groups of names, actually. They were etched on a protruding mass of light yellow flowstone and were covered by a transparent mineral layer, which had probably helped preserve them through the years. The layer also helped fix the authenticity of the names.

The Names

One group of six names was associated with the phrase “5 for a lit (or possibly bit),” while the other group of two German names, possibly immigrant-soldiers, was associated with a phrase or sentence: “Caxes Texeher uns Anhalt Deffuer (or De/fuer).” Two dates of 1855 were associated with the latter group. The first group read:

John Lepsey, Washington, Kansas

K, Cherry, John (John Cherry, Company K)

L. Loerhe, K Co. 1 Dr U.S.A. (L. Loerhe, Company K, 1st Dragoons, United States Army)

Victor H. Brown, Tracy City, Tennessee

Horace Belknap, Company B

William Richards, Capitan, New Mexico

The German group read:

E. Fritz 1855 (probably Emil Fritz)

Joseph Meyers, Wiessemberg 1855

The dates 1855 are the year the soldiers visited the cave in conjunction with the establishment and building of Fort Stanton by the 1st Dragoons in March of that year. In each case the individual either listed his unit or his hometown. Follow-up research on the names has been limited, but with some interesting findings. In order to find out more about these men and their relationship to regional or national history, we contacted Marion Grinstead, a noted regional military historian specializing in pre-Civil War frontier military unit histories of West Texas and Southern New Mexico, especially the Mounted Rifles.

Marion obtained microfilm copies of the official post returns from the National Archives pertaining to Fort Stanton in 1855. With special reference to the location of Companies B and K, Marion was able to confirm that these were members of the 1st Dragoons. Because of this fact, Fort Stanton Cave is nationally significant relative to the garrisoning of the West by the U.S. Army in this time period, when many other forts were also built.

While Marion was not able to follow up on the personal histories of each man, she feels quite confidant she has identified four of the men. The one, “E. Fritz,” is almost certainly Emil Fritz, who rose from private to colonel in and around southern New Mexico, and retired into business at Lincoln town in partnership with Messrs. Murphy and Dolan; in the late 1870’s he played a significant role in the Lincoln County Wars. His descendants remain in the Lincoln vicinity to this day! The following section is Marion’s notes on the Fort Stanton Post Returns:

Analysis of the Military Names in Fort Stanton Cave, Prepared for Mike Bilbo by Marion Grinstead, April, 1975

The Captain of Company K (and post commander), 1st Dragoons was James H. Carleton, one of the truly (to my notion) outstanding military men in New Mexico during the Civil War. He received his baptism of fire along the plains of Mexico during the Mexican War, 1846-48. The 1st Lieutenant was D.H. Hastings, at this time not present; and the 2nd Lieutenant was A.B. Chapman, also not present. Carleton was in command and present when they arrived at what would become the site of Fort Stanton, and remained in command until they left.

March – July, 1855: March 19 Co. K left Albuquerque March 19th and camped in the Gallinas Mountains, New Mexico. March 31/55.

April 1, 1855: Departed Camp in the Gallinas Mountains and arrived at Camp Garland, Rio Bonito, N.M. April 6.

May – June, 1855: Fort Stanton.

July 16, 1855: Left Fort Stanton, N.M.

July 21, 1855: Arrived at Albuquerque, N.M.

The above is all carried on the face of the Regimental Return. There is no other information regarding the men, i.e., they were not on Extra Duty or Daily Duty during this period, nor were they on Detached Service.

One interesting reference was to a Corporal Brown who was on Extra Duty, but there were several Browns, though no Victor H. They do not indicate that a corporal by this name was discharged in the five years examined. However, I do not suppose this to be really important – there were one or two names omitted (and noted by the Washington office to which these returns were sent) and were apparently never picked up.

Discharged, 1 January 1856: Emil Fritz, Sgt, Co. K, Reenlisted in Regiment same date. Last muster, 1861. Company K then at Albuquerque.

Discharged, 15 February 1856: John Cherry, Pvt, Co. K. No reenlistment. Company K at Albuquerque.

Discharged, 12 February 1858: Joseph Myer, Bugler, K, at Ft. Buchanan, New Mexico (Arizona). Reenlisted same date and place. (After looking at Mike’s photos of this particular name, I am convinced this is his “Meyers” – “Myer” is probably a clerical error.

Discharged, 26 February 1858: Louis Loeslie, Pvt, K, at Ft. Buchanan, New Mexico. No reenlistment. (Again, after careful examination of Mike’s photos, I am sure this is his “Loerhe.” There are no other names which fit, and in this instance – bless that old trooper – he added his company and regiment!).

ä Enlistments during this period were for five years. Therefore the first muster dates may possibly be

determined by subtracting from the discharge date.

ä From Returns from Regular Army Cavalry Regiments, 1833-1916. Microcopy 744. Rolls 4 and 5, First Cavalry, 1851-1859 and 1860-1866.

ä So Emil Fritz was 23 years old when he scratched his name on the Decoration Passage wall – and the time he did it can be pinned down to a few months. ——————Marion Grinstead

The 1st Patrol

A common, mostly true story, has an 1855 —œCavalry— (actually, 1st Dragoon) patrol looking for Apaches, finding ponies tied near the cave entrance, and finding moccasin tracks leading into the Fort Stanton Cave entrance. The soldiers did not actually see the Apaches enter the cave but assumed they were in the cave and set up a picket to starve them out. Later, the same group of Apaches is seen by soldiers trying to make for their ponies. It is probable that the soldiers—™ assumptions about the Indians

actually being in the cave were erroneous. The nature of the entry sink is such that the skillful Apaches could well have slipped out a certain area of the sink while the troops entered the other. Area lore has it that the Apaches exited from another entrance.

To date there is no evidence of a second entrance and the geology does not seem to support this. For the last 50 years cavers have thoroughly explored, documented and mapped the cave to a length of about eight miles (the third longest in New Mexico). This has been careful, step-by-step documentation and every physical lead has been followed. There is plenty of evidence of a Pleistocene

entrance in the north part of the cave due to vertebrate bones found in a certain area in the cave of which there is a sink depression on the surface directly overhead, although separated by 100 feet of limestone. However, never say never. In late 2001 cavers broke through into a new passage, the Snowy River section, so named due to a rare calcite floor area where once there was a water pool.

It is quite possible that the 1st Dragoon Name Site is the only record, though not recorded in any document, of the entry by the soldiers following the Apaches.

Fort Stanton and Mounted Forces in 1855

The 1st and 2nd Dragoons and Mounted Rifle regiments were closely related for, in 1855, the U.S. Army’s mounted frontier regulars consisted of the 1st and 2nd Dragoon regiments and the Regiment of Mounted Rifles. The three units were veterans of recent combat, having seen hard action throughout the Mexican War, 1846-1848. They were posted in the borderlands frontier west during the 1850’s for security and exploration purposes. In 1862 these units were redesignated the 1st, 2nd and 3rd Cavalry regiments respectively.

A Brief History of Union Cavalry (Eric Wittenberg:

Civil War armies consisted of three major components: infantry, artillery, and cavalry. Cavalry played a major role. It’s primary role was to support the infantry and artillery, gathering intelligence, scouting, screening the movements of the army, and serving as the “eyes and ears of the army.” As the war dragged on, the Federal cavalry’s role changed. Instead of scouting and screening, the primary role became that of an offensive weapon. By the end of the Civil War, the Northern cavalry had become one of the most fearsome offensive forces that the world had ever seen.

In 1861, with the coming of the war, the United States Army had several mounted units. The oldest was the First Dragoons, formed in the 1830’s. In the 1840’s, a second regiment of Dragoons was formed, followed by the Regiment of Mounted Rifles. In the 1850’s, the 1st US Cavalry was formed, which was followed by the 2nd US Cavalry in 1856. Dragoons combined most aspects of both light cavalry and mounted infantry. They carried a weapon known as a musketoon in the early days, which was a shortened musket. Later, they carried carbines. Dragoons used their horses to move them from place to place, not for fighting. Most, if not all, of their fighting was done dismounted. Light cavalry served an entirely different purpose. It was primarily intended to scout and screen an army’s advance, and do whatever fighting it did do mounted, typically using either the saber or pistols.

Col. Phillip St. George Cooke of the 2nd Dragoons is generally considered to be the father of the U. S.

Cavalry. In the 1850’s, he wrote the tactics manual that governed the operations of the U. S. Army’s mounted forces. In 1861, with the coming of the Civil War, the US Army reorganized its mounted arm. The 1st Dragoons became the 1st US Cavalry, the 2nd Dragoons became the 2nd US Cavalry, the Regiment of Mounted Rifles became the 3rd US Cavalry, which served in the West, the 1st US Cavalry became the 4th US Cavalry (which also served in the Western Theatre), and the 2nd US Cavalry became the 5th US Cavalry, which was a fine unit. A new regiment was recruited in the summer of 1861, which became the 6th US Cavalry, which was the only Regular cavalry regiment formed during the Civil War. Its men came from the area around Pittsburgh, who typically enlisted for a term of five rather than three years.

On August 10, the Adjutant General’s Office General Order No. 55 re-designated the regular army’s mounted units as follows:

The 1st Dragoons – 1st US Cavalry

The 2nd Dragoons – 2nd US Cavalry

The Mounted Rifles – 3rd US Cavalry

The 1st US Cavalry – 4th US Cavalry

The 2nd US Cavalry – 5th US Cavalry

The 3rd US Cavalry – 6th US Cavalry

Fort Stanton & Fort Stanton Cave Chronology

Jul 26, 1851: Lawrence Murphy enlists in the Army at Buffalo, New York.

Jan,1855: Captain Stanton in command of a 1st U.S. Dragoon column, is ambushed and killed by Mescalero Apaches on the Rio Penasco at a location between Cloudcroft and Artesia.

Mar, 1855: Co. K, 1st Regiment, U.S. Dragoon members – privates Emil Fritz, bugler Joseph Myers, Victor Brown, John Lepsey, Horace Belknap, John Cherry, Louis Loeslie inscribe their names, unit and date on a wall of Fort Stanton Cave 3/4 mile in!

May 4, 1855: Fort Stanton established at present location by Col. Dixon S. Miles, 3rd U.S. Infantry. Fort named in honor of Captain Stanton.

Jun 3, 1859: Land around the fort established by Executive Order as “Fort Stanton Reservation.”

Jul 27, 1861: Strong federal force of 450 men at Fort Fillmore (Las Cruces) abandons post due to disposition of Major Isaac Lynde, 7th U.S. Infantry. Federals start across Organ Mountains to Fort Stanton.

Jul 28, 1861: Because Major Lynde surrenders his force of 400+ to Lt. Col John R. Baylor’s 258-man column at San Augustine Springs, Fort Stanton cannot be reenforced.

Aug 2, 1861: Union force at Fort Stanton abandons and partially burn some buildings upon learning of situation at Fort Fillmore – join in other withdrawals toward Rio Grande Valley and Fort Craig.

Aug 13, 1861: Confederate troops under Scurry ransack Placitas after federal abandonment of Fort Stanton. Shortly after, elements of the 2nd Texas Mounted Rifles occupy Fort Stanton.

Sep 9, 1861: Confederate troops abandon Fort Stanton after the federal victory at the Battle of Glorieta Pass.

Oct 16, 1862: Col. Kit Carson and five companies of the 1st New Mexico Volunteer Cavalry/Infantry Regiment (now the New Mexico Army National Guard) reoccupy Fort Stanton and begin renovating the post.

Nov 18, 1869: In one of the first major actions of the early Indian Wars, Lieutenants Cushing and Yeaton and a 32-man troop of the 3rd U.S. Cavalry from Fort Stanton raid a Mescalero Apache rancheria in the rugged Guadalupe Mountains, destroying tons of food stockpiled for the winter months.

Aug 7, 1872: Fort Stanton Reservation, except fort, transferred to the Department of the Interior.

Sep 30, 1873: Post traders Murphy and Company evicted from Fort Stanton for cheating the


Feb 2, 1874: Mescalero Apache Reservation established on lands surrounding Fort Stanton.

Aug 21,1877: Wheeler Expedition (U.S.Survey of the Territories) explores and maps Fort Stanton Cave with members of the Fifth U.S. Infantry. Names with dates can be seen in cave.

Dec 18, 1877: Buffalo Soldiers of Companies F and M, 9th Cavalry sent to El Paso, Texas to assist troops from Fort Davis in quelling racial fighting of the El Paso Salt War.

Feb 21, 1878: Company H, 9th Cavalry and Company H, 15th Infantry sent to Lincoln to preserve peace and prevent bloodshed.

Apr 5, 1878: Col. Nathan Dudley assumes command at Fort Stanton.

Apr 20, 1878: Four soldiers 9th Cavalry Buffalo Soldiers sent to Lincoln to assist sheriff John Copeland in keeping peace after killing of Sheriff Brady by Billy the Kid.

Jul 15, 1878: “Five Day War” begins in Lincoln. Col. Dudley and force of 9th Cavalry and 15th Infantry travel from Fort Stanton to Lincoln to quell the Five-Day War. Brought Gatling gun and 12-pound mountain howitzer.

Jul 19, 1878: Lincoln. Day of the “Big Killing.” McSween house burned, McSween and five men killed, with troops who were supposed to be intervening, looking on.

Mar 6, 1879: Regulators, including Billy the Kid, arrested and taken to Fort Stanton.

Mar 10, 1879: Stanton troops sent to vicinity of Seven Rivers (Carlsbad) to prevent rustling and retrieve stolen cattle.

Sep 4, 1879: Victorio leads Apaches off Mescalero Reservation. Victorio Campaign starts with coordinated movement of troops throughout region.

May 19, 1882: New Mescalero Apache Reservation established in present location.

Aug 26, 1887: 2nd Lieutenant John J. (“Blackjack”) Pershing arrived at Fort Stanton – assigned to Troop L, 6th Cavalry. The nickname “Blackjack” given to him at Stanton —“ several colorful version of nickname origin. Participates in the U.S. Army’s first ever “War Games.” Names associated with 6th Cavalry and 8th Cavalry (Ft. Bayard) can be seen in cave.

May 30, 1888: 10th Infantry arrives at Fort Stanton as the 6th Cavalry departs.

Apr 9, 1891: The Great Divide Expedition consisting of three 10th Infantry Band members at Stanton make a three-day journey in Fort Stanton and publish the results in the Great Divide Newspaper of Colorado Springs, Colorado: “Three Days and Nights Spent Among the Wonders of a Midnight World.” Names with dates can be seen in cave.

Oct 28, 1895: General Order No. 56 orders the abandonment of Fort Stanton, with the establishment of the Mescalero Apache Reservation.

Aug 17, 1896: To Adjutant General: “Sir, I have the honor to report that detachments at this post were withdrawn today and therefore no further returns will be rendered.” Lt. William Black, 24th Infantry (Buffalo Soldiers).

Apr 1, 1899: Fort Stanton transferred to the U.S. Marine Health Service (now the U.S. Public Health Service) as a hospital to treat Merchant Marine victims of tuberculosis. Names with dates can be seen in cave.

Aug 16, 1956: Fort Stanton transferred to the New Mexico State Department of Public Welfare as tuberculosis clinic. Surrounding 26,381 acres transferred to Bureau of land Management.

Jun 22, 1970: NMSU signed cooperative agreement with BLM to conduct range and wildlife research for 20 years.

Aug 10, 1963: Lincoln Cavern, first major find since 1855 in Fort Stanton Cave, is discovered.

1975: Fort Stanton Cave designated as a National Natural Landmark

Nov 22, 1975: Bilbo party of cavers record names and 1855 date of 1st Dragoon soldiers who established Fort Stanton – reports find to BLM (see Mar 21, 1855).

Oct, 2001: John McLean, Lloyd Swartz, Andrew Grieco & Don Becker, Fort Stanton Cave Study Project, discover Starry Nights and Snowy River passages.

July, 2003: After completing detailed environmental assessment, BLM cave specialist Mike Bilbo and lead researcher John Corcoran coordinate first Fort Stanton Cave Study Project scientific and survey trips to Snowy River.

2003-present: Fort Stanton Cave Study Project continues to research and document natural and cultural history of Fort Stanton Cave National Natural Landmark. Bilbo currently documenting all known inscription sites —“ 18 so far.

Fort Stanton Cave is closed to public visitation annually from Nov. 1 to April 15 due bat hibernation. For permit information, please write or call: Cave Specialist, BLM-Roswell Field Office, 2902 West 2nd Street, Roswell, NM 88201-2019. 505-627-0278/0272

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