Dunes and Dreams: A History of White Sands National Monument/Chapter One

Dunes and Dreams: A History of White Sands National Monument by Michael Welsh
Chapter One: A Monument in Waiting: Environment and Ethnicity in the Tularosa Basin

In August 1935, Carl P. Russell, chief of the eastern museum division of the National Park Service (NPS), published in the National Geographic Magazine a stunning photographic essay on the White Sands National Monument. Accompanied to the Tularosa basin of southern New Mexico by the park service s chief photographer, George A. Grant, Russell wrote movingly of the ecological treasure that Congress only two years earlier had designated for protection from development. Whether one's interest ran to science, archeology, or history, said Russell, White Sands provided opportunities for research and study. And should one be motivated more by the heart, those whom Russell called "discerning travelers" might find "the loveliness of its white and green, [and] the cleanliness of its vast expanse" that ranked White Sands among what the veteran park service official called "Nature's masterpieces." [1]

The story of White Sands National Monument offers the visitor, student, and public official an excellent setting in which to observe the forces of nature upon human beings, and their reaction to the challenge posed by the dunes. The historian C. Leland Sonnichsen, longtime faculty member at the nearby University of Texas at El Paso, wrote extensively about the daunting features of environment and ethnicity confronting all who entered the arid stretches of the Tularosa basin (so named for the expanse of "tulare," the Spanish word for "red weed"). Sonnichsen once described the high desert between the Rio Grande and Pecos River as "the laboratory for the science of doing without." How the National Park Service developed and maintained a site as striking and dramatic as Carl Russell's "masterpiece" says much about the history of the park service, the state of New Mexico (especially its understudied southern reaches), and the American West down through time. [2]

Within the past decade, historians have sought to join with scientists, photographers, artists, and tourism promoters to assess the meaning of national parks and monuments. The most provocative of these works came from Alfred Runte, who in 1979 published National Parks: The American Experience. Taking issue with the conventional wisdom that the NPS was America's most-cherished federal agency, and that preservation of natural landscapes marked the high point of national altruism, Runte posited three factors motivating Congress and park advocates. Starting in the mid-nineteenth century, citizens concerned with destruction by private interests of ecological treasures (primarily west of the Mississippi River) had to convince the nation's lawmakers that potential park land was "worthless." This idea echoed the privatism of the post-Civil War era, known as the "Gilded Age" for its extremes of wealth and poverty, its haste to develop natural resources, and its shift from a rural to an urban society. [3]

Once the nation had accepted the legal fiction that Runte called the "worthless-lands thesis," the concept of "monumentalism" came into play. American pride in its growth and expansion overshadowed doubts and uncertainties about national merit, especially when contrasted with the natural and historical wonders of Europe. Runte saw this "search for a distinct national identity" stemming from self-identification with "earth monuments" such as Yosemite State Park (1864) and Yellowstone National Park (1872). "Scenic impact," said Runte, influenced the rapidly growing nation to call for embrace of aesthetics and utilitarianism, leading in the early twentieth century to the famed "conservation movement" espoused by President Theodore Roosevelt, himself an avid outdoorsman, and John Muir, the champion of California's forests and mountains. [4]

White Sands National Monument would be touched by each of these criteria, plus Runte's third concern, what he called "park follies." In order to sustain funding, NPS staff had to accommodate divided logic on the part of visitors, critics, and Congress. Having proven the economic "worthlessness" of a site, park officials then devoted much of their time to calculation of its benefits to the region and nation. This led to exercises, activities, and planning that often contradicted NPS goals, and left the service exposed to the very criticism of Runte and others that culminated in 1991 with the "Vail Agenda;" an impassioned plea for new directions and financial support for the National Park Service. [5]

Runte's overview of the service did not speak directly to the experience of units like White Sands, in part because of his preference for the larger and more popular national parks. National monuments fit a separate category of management, as examined by historians Robert Righter and Hal Rothman. In a seminal article, "National Monuments to National Parks: The Use of the Antiquities Act of 1906," Righter interpreted congressional intent as the signal feature of NPS status. The Antiquities Act, drafted at the height of Progressive concern for efficient and economic management of the nation's resources, sought to avoid the political influence of western landowners and resource developers on Congress, the keeper of what Righter called the nation's "crown jewels," the national parks. [6]

What concerned Righter, and also Rothman in Preserving Different Pasts: The American National Monuments (1989), was the "second-class" status of monuments, from their creation to funding to acceptance by the public. Congress moved too slowly to protect areas of lesser "monumentalism" than Yosemite or Yellowstone, while the Interior department, supervisor of NPS activities, was deluged with requests both frivolous and meritorious from local boosters of a given site. To rationalize the preservation process, the Archeological Institute of America (AIA), and one of its foremost officials, Edgar Lee Hewett, campaigned with Congress to give the President authority to designate areas for NPS protection by executive fiat. This would halt the desecration of Indian ruins in the Southwest, an issue close to the heart of Hewett, whose long career in archeology gave rise to several programs of research and teaching, including the School of American Research and the Museum of New Mexico, both in Santa Fe, and the anthropology departments of the University of Southern California and the University of New Mexico. [7]

Rothman's research highlighted the role of natural scientists in the development of national monuments, a factor that White Sands shared with its peers. Committed more to preservation than were boosters of national parks, scientists saw the ecological variety of the smaller sites as worthy of close scrutiny undisturbed by excessive visitation. White Sands, more than most monuments of the West, provided scholars of the natural world with a living laboratory that encompassed fields from botany to zoology. By 1940, the NPS itself would list a bibliography of more than two dozen scholarly and popular works about the dunes. This contributed as much to raising awareness among federal officials as did the advocacy of southern New Mexico officials eager for the economic benefits of tourism to the monument. [8]


White sands dune pedestal.jpg
Figure 1. Dune Pedestal.
(Courtesy White Sands National Monument)

The geologic history of the dunes began millions of years ago, when natural forces created the Tularosa basin. The basin extends for 150 miles in length, and averages fifty miles in width. The area of the White Sands dunes (within and outside the monument boundaries) stretches some 275 square miles, with average dimensions of 27 miles long and ten miles wide. Some forty percent of the dunes are within the monument itself, while the remainder lie on the property of the White Sands Missile Range (WSMR), the U.S. Army's huge weapons testing center to the north and west of the monument. [9]

Natt N. Dodge, chief naturalist for the Southwest Regional Office (SWR) of the park service, compiled in 1971 the research of many of the scientists attracted to the basin and dunes since the mid-nineteenth century. He noted that the Tularosa basin had once been part of the vast "Delaware basin," dating back some 230 million years. High in salt content, the Delaware basin collected saline deposits over the millennia that became the basis of the "Yeso formation," with the term "yeso" translated from the Spanish word for "gypsum." About 70 million years ago, the event called by geologists the "Laramide revolution" lifted the Rocky Mountains and their southwestern spine, exposing the gypsum-rich rock. Over the course of many centuries, the forces of wind and rain eroded the San Andres Mountains to the west, and the Sacramento Mountains to the east, causing the accretion of gypsum on the basin floor. [10]

Often a visitor to the dunes in his long career with the service, Dodge spoke highly of their unique ecological character in a region noted for its breathtaking environmental phenomena. White Sands was "a striking example of geology in action," said the naturalist, "unnoticed by most people yet . . . a fundamental process of nature." Contributing to their singular character were the extremes of heat and cold, moisture and aridity, and the surprisingly complex and populous flora and fauna of the region. Annual rainfall rarely exceeded ten inches, yet the water table lay only three to four feet below the surface of the dunes. Temperatures ranged from zero degrees Fahrenheit in January to 110 degrees-plus in the summer. The whiteness of the sands, a function of their purity (over 99 percent gypsum), reflected rather than absorbed the heat of the desert, creating temperate conditions in the midst of summer or the depths of winter. [11]

The naturalist Dodge also catalogued in the "harsh" dune ecosystem no less than 144 species of birds, 23 small mammals, 371 species of insects, and several types of reptiles. Dodge marvelled at the adaptability of the insects and rodents, including the fur color of the "Apache pocket mouse," which was lighter in tone and shade than its cousins amid the Valley of Fires, a lava flow north of the monument. [12]

White sands selenite crystal.jpg
Figure 2. Selenite crystal formation at Lake Lucero.
(Courtesy White Sands National Monument)

Much like the plant and animal life of the Tularosa basin, human beings faced identical choices of adaptation for survival. The earliest people identified in the dunes area belonged to the "Folsom" culture; hunters who used spear points like those discovered in far northeastern New Mexico in the early 1900s near the town of Folsom. Archeologists speculated that their preference for "big-game" hunting, especially the bison of 10,000 years ago, kept them away from the dunes proper because of their sparse vegetation. In like manner, later cave dwellers called the "Hueco" culture (from the Spanish word for "tank") appeared along the west face of the Sacramento Mountains by AD 500. Building upon the centuries of agricultural evolution in the region, the Hueco people lived in pit houses and cultivated crops by diverting water from nearby streams. Pottery remains found along the margins of the basin have been linked to the cliff-dwelling "Mogollon" culture of southwestern New Mexico, indicating the trade networks and leisure time available to these advanced peoples amid the harshness of the Tularosa basin. [13]

Drought conditions throughout the Southwest after AD 1100 struck the basin, depopulating the area in a fashion similar to that of the Chaco culture of northwestern New Mexico. Archeologists uncovered amid the dunes fire rings of a more nomadic people whose presence in the Tularosa basin is dated from about 1300. The descendants of these hunters named themselves the "Inde," translating from the Athabascan language as "the people." The Spanish, the first Europeans into the area, described them with the term "Mescalero Apache," the name with which most Americans are familiar. The Spanish recognized the Inde use of mescal, the heart of the agave plant found throughout the region, as a source of food and medicine. To this they added the term "Apache," which came from Zuni Pueblo in far western New Mexico to mean the "enemies" of Zuni. The Mescaleros were mountain people who traveled great distances in search of game, from the buffalo plains of southern Colorado and western Kansas, to the Mexican states of Coahuila and Chihuahua. They adapted well to the rigors of the desert and mountain landscape; a condition they attributed to their creation story that the first Inde emerged from the side of Sierra Blanca ("White Mountain"), the imposing landmark at 12,000 feet on the eastern border of the Tularosa basin. [14]

Because of their commitment to life in the basin, the Inde posed serious challenges to other Native societies in the Southwest that might have entered the region. The first European explorers considered the basin no more appealing. Romanticists of the 1930s sought linkages of the Tularosa area to such "conquistadores" as Alvar Nunez, Cabeza de Vaca, whose travels from Florida to Texas to northern Mexico from 1528-1536 marked the entering wedge of Spanish conquest in the interior of North America. Subsequent "entradas" into New Mexico by Francisco Vasquez de Coronado (1540-1542) and Don Juan de Onate (1598) skirted the Tularosa basin to the north (Coronado) and west (Onate). The closest that any Spaniard came to the area was Antonio de Espejo, who in 1583 came north along the Rio Pecos. He and other Spanish explorers described the entire stretch of southern New Mexico as "Las Salinas," or the "salt lands," for the alkaline quality of soil in the basin. Later Spanish period settlement (1598-1821) preferred the more temperate climate of northern New Mexico's river valleys, leaving no record of Spanish intrusion into the White Sands. [15]

The environmental factors limiting Spanish development of southern New Mexico also confronted the third wave of historic change for White Sands: the arrival in the 1840s of American soldiers. The United States in 1846 committed troops to the conquest of Mexico's far northern frontier, as much to gain access to West Coast ports as to dominate the interior Southwest. While Americans shared the ambition of the Spanish and later Mexican empires for expansion, the United States brought levels of technology and capital that permitted transcendence of environmental limits that had daunted others. One measure of this commitment was the deployment of surveying parties of the U.S. Army Corps of Topographical Engineers (CTE), charged with inventorying the natural and human landscape of the nation's massive conquest (one-third of the continental land mass).

William N. Goetzmann has written extensively about the journeys of the highly trained West Point engineering graduates throughout western North America. The first party of Army officers to study the Southwest came south in 1849 from Santa Fe under the command of Lieutenant William Randolph Marcy. The CTE unit did not veer eastward from the Las Cruces-Dona Ana area, in part because they found no Hispanic guides willing to engage the desolation and Mescalero presence of the Tularosa basin. Marcy did hear stories of large salt deposits, and he dispatched Lieutenant William Smith to study the feasibility of a military wagon road to the Sierra Blanca. Smith's report contained no references to the sand dunes, even though his route went past White Sands near present-day U.S. Highway 70. [16]

As with much of the development of the American West, the Tularosa basin first gained economic viability with construction in 1855 of Fort Stanton. The military outpost above the present-day mountain community of Ruidoso was a reminder to the Mescalero Apaches of the interest that Americans had in the resources of the West, though limited funding prior to the Civil War kept settlements from appearing in the basin. The Army did build several service roads westward to the Rio Grande corridor, one of which headed south of White Sands through San Agustin Pass in the Organ Mountains. Then in 1861 a group of Hispanic families journeyed eastward across the basin to establish the farming community of Tularosa, which was joined two years later by more Hispanic families at the village of La Luz, northeast of present-day Alamogordo. It was these communities that first utilized the gypsum resources of White Sands, as villagers applied moistened sand to the walls of their adobe homes to deflect the rays of the summer sun, and to give the buildings a distinctive white appearance from a distance. [17]

After the Civil War, two issues merged in southern New Mexico to bring attention to White Sands. The nation's concerted efforts to locate Indian tribes on reservations created a temporary market for beef for soldiers at Fort Stanton, and for the Mescaleros on their reservation (created in 1873). In addition, gold prospectors explored the mountain ranges surrounding the basin, with discoveries to the north and east of White Sands as early as 1865 in Nogal Canyon. Stage routes ran across the basin floor in the 1870s, with one line stopping at the "Point of Sands," near the present-day entrance to the monument. There stage riders found water for themselves and their horses, and modest accommodations for food and lodging. [18]

By the 1880s, American technology and military power had solidified the nation's claim to the Tularosa basin. The only recorded engagement in the White Sands between Apaches and the U. S. Army occurred on July 25, 1881. Lieutenant John F. Guilfoyle and his unit of the Ninth Cavalry (the famed black, or "buffalo" soldiers) pursued a mixed band of Mescalero and Chiricahua warriors led by chief Nana, son of the legendary Cochise. There were no fatalities listed in Guilfoyle's report, and the Apaches escaped into the San Andres beyond the alkali flats. [19]

Completion in 1881 of the Southern Pacific Railway route from Albuquerque to El Paso also provided the Tularosa basin with its best access to the outside world. Homesteaders followed the large cattle operations of such historical figures as John Chisum, who in 1875 had run over 10,000 head of cattle past the dunes to graze in the northern part of the basin. John Slaughter likewise drove stock to market past the White Sands, giving rise to the "John Slaughter Cattle Trail." Competition for acreage and water spawned the historic Lincoln County Wars (1878-1881), luring Billy the Kid and other outlaws to the basin. [20]

Range wars would linger in the memories of novelists and filmmakers, but to residents of the Tularosa basin the potential for growth created by better transportation and removal of the Mescaleros proved more rewarding. In 1897 two brothers from Dona Ana County, Jose and Felipe Lucero, were among several claimants of homesteads near the proposed rail line from Las Cruces to the Sierra Blanca mining town of White Oaks. The Luceros, both sheriffs in Las Cruces, settled on 160-acre tracts around the saline lake that still bears their name on the southwestern side of the monument. Then in June 1898, the El Paso and Northeastern Railroad arrived in the basin. The townsite of Alamogordo sprang up, sold by a group of Pittsburgh investors incorporated as the "Alamogordo Improvement Company." They purchased the land from a local rancher, Oliver Lee, who had gained notoriety for his trial in 1896 on charges of murdering a prominent Las Cruces judge, Albert Jennings Fountain, and his nine-year old son Henry. Acquitted in the trial, Lee sold his Alamo Ranch to create the town that would press for inclusion of the dunes into the National Park Service. [21]

White sands cave formation.jpg
Figure 3. Cave formation, Lake Lucero.
(Courtesy White Sands National Monument)


The nation's lawmakers may have misunderstood the environmental and ethnic variables of southern New Mexico, but Governor Miguel Antonio Otero knew of scientific fascination with the ecology and resource potential of the Tularosa basin. The son of New Mexico's territorial delegate to Congress in the 1850s, Otero had engaged in his own resource speculation in northern New Mexico and southern Colorado. He also championed the application of technology to overcome environmental limits, having assisted his father in bringing the railroad, the telephone, and the automobile to the territory. Finally, Governor Otero realized that the twentieth century would reward those who utilized information, and he pursued aggressively the improvement of scientific education at the territory's fledgling institutions of higher learning. Of these, the land-grant school at Las Cruces (now New Mexico State University), and the school of mines in Socorro (New Mexico Institute of Mining Technology), were nearest to White Sands, and produced a large volume of research on the basin and the dunes. The University of New Mexico in Albuquerque (the territory's flagship liberal arts school), and even the teachers college in Las Vegas (New Mexico Highlands University) would send faculty to the dunes in the early twentieth century to gain knowledge about the flora, fauna, and mineral resources of the area. [22]

The scholarly output on White Sands and its environs impressed not only Governor Otero, but all who conducted literature searches for student term papers and scientific publications alike. O.E. Meinzer and R.F. Hare, in their 1915 report on the Tularosa basin for the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), noted no fewer than twenty-five publications of varying length on the dunes and the region. The first mention of the sands came in 1870, when George Gibbs, a geology professor in New York City, published an article in the American Naturalist on the "Salt Plains of New Mexico." The dunes had come to his attention when he received a packet of gypsum sand mailed by General August V. Kautz, stationed with the Army at Fort Stanton. Kautz stopped often at the Point of Sands stage station while crossing the basin, and he knew from his training at West Point of the properties of gypsum. Gibbs quoted the general as saying of the dunes: "The sand is so white and the plain so extensive as to give the effect of snow scenery." Kautz had not "seen a description of the place in print," and thus mailed "a specimen of the sand" to Gibbs for his analysis. [23]

For the next fifteen years, no scholar attempted an assessment of the White Sands until M.W. Harrington wrote in the magazine Science (1885) of "Lost Rivers." He speculated that the Tularosa area had been part of "a supposed old river bed." Harrington further recorded an Indian legend of the basin's formation, "a year of fire, when this valley was filled with flames and poisonous gases." He proposed naming the basin the "Gran Quivira Valley," for the fanciful stories of Indian wealth in New Mexico pursued by Coronado. The 1890s saw further interest in White Sands by academics, as R.T. Hill wrote in the Geological Society of America Bulletin (1891) about the "Hueco-Organ Basin." In that same year R.S. Tarr published in the American Naturalist "A recent lava flow in New Mexico." Tarr took Harrington's "lost river" thesis a step further, deducing from the presence of gypsum deposits, salt marshes, and "ancient beaches" that the "well-defined valleys . . . extend much farther than the present streams succeed in going." [24]

The study of White Sands reached a new level of sophistication in 1898, when Clarence L. Herrick traveled from Albuquerque to collect data for the first of three scholarly articles in national journals. Herrick had built a distinguished reputation as a geologist and academic with a doctorate from the University of Chicago and an offer in 1897 of a research chair at his alma mater. Herrick, however, suffered from tuberculosis, and came west for "the cure" that late nineteenth century doctors prescribed: the clear air, high altitude, and arid climate of New Mexico.

Once in the Southwest, Herrick took a position on the faculty of the newly opened Socorro school of mines, where he taught from 1894-1897. He traveled widely in central New Mexico, as a mining boom west of Socorro had attracted other geologists. When Governor Otero assumed leadership of the territory in 1897, he encouraged the University of New Mexico to replace its missionary-schoolteacher president (Hiram Hadley) with the more sophisticated Herrick. Otero and Herrick then undertook the arduous task of building a national reputation for territorial higher learning, focusing on the use of scientific research to develop New Mexico's resource economy, and thus its financial base for better education.

What brought Herrick to the White Sands was passage in Congress in 1898 of the "Fergusson Act," named for the territorial delegate (Harvey Fergusson) who secured 200,000 acres of public lands for New Mexico's colleges. Otero instructed Herrick to survey these lands personally, and to select acreage which in his professional judgment would generate sufficient royalties to supplement the meager funding provided by the territorial legislature. Herrick rode horseback into the Zuni Mountains of far western New Mexico to claim timberlands for UNM, and then came east to the "saline lands" to assess their potential for salt production. [25]

In order to publicize his findings, President Herrick sent an article in 1898 to the American Geologist entitled, "The occurrence of copper and lead in the San Andreas [sic] and Caballos mountains." He then published simultaneously in his own University of New Mexico Bulletin and the prestigious Journal of Geology (1900) "The geology of the white sands of New Mexico." This marked the first thorough description of the formation of the San Andres Mountains and the alkali flats, with references to many springs of water throughout the area: After leaving UNM for reasons of health in 1901, Herrick returned to Socorro to write in 1904 the last of his tracts on the region, entitled "Lake Otero, an ancient salt lake basin in southeastern New Mexico," published in the American Geologist. He linked the basin to the Rio Grande valley formation, and measured the antediluvian lake bed at 1,600 to 1,800 square miles. Not surprisingly, Herrick recognized New Mexico's patron of science by naming the lake in the governor's honor. [26]

Evidence of the scientific curiosity about White Sands emerged immediately in scholarly journals. H.N. Herrick, Clarence's brother and himself a geologist at the University of Chicago, published in 1904 in the U.S. Geological Survey Bulletin "Gypsum deposits of New Mexico." Quickly appearing in that same year were two articles by C.R. Keyes, one in the American Journal of Science ("Unconformity of Cretaceous on older rocks in central New Mexico"), and another in the Engineering and Mining Journal ("Iron deposits of Chupadera Plateau"). The following year T.H. McBride published in Science "The Alamogordo desert," offering a survey of the botany as well as geology of the dunes. Even Clarence Herrick's successor at UNM, William G. Tight, wrote in 1905 in the American Geologist of "The Bolson plains of the Southwest." Tight, who had studied under Herrick at Denison University in Ohio and later at Chicago, served as editor of the American Geologist, the journal of the Geological Society of America, and in 1907 brought the group to Albuquerque to meet amidst the ecological distinctiveness of his adopted home. [27]

Later scholarship moved the findings of Clarence Herrick, et al., beyond their general surveys into more detailed accounts of the disparate elements of the basin and the dunes. Thus it was no surprise to the nation's scientists in the 1920s that local interests in Alamogordo, led by the homesteader Tom Charles, petitioned for inclusion of the White Sands into the national park system. Factors of politics, economics, and environmental concern had forged a thesis about the Tularosa basin that it was a land of extremes, posing challenges and offering rewards to whomever sought access to it. The journey of the monument, therefore, would be charted by the ecological and historical markers laid down over centuries and millennia, and would shape the operations and management of the monument throughout the twentieth century.

White sands cactus growth.jpg
Figure 4. Cactus growth.
(Courtesy White Sands National Monument)


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