History of Ysleta del Sur Pueblo
Travel Down the Mission Trail
Scholars' Bookshelf
Missions Bibliography
Ysleta Bibliography
Roster of El Paso Area Tribal Leaders
Native American Water Use Chronology
Tigua Military History
Hueco Tanks Battle
Tigua Scouts  
Last Apache Battles in Texas  
Tigua Scouts as Texas Rangers  
Texas Ranger Station at Ysleta  
Tigua Contributions  
Texas Ranger Commander  
Early Accounts & Bibliography
Tigua Participation at Texas State Fair
Travel Links & More
Ysleta Land Grant Chronology
Acknowledgments / Resources
Hueco Tanks Battle

Hueco Tanks Battle ca. 1837

In the summer of 1837, a battle ensued between the Kiowa and Tigua at Hueco Tanks, the massive outcropping of igneous rock, located on the western flank of the Hueco Mountains, 28 miles east of Ysleta. Both tribes still maintain oral traditions of that encounter. Ethnologist, James Mooney, recorded the date as 1857 and stated that the Kiowa raiding party consisted of about twenty members (Mooney 1898:301-304). Mooney noted that the calendar history of the Kiowa recorded that event (Mooney 1898:301-303; Nye, Daily Oklahoman Jan. 16, 1938: D3-8; (Nye 1962:36-43). The actual date has yet to be verified with the written record. Some believe that the battle took place in 1839 (Martineau 1973:71).

"Hueco Tanks Rock Art" c. 1915
The pictograph depicts the 1841 Hueco Tanks Battle
Scene between the Tigua and Kiowa-Apache. The battle is recored in Tigua and Kiowa-Apache oral tradition and on a Kiowa-Apache calendar stick.
Courtesy of the Aultman Collection, El Paso Public Library

A group of mounted Tigua warriors surprised a war party of some ten Kiowa at Hueco Tanks. It is likely that Tigua scouts accompanied a contingent of Spanish troops from San Elizario Presidio. Pablo Silvas, Tigua informant, stated that the Kiowas had stolen a goat at the Pueblo and were pursued by Tigua warriors to the sand hills where a fight ensued and several of the raiders were slain (Pablo Silvas interview, June 11,1966). The Kiowa quickly took shelter in a cave where they were besieged for about ten days with little water or food. The stalkers fired at them and tossed live rattlesnakes into the cave’s entrance (Nye 1938:8D; 1962:41).

"Hueco Tanks Rock Art" c. 1915
Since this photo was taken the site has been defaced by vandalism.
Courtesy of the El Paso Public Library, the Aultman Collection

Miguel Pedraza, who was tribal governor in the 1970’s, remarked that Damasio Colmenero, the old scout and tribal leader, had recounted the fight. Damacio said that that several Tigua warriors quickly departed from the Tanks for Ysleta to obtain sacks of red Chile peppers (Interview with Pablo Silvas, June 11, 1966; Vicente Muñoz, July 25, 1966). The next day they arrived at the battle scene and set the sacks afire, which were dropped from an overhanging rock face onto a ledge at the cave's entrance. This was an effort to smoke out the trapped foe (Sharp 1987; reprinted in this volume). Margarita Carbajal, tribal elder, recalled a similar story about the battle.

"Tiguas at Hueco Tanks" c. 1932
Sebastián Durán with tribal drum at Hueco Tanks.
Damacio Colmenero, Tribal Cacique, on horseback, and "Chito El Indio"
(Isidro Indio) on right. Sebastián was the son of José María Durán.
Courtesy of Johnny Hisa

During the night as the bonfires dimmed, the Kiowa crept out of the cave, but their pursuers heard the escape and fired in the direction of the sound. Two Kiowa men perished, and one seriously wounded warrior was later captured (Nye 1962:36-43). The Kiowa thought that their attackers were Mexican soldiers. The Tigua believed that they had fought either Comanche or Apache Indians.

"Manuel Ortega" c. 1890
Tigua Scout and Tribal Cacique
Photo taken at Dallas Fair Tigua Indian Pavilion
 (Ortega  wears traditional war jacket with medals)

One source remarked that, while the Comanche were ensconced in La Sala (large cave at Hueco Tanks), the Tigua attempted to smoke them out. But the plan failed because the Comanche warriors began to sing, which created a dust storm that facilitated their escape (Green, Thomas A., Jr. 1974, The Legends of the Tigua (pp.16-19) In: The Folklore of Texan Cultures, Francis Edward Abernethy, Editor, The Encino Press, Austin, reference to the Hueco Tanks Battle, see: page 18).

In summary, the besieged Kiowa sought shelter in a small cave that is located on the western wall of a box canyon known as the amphitheater (Sharp 1987: 81, 87). Kirkland and Newcomb believe that it was Comanche Cave, which is misnamed, but is listed as site No. 6 by Binion (Binion 1970:38, 45-47; Kirkland and Newcomb 1967:180-181). Tigua oral tradition states that the battle scene is illustrated on a rocky ceiling located east of the mouth of the amphitheater (Sharp 1987:91; Greenberg and Esber 2000:3:321; Wright 1993:160). The painted rock art, although damaged by vandals, still exists today (Houser 2000, Ysleta del Sur Pueblo Archives, 3:42. LaVan Martineau in his book, The Rocks Begin to Speak, interpreted the painted rock panel of the battle, although he was unaware of Tigua involvement (Martineau 1973:74-83).

In the 1970’s, representatives of the Kiowa and Tigua tribes met at Hueco Tanks. Here, they shared the oral traditions of that fierce battle, and soon realized that their forefathers had fought each other.

Some of the first Anglo-Americans to visit Hueco Tanks wrote about a large battle between Mexicans and Apaches in which the latter retreated into a cave. John Russell Bartlett, U.S. Boundary Commissioner, who visited Hueco Tanks in 1850, noted that a major fight between Mexicans and Apaches had taken place at that location near a natural amphitheater. He stated that about 150 Apaches had been surprised by the sudden arrival of armed Mexicans and had retreated into cave, where they were confined for several days until they were all killed (Bartlett 1854:I: 174).

Brevet Captain John Pope, who conducted the Pacific Railroad survey, stopped at Hueco Tanks between February 16 and 19, 1854, wrote the following about an encounter between Apache and Mexican.

"Apache Chiftian"
Courtesy U.S. National Archives

About fourteen years ago these Arabs of New Mexico, the Apache, having made a desperate foray upon the Mexicans, retreated with their plunder to these mountains. The Mexicans surprised and surrounded them, hemming them up in the rocky ravine forming the eastern tank. Here an engagement took place, in which the Indians were totally defeated and nearly exterminated, only two or three escaping. It is said that upwards to one-hundred of them were killed” (U.S. Government 1854:53-54).