By Ruth White Burns: Special to the CNJ
Editor’s note: This is the first of three articles, to run the next two Sundays, describing the importance of Portales Springs in eastern New Mexico history.
Why does a town on the Eastern Plains of New Mexico, far from the Rio Grande and its Hispanic settlements, have the Spanish name of “Portales?”
Six miles south of the present town site, a wavering line of white caliche bluffs stands out sharply from the gray-green landscape surrounding them.
At the foot of the bluffs, the land drops away gradually to a dry lakebed. This one of the most historic spots in eastern New Mexico — Los Portales, the site of tragedies and adventures as exciting as any of the tales of the wild and woolly West.
More than 100 years ago, instead of a dry lakebed, there is a large marshy lake surrounded by tules, slender reeds similar to cattails.
Caliche cliffs jut out to form “portales” (Spanish for porches) over several large caves.
Springs splash out from beneath these porches to replenish the lake. A wonderful variety of animals frequent the lake.
The most prominent, of course, are buffalo, which travel in herds of up to 6,000. Then there are antelope, lobo wolves, coyotes, cranes, ducks, geese, prairie chickens, plover, curlew, rabbits, skunks, badgers foxes, weasels, and prairie dogs.
Wherever there was water, there were also human visitors. The earliest of these travelers of the Llano Estacado were the Indians — Apache, Navajo and Comanche, who came to hunt the abundant buffalo and antelope.
Later, Hispanics from the Rio Grande settlements of Las Vegas and Santa Fe made annual trips to salt and dry meat for the winter.
Mustañeros came to catch the wild mustangs that roamed the prairie.
These early Spanish hunters probably were the first to call the springs “Los Portales,” since the overhanging bluffs resembled porches.
Col. Jack Potter, noted cowboy author, has said, “In the 1880s, there was enough water at the springs to water 10,000 cattle. Antelope hunters could kill all they wanted by taking advantage of the antelope’s curiosity.
“The hunters would make a wooden sled and drag it behind a horse down to the lake. The antelope would come in droves to see what this peculiar thing was, and the hunters could kill them by the hundreds.”
In his book, “The Authentic Life of Billy the Kid,” Pat Garrett describes the springs as they were the 1880s:
“Los Portales is but a small cave in a quarry of rock, not more than 15 feet high, lying out and obstructing the view across a beautiful level prairie. Bubbling up near the rocks are two springs of cool clear water capable of furnishing an ample supply for at least 1,000 head of cattle. There is no building or corral; all the signs of habitation are a snubbing post, some rough working utensils, and a pile of blankets — just that and nothing more.”
On the route across the Llano Estacado from the 1860s to the 1890s, Portales Springs was one of the most important watering holes. This trail, commonly known as the Fort Sumner Trail or the Portales Road, followed an old military route that went from Yellow House near Lubbock, to Salt Lake near Arch, to Portales Springs, to Stinking Springs near Taiban, to Fort Sumner.
The springs were well-known to cattlemen, the militia and because of their remoteness, to those involved in illicit activities, such as cattle rustling and trade with the marauding Indians.
It was only natural that when a little town sprang up along the Pecos Valley and Northeastern Railroad, it would be named for Los Portales, the most important landmark in the area.
With the coming of irrigation, the water table has gradually declined until the springs no longer flow and the lake has disappeared. The area is on land now owned by Robert Garcia.
Ruth White Burns is a local historian and granddaughter of Roosevelt County pioneers. She has taken her information for this article from the research of her mother, Rose Powers “Mrs. Eddie” White. She may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.