The Mescaleros traditionally lived from east of the Rio Grande to the Pecos and beyond to the west Texas plains. The Mescalero Reservation is located in southeast New Mexico, northeast of Alamogordo.
The Mescaleros had moved into southern New Mexico by the early sixteenth century and had acquired horses at about the same time. They and the Jicarillas raided (and traded with) Spanish settlements and pueblos on the Rio Grande, and after 1680 they controlled the Camino Real, the main route from El Paso to Santa Fe. They hunted buffalo on the southern Plains and were the de facto masters of the Plains.
Some Mescalero bands tried to stay out of trouble in the 1850s by planting fields under the supervision of federal agents, but, when raiding resumed owing to broken promises of food and protection, all sides became caught up in a spiral of violence. By 1863, General James Carleton forced them off their informal reservation in the Sierra Blanca Mountains to Fort Sumner, at Bosque Redondo, on the Pecos. It was a concentration camp: Living with 9,000 Navajos, the Mescalero endured overcrowding, disease, bad water, and starvation. Two years later they escaped into the mountains, where they lived for seven years.
In 1873, the U.S. government granted the Mescaleros a small reservation surrounding the Sierra Blanca, which included their traditional summer territory. This land made for a harsh home in winter, however, and in any case it was too small for hunting and gathering. That decade was marked by disease, white incursions, and violence directed against them. In 1880, in retaliation after some Mescaleros joined the Chiricahuas in their wars against the United States, the army placed the Mescaleros under martial law, disarmed them, and penned them in a corral filled deep with manure.
By the mid-1880s, gambling had replaced traditional raiding. Missionaries arrived, as did a day school, which the Indians hated for separating the children from their elders. Meanwhile, their population plummeted from 3,000 in 1850 to 431 in 1888. These were years marked by dependency, agent thievery, tyranny, disease, starvation and malnourishment, and uncertainty about the status of their reservation. Still, they survived the epidemics and efforts to steal their reservation by turning it into a national park (a move that proved unsuccessful in the long run).
The Mescaleros had absorbed Apache refugees and immigrants in hopes that increased numbers would help them gain the elusive title to their land. In 1883, the Jicarillas arrived, although they left by 1887. In 1903, thirty-seven Lipan Apaches arrived, followed in 1913 by 187 Chiricahuas from Fort Sill, Oklahoma. Eventually, largely through intermarriage, all evolved into the modern Mescalero community.
The United States engaged in extreme repression and all-out assault on traditional culture at the end of the nineteenth century. Cattle raising and timber sales proved lucrative in the early twentieth century. Eventually, day schools replaced the hated, culture-killing boarding schools. By the late 1940s, every family had a house, and the reservation economy was relatively strong. The reservation is managed cooperatively with the Chiricahua and the Lipan Apaches.