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Dripping Springs has Rich History
Article first published in Vol. 24, 2005.
By Sergio Holguin
Tucked away at the base of the spectacular Organ Mountains in Las Cruces, N,M., is a trickle of water called Dripping Springs. It is found in an area of canyons, caves, trails and ruins. Fossil finds indicate that mastodons roamed the region 50,000 years ago before humans first inhabited it a mere 5,000 to 7,000 years ago.
The rock shelter at La Cueva protected Apaches in the 18th and 19thcentury and became the home to a legendary hermit. In the 1870s, this area served as the site of a popular summer resort later turned into a tuberculosis sanatorium. Today it is a National Recreation Area managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM).
Image caption: "El Ermitano" lived in La Cueva at Dripping Springs, near Las Cruces. Photo courtesy of NMSU Library Archives and Special Collections
Many locals know versions of the legend of the mysterious hermit who once took refuge in La Cueva, a cave composed of compacted volcanic rock that measures ten feet in height. From a distance it appears as a shadow beneath huge boulders about five miles from the Visitor’s Center.
Juan Maria Augustiniani was “El Ermitano” (The Hermit) of the Organ Mountains. Giovanni Maria Agostini (his original name) was born into a wealthy Italian family in 1799 or 1800 and joined an order of monks in 1819, never taking his vows.
According to Dan Aranda, a Las Cruces writer, Augustiniani’s disagreement with the teachings of the Catholic Church convinced him to embark on a holy trek spanning thousands of miles and two continents. Another widespread belief was that the monk walked the earth wishing to atone for a crime he had committed long ago.
After spending time in Spain, Augustiniani sailed to Venezuela, and then went to Mexico where he taught Indians until he was expelled by the anti-cleric Mexican government that disapproved of his teachings.
Aranda, however, disputed the belief that Agustiniani ever taught school in Mexico and said that he was deported to Cuba because of his different views of the Church. Aranda maintained that the monk was seen in Colombia, Ecuador and Paraguay in 1846 and there were traces of him in Brazil, Argentina and Chile in the late 1850s.
Several sources say that he traveled to New York and Canada while being haunted by a recurring dream of the “Virgin pointing to the west.” In his 60s, he walked with a wagon train from Kansas to the Las Vegas, N.M., area, settling on Cerro Tecolote (Owl Mountain), now known as Hermit’s Peak. It was here that the dream finally stopped.
He gained a reputation as a healer during the five years he lived in Northern New Mexico. He traveled to San Antonio and Juárez before settling in Mesilla, N.M. La Cueva became his last refuge, where he allegedly cured many local patients with herbal remedies. Some believe that the Apaches came to fear him.
The Barela family, whom he had befriended in Mesilla, feared for his safety. Just outside the cave today, a plaque reads that the hermit told them that he would light a fire outside the cave every Friday night to assure them that he was alive. One evening, no fire appeared.
According to a Las Cruces newspaper report, sheepherders found Augustiniani dead in 1868 with a knife through his back and a crucifix in his hand. Other sources say he was wearing a metal girdle (belt) full of spikes, an instrument of mortification, perhaps used by the penitentes, with whom he was familiar. According to the History of the Mesilla Valley, a book by George Griggs, the knife was an Indian lance. Other sources claim it was a poisoned Italian dagger. A BLM pamphlet says he died in 1869.
Some ascertain that his death is a mystery, that “he just walked himself into eternity.” Some believe Indians poisoned him. Aranda claims that an “unstable Indian known as El Indio Chacon” killed him. Another version claims his assassin was an Italian railroad worker settling an old vendetta.
His remains can be found at the Mesilla Cemetery with this inscription in Spanish: “John Mary Justiniani, Hermit of the Old and New World. He died the 17th of April, 1869, at 69 years and 49 years a hermit.” In Northern New Mexico, those who embrace the legend make twice-yearly pilgrimages to the top of Hermit's Peak (renamed in his honor) near Las Vegas.
<p">Another man who lived in the Dripping Spring area was Eugene Van Patten, the nephew of John Butterfield, operator of the Butterfield Stage Line. Van Patten appears to have worked in the Picacho Station of the stage line. He joined the Confederate Army during the Civil War and fought in the Battle of Glorieta Pass. Born in New York in 1837, he was educated at West Point. In the 1870s, he built the Van Patten Mountain Campat the Dripping Springs site, a resort that became a popular hotel.
In the late 1800s, one could take a stage line from Las Cruces to the Van Patten Mountain Camp. The two-story summer resort had 16 rooms, a dining room and concert hall. Next to the hotel was a natural spring that provided water for the hotel. Located at the base of the camp were a livery, barn and garden. Local Indians who lived and worked at the resort tended the garden, milked cows and raised chickens. The Indians, who carried water from the spring to the guest rooms in “ollas” (pots) attached to long poles, occasionally danced for the guests. The resort was host to many notable guests including Kit Carson, Pat Garrett and Pancho Villa. Its popularity spurred Van Patten to add another 18 rooms in 1906.
At one time, Van Patten owned most of the land on which Las Cruces was built. In an interview, World War II veteran Santiago Brito, 92, nephew of Van Patten’s daughter Emilia, said that Van Patten purchased the land and later sold parcels at low prices to friends and family.
According to a 1949 Las Cruces newspaper article by Joe Priestly, Van Patten gave a large tract of land he had obtained from the federal government to the Pueblo Indians now living in the village of Tortugas located a few miles south of Las Cruces. Brito agreed that Van Patten was always very kind and generous to the local Indians, and Van Patten himself was married to a Piro Indian.
Van Patten provided funds for the first Catholic Church in Las Cruces as well as for Loretto Academy , founded in 1870, many years before the school of the same name was established in El Paso. In 1885, he was elected sheriff and later became a U. S. marshal for New Mexico, Arizona and West Texas.
Image caption: This building housed the Dripping Springs Resort dining area in the 1870s. Photo by Sergio Holguin
Dr. Boyd, a Stanford graduate in medicine, also opened the First National Bank and Union Bank in Las Cruces. He was part of an investment group who proposed a dam near Las Cruces to control the flooding Rio Grande. Encountering financial difficulties, he sold the sanatorium in the 1920s to Dr. T. C. Sexton of Las Cruces.
The place changed hands at least once more before it was bought in the early 1950s by the A. B. Cox family, established ranchers on the east side of the Organ Mountains. They also purchased a nearby ranch from Franklin Hayner, developing the area into a prosperous cattle ranch.
Because the Cox Ranch and Dripping Spring properties were discovered to contain a number of threatened and endangered species, the Nature Conservancy recognized their value and purchased both, deeding the lands to the Bureau of Land Management in 1988 in exchange for other BLM land that could be sold. Through this agreement, visitors are assured that generations in the future will be able to enjoy this area while plants and animals are protected.
To access Dripping Springs from El Paso, take 1-10 West to Las Cruces and exit University Avenue. Turn right on University Avenue and follow this road toward the Organ Mountains to reach the recreation area. Hiking trails range from one to five miles. A moderate hiking trail will take the visitor up to the ruins of the Van Patten Mountain Camp and Boyd’s Sanitarium. Just before the livery and several other wooden buildings come into view, alligator junipers, whose bark resembles alligator hide, grow in harmony on each side of the path. The rare Organ Mountain evening primrose blooms at night during the months of June through September. A picnic area is available not too far from the La Cueva rock shelter. Today, visitors can share a bit of New Mexico’s colorful past at rugged Dripping Springs.