Resistance & Resilience in Territorial New Mexico

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Immortalized in his autobiography and mid-twentieth century Disney series, Elfego Baca gained renown as a Wild West legend. In Socorro County, his efforts as sheriff protected the legal rights of poor nuevomexicano partidarios. During this later career as a lawyer, Baca’s alleged role in a Mexican Revolutionary’s jailbreak from an Albuquerque prison in the 1910s resulted in his disbarment.
Courtesy of The Albuquerque Museum Photoarchives

On October 30-31, 1884, nineteen-year-old, self-appointed deputy sheriff Elfego Baca hunkered down in a jacal, or shack, in the town of Frisco (now Reserve) as a group of nearly eighty cowboys connected with the cattle enterprise of John and William Slaughter in west-central New Mexico Territory riddled his shelter with bullets. Despite being so vastly outnumbered, Baca managed to survive the onslaught. As he exchanged fire with his assailants from his position on the sunken, dusty floor of the jacal, several of the bullets that he shot through the door found their marks. Baca reportedly emerged without a scratch though he had killed or wounded several of his attackers.

The events of that thirty-hour period in Frisco launched Elfego Baca into the realm of Wild Western legends. In his later life, Baca actively promoted larger-than-life myths about his personal history. In his autobiography, he recounted that his mother gave birth to him in 1865 as she caught a fly-ball during a game of softball in Socorro. He also claimed that Billy the Kid taught him to fire a six-shooter in Albuquerque in the early 1880s, an assertion that historians have proven untrue.

Through the promotion of both legends and actual events, Baca built a reputation as a peace officer, and later as a lawyer, with a habit of operating on both sides of the law. Most importantly for other nuevomexicanos, by the end of his life and career he had emerged as a highly visible advocate of legal and extralegal actions to protect hispano lands, resources, and political rights from near-constant dispossession efforts.

The life of Elfego Baca provides an interesting backdrop for the story of New Mexico as a site of ongoing resistance, accommodation, and hope to distinct groups of people between 1880 and 1910. His life was characterized by an unswerving determination to integrate himself into the territorial political and economic system while also taking a stand in favor of nuevomexicano rights. During his tenure as Sheriff of Socorro County, Baca spearheaded an initiative that reversed a debtors’ law instituted at the behest of sheep and cattle interests. When he returned from a trip to find the Socorro jail overrun with people imprisoned for failure to pay off their debts, he promptly released them and eventually worked to strike the law from the books. Despite issues that prevented him from attaining public office (including his role in an Albuquerque jailbreak and his alcoholism), Baca stood as an advocate for the interests of lower-status New Mexicans.

The Frisco shootout was linked to a range war between nuevomexicano sheepherders and cattle ranchers from Texas. Both groups migrated to New Mexico’s central plains following the many conflicts that dispossessed native peoples of the lands in the mid-1800s. Prominent families, such as the Luna, Baca, Otero, and Chaves clans from Valencia and Socorro Counties, dominated the sheep industry in New Mexico, and they stood at the head of the partido system that defined New Mexico’s rural economy well into the twentieth century. Figures like the Slaughters used barbed wire fences to stake claims to watering holes and grazing lands that New Mexican sheepherders asserted as communal property.

In a region devoid of a cash economy, the partido system provided a means for aspiring sheepherders to make a living of their own by building up small herds. By the late nineteenth century, partidarios also sold wool to generate a small amount of cash. Nuevomexicano patrons typically received the largest portion of the profits and augmented their own flocks. Additionally, hispano patrons were linked to partidarios and their families through ties of compadrazgo (or god-parentage). Paternalism was therefore a significant part of the system, as patrons provided for partidarios in times of emergency or need. However benign it seemed to the parties involved, the relationship was always unequal. A cycle of indebtedness characterized the partidario’s connection to the patron.

Cattle ranchers complicated partido sheepherding arrangements in the late nineteenth century as they worked to dominate water and grazing resources. In the case of legal efforts to break up Spanish and Mexican land grants and on the open range, violence emerged as a mode of resistance. In certain instances, such as Baca’s Frisco shootout or in the case of litigation over the Las Vegas land grant, nuevomexicano interests won out. Such victories tended to be short-lived, however.

In the case of the Las Vegas land grant, despite a legal victory for the mercedarios (land grant heirs), Anglo-American homesteaders built fences, houses, and barns on the grant prior to the court decision. In response, a clandestine group known as Las Gorras Blancas (The White Caps) tore down fences, burned barns and homes, and destroyed railroad tracks to protest illegal encroachments on the grant’s communal resources. In the end, their militant resistance asserted mercedarios’ right to the grant and many of the Gorras transitioned into new roles as agitators in labor movements and politics.

Public education was also a source of conflict in the late nineteenth century. Supporters of Las Gorras Blancas and ricos alike actively promoted the continued use of the Spanish-language in the classroom. Their efforts countered Anglo Americans’ push for New Mexico’s children to receive their schooling in English only. Navajo and Pueblo families were not included in the debates over which language to use in the classroom, and their children faced a more radical program of assimilation into modern American life in boarding schools. Some sent their children to the schools in hopes that their education would allow them to be economically and politically successful later in life. Other native parents, however, resisted the education program by refusing to let their children participate.

In the midst of New Mexicans’ resistance and accommodations to land grant transformations and education programs, a handful of African American migrants viewed southern New Mexico as a place of hope. Francis Boyer led friends and family from Georgia to Blackdom in Chaves County (which had been carved out of the eastern section of Lincoln County in 1889) in the late 1890s. In Blackdom, Boyer and others created a self-sustaining agricultural community comprised almost entirely of African Americans. They escaped Jim Crow discrimination in Blackdom and attempted to assert their rights to American citizenship that had been guaranteed to them in the Constitutional Amendments (13th-15th Amendments) of the Reconstruction Era.

Late territorial episodes of resistance and accommodations are a vital element of New Mexico’s recent history. Although social movements like Las Gorras Blancas failed to secure full title to the land grant commons of the Las Vegas Land Grant, for example, their activities redefined the political and economic machinery in northern New Mexico and helped to maintain nuevomexicanos’ voices in subsequent political debates about crucial issues like primary education and resource rights as New Mexico inched closer to achieving statehood in 1912.

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