Cowboys and cattle rustlers


The First Cowboys

The origin of the cowboy came from medieval Spain and then to the New World centuries later by the Spaniards.

During the Middle Ages, many Spaniards were nomadic, always on the move to avoid ruthless rulers and invading Moorish armies. They became adept at moving their families, and their livestock, from place to place. Their preferred breed of cattle was the Corriente — cows that were well adapted to traveling long distances and living off sparse vegetation. The Corriente also proved to be ideal for their lean meat, milk and use as a draft animal. These early “cowboys” were called pastoras, the term for a herder that goes back to biblical times.

The Arabian Moors were excellent horsemen that taught their skills to the Spaniards. The pastoras quickly adapted to herding their cattle on horseback.

As the Spaniards began to colonize the New World in the 1500s, there was great need for animals and meat. These pastoras were used to bring herds of horses, oxen, sheep and beef cattle to Mexico on the Spanish galleons. They bred and raised their stock in the arid climate of Mexico, including the hardy Corriente.

Mexico offered something not found in Spain: miles and miles of wide open places for grazing. The pastoras, using their expert horsemanship, developed techniques to drive herds of cattle from pasture to pasture, as well as roundups for branding and slaughter. Now working almost exclusively “in the saddle,” they became known as vaqueros — which means “herders of cows” — the first cowboys in the New World. In South America, they were known as gauchos.

Vaqueros in New Mexico

The first vaqueros in New Mexico were those who arrived with Juan de Oñate. More than 7,000 head of cattle came with the 1598 caravan over El Camino Real, herded by vaqueros. Some of this livestock was used to feed the colonists on the trail, although the majority was used to establish herds of sustainable cattle, and food, in the New World.

The early Spanish colonists built haciendas — a family home on a tract of land for raising a few head of cattle, a few sheep or goats, and for their fields. Basically a farm. Everything to survive in New Mexico had to be raised or grown on one’s own land. With only a few cows or sheep, this was a perilous balance. If your animals didn’t breed, your family would soon go hungry; if you were forced to slaughter your livestock for food, you had no breeding stock for the following year.

To address this problem, many Spaniards began breeding and raising large herds of cattle to supply meat or stock to the local haciendas. These larger tracts of land were called estancias — a ranch — and the ranch owner was known as the patron. The term rancho did not come into vogue in New Mexico until the 1821-1846 Mexican era.

While most of the land along the Rio Grande was soon used for agriculture under private ownership or land grants, the rest of the country was open range. The vaqueros lived for months in the saddle driving the herds to grazing lands, and from one watering hole to the next.

This was the life of a Spanish vaquero, and the cattle industry in New Mexico, from the early 1600s until the mid-1800s.

Pueblo Indians were also employed and trained as vaqueros beginning in the 1600s. They were well respected for their natural connection to the animals and the land – the Indians became excellent horsemen in their own right. Later, Navajo and Apache riders were added to the vaquero ranks. Today, when you see a Hispanic or American Indian vaquero, they are the original cowboys in the Southwest.

The arrival of the Americans, in 1846, generated the first boom for the local estancias. The U.S. Army needed beef for the forts and the soldiers, and they paid a good price. The number of estancias and vaqueros grew to meet this demand. Few Americans were involved with ranching at this time.

In Socorro County, local estancias provided beef to Fort Conrad and, later, Fort Craig. Area haciendas also provided hay and feed to the forts.

The Civil War fueled the second boom as increased numbers of soldiers, and about 3,000 New Mexico Volunteers, all needed to be fed.

The American Cowboy

There were few Anglos involved in New Mexico ranching prior to the 1860s. This quickly changed as soldiers were discharged from military service following the Civil War at area forts. Many decided to remain in the area; some went into ranching. Many of these discharged soldiers married local Hispanic women and became successful ranchers by learning the ways of the vaquero.

From the 1600s through the mid-1800s, most cattle ranches — the estancias — in New Mexico were relatively small affairs, with a few hundred to about a thousand head of cattle. They grazed in the open desert or in mountain meadows where water could be found, and then returned to the estancias late in the year for slaughter.

Still, the patrons often made large sums of money and became prominent leaders in their communities. Most had mutual respect for each other, seldom encroaching on the grazing fields or water holes of others, even though it was open range.

By the 1870s, the first American cowboys began to appear in New Mexico — although at the time, they were called “stockmen.” Most were ranchers or cow hands from Texas. Huge cattle ranches quickly appeared with livestock numbering in the tens of thousands.

The Cattle Barons

While the Spaniards and Pueblo Indians became the first vaqueros and cattle patrons, the Texans became the first cattle barons. In the late 1860s, powerful Texas stockmen discovered the uncontrolled open spaces of New Mexico. Their large herds dwarfed the size of the smaller herds of the estancias. Ranching in New Mexico was changed forever.

Soon, problems began as the large cattle operations encroached on the small estancias. For example, John Chisum was one of those Texas stockmen who discovered New Mexico. He had moved 100,000 head to graze near Fort Sumner following the Civil War. In 1867, he formed a partnership with two other Texas cattle barons, Charles Goodnight and Oliver Loving. Building his headquarters near Roswell, his cattle empire extended along much of the length of the Pecos River to support another 150,000 head of cattle. The famous Chisum and Goodnight-Loving trails are named after these men.

Many small estancias were snuffed out by these huge cattle enterprises. Thirsty cattle by the thousands would intrude on the watering holes with no regard to land ownership. Unscrupulous dealings ran other owners out of business. Every year, massive cattle drives leveled countless acres of grazing land on their way to distant stock pens, often destroying small ranches or estancias along the way.

Cattle Rustlers

If the cattle barons and huge ranches weren’t enough to alter the face of New Mexico ranching, the next scourge to inflict the Territory was widespread cattle rustling.

Western movies often portray cattle rustlers as a couple of mischievous cowboys stealthily creeping into a herd of cattle and running off with a couple of head. This was seldom the case. Cattle rustling in New Mexico quickly developed into a large-scale industry consisting of numerous rustling gangs. By the mid-1870s, these gangs were rustling thousands of head at a time, including from western Socorro County, and often killing the cowhands and vaqueros that got in the way.

Many of these gangs worked together. As one gang would steal a herd of cattle, it would sell them to another gang, who sold them to yet another, with all of them making a profit along the way. In this manner, stolen cattle could also be quickly removed from New Mexico to Texas, or Kansas, in a week or two and totally evade the law.

Another tactic was to sell their booty to unscrupulous “ghost ranchers.” Of course, calling these men ranchers is a stretch. Their ranches were often concealed on remote land to store the huge herds of stolen cattle and alter their brands. Their herds would mysteriously grow from a few hundred head to tens of thousands with no evidence of breeding or calving.

One of the largest caches of stolen cattle was in Lincoln County. One ranch was owned by Lawrence Murphy and James Dolan, who were also the owners of the famous Murphy-Dolan Store in Lincoln. Their herds would suspiciously grow in size, and often exceeded 50,000 head.

Much of the stolen cattle on the Murphy-Dolan ranch was “acquired” from cattle baron John Chisum’s stock grazing along the Pecos river. In an attempt to halt his massive losses from thievery, Chisum formed a partnership with Lincoln attorney Alexander McSween and merchant John Tunstall to breakup the Murphy-Dolan monopoly, and force the Sheriff and the soldiers at nearby Fort Stanton to end the cattle rustling cartels. The confrontations between the “good guys and the bad guys” is what led to the famous Lincoln County wars and the murders of McSween, Tunstall, Lincoln County Sheriff William Brady and others.

In Socorro County, such cattle caches were located at Contadero near Black Mesa, east of La Joya, in the valley south of Quemado, and a clandestine slaughtering operation in Red Canyon in the San Mateo Mountains.

Then, in 1880, came the railroad — the biggest boost to the New Mexico cattle rustler. Now, huge herds could be rustled, driven undetected for a day or two to the nearest railhead, and shipped off to the stockyards at Kansas City or Chicago before the theft could be reported to the sheriff.

By this time, the lawless element throughout the southern part of New Mexico, including Socorro County, had become a serious menace to the lives and property of the citizens. Due to the number of the murderous rustlers and gangs, the judicial systems of the Territory was unable to cope. The most notorious and deadly of the cattle rustlers was the Kinney gang.

The Kinney Gang

In 1873, 25-year-old John Kinney mustered out of the U.S. Army at Fort McPherson, Nebr., and quickly made his way to Doña Ana County. He soon formed a gang of about 30 outlaw men who specialized in cattle rustling with a little thievery and killing on the side. By 1875, the Kinney gang was the most brazen and feared band of rustlers and hooligans in the Territory. For example, on Dec. 31, 1875, Kinney and several of his gang got into a bar brawl in Las Cruces. While standing outside the bar, they riddled the establishment with bullets for a little New Year’s Eve fun. When the smoke cleared, two soldiers from Fort Selden and a civilian lay dead, along with several others groaning from their wounds.

In 1876, several members of the Kinney Gang, led by outlaw Jessie Evans, broke away to start their own gang called “The Boys,” although they continued to work with Kinney to remain one of the most feared gangs. These were just two of the numerous cattle rustling gangs operating in southern New Mexico.

When the Kinney and Evans gangs weren’t busy rustling cattle, they made themselves available as hired guns. They were hired to fight on the Dolan-Murphy side of the Lincoln County wars. Once the shooting ended in Lincoln, the bored outlaws returned to Doña Ana to resume their cattle rustling enterprise.

Kinney bought a ranch near the silver mining camp of Lake Valley – and from there he directed his cattle rustling empire. From Lake Valley, he would send out small bands of a half-dozen men to the large ranches in the Black Range and Socorro County. The stolen cattle was quickly whisked off to El Paso, slaughtered, and the meat was purchased in large quantities to feed area Army forts, the Indian reservations and the railroad workers building the southern route to California.

John Kinney became a very wealthy man. In spite of his wealth, and an outlaw at heart, Kinney and his men would often frequent saloons along the Rio Grande. Their night on the town always ended up with a shootout or a brutal fight. The people from Las Cruces to Socorro became terrified of the Kinney Gang. Even law enforcement felt the intimidation, and gave the outlaws more or less a free reign of the Territory. As a result, large-scale cattle rustling continued, which ruined many ranchers from Mesilla to western Socorro County.

Military Intervention

In 1883, rustlers stole more than 10,000 head of cattle from the Mesilla Valley. Similar numbers of cattle “disappeared” from Socorro County. The ruined ranchers in the area could take no more. A petition signed by more than 100 ranchers in Socorro and Doña Ana counties was delivered to Gov. Lionel Sheldon to urge military intervention. Even the corrupt Santa Fe ring advocated action, as they saw their ranch investments in the south dwindling. The New Mexican newspaper in Santa Fe urged the governor’s action by identifying Kinney as “one of the most dangerous and desperate characters … since Billy the Kid.” Actually, he was much worse than Billy the Kid, but the association drummed up political support.

The U.S. Army refused to get involved with civil matters. Instead, Gov. Sheldon called the “Mesilla Calvary,” a volunteer militia unit, into active service using his executive powers. He assigned Col. Albert Fountain, a veteran of Carleton’s California Column, to command the unit. The Shakespeare Rangers were also activated, another militia unit of ranchers in the bootheel region.

The Mesilla Calvary was ordered to capture as many of the cattle rustlers as possible to break up the gangs; the Shakespeare Rangers were to patrol the New Mexico-Arizona border for cattle rustlers and outlaws.

Fountain focused his attention on the kingpin of them all: John Kinney. He launched his fight with not only pistols and rifles, but the printed word. Fountain ensured every newspaper in New Mexico reported how “the war was on” with the rustler gangs and how they were authorized to “shoot to kill” any rustler who resisted arrest.

The outlaw rustlers, drinking their beers at the local saloons, probably laughed their heads off upon hearing about the impending war against them. By the end of March 1883, the laughing stopped.

Fountain’s War

Armed with a stack of arrest warrants, Col. Fountain sent his militiamen off in small groups in every direction. Within days, the Las Cruces jail was filled with outlaws. Realizing the tables had turned, many of the outlaws temporarily fled the Territory. Several were snagged by the Shakespeare Rangers as they attempted to flee into Arizona.

Kingpin rustler Kinney was nowhere to be found around his Lake Valley ranch. A few days later, however, Fountain received word that Kinney and his mistress were captured by the Shakespeare Rangers in extreme southwest New Mexico while attempting to cross the border into Mexico.

But John Kinney was hardly the only cattle rustler in the area. After his capture, Fountain loaded his men and horses onto the train. Disembarking at Nutt Station, they were met by some mining guides and two deputy sheriffs. After mounting their horses, the group began their sweep north and west through the Black Range and into western Socorro County.

When the men arrived at Hillsboro and Kingston, local ranchers and townspeople confirmed that Tom Cooper, John Watts, Hank Brophy, Charles Thomas, and two men known only as Tex and Butch, were the worst of the bunch. Following local leads, Fountain and a detachment of his men went to Lake City. There, they found and arrested Butch, but his partner, John Watts, escaped on horseback.

As Fountain described the ordeal, “John Watts was seen, but he escaped from me, mounted a horse and fled, only to run into Captain Van Patten’s company. He was ordered to halt, when he drew his Winchester on Captain Van Patten; a dozen carbines were at once pointed at him and he surrendered.”

With prisoners in hand, they rode all night to the village of Cienaga in the Black Range. When the group stopped to make coffee and breakfast, Butch and Watts escaped and fled into the early morning darkness. One Capt. Salazar left with his men to pursue the fugitives. When Salazar’s men found the pair on the road, Butch and Watts refused to stop or surrender when asked. Salazar ordered shots to be fired. Every man in the company thought the command was addressed to them. As a result, a volley of 30-40 shots rang out. Both Butch and Watts fell dead on the trail.

Returning to Kingston, Fountain located and arrested James Colville. He operated a slaughter pen for stolen cattle from the W-S and other ranches in western Socorro County.

After receiving a report of an uprising in Lake Valley, Sgt. Leandro Garcia and some men were sent to the mining camp. Upon their arrival, they discovered the Sierra Mining Company had found three cattle rustlers and locked them in a dynamite shack. Sgt. Garcia took them into custody. One was a locally known rustler named John Shannon. After breaking free of the guard, Shannon was shot dead as he attempted his escape.

On March 23, the various elements of Fountain’s command returned from the trail and reconnoitered in Kingston. By now, the news of the capture of Kinney, and a host of other rustlers, had spread throughout the Territory, including details printed in the Socorro Chieftain newspaper. This was long-awaited news.

As the militiamen entered Kingston, they were heartily greeted by the town with an impromptu parade and festivities. Fountain recorded: “Here my command was kindly, I may say enthusiastically received by the people of the town. The ladies and gentlemen of the town gave the officers and men of my command a royal reception at the school house and left nothing undone to prove that their entire sympathy and support were with us.”

In a few short weeks, Fountain’s small army had rid the Territory of many of the cattle rustlers. Twenty years later, historian Ralph Emerson Twitchell summarized: “Entire herds of cattle were driven from Socorro, Doña Ana, and Grant counties and sold in Texas, and other herds were slaughtered in the woods and the dressed meat shipped in car-load lots. The people had been terrorized by this combination of outlaws and no one dared to make complaint or testify against members of the gang until the militia had broken their strength and had the ring leaders actually in custody.”

Kinney was found guilty of cattle rustling by a Las Cruces jury and sentenced to five years in prison. As New Mexico did not yet have a territorial prison, Kinney was sent by train to Fort Leavenworth, Kans., to serve out his sentence. He was released, in 1886, after serving only three years. When Kinney returned to Doña Ana, he found all of his old fellow rustlers either in jail, killed, or simply gone. He left New Mexico to spend the rest of his days developing mining claims in Arizona, where he died in 1919.

Socorro County Rustlers

By the mid-1890s, cattle rustling in the western part of the county, and on the W-S Ranch near Alma, seemed to be on the increase. When Holm O. Bursum was elected as Socorro County Sheriff, in 1884, he pledged to rid the county of the rustlers once again. To accomplish this, he hired his old friend, Col. Fountain, now a special prosecutor for the New Mexico Cattleman’s Association. Bursum and Fountain rounded up several cattle rustlers found operating around Magdalena, Council Rock and near Quemado. All were tried in the Socorro County Courthouse. Bursum had the pleasure of escorting the convicted rustlers to the newly built Territorial Penitentiary in Santa Fe.

Once Socorro County seemed to be free of cattle rustlers, Fountain turned his attention to the Tularosa Basin. The ranchers in the area, led by Oliver Lee, accused the large cattle barons of taking all the good grazing land and water. The big cattle companies, in turn, accused Oliver Lee and his band of ranchers of cattle rustling and murder.

Fountain obtained indictments against ranchers Oliver Lee, Bill McNew and Jim Gilliland — all of them suspected of cattle rustling and other misdeeds. After the indictments were filed in the Lincoln County Courthouse, Fountain and his eight-year-old son set out on the return trip to Doña Ana on Feb. 1, 1896. They never arrived. Their bloodstained wagon was found off the trail near the Chalk Hills east of Las Cruces.

Sheriff Pat Garrett arrested Lee, McNew and Gilliland for Fountain’s murder. The “murder trial of the century” was held in Hillsboro. The jury found the cowboys not guilty after the trial ran well past midnight. Garrett was later found shot to death not far from where Fountain was killed.

To this day, the slain bodies of Fountain and his son have never been found. New Mexicans still speculate whether Oliver Lee, or another cattle faction, was responsible for the murders. The Fountain murders remain as New Mexico’s most prolific cold case.

Some of the references used in this article: “The Real Billy the Kid,” by Miguel Otero; “Leading Facts of New Mexican History,” by Ralph Emerson Twitchell; various issues of the Socorro Chieftain newspaper; and other research by the author.


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