Hardy Lew Wallace

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On Sept. 29, 1878, former Civil War general Lew Wallace arrived in Santa Fe. He looked up territorial Supreme Court Justice Samuel G. Parks and showed him documents he’d brought from Washington.

One was his presidential appointment as governor of New Mexico territory. Another was an order for the removal of Wallace’s predecessor, corrupt Gov. Samuel B. Axtell. Justice Parks read the papers and promptly swore in Wallace as the new chief executive.

President Rutherford B. Hayes had selected the no-nonsense Wallace for the job, hoping he could put an end to the turmoil in New Mexico. Besides political corruption, the notorious Lincoln County War was raging, and Apaches were terrorizing the countryside.

The new governor moved right into the historic Palace of the Governors. To his dismay, he discovered that the floors were packed dirt, the walls were mud-plastered and the roof leaked. But he made the best of things and a year later he brought out his young wife, Susan, from their home in Indianapolis.

While in New Mexico tending to the cares of his office, Wallace worked on his classic novel “Ben Hur,” set in biblical times. When published, it would become one of America’s favorite best-sellers.

The versatile governor was also an artist of some ability. Citizens frequently found him painting scenes in the quaint back streets of the capital. When his wife, Susan, wrote her own book, “Land of the Pueblos,” he contributed a handsome pencil drawing of the Palace of the Governors. It has been reproduced many times.

A year after assuming his duties, Gov. Wallace, accompanied by Susan, set out to view firsthand the effects of Apache warfare in the lower territory. More than 100 settlers had already been killed, “in the most horrible manner,” to use the governor’s own words.

Among other victims a short time later would be Judge Hamilton C. McComas and family, personal friends of the governor, who were massacred on the road outside Silver City.

For safety on their journey, Lew and Susan rode in an Army ambulance surrounded by an escort armed with Winchester rifles. At a small village on the Rio Grande near Socorro, the residents turned out and greeted them with amazement.

“Had we been newly raised from the dead, they could not have shown greater awe,” he remarked. The reason was that in past days, all travelers on the roads had been slain by Apaches.

“We followed the people inside their church,” continued the governor. “Before the altar were the corpses of 16 men, women and children, some of them shockingly mutilated. In view of this butchery, it is no wonder that they considered our escape a miracle.”

The Wallaces soon departed for Fort Stanton in Lincoln County, where Susan reported that a reign of terror existed and “we held our lives at the mercy of outlaws, chief among them Billy the Kid.”

In her primitive quarters at the fort, Susan was told to close the shutters in the evening. It was feared that the Kid might try to assassinate Gov. Wallace while he worked by lamplight on a chapter of “Ben Hur.”

We should not be surprised that the refined Mrs. Wallace, accustomed to all civilized amenities, developed a strong distaste for life in the territory.

Her criticism found expression in a letter to their son back in Indiana:

“My dear — Gen. William Sherman was right. We should have another war with Old Mexico and make her take back New Mexico. I did not believe anything could cause me to think well of Santa Fe, but this hideous spot, Fort Stanton, does.”

Before leaving office in 1881, Gov. Wallace summed up his own view of the territory in a line often quoted today:

“Every calculation based on experience elsewhere fails in New Mexico.”