Statue of Socorro’s old west sheriff subject of cable show

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If Socorro could lay claim to just one celebrated figure of the old west, it would be Elfego Baca.

Courtesy photo: The Elfego Baca statue is located in Reserve in Catron County.

Although Baca led a long life in public service as Socorro’s mayor, district attorney, county clerk, school superintendent and county sheriff, there was one incident in which he was involved that stands out from the rest. A shootout in 1884. It’s a story that has been told and retold in various forms and interpretations.

That event will be featured on the cable TV show “Monumental Mysteries,” whose host Don Wildman “scours the country to find amazing stories behind statues, monuments and places.”

The segment features the statue of a young Baca commemorating the famous gunfight in what is now Catron County.

But what exactly happened on that October morning in 1884? Depends on who is telling the story.

One part of the event that doesn’t vary with the storyteller is that 19-year-old Baca survived unscathed a 36-hour standoff with 70 or 80 cowboys in Upper Frisco — now known as Reserve.

The most popular version of the story is that Baca was campaigning in Frisco for the Socorro County Sheriff who was running for re-election.

A cowboy from the Slaughter Ranch, apparently inebriated, was firing his pistol in what some locals thought was a reckless fashion, frightening residents.

Considering himself a deputy sheriff, Baca took the man, Charlie McCarty, into custody and locked him in the stockroom of Milligan’s Store.

McCarty was tried in an impromptu court the next morning, but in the meantime, several dozen cowboys rode up from the Slaughter Ranch intent of freeing McCarty. Pistols were drawn, and shots were fired, and fearing for his life, Baca slipped through the crowd and ran down the street to a small adobe house known as a jacal.

Over the following 36 hours, the 70 or 80 cowboys from the Slaughter Ranch fired up to 4,000 rounds into the structure, but when the Socorro County Sheriff arrived Baca emerged unhurt.

One account claims four cowboys died.

Baca stood trial in Socorro for killing one of the men during the standoff, but was found he acted in self-defense after the jury was shown the 400 bullet holes in the door of the jacal.

In an interview conducted by a WPA journalist Janet Smith in 1936, Baca categorically denied part of that account, specifically why he was in Frisco.

“Hell, I wasn’t electioneering for him,” Baca told Smith. “I don’t know where they got that idea. I couldn’t have made a speech to save my life. And I didn’t wear a Prince Albert coat either. They didn’t have such things in this country in those days.”

In 2003, Catron County was awarded $150,000 by the New Mexico Legislature to plan the memorial to Elfego Baca.

According to Henry Martinez, owner of Henry’s Corner, the statue is situated at the site of the jacal where he held off 70 Texans in a shootout in 1884. The exact location of the small hut had been debated for years by residents of Reserve, but Martinez was confident.

“I have no doubt we know where Elfego fended off all those shooters,” he said in a 2003 interview.

The statue was created by noted sculptor James Nathan Muir, a bronze artist and one of America’s foremost historical military sculptors. Muir specializes in diverse historical and military figures and his work can be seen in the U.S. Cavalry Museum at Fort Riley, Kansas, the Gettysburg Battlefield Museum in Pennsylvania and the Atlanta Historical Society.

The Travel Channel will air the “Monumental Mysteries” segment on the Elfego Baca statue Friday, Aug. 15 at 7 p.m.