The Life and Truth of Elfego Baca

By Richard Duree (Col. Richard Dodge, SASS 1750 Life)


Ruth Levin Duree and Richard Duree

"Gettin' drunk an' hollerin' and shootin' guns in the street is the custom in this country. Ain't nothin’ wrong with that.' So claimed Texas cowboy Montegue Stevens of the WS Ranch in western New Mexico. Stevens spoke for the many Texas cattlemen and cowboys who had arrogantly migrated up from Texas, seizing the open grazing land and bringing their distaste and hatred of all things Mexican as they intruded into lands in the 1880s that had been inhabited by the descendents of Spain for over 200 years.

As in most of the Old West, most of the violence was imposed on the citizenry by drunken Texas cowboys who chose to believe they were superior to everyone else – Indians, Mexicans, women, Easterners, townsfolk, everyone – and resented being told by anyone that they could not do as they pleased, including shooting into occupied buildings in drunken fun. They called it "treeing" a town.

Predictably, "treeing" a town could eventually become more than just funnin', as it did that late October of 1884. Cowboys from the WS and Slaughter ranches loved to "hooraw" the small town of San Francisco Plaza (near present-day Reserve, New Mexico), actually three hamlets called "Upper, Middle and Lower Plaza," located about 130 miles due west of Socorro. Meeting no resistance from the unarmed and peaceable Hispanos and encouraged by free indulgence of "forty rod liquor" from Dan Milligan's Saloon in Upper Frisco Plaza, the boys finally went too far. They abducted and castrated a Mexican called "El Burro." Not satisfied with that outrage, they chose to use one Epitacio Martinez for target practice, wounding him multiple times.

Deputy Pedro Serracino, fearing for his life, hastened to Socorro, the county seat, to report the atrocities to Sheriff Pedro Simpson. Serracino was merely a store clerk and a rather timid representative of the law in the Hispanic community, was totally unprepared to deal with the lawless Texans. In Socorro, his words fell on the ears of a young man clerking in his father's store - 19 year-old Elfego Baca.

Elfego was enraged at the injustice and the outrage committed by the Texans. He soundly scolded the deputy and boldly offered to go himself to confront the cowboys if the deputy would take him there. He coaxed Sheriff Simpson to deputize him; then with badge and gun in hand he rode the 130 miles to San Francisco Plaza with Serracino in a buggy – and into the legends of the Old West.

At the age of 19, Baca had already led an unusual life. In 1866, his father had taken his family from Socorro to Topeka, Kansas, seeking a better education for his offspring. Elfego was but two years old then and they did not return to Socorro until 1881. On his return, 18 year-old Elfego spoke fluent English, but only halting Spanish and had some difficulty finding a place for himself in the Hispanic community, so he clerked in his father's new store. His life was to change radically for him with Serracino's arrival and nothing in his life to that point indicated the bold, reckless courage he would display.

Arriving in Frisco Plaza, he had not long to wait before trouble presented itself. The resulting event became called "The Baca-Cowboy War," "The Mexican War," "Shootout in Frisco Plaza," and more. It climaxed the tensions between the newly arrived cattle growers and the long-settled Hispanos and their assimilated Anglo neighbors and relatives.

True to their "custom," several cowboys from the Slaughter ranch were in town. On the morning of October 28, 1884, herder Charlie McCarthy fired his pistol into the roof of Milligan's Saloon and the soiree was underway. Baca wasted no time in disarming and arresting McCarthy, to the consternation of his fellow herders. How dare a little Mexican deputy (Baca was 5 feet 7 inches) arrest a Texan just for gun play! Nevertheless, Baca hauled his prisoner to the Justice of the Peace in Middle Plaza, where he was fined and released. By 2:00 in the afternoon, McCarthy was back at Milligan's Saloon, liquored up, armed, and angry and proceeded to shoot at anything that caught his fancy: windows, furniture, and patrons. Milligan quickly sent word for Baca, who gathered a small posse of armed men and arrested McCarthy as he rode down a nearby road.

The drunken and abusive McCarthy was taken under guard to Middle Plaza for the second time that day. In an unguarded moment, McCarthy seized the pistol of Young Parham, Slaughter ranch foreman, and attempted to kill Baca with it, whereupon Baca placed the troublemaker in a private residence under guard to await the arrival of the Justice of the Peace.

Parham vehemently demanded that McCarthy be tried, fined, and released immediately, as he needed the herder back to work. He was preparing to take McCarthy by force, raising tempers on both sides. Baca boldly ordered the advancing cowboys to halt or he would fire. On "three," he did and Parham, fearing for his life – his sidearm had been seized by Baca from McCarthy – wheeled his horse to flee. Baca's bullet killed the horse and Parham's fall from the dying horse caused an injury that led quickly to his death. This was the incident that led to the infamous shoot-out.

Meanwhile, a cowboy had ridden frantically to the WS Ranch and summoned foreman James Cook with tales of a "Mexican uprising" and "wiping out the Americans." Cook's men quickly added to the already upset Slaughter Ranch cowboys. Milligan's saloon did a rousing business as the WS boys hurried to catch up to the Slaughter boys. The nearest Anglo deputy, one Dan Bechtol, was summoned to counter the legal activities of the Hispanic Baca. Bechtol's "party" arrived later that evening, full of "zeal and whiskey." Suddenly there was a large gathering of angry, drunk, armed Texas cowboys facing one determined 19 year-old untried Hispanic deputy. Estimates have varied from twenty to eighty guns (the latter Baca’s greatly exaggerated claim made years later).

An Anglo Justice of the Peace, one William W. Wilson, was summoned to preside over McCarthy's trial. McCarthy was then tried, fined, and released as would have been routine, but Parham's death did not sit well with the enraged Texans. They wanted Baca's blood and were bound to have it. As the proceedings with McCarthy ended, Baca silently slipped out of the saloon’s side door and took refuge in the picket house, called a "jacal," of one Geronima Armijo and the stage was set.

With the legal color of Bechtol and Wilson to back them, the Texans obtained a warrant for Baca's arrest for the murder of Young Parham. Two cowboys, Jerome Wadsworth and William Hearne, were quickly deputized to affect the arrest. Warrant in hand, the drunken mob quickly found Baca's location and descended on it with liquid confidence.

Hearne was not the brightest of men, but he was puffed up with liquor and new authority of office. He boldly bragged that he would "get the little Mexican out" and foolishly marched up to the front door, demanding Baca's surrender. Baca declined to respond, so Hearne raised the bar by attempting to kick the door in. Baca's response was two .45 Colt slugs through the door into Hearn's gut. Hearne fell backward into the arms of two had followed him and died almost instantly. Aside from Parham's death earlier, Hearne's was the only death in the entire incident.

Now Wilson was encouraged to issue a second arrest warrant for Hearne's murder and if the mob hadn't intended to kill Baca outright, as they later claimed in court, they did now and the siege was on. And history had a legend to embellish.

WS Ranch foreman James Cook had started to lead his men out of Frisco Plaza when Baca's two deadly shots brought them thundering back onto the scene and within range of Baca's guns. One round barely missed Old Charlie Moore; another tore into an adobe wall near Cook's head; yet another pierced Moore's tall peaked hat. Baca had two pistols (his own and McCarthy's), but could not have had more than a cartridge belt full of cartridges, but he appeared to be willing to use them.

It appears that in reality only about a dozen men participated in firing into the jacal. Firing began immediately. At first it was sporadic with an occasional attempt to approach being repulsed by Baca's gunfire. Cook, now a reluctant de facto leader of the mob, wanted to avoid further bloodshed. He managed to restrain his men to some extent, hoping to coax Baca to surrender and the boys to cool their blood lust. News of the siege had spread throughout the Hispanic community and they began to gather on the nearby hillsides, encouraging Baca and threatening the Texans. Cook was caught in a most uncomfortable position.

The siege lasted through the afternoon of October 30 and the morning of October 31, with shots fired into the jacal in both isolated and bursts of fire. It was true that Baca was able to avoid the gunfire by lying on the sunken floor and he was able to start a fire in the stove in the early morning and fry some tortillas and beef before firing resumed.

Just as the situation appeared to climax, relief came in the afternoon when Deputy Sheriff Frank Rose arrived from Socorro, accompanied by Baca's good friend, Francisquito Naranjo. Rose declined at first to assume command of the situation until Deputy Bechtol, who had actually slept through most of the day, aroused and presented himself; chastened by Rose, he slunk back to the saloon in disgrace.

Greatly relieved, Cook managed an agreement that he would guarantee Baca's safety if Naranjo could coax Baca out. It worked. Baca appeared, covered in dust but unharmed and with a Colt in each hand, which he refused to relinquish. Rose took Baca to Milligan’s saloon and placed him under the protection of Cook's WS cowboys, who were less inclined to kill Baca. After all, Parham hadn’t been their foreman.

On the following day, November 1, Baca accompanied Rose and Naranjo to Socorro in the back of a buckboard with Cook's escort riding a demanded 30 yards ahead. It was learned later that two different groups of cowboys planned to ambush Baca on the way, but inebriated cowboys don't plan well and both failed. Cook was probably the hero of the whole affair, his wise restraint of the Texans' blood lust preventing a savage race war.

In the aftermath, Baca was tried twice and acquitted both times, the second in Bernalillo County. Apparently the "double indemnity" protection mattered little to the cattle interests who continued their vendetta against Baca and the Hispanic political structure. He remained in Albuquerque, serving as Deputy Sheriff to Santiago Baca; their relationship is unclear.

Baca's brave, if foolish, defiance of the trigger-happy cowboys actually had long-standing influence in New Mexico. He earned grudging admiration from the cowboys and the undying support of a newly emboldened Hispanic population. The more moderate-minded elements of the cattlemen were able to move to the fore and New Mexico enjoyed a de-escalating level of outrageous behavior and improving race relations that remain to this day.

As to the legend of Baca's stand-off, it’s true that we cannot believe everything we hear. Baca's early interest in the law and his powerful reputation led him in to a long and successful career in both the law and politics. As such, he had a ready and willing audience to his glib tongue and as many Old West characters did, he was not above embellishing his story.

The dozen or so shooters at Frisco Plaza soon became 80; the one casualty of the shoot-out became four, one wounded man became eight; the 400 or so fired rounds became 4,000 with over 380 bullet holes in the door. He also added attempts to dynamite the jacal and torches burned out on the sod roof.

Baca remained a visible figure in New Mexico for the next 60 years. His fortunes waxed and waned as he supported his countrymen rich and poor, donating his services to the poor. He managed to temporarily blacken his reputation when he befriended and supported Albert Fall in his political campaign and even when Fall became Secretary of the Interior. Fall's involvement in the Teapot Dome Scandal tainted Baca for a time, however, his own personal integrity and public service survived the blemish and Baca died with his boots off in 1945, well within the lifespan of many Single Action Shooting Society members.

Baca's fantastic story took on a life of its own over the years and was accepted without question even by the likes of Walt Disney in his series on Baca "from Frontierland." It is very interesting to see Walt wearing a splendid Hollywood buscadero gun belt, demonstrating what a pile of 4,000 cartridges looks like, then firing his twin pearl handled Colts to wake up his dozing musicians and ordering them to sing the Ballad of Elfego Baca.

Ball, Larry D.; Elfego Baca in Life and Legend; University of Texas, El Paso; 1992

Hardin, Jessie Wolf; Old Guns and Whispering Ghoss: Elfego Baca and the Frisco War; 2006

Keleher, William A.; Memoirs, Episodes in New Mexico History; Sunstone Press; 2008