Baca and the Cowboys
By: Regis McCafferty
A lot has been written about Elfego Baca, lawman, southwestern gunman, and member of the bar, but the one incident that made him famous bears retelling. There are so many sources of information, all telling basically the same story, that to mention them would take more space than the article itself and since most are in public domain, there is no need. One source however, does deserve mention. In July, 1936, several years before his death, Janet Smith conducted an interview with Elfego Baca. That interview will comprise part II of this article. Her interview notes can be found at the Library of Congress, Manuscript Division, WPA Federal Writers' Project Collection.
Elfego Baca was born in 1865, and the story of his birth, true or not, makes for entertaining reading. It is said that his mother, almost nine months pregnant, was playing ball, jumped into the air, came down hard, and Elfego entered the game! His entry into law enforcement, and the beginning of becoming a legend in his own time, began at age nineteen was almost as dramatic.
Silver was discovered in the Magdalena Mountains west of Socorro in 1867. That event and the coming of the railroad, created a boomtown environment. By 1890, Socorro was the largest city in New Mexico with over 3000 miners living, gambling, and drinking in the city. Law and order were almost non-existent.
Baca wanted to be a lawman. His father, though not a lawman, was certainly a pistolero or shootist and had killed two cowboys in a gunfight. And though details are sketchy, he was convicted and sentenced to a long term in prison. Elfego worked in a store in Socorro, but eventually tired of the daily routine and decided if Socorro County needed a Sheriff, he'd appoint himself. Armed with a mail order badge and two pistols, he appointed deputies and sought indictments of known criminals in the county. His approach to making arrests was unique. He would send a letter to each of the accused, that read, "I have a warrant here for your arrest. Please come in by (Date) and give yourself up. If you don't, I'll know you intend to resist arrest, and I will feel justified in shooting you on sight when I come after you." It was extremely effective and many of the wanted men came into town, turned in their guns, and stood trial.
About 120 miles south of Socorro was a small town known as Frisco where area cowboys and those traveling through on cattle drives from Texas would come to drink, gamble, and generally raise hell. In October 1884, some cowboys from the local Slaughter Ranch came into Frisco to do some serious drinking and have a little fun at the expense of some of the Mexicans who lived there. It's been said they did some "cruel" things to two Mexicans; a man known as El Burro and his friend, Epitacio Martinez. What those things were is vague and the specifics are lost to history.
The Frisco deputy sheriff, Pedro Sarracino, being outnumbered and a man of common sense, rode to Socorro to seek help from Elfego Baca. Together, they rode back to Frisco and sought warrants for the cowboys arrest from a local Justice of the Peace. Being also a man of common sense, and aware the cowboys numbered 150 or more, the Justice of the Peace turned them down. Baca, not being one to be detoured by minor legalities, promptly arrested one of the trouble making cowboys. When a large crowd gathered and demanded the cowboy's release, Baca shot into the crowd, hitting one cowboy. They dispersed, but the following day, about 80 showed up again, intent on freeing the arrested cowboy - or killing Baca, whichever came first.
When Baca refused the demands of the cowboys to release their arrested friend, the gunfight began. Baca, dragging his prisoner with him ran to the house of Geronimo Armijo and barricaded himself inside. The house had thick log walls and a sunken dirt floor, providing protection for the bullets that were being fired in his direction. First, the cowboys tried to set fire to the roof but it was covered with dirt and wouldn't burn. Next they tried dynamite on one corner but with little success.
The battle raged for 33 hours and when it was over, Elfego Baca, unwounded, had killed four cowboys and wounded eight. Eventually Baca agreed to give himself up to the Justice of the Peace but refused to turn over his guns. He was tried for murder but acquitted after the door of Aemijo's house was entered as evidence. It had over 400 bullet holes in it.
There are many more stories about this southwestern lawman, including one of how he once stole a gun from Pancho Villa. Villa reportedly put a thirty thousand dollar price on Baca's head, but it was never collected. He went on to become a marshal, district attorney, school superintendent, and mayor and died at age 84 in 1945.
Elfego Baca and the Cowboys Part II
Dark Canyon Home Page