History Features

28 Moments of Entrapment

In New Mexico's Pre-Statehood History.


Billy the Kid
“Who remembers Billy the Kid?” Harvey Fergusson wrote in 1925.

Today, everybody does, thanks to Walter Noble Burns’s book the following year, 60-odd movies and countless biographies and novels. We don’t really know where or when he was born, but the trail he left during the Lincoln County War is pretty well documented. By most accounts, he was one charming killer, loyal to his pals, pulled off a legendary jail break, needed a good orthodontist and got killed by Pat Garrett in Fort Sumner in 1881. But would we remember him if he’d been known as Henry Antrim?

Clovis Man
Rambo was a sissy compared to this guy. Some 11,500 years ago (perhaps even longer), Clovis Man went hunting for bison and mammoth, armed with his fluted spears. In 1929, a teenaged boy named Ridgely Whiteman followed in the footsteps of Folsom Man discoverer George McJunkin by finding what became known as the “Clovis Man Site” in Blackwater Draw near the town of Clovis. Hunting a mammoth with a spear? Wow!

Cabeza de Vaca
When Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca and several Spaniards were shipwrecked on Galveston Island in 1528, he did what any sensible tourist would do. He left Texas. Historians are divided on the route he took during his eight-year journey, but the stories he heard and told about the legendary golden Seven Cities of Cibola would fuel often-violent Spanish exploration beginning in 1539. Maybe de Vaca should have stayed in Texas.

Don Juan de Oñate y Salazar
With a grant from the viceroy (and titles governor and captain general of New Mexico), de Oñate led Spanish colonists into New Mexico in 1598, establishing the first capital near present-day Española. He also chased after those mythical golden cities—with no luck—and is vilified these days because of a violent attack against Acoma Indians.

Pueblo Revolt
By 1680, New Mexico Indians had had enough of Spanish rule. They didn’t care much for having their religion prohibited or being forced into slave labor. So a San Juan Pueblo Indian named Po’pay organized a coordinated Pueblo revolt beginning on August 10. Some 400 Spanish colonists were killed, along with 21 priests, and the Spaniards were driven across the Mexican border. Unfortunately for the Indians, they’d return some 12 years later.

Sibley Invasion
Confederate Gen. Henry Hopkins Sibley led an army of Texans into New Mexico in 1862, hoping to claim the Colorado gold fields and, eventually, California ports for the Southern cause. He actually turned Union forces back at Valverde, took Albuquerque and even Santa Fe before limping back to Texas after the Battle of Glorieta Pass. All of this helped persuade Congress to separate New Mexico into two territories, and the Territory of Arizona was born in 1863.

Literary Giants
Say all you want about Richard Bradford (Red Sky at Morning), John Nichols (The Milagro Beanfield War), Eugene Manlove Rhodes (Pasó Por Aquí) or Conrad Richter (The Sea of Grass), but the two novelists who did the most for New Mexico are Ol’ Max Evans (still alive and kickin’ in Albuquerque) and Tony Hillerman (1925-2008). Evans brought the state’s post-WW II cowboy to life in The Rounders and The Hi Lo Country, and helped relaunch the film industry here. Hillerman showcased the Navajo Nation and turned contemporary Indian cops into smart-thinking good guys in novels like Dance Hall of the Dead, A Thief of Time and Skinwalkers. But go figure: Hillerman was a native Oklahoman; Evans was born in Texas. New Mexico also claims Rudolfo Anaya, author of Bless Me, Ultima and the father of contemporary Chicano literature. He’s a native, born in Pastura and still writing in Albuquerque.

There’s no Grand Canyon or oceanfront property, but tourism rocks in the Land of Enchantment. Restaurateur Fred Harvey figured that out in the late 1800s, and back in 1922, Edgar L. Hewitt had Indian artists wear feather bonnets to make white buyers happy at Santa Fe’s first Indian Market. And those Navajo kachinas? Unlike the Hopi’s, Navajo kachinas have no religious significance. They’re for tourists, too. But from Taos to Santa Fe to Lincoln County to the Trinity Site, from art to nature to science to history, there’s a lot to bring tourists to New Mexico.

Jerked to Jesus
New Albuquerque’s first town marshal ended up hanged by the townspeople he served! Marshal Milt Yarberry had been the shooter in two questionable killings: the first one took place just one month after he became marshal in February 1881 and the second, in June 1881. He was acquitted in the first trial, but the jury in the second case found self-defense a difficult notion to accept since no gun was found on or near the victim and because Yarberry had shot the man three times—twice in the back. On February 9, 1883, he was hanged at the Bernalillo County Jail in Albuquerque’s Old Town. His hanging was unusual in that the gallows was a new contraption based on plans published in Scientific American. Instead of dropping through a trapdoor, the condemned man was yanked upwards when a 400-pound weight was dropped. In reporting the execution, one newspaper noted that “the soul of Yarberry was wafted to the presence of his Maker.”

No Accident
In the frontier town of Las Vegas, more than one hardcase was removed from jail prior to trial and hanged from the windmill in the Las Vegas plaza. Miguel A. Otero, governor of the New Mexico Territory from 1897-1906, recounts one such incident in his book My Life on the Frontier. Otero reports of a cowboy showing off his pistol-handling skills in Las Vegas in the late 1870s when the pistol discharged and killed a man standing by him. The cowboy said he was sorry, that it was just an accident, and then continued with his pistol twirling. Again the gun discharged, this time killing a woman standing across the street. The cowboy, apparently as polite as he was careless, again apologized and noted that this also was an accident. That did not stop law officers from taking him to jail. The next morning, the cowboy was found hanging from the windmill. The sign on his body read, “This is no accident.”

A Healthy Climate for Wyatt
Albuquerque’s sunny, dry climate and clean air has long made the city a destination for people seeking cures for tuberculosis, asthma and other respiratory ailments. In April 1882, one especially colorful party of visitors arrived in Albuquerque by train, looking to avoid a lethal case of lead poisoning. According to the Albuquerque Evening Review, Wyatt and Warren Earp, John H. “Doc” Holliday, Sherman McMasters, Dan Tipton, John “Turkey Creek Jack” Johnson and Jack “Texas Jack” Vermillion spent a week or more in Albuquerque. They were waiting for things to cool down in Arizona following the killing spree the group had embarked on in response to the murder of Morgan Earp, which was, in turn, a consequence of the famous O.K. Corral gunfight in Tombstone.

Lazy S.O.B.
S. Omar Barker, author of novels, stories and verse about the American West, was born June 16, 1894, in a log cabin in Sapello Canyon near New Mexico’s Sangre de Cristo Mountains. He grew up working cattle in those mountains and took great delight in his Lazy SOB cattle brand, which was derived from his initials. Barker claimed he made more money from “A Cowboy’s Christmas Prayer,” which recounts a humble cowboy’s chat with God at Christmas time, than for any other one thing he wrote. But he didn’t make much off it from Lawrence Welk. The popular band leader wanted to use the poem on his TV show in 1962. Barker said he’d take $100 for it; the show countered with a $50 offer. Barker responded in a telegram that read, “Fifty bucks no steak. Beans. But will accept to help TV poor folks.” After all that, the Welk show apparently decided not to air the poem on the TV program.

Aubry’s Ride
Francis X. Aubry found success in the Santa Fe trade in the late 1840s and went on to blaze new commercial routes into Mexico and across Texas and eventually between New Mexico and San Francisco. But he is probably best remembered for a record-breaking ride he made in 1848. Aubry made a bet that he could ride a relay of horses between Santa Fe and Independence, Missouri, a distance of 780 miles, in six days. That was unheard of, so Aubry’s...

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