Before White Oaks became known as the
liveliest town in
Territory the area was first roamed by the Piros
before they were forced out by the fierce
region is arid and dotted with lava rock, the
found it abundant with game and made it one of their hunting grounds.
The first Europeans to
travel into the area were members of Don Juan de Onate's expedition in the
late 1500’s, who called the land Malpais, loosely meaning "lava stream.”
Though sparsely populated for centuries, that all changed when prospectors
found gold in the Jicarilla Mountains.
Originally discovered by a man named John
Wilson, allegedly an escapee from a
Wilson shared his find with two friends by the names of Jack Winters and
Harry Baxter. Though Winters and Baxter were ecstatic, Wilson had no
interest in gold and soon moved on, leaving his find to his friends.
The 1893 Brown Store building, which at
various times held a school, a dance hall, and offices, Kathy Weiser, February, 2008.This image available for
photographic prints and downloads
Word soon spread of the gold find and
within a year, a new mining camp, filled with tents was born. The camp
was called White Oaks after a small stream near the community that was
lined with white oak trees. In 1880 a post office was established and
permanent buildings began to replace the tents and rambling shacks.
The boom town quickly grew, supporting some 50 different businesses,
including four newspapers, two hotels, three churches, a sawmill, a
bank, an opera house, livery stables, and a number of the ever present
saloons and gambling houses.
In the meantime,
prospectors Winters and Baxter founded two claims called the Homestake Mine and the South Homestake Mine. The mountain where the
gold was found was called Baxter Mountain. Eventually, the two gold
miners sold their claims for $300,000 each.
Like other booming mining camps of the
day, White Oaks is filled with legends and lore, including that of a
"lady” by the name of Belle La Mar, who was more familiarly known as
"Madam Varnish.” Hailing from
Missouri, La Mar, made her way to the
mining camp that was "hungry” for the sight of women. There, she soon
established the Little Casino
Saloon, where she dealt faro, roulette
and poker. Quick to take the gold of the many miners in the area, she
earned her nickname when the miners said she was as "slick as
varnish.” Though many lost their hard earned gold at the Little
Casino, it was the reigning
saloon in town. Other popular stops for
the miners were the Star
Saloon and Opera House.
During White Oaks early days, the town was
also frequented by none other than the infamous
Billy the Kid.
stomping grounds were in Lincoln, some
forty miles to the east of White Oaks, the Kid was known to hang with
other roughnecks in the thriving mining camp filled with
gambling parlors and prostitutes.
the Lincoln County War was over,
Billy and his gang of "Rustlers” often targeted cattle in the White Oaks
vicinity and after one attempted theft, the citizens of White Oaks rose up
in protest, gathered up a posse, and went after the gang. Though they
caught up with the outlaws and a gunfight ensued, the thieves were able to