The Life & Mysterious Death of Samuel B. Watrous

By this time Watrous and Son’s store was one of the most important on the Santa Fe Trail. He and his son-in-law, William Tipton, had the contract for supplying beef to Fort Union, which had about 600 men garrisoned there at the time. Scarcely a day passed that travelers did not go by the Watrous house. These travelers differed from the early trappers and freighters, with wagons loaded with household furnishings, chicken crates tied on the back, and a straggling milk cow in the rear. Men rode on horseback beside their cattle-yoked wagons and from within the wagons, women and children peered out with wary curiosity. In the 1850s the heaviest travel had gone by way of the Cimarron Cutoff for the Raton Pass had proved as great a peril to the cumbersome wagons. However, that changed when “Uncle Dick” Wootton built his toll road in 1865.

Cattle Rustlers

Cattle Rustlers

Watrous grazed over a thousand head of livestock, both cattle, and horses, which eventually lured cattle rustlers to La Junta. By the 1860s the Coe Gang was hiding out in Dog Canyon about eight miles northeast of La Junta. For several years, these men earned their livelihood raiding ranches and military installations from Fort UnionNew Mexico to the south, Taos, New Mexico to the west, and as far north as Denver, Colorado. They also preyed on freight caravans traveling along the Santa Fe Trail, as well as area ranches. Eventually, William Coe was captured near Shoemaker, New Mexico, escaped, was hunted down again, and hanged in Pueblo, Colorado in 1868.

In addition to ranching, Samuel and his partners built a woolen mill at Cherry Valley, some eight miles northeast of La Junta. The New Mexico Woolen Enterprises Manufacturing Company, including a three-story stone building, adobe living quarters for the workmen, storerooms, corrals, and stables, was in full operation by 1867. For the next 20 years, the mill would produce blankets, rugs, carpets, and serapes. In the end; however, due to disagreements among his sons and sons-in-law, Samuel ceased operations in 1884.

Numerous small ranches grew up in the valley. Soon, the Indian menace had been subdued and there was a rumor of disbanding the forts. Watrous could see that would mean a decline and he then turned his attention to planting orchards and farming.

By this time many of the Watrous children were married. His sons, Joseph and Samuel, Jr, and his son-in-law, William Tipton, were his partners in business. William Kroenig, who had married Maria Louisa Watrous, discovered copper on Baldy Mountain and had a ranch adjoining the Watrous property. Two other Watrous daughters, Belina and Emeteria married entrepreneurs. Carl Wildenstein an Austrian designer and civil engineer married Belina, and George Gregg, the proprietor of Gregg’s Tavern, a stage stop on the Barlow and Sanderson line, wedded Emeteria. María Antonia married James Johnson, the first Anglo settler at Cherry Valley, later called Shoemaker.

By 1879 the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad was making plans to barrel through La Junta and Samuel Watrous donated ten acres for the right of way, stations, and yards. When the official townsite was laid out a few years later, the settlement was renamed Watrous. Though railroad caused the traffic on the Santa Fe Trail and the stage lines to cease, the town of Watrous became an important shipping point for local products and was used by Fort Union in transporting supplies and personnel, until its abandonment in 1891. By that time, the town boasted numerous saloons, businesses, and a school.

Samuel Watrous died of two gunshots to the head at the age of 77. Though the official documents stated that he had committed suicide by shooting himself twice in the head, that obviously didn’t make sense to some folks.

Ambush Shooting

Ambush Shooting

The Death of Samuel B. Watrous Remains an Unresolved Mystery, Las Vegas Daily Optic, Marcy 17, 1886:

A special dispatch to the Daily Optic this morning from Watrous gives the startling intelligence that S B Watrous, senior of that town, committed suicide this morning at his residence in the suburbs of that place by shooting himself’ twice through the head with a revolver. The people in Watrous were greatly shocked to learn of the terrible death of the venerable pioneer and what his motive was for committing the rash act is merely a matter of conjecture… It is understood he leaves a fine estate to his heirs.

On the same date the Santa Fe Daily New Mexican added a few details:

S: B. Watrous, Sr. Goes To His Death Under Peculiar Circumstances

S. B. Watrous, Sr. committed suicide at Watrous station this morning at 5 o’clock by shooting himself through the head twice with the same weapon used by his son [Samuel Jr.], who killed himself a few months ago, and since which time the father has been greatly troubled.

Later, however, family members related other, more sinister, possibilities. James E. Romero, Jr., a great-great-grandson of Samuel and Tomacita Watrous, related that family tradition alleged that Joseph Watrous and Josephine Chapin Watrous (Samuel’s last wife) became jealous of Samuel, Jr. and plotted his death. Further, Romero alleged that Joseph killed the younger Watrous on the road to Shoemaker, New Mexico. He went on to say that the senior Samuel was extremely distraught, would not accept that his son had killed himself, and, in time, became suspicious and accused Joseph and Josephine of killing his son. An argument then erupted, which was overheard by the servants and shots were heard. When the servants entered the living room, Samuel lay dead with two bullet wounds in his head.

In a letter to the editor of the New Mexico Magazine, another descendant — Angeline Guerin Kramer, claimed that her grandmother, Belina Watrous, told her that the Samuel, Jr. had been murdered because he was his father’s principal heir and that his stepmother, Josephine Chapin Watrous, had a hand in the murder, although an accomplice had actually shot him. She also stated that Samuel Watrous was possibly killed in self-defense, by his wife Josephine during a violent domestic fight. In her letter, she also made another important point — how she asked, could someone shoot himself twice in the head?

After a long and successful life, Samuel B. Watrous was buried next to his wives in unmarked graves in the small cemetery just over the hill East of his home. Leaving no will, after his death, there were complications in settling the estate due to questionable titles of the Scolly Land Grant, and the complicated division among many heirs. The family was in a state of turmoil and it was reported that Josephine Chapin Watrous never spoke again to any of Samuel’s children, other than Joseph, the allegedly adopted son of Samuel, and her own children, Charles and Rose.

The village of Watrous continued to thrive after the death of its namesake for a number of years.

Today, this small town of just about 135 people is a National Historic Landmark District that includes the routes of the Santa Fe Trail that originally came together in the La Junta area and buildings and structures associated with the community’s active use from 1835 to 1879. Much of the original character and integrity of La Junta remain today, from its rustic built environment to the natural beauty of the rangeland in the valley. Throughout the district, deep trail impressions and wagon wheel ruts still dot the landscape.

Watrous, New Mexico Ruins

Watrous, New Mexico Ruins

The Watrous Valley Ranch and House passed through three other families before coming into the hands of the current owners, who have completely restored the house. Located at 2286 Hwy 161, the ranch still has thousands of acres of original grazing land and hundred of Samuel Watrous‘ original Black Willow and Cottonwood Trees.

Watrous is about 16 miles northeast of Las Vegas, just over the county line in Mora County.


©  Kathy Weiser/Legends of America, updated March 2018.


Clark, Anna Nolan, Fifty Years of Change, New Mexico Magazine, February 1938

New Mexico Office of the State Historian

Santa Fe Trail Association Quarterly, Volume 12, February 1998

Santa Fe Trail Site Map & Writing Credits

Varney, Philip; New Mexico’s Best Ghost Towns: A Practical Guide; University of New Mexico Press, 1987


Watrous Church

Watrous Church

Also See:


Santa Fe Trail – Highway To the Southwest

Santa Fe Trail Through New Mexico

New Mexico (main page)

Santa Fe Trail Photo Print Gallery

Watrous – River Junction on the Santa Fe Trail

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