By Jesse Wolf Hardin
“I will show the Texans there is at least one Mexican in the county who is not afraid of an American Cowboy” – Elfego Baca, 1884
The tiny hamlet of Reserve, New Mexico lies nestled almost exactly a hundred miles north of Silver City in the state’s mountainous southwest, adjacent to the Gila: the very first protected wilderness in this country. While lately characterized by its world-class elk hunting and the county’s outspoken resistance to federal lands policies, the bucolic Catron Country village of Reserve was once better known as the site of the fabled “Frisco War.” In a dramatic display of skill, spunk, and luck, an unimposing 5’ 7” Hispanic by the name of Elfego Baca instigated and prevailed in what was likely the most unequal gunfight in the history of the American West.
This singular battle has long served as a symbol for the power of the lone individual, standing up against overwhelming odds for what he or she happens to believe is right. For some folks at the turn of the century, this meant the “sod-busting” granger taking a stand against big-moneyed Eastern ranching interests. More recently the oft-told siege has been adopted by small-time ranchers seeking to hold onto their livelihoods and lifestyles in the face of increasing government regulation and economic downturns. Still, others see the spirit of Elfego in the most powerless of the disenfranchised: those species of wildlife facing extinction and waging their own battle for survival. And for the lay historian, the odds Baca faced evoke not only Gary Cooper in “High Noon” but the ragtag army of the original thirteen colonies resisting the might of the British empire, the tiny phalanx of Spartans holding the pass of Thermopoli against the pressing Persian hordes, and the boy David boldly facing a giant Goliath…. swinging a modest sling with all his might.
Residents of the rural West, in the 1800s as now, seem to share a common grit: a way of being born of a certain wildness, nursed on freedom, raised in intimate contact with the natural world. Both the early West’s lawbreakers and those appointed to “bring them to justice” were generally rugged, earthy individualists. Folks on either side of the badge often considered themselves refugees from the constraint and propriety of an ever more perplexing, urban society. Both were quick to resort to the decisiveness of gunplay, ignore the finer points of the law, and pursue their whims and agendas with a vengeance. Not to mention, with particular humor and flair.
And surely none more so than our man Baca delivered on the softball field of Socorro, Territory of New Mexico, in February of 1864. Local legend has it he was kidnapped by renegade Indians at the age of one, and then promptly returned.
He later cited this affair as but another example of his lifelong good fortune, but if true the incident may say more about his native incorrigibility. Any way you toss it, Elfego grew up into one “tough bite to chew.” At the age of twelve, he may have helped his father (and consequently several other, less savory inmates) to escape from the freshly built Socorro jail, by sawing through the ceiling of their cell. Much later in life, while serving as a Sheriff himself, he is said to have reversed the procedure by coaxing various wanted men in with a simple piece of correspondence: “Dear Sir… Please come in on (whatever 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. Yours truly, Elfego Baca”). Legend and fact intertwine in uncertain ways in that place we’ve come to call the Wild West. What is certain is that during the three days of October 29th through the 31st, in the year of 1884, Baca managed to survive the murderous intent of close to a hundred irate cowboys.
While nearly everyone knows something about Wyatt Earp and the world-famous O.K. Corral, few in this country have heard of New Mexico’s Gila country or the once celebrated antagonist of the Frisco siege. Odd, considering that the famous Tombstone shootout rather fairly matched four men against five, involved less than a dozen rounds fired altogether, and lasted only three-fourths of a minute… while the “Frisco War” pitted a single person against something over eighty armed antagonists, hundreds or thousands of shots were exchanged, and the confrontation lasted over thirty-three hours! The walls of the flimsy structure where he’d taken refuge were splintered from the constant firing, with one report claiming there were three hundred and sixty-seven perforations of the door alone. Even forks and knives were hit, with the courtroom audience appropriately aghast at the humble broom brought in as evidence. A broom with eight bullet holes in its slender handle!
This region was first the home of the Mogollon Indians until they migrated down into the Rio Grande basin sometime around 900 A.D. The next to arrive were the Apache, who came to consider the greater Gila as their “sacred hunting ground.” By the 19th Century, it had become the staging ground for the last of the Indian wars, with anglo miners and trappers exploring the area tributaries, and several hundred Spanish speaking families farming alongside every slow wandering river. Before long the villages of Middle and Lower Frisco could boast over a dozen bars and bordellos, each catering to the influx of cattlemen arriving daily from Texas and Oklahoma. The valley became rife with tension as a result of Apache raids to the south, as well as various altercations between the cattle outfits and the Hispanic community that preceded them. “What happened next, ” historian Jack Ritdron notes, “was only a logical consequence.”
In October of ‘84 the nineteen-year-old Elfego may have been approached in Socorro by his friend, the sheriff of Lower Frisco, Pedro Sarracino. The sheriff recounted to him a tale of terror, wherein the Hispanic community was suffering at the hands of a group of drunken cowpokes. Baca claims to have chastised Sarracino for his hesitancy, who supposedly replied that his job was “available to anyone who wanted it” before retiring to the solace of the nearest bar.
In Baca’s memoirs, he claims he next pinned on a phony kid’s badge before beginning the long ride to Frisco, while other participants insisted he was already a legally sworn deputy at the time, campaigning in the area for the current Socorro County Sheriff. Either way, it could be said that Elfego Baca entertained more guts than caution, charging headlong into a situation he knew little about. Strapped to his side was a Colt .45, a coat draping over its characteristic black resin grips.
Soon after his arrival on the 29th, a cowboy named Charlie McCarty decided to celebrate the good life with a shooting spree inside a bar located in the Upper Frisco Plaza. The owner was an Irish-blooded army vet by the name of Bill Milligan, who at first requested Baca’s assistance in the matter. Convincing three local Hispanics to help, Baca quickly caught up with McCarty and disarmed him, sticking the unfortunate sod’s loaded revolver into his own belt. Their new prisoner hailed from a notoriously rowdy outfit at the John B. Slaughter ranch, who were none too happy to hear their boy had been snagged by this self-appointed hero. When the local magistrate proved too intimidated to try the case, Baca considered whether or not to take him all the way to Socorro. Meanwhile, he and his friends would move McCarty to an adobe house in the Middle Plaza where it would be easier to maintain possession of their prisoner.
By this time a dozen or so cowboys had gathered with their Winchester rifles at ready, led by Slaughter foreman Young Parham. They immediately demanded their buddy’s release, testing the door and windows with their shoulders. Baca responded from the other side, threatening to shoot if they weren’t “out of there by the count of three.” The story is that they were in the process of making jokes about his type “being unable to count” when they heard Baca call out in a single quick breath: “One-two-three!” while he and his friends began shooting through the door. In their haste to escape this lesson in rapid arithmetic, Parham’s horse reared back and on top of its rider, resulting in wounds that would later prove fatal.