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Soldiers, Ranchers, and Outlaws: 1861 to 1880

Civil War

At the outbreak of the Civil War, a crucial supply route crossed southern New Mexico. It provided access to gold mines in California and Colorado, and Pacific Ocean seaports. On July 25, 1861, Confederate Colonel John R. Baylor and 250 Texas Volunteers marched into Mesilla. They received a warm welcome from Southern sympathizers. Baylor proclaimed New Mexico from Socorro south as part of the Confederate Territory of Arizona. He then named himself military governor. In March 1862, the Confederates were defeated at the Battle of Glorieta Pass. They retreated to Texas, ending Confederate control of the region.
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Skirmish at Mesilla: 500 Union troops from Fort Fillmore fought Baylor in a skirmish near Mesilla on July 25, 1861. Defeated, the Union retreated to Fort Fillmore. That night Major Isaac Lynde ordered the fort's supplies and equipment destroyed to keep them from enemy hands. At daybreak, Lynde's troops along with 100 women and children began a retreat to Fort Stanton a hundred miles away. About noon, Baylor's men caught up with them at San Augustin Springs. There they found the road "lined with fainting, famished soldiers, who threw down their arms as we passed and begged for water."
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California Column

In the spring of 1862, Union General James H. Carleton and 2,300 soldiers of the California Column marched into Mesilla. They were welcomed with champagne, dinners, and balls. Wary of rebel supporters, Carleton refused to set up headquarters in Mesilla. Instead, he set up camp in Las Cruces. His troops used Saint Genevieve's plaza as a parade ground. The soldiers spent most of their time responding to Indian depredations, establishing martial law, and constructing roads and ditches.

Many members of the California Column stayed in the area after their military service. Sergeant John D. Barncastle farmed, kept a store, and entered politics. He married the daughter of Pablo Melendres, founder of Dona Ana. Sergeant Albert J. Fountain married into the prominent Perez family of Mesilla. Lieutenant Colonel William L. Rynerson involved himself in law, mining, farming, the railroad and local politics.

Fort Selden

After the Civil War, the U.S. Army turned to the "Indian problem." In 1865, General James H. Carleton established Fort Selden, one in a network of forts used in an aggressive military campaign against the Apaches. The first troops assigned to Fort Selden were Black soldiers. Many had served in the Union Army during the Civil War. At war's end, they served in the west. The Indians called them Buffalo Soldiers because they thought the men's hair resembled a buffalo's mane and because the soldiers' shared the buffalo's tenacity in battle. Soldiers at Fort Selden saw little action. The fort closed in 1878. The pursuit of Geronimo caused its reactivation in 1880. It permanently closed in 1891.


In the decades following the Civil War, the cattle industry dominated the region and fueled many of the legends of the west. In the late 1860s, Texas cattlemen moved into New Mexico. Their ranches supplied beef to army forts and Indian reservations. John Chisum, established a ranch near Roswell. In the 1870s, men drove thousands of cattle from Roswell past Las Cruces to the Indian agencies in Arizona. This path became known as the Western Chisum Trail.

Thomas J. Bull established San Augustin Ranch in the Organ Mountains. W.W. Cox bought the ranch in the late 1800s. Cox expanded the ranch to 150,000 acres. In 1945, the federal government used eminent domain to take over 90 percent of the Ranch, establishing the White Sands Missile Range.

Billy the Kid and Pat Garrett

The Lincoln County War, 1876 to 1879, was a complex struggle for economic and political power. The lawless New Mexico frontier set the stage for New Mexico's most notorious outlaw, Billy the Kid. In 1881, local newspapers regularly reported sightings of William Bonney, alias Billy the Kid. Bonney was arrested by Pat Garret and jailed in Mesilla. A Mesilla jury sentenced him to hang in Lincoln for the murder of Sheriff William Brady. Billy the Kid escaped from the Lincoln Jail on April 30, 1881, killing two deputies. He avoided capture until July 14. Sheriff Pat Garrett killed him at Pete Maxwell's ranch. Billy the Kid is buried in Fort Sumner, New Mexico.

After leaving law enforcement, Pat Garrett tried his hand at several enterprises. He finally settled into ranching near San Augustin Pass in 1905. On February 29, 1908, while on his way to Las Cruces, he was shot in the back of the head and killed. Wayne Brazel, a cowboy on W. W. Cox's ranch, pleaded self-defense and was acquitted. Garrett's burial in Las Cruces marked the end of the Wild West era in Doña Ana County.


Widespread in the 1880s, cattle rustling was spurred by high beef prices and the railroad's access to national markets. In January 1883, rustlers stole over 10,000 head of cattle from Las Cruces and the Mesilla Valley. The Governor ordered Colonel Albert J. Fountain and the Mesilla Militia to break up the gangs. Fountain and his men chased down John Kinney's gang of cattle rustlers. Kinney went to prison in Kansas. Next, the Militia broke up the Farmington Gang operating in the Black Range and northern Mesilla Valley.

Fountain then turned his attention to suspected rustlers in the Tularosa Basin. Small ranchers and tough cowboys led by Oliver Lee accused the big cattle companies of taking all the land and water. In turn, the big outfits charged Lee and his followers with rustling and murder. Albert B. Fall, a lawyer and former miner, often represented the small ranchers. In 1888, Fall ran for the Territorial Legislature, but lost to Fountain. In the 1892 rematch, Oliver Lee and his cowboys helped ensure Fall's victory over Fountain.

Albert Fountain Mystery

In 1896, Oliver Lee was indicted for cattle rustling in a Lincoln district court. Albert Fountain attended the indictment. On his return to Las Cruces, Fountain and his eight-year-old son disappeared in the Chalk Hill area of the Tularosa Basin. His bloodstained wagon was found miles off the trail. Sheriff Pat Garret arrested murder suspects - Oliver Lee, Bill McNew and Jim Gilliland. Albert B. Fall represented the cowboys in the eighteen-day trial held in Hillsboro. It took the jury eight minutes to find the men not guilty.