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“The Wild Bunch of the San Francisco River, New Mexico”

by N. Howard Thorp (WPA Field Writer)

In 1933, when Franklin Delano Roosevelt was elected President, US citizens were suffering from the bad times known as the Great Depression. Under the new president, Congress passed laws aimed at speeding up economic recovery and helping people in need. One of these acts created the Works Progress Administration, or WPA. The WPA gave people jobs building highways, streets, bridges, and parks. It also hired writers, actors, and musicians to create and perform new works. Nationwide, about 8.5 million people found jobs through the WPA.

Between 1936 and 1942, writers working with the New Mexico Federal Writers’ Project, a department of the WPA, fanned out across New Mexico. They gathered information and wrote several thousand pages describing the state’s landscape and people, reporting on social and economic conditions, and recording folklore and oral histories. Many of these WPA files, including the one below, ended up at the New Mexico State Records Center and Archives in Santa Fe, where anyone can go in and read them.

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The outlaws who had drifted from the towns of Tombstone, Morenci, and Clifton, when the Earps and other peace officers made it too hot for them, rode north and east to the Blue River, following it up until they came to where the San Francisco river empties into it, and in a few miles crossed the line into New Mexico and arrived at the little town of Alma. Black river was also a great hold-out for them. Many of these men—all former cowhands—went to work for the W.S. S.U. double circles, Lyon and Cambell and other outfits, eventually aiming to get to the hole-in-the-wall gang of Wyoming.

In the spring of 1885 old Geronimo the Apache was raising all the devilment in eastern Arizona and western New Mexico possible. An Apache Indian has the faculty of disappearing from sight on a level mesa where there is apparently no cover or other object to conceal him from your view; also he can reappear in the same mysterious manner, from nowhere. He also has the faculty of being able to see what is going on behind him without moving anything but his eyeballs. People who have these accomplishments are hard to handle.

One squaw captured by the sixth Cavalry in command of Captain Hammond, and brought to the W.S. ranch for safekeeping, proved to be the wife of the great Medicine Chief Geronimo, and whom the boys at the ranch christened “Biddy,” a hard looker, but built on generous lines, and probably a good beast of burden. The Troops had been pressing the Indians so close the old girl had played out, and was left on the trail. This is the same band that killed Luce, Orwig, and Young Lyons, all ranchmen of the Alma district.

A few miles below Alma the Frisco river enters a box canyon, the end of which is where White Water Creek empties into the main stream. At this point there is a wide place where one may get down from the high cliffs to the river. In all this five miles of canyon this is the only possible place of descent. This was a favorite spot of the Indians to way-lay travelers.

The Cavalry at one time ran a bunch of Indians into this box canyon and as it was late in the day, placed heavy guards at each end. All night long they kept their patrols and fires going, waiting for morning when they expected to put an end to at least one bunch of Apaches. During the night the Indians had scaled these cliffs, and with a crude rawhide harness had pulled their horses up with them and made their escape. One seeing the walls of this canyon would say such a feat was impossible, but nevertheless it so happened. Enough concerning the Indians. I have only mentioned this incident to show what a resourceful lot the ranchmen of the early days had to contend with.

Jasper Tomason, who was called Jap for short, had worked for the W.S. outfit since the brand was originated, had lately been “sittin’” courting, one of the Meader girls; Jap had drawn his pay and signified his intention of marrying her, so we were all surprised to hear that she had suddenly married another suitor named Potter. Now Potter was endowed with worldly goods, but in looks could not compare with Jap. The first thing anyone knew was the news that Jap had killed Potter. Jap was now under arrest at Cooney, and when the outfit rode over to try and get him out of jail on bond, they found him and the deputy enjoying a drink at the local bar.

At the hearing at the Justice court, it seems that after the girl had married Potter, Jap still continued his attentions, and Potter threatened to shoot him. When the case was called, the Judge, who had been very drunk, did not appear, and after a thorough search he was found asleep in a ditch. After washing himself in a nearby creek, he assumed an air of great dignity and strode into the courtroom. Calling the court to order, he bound Jap over to the Grand Jury and was sent to Socorro, N.M., and there given a life sentence. After two years of leisure he was pardoned out by Governor Prince.

The country at this time was infested with cow thieves, and trouble for the big ranchers began, so they enlisted the services of all the tough cowhands who came along.

About this time, the W.S. ranch put in as foreman a man named Golden, a big stout fellow, a good rider, and all-around hand. The day after Fred Golden took charge, a chuck-liner, “one who rides from ranch to ranch getting free board” who gave the name of McNeil, rode up and stayed all night, bringing four horses in the Hashknife brand. He explained having them through the fact he had been working for that outfit, and took the horses in on wages. When the home outfit started the roundup, they left him at the ranch under the eye of old Charley.

In a few days when returning to the ranch, the outfit was met by old Charley, who told them McNeil had left, and stolen the best stallion on the ranch who at night was always locked in the barn. The ranch started men horse-back in every direction, and at last two of the riders found where McNeil had tried to lead the stallion up an almost impossible trail. And the horse had slipped back and fallen several hundred feet to his death. McNeil was next heard from in Utah, where for train robbery he was sentenced to the Penn for twelve years.