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Borne Back into the Past

An issue full of history lessons, from a place where history was only yesterday.


This issue, like the characters in The Great Gatsby, kept being borne back ceaselessly into the past. The stories this month–and the way history intertwines with even today's most newsworthy topics–show how vividly the past remains alive in our little corner of the country. Here in Southwest New Mexico, to quote another 20th century American author, William Faulkner, "The past is not dead. In fact, it's not even past."

First, last month, True West magazine named Silver City as number two in its rankings of Western towns–up from eighth position in the previous rankings. Not to toot our own horn here (well, OK, toot!), but a key reason for Silver City's rise to prominence among Old West buffs has been the relentless research and colorful storytelling of Bob Alexander, whose work we brought to a wider audience with the publication of Six-Guns and Single-Jacks: A History of Silver City and Southwestern New Mexico. That book was the product of our Gila Books book-publishing arm, as was, just last fall, Bob's followup, Desert Desperadoes: The Banditti of Southwestern New Mexico.

When we talk about the Wild West history of Silver City, it's important to note, we're really referring to all of what once was Grant County, including present-day Luna and Hidalgo counties. The rootin'-tootin' goings-on back then ranged from Pinos Altos to Deming to Shakespeare, near Lordsburg, and all points in between. "Old Grant County," indeed, is the geographic focus of Six-Guns and Single-Jacks. In his new book, Desert Desperadoes, Bob widens his geographic lens to encompass all of Southwest New Mexico–prominently including Dona Ana County–while narrowing his topic. Unlike Six-Guns and Single-Jacks, which told the stories of Apaches, hardscrabble miners, schoolmarms and businessmen as well as gun-toting outlaws and lawmen, Desert Desperadoes targets only the most colorful (and, admittedly, violent) characters who blazed a trail through these parts.

Are we glorifying violence and outlaws by collecting their stories in book form? Of course not. Bob Alexander, like any good historian, is simply telling history as it really was–and in our case, much of the history was red in tooth and claw. Most of the owlhoots he chronicles met an end as bad as they were, by the way, and Desert Desperadoes records those shootings and hangings (or lynchings, in some cases), too. Present-day readers can draw their own conclusions and comparisons to contemporary crime.

It's worth noting, too, that "those thrilling days of yesteryear" weren't painted in black and white any more than the complex world we now see on the nightly news. Most of these colorful characters made their historic mark in a gray muddle of morality. The lawmen could be as ruthless as the lawbreakers, and sometimes gunslingers slipped back and forth across the thinly drawn line of legality as easily as they reloaded their six-shooters. Even our own Billy the Kid, after all, was deputized at one point in the Lincoln County Wars.

But I digress. The point is, when we heard that True West had bumped up Silver City to second place, we had to make room for an article by none other than Bob Alexander. It's adapted from a talk he gave about "Silver City's wilder side" at the annual meeting of the Western Outlaw-Lawmen History Association in Santa Fe–a talk that not only helps explain why Silver City merits national recognition but that also, we suspect, directly helped put us on True West's map.


We weren't originally planning to run a lengthy feature on the future of Fort Bayard, either. But once again events–and, in this case, this month's opening of the legislative session–overtook our best-laid plans. Although the focus of this story is firmly on the present day–and the future, if Fort Bayard is to have one–inevitably this article, too, is deeply colored by the past. (I found myself referring to Six-Guns and Single-Jacks for details about the fort's history.)

Will we rescue this important piece of our region's past and find creative ways in which Fort Bayard can help fuel our economic future? Or will the state board up the fort–possibly forever, as the buildings slide ever deeper into disrepair–when the medical center there relocates in early 2008? That decision may be made in the next few months, as the legislature debates its spending priorities.

All of this reminds us that it's not merely that this area has a rich and colorful past; the "history" hereabouts was also more recent than anywhere else in the country. New Mexico and Arizona, after all, were the last of the contiguous United States to achieve statehood–the centennial of which is just ahead. As frequent contributor Jesse Wolf Hardin argued in "The Last Raid" in our March 2006 issue, Pancho Villa's 1916 raid on Columbus "marked the last organized Indian raid on US soil"–and that was barely more than 90 years ago. In Six-Guns and Single-Jacks, Bob Alexander describes a Bootheel shootout after the turn of the 20th century that was every bit the bloody equal of anything in cinematic versions of the OK Corral melee; the latterday gunfight south of Lordsburg was sparked by the alleged theft of a piece of watermelon.

The daring exploits of Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett in the old part of this nation were ancient history, remember, when fates in Southwest New Mexico were still being settled with six-guns. That's neither something to be celebrated nor condemned–just not forgotten. The history here is still fresh–and sometimes raw–and your neighbors may have had parents or grandparents who played leading roles in that saga. We have the last chance of any place in America to save and savor that colorful history before it fades away forever.

Let's not blow it.


David A. Fryxell is editor of Desert Exposure.

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