Elfego Baca is one of those larger-than-life characters that lived in the violent days of territorial New Mexico. While not as famous as John Chisum, Billy the Kid, Pat Garrett or even one of the pair of original U.S. senators, Holm Bursum, Baca’s life story is well worth telling.
Elfego Baca was born in 1865 in Socorro. His parents moved shortly after his birth to Topeka, Kansas, and he did not return to New Mexico until the death of his mother when his father returned to New Mexico. Elfego went to work in his uncle’s mercantile just off the Socorro Plaza.
Socorro in the 1880s was a booming silver mining town, and Socorro County included both present-day Socorro County and Catron County. Mining fueled Socorro’s business community, which included multiple saloons, casinos and mercantiles. Just south of Socorro was the separate village of Park City where the silver smelters turned silver ore into pure silver. Large ranches in Socorro County took advantage of extensive and very productive grazing land and a rail line from Magdalena to Socorro, linking the county to stockyards in the East. Hispanic families worked farms along the Rio Grande River.
Violence was common due to the mix of easy money, liquor and a transient, primarily male population. For nearly ten years after the Civil War, Socorro City justice was delivered at the end of a rope by the local “vigilance” committee made up of veterans, who had witnessed more than their share of brutality. South of Socorro, Ft. Craig was a U.S. Army post focused on maintaining the peace with the various Native American Apache tribes.
Imagine nearly every Western movie theme, and there was at least one example in Socorro County in the 1880s.
In 1884, Baca’s life changed forever when he took on the role of deputy sheriff (whether self-appointed or official remains lost in history), rode to the town of Frisco (now Reserve) and confronted cowboys who were terrorizing the local Hispanic population.
Elfego arrested one of the cowboys, detained him in the local home, and eventually took him to a makeshift “court” that was the largest Frisco saloon. Once the cowboy was acquitted by a jury of fellow cowboys, Elfego went to spend the night in a small jacal (an adobe shack) on the edge of town before returning to Socorro. He was confronted by dozens of local ranch hands insulted that a young Hispanic man had the audacity to arrest one of their friends.
The famous Frisco gunfight lasted for over 24 hours. Baca survived as the jacal was riddled with perhaps hundreds of bullets. When it was over, four of the cowboys were dead, and Elfego was alive. He was taken to Socorro, tried and acquitted.
The legend of Elfego Baca had begun and is captured to this day in James Muir’s sculpture in Reserve titled “One man, one war.”
The rest of Elfego Baca’s life was equally filled with adventure. He was the sheriff of Socorro County, the mayor of Socorro, and both a prosecuting and defense attorney in Las Cruces and in Albuquerque. Baca is attributed to have been a friend (or perhaps an adversary) to Billy the Kid, Pat Garret, Albert Fall and even Pancho Villa.
While living in Albuquerque, he leased the Baca House in Socorro to the original New Mexico Mounted Patrol – the earliest of the territorial lawmen who focused on crimes against the ranchers throughout the southern half of New Mexico territory.
Baca was more than willing to exaggerate his gunfighting skills, his legal skills, and his network of friends and enemies. Before he died in 1945, he cemented that legacy of real and perhaps tall tales by publishing an autobiography in 1924 titled Political Record of Elfego Baca and a brief history of his Life.
A Disney Character?
In the late 1950s, Walt Disney focused his attention on the growing importance of television. He decided to create stories that would support and enhance his theme park of Disneyland in Southern California. One part of the theme park was titled Frontierland, and Disney decided to produce stories from American history that would reinforce the “reality” created in Frontierland. The first of these productions was a fictional tale of the life of Davey Crockett. One of the next productions was a series of four one-hour episodes titled “The Nine Lives of Elfego Baca” starring Robert Loggia.
While the episodes had the standard plot structure of television westerns of the time, the story of Elfego Baca was different for three reasons. First, the stories were all set in a small Hispanic town called Socorro—quite a contrast to the Dodge City of Gunsmoke or the cattle trails of Rawhide. Second, Loggia played a Hispanic hero, who was equally adept in using his wits, his fists and his guns. Third, the background of the stories included real history such as the role of mining, ranching and farming in the Rio Abajo.
While Loggia was the son of Italian immigrants rather than a Hispanic actor, many of the other actors playing Socorro residents were Hispanic. Of course, the production was filmed in Southern California, so it is hardly an accurate depiction of our town or Socorro County. Still, for dozens of kids growing up in the 1950s, “The Nine Lives of Elfego Baca” introduced an Old West that was far more realistic than most of the other series on television.
Elfego Baca is just one of the many characters in Socorro’s long history that needs to be remembered. But, of these he is probably the only one who has been a Disney character.
For those who wish to know more about Baca, Stan Seger’s 2008 book Viva Elfego, Larry D. Ball’s 1992 Elfego Baca in Life and Legend, and Kyle Samuel Crichton’s 1928 book Law and Order, LTD are good start points. All three authors make it clear that the story of Elfego Baca was one that bordered on myth. Still, their books are well worth the candle.