The Baca / Douglas Genealogy and Family History Blog

27 July 2008

Conflict in Socorro, New Mexico

Recently, I've been researching the territorial period history of Socorro, New Mexico. I was looking for information to use on my Zimmerly presentation and my Pedro Antonio Baca article.

I've been reading two books: "The Territorial History of Socorro, New Mexico" by Bruce Ashcroft (El Paso: University of Texas at El Paso, 1988) and "The Incident of New Mexico's Nightriders" by Bob L'Aloge (Sunnyside, WA: BJS Brand Books, 1992.)Both books paint a portrait of a town in suffering from racial tensions and conflict.

Socorro was an old Spanish town that was re-settled in 1816. Nothing much changed with the Mexican revolution of 1821, except that now all the Spaniards became Mexicans. Another change was that it became legal for Americans and other foreigners to come to the New Mexico. In 1841, Texas claimed everything east of the Rio Grande as their own. When Texans crossed the Rio Grande, they were captured by Mexican soldiers. Enemy prisoners were brought into Socorro, and at least one of them wrote a scathing description of the town.

The Texas invasion was the precursor of the Mexican-American War. That war began in 1846, and New Mexico was easily subdued by American forces. The Mexican governor of New Mexico escaped to Mexico, and an American governor was put in his place - at first it was a military governor, and then a civilian governor ran New Mexico. By 1850, New Mexico was a territory of the United States.

Troops were stationed in Socorro at first, and then moved to nearby Fort Conrad in August 1851. However, the poorly constructed fort was abandoned and troops moved on March 31, 1854 to Fort Craig a few miles away.

After the Civil War started, Confederate troops advanced up the Rio Grande deep into New Mexico. Union soldiers were sent to Ft. Craig to fight off the Confederates. American, foreign-born, and native New Mexican soldiers fought side by side against the invading enemy army. The Battle of Valverde was fought in 1862 just a few miles northwest of the fort at the bottom of a mesa that lent its name to the skirmish. The Confederacy won the battle, and a makeshift hospital was set up in Socorro.

The Confederates marched up towards Santa Fe. They would meet Union soldiers in a few minor skirmishes, and fought one last battle at Glorietta. On paper, it could be argued that the Confederates won the battle. However, they were so devastated by the loss of supplies and men that they had to retreat back to Texas. Union troops from Ft. Craig shadowed them as they left, essentially escorting them out the territory.

Due to the Confederate invasion, the Union sent troops from California to protect New Mexico and Arizona. The California Column, as it was called, consisted of over 2,000 men. Many were stationed at Ft. Craig. Some of these soldiers moved to Socorro after they mustered out of the army; a few even married local women.

Many former soldiers and other newcomers began etching out a living in Socorro. In the 1880s, Socorro experienced an economic boom. Mines opened up in the area surrounding Socorro, including Carthage near San Antonio, New Mexico, and Kelly near Magdalena. Billings Smelter was built at the foot of the Socorro Mountains just west of Socorro, in a settlement called Park City. Most of the ore mined in the area was processed in this smelter.

Many people moved to Socorro and the surrounding villages to take part in this boom. Flour Mills were built to service not only the local population, but also military installations. Stores were opened in the town. Everything seemed good in Socorro. Both native New Mexican and newcomer seemed to do well in the town. However, there was tension below the surface.

Many of the Mexican population felt resentful towards the newcomers, and the newcomers felt that the Mexicans were holding back progress. When a local newspaper editor was murdered by three Mexicans cousins, the tension came to a head.

A.M. Conklin was the editor of the Socorro Sun. On Christmas Eve 1880 he was attending a service at the Methodist Church in Socorro. He was asked by parishioners to stop a group of Mexican men from bothering some American women in the church. He did, and when he left the church he was ambushed by three Baca cousins: Antonio, Onofre and Abram. One of the cousins shot him dead.

The sheriff, who was related to the Baca cousins, refused to apprehend the Bacas. Therefore, some of Anglo men decided to form a vigilante group. Called the Socorro Committee of Safety, this group decided to seek justice for the murder. Former Civil War soldier Colonel Ethan Eaton led the group. They apprehended, or had others help them apprehend, all three Baca cousins. Antonio Jaramillo Baca was shot while trying to escape, Onofre Baca was lynched by the committee, and Abram Baca was brought to trial. After Abram was found not guilty, he jumped on a horse and high tailed out of town. Good thing, too, because the Socorro Committee of Safety had just begun their reign of terror.

In three years, the committee lynched another five men and threatened many others. Not all were Mexicans, in fact most were not. Only two were Hispanic. However, it did leave a strong tinge of racial tension in the town. The vigilantes demanded that all "Americans" in the town support the committee. It obviously created a rift between "Americans" and "Mexicans". The committee did not believe the native New Mexicans were up to the task to meting out justice, while the natives believed that the newcomers were interlopers trying to take over the town. Both may have been right.

This period of Socorro history is fascinating. It really exemplifies the "wild west" mentality in the town. Various governors tacitly, and sometimes even openly, supported the Socorro Committee of Safety. The committee ruled Socorro for a short period of time. Although the lynching was done by masked men, and various corner's reports stated that the men were hanged by "persons unknown", everyone knew who was doing it. Often large crowds watched the lynchings, and local officials and prominent members of the community took part in the events.


Ashcroft, Bruce, The Territorial History of New Mexico, (El Paso: The University of Texas at El Paso, 1988)

L'Aloge, Bob, The Incident of New Mexico's Nightriders, (Sunnyside, WA: BJS Brand Books, 1992.)

Marshall, Michael P. and Henry J. Walt, Prehistory and History of a Rio Grande Province, (Santa Fe: New Mexico Historic Preservation Program, 1984.)

Miller, Darlis A., The California Column in New Mexico, (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1982.)

Taylor, John, Bloody Valverde: A Civil War Battle on the Rio Grande, Febrary 21, 1862, (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1995.)

When I wrote this post last year, I neglected to include one source of information. Although I found most of the information for the article from the sources mentioned above, one piece of information was found in another source: the fact that the three Bacas implicated in the murder of A.M. Conklin were probably cousins, rather than brothers. This information, and their link to famous lawman/outlaw Elfego Baca can be found in the following article:

Gonzales, David, and Jonathan A. Ortega, "Onofre Baca - Socorro Lynching Victim and his Brother Elfego Baca - an American Legend", Herencia, 3 (January 1995), 1-3.

For more information about the controversy over this article, click on the following link: Socorro Spanish Methodist Church. Make sure to also read the comments posted to the article.

Updated: 10/04/09


Bob Franks said...

A most interesting well-sourced read. I really enjoyed the post. It seems those committees of safety were quite popular during the early 1800's. I just finished researching an article here in Mississippi about such a committee here during the 1830's. Socorro sounds like it has quite a colorful history.

Anonymous said...

The L'Aloge book is a questionable history reference - I've read it, and many others about NM history, and find it to be poorly researched and sourced - even biased.

A better account of the the Baca incident at the Socorro Methodist Church (my grandfather Rev. Juan C. Chavez, was a pastor at that church in the early 1900s - the Baca youths, Abram and Onofre, were at one time members of that Methodist Church) was the account in a book (available still in paperback) by the Texas Ranger, Gillette, who apprehended Abram Baca. Most other accounts derive from Socorro newspaper articles of that era. Abram's lawyer was another family relative: (Col.) Francisco Chavez.

There were many Bacas in the Socorro area that converted from Catholicism to Protestant (mostly Baptist, Methodist, and some Presbterian) during the territorial era (1849-1912). Rev. J.M. Shaw, Baptist, was a longtime Socorro resident and founded the Socorro Baptist Church in the early 1850s; Shaw later married a Baca.

(Posted by John E. Chavez;