La Mesilla, New Mexico — the last 100 years

La Mesilla, New Mexico, has changed little since Billy the Kid and Jesse Evans died at the end of its lusty frontier atmosphere. Thick-walled adobe buildings erected by the remarkable men who trekked the heels of Don Rafael Rules from the heart of Old Mexico to settle in the spawning Rio Grande Valley are much the same as they were when 10-year-old Mary Maxwell, the daughter of one of La Mesilla’s forthright citizens, was carted off by a hungry mountain lion while gathering wildberries.

Henry Fountain painting of the ceremony at the Gadsden Purchase. Photo courtesy State Historical Society of New Mexico
Henry Fountain painting of the ceremony at the Gadsden Purchase. Photo courtesy State Historical Society of New Mexico 

The wheels of the Butterfield Stage were slowing. The town had its own laws, and these were solidly enforced. This was a time when its citizens settled their matters with a six-gun rather than wait for a slow-coming court decision.

La Mesilla lies about one mile south of Mesilla Park, on old Highway 80. The macadamized road is aptly marked, and it takes but a few minutes for a visitor to reach this peerless old town with its rows of graves extending far up the hill, a grim reminder of its shadowed history. The sleepy little community with its Old West atmosphere was once considered by Hollywood producer John Ford for a John Wayne movie.

Established in the early 1950s, La Mesilla was under Mexican rule until July 4, 1854, when Governor Merriwether met with Mexican officials, and it became American soil. This rendezvous, where signatures were duly witnessed, was held under a giant cottonwood tree that stood like a structure in the plaza. This was also the site of the famous Gadsden Purchase Treaty.

At the time when the United States purchased this untamed territory, La Mesilla’s population of 2,000 was largely made up of Mexicans who had not yet learned to speak English and were not happy at being "sold off. " There were many pouting faces and muttering voices among the assemblage that gathered for that momentous occasion at the Plaza. As the Stars and Stripes were hoisted to the limb of the cottonwood tree, the United States military band played the sweeter tones of music that could well have inspired composers of John Ford Westerns.

Among the procession of citizens that attended the ceremony was an irate Mexican who was determined that the Mexican flag should also fly. He climbed high into the cottonwood, carrying the Mexican flag he held so dear. When the American flag was unfurled into the gusty winds, he raised his own flag at the same time.

A great chorus of "Viva Mexico! Viva Mexico!" erupted with the force of a volcano and echoed off the surrounding hills with the force of a windstorm.

Although a conflict was avoided, the tension added fire to the otherwise peaceful ceremony. Armed American soldiers stood ready on one side of the oval-shaped Plaza. Their Mexican counterparts stood on the opposite side.

The young patriot who had raised the Mexican flag tried to climb down out of the tree, but, to his chagrin, was gestured back. He had to remain in a uncomfortable position in the tree for several hours while Governor Merriwether and administrators from Mexico made official utterances.

Today every citizen of La Mesilla is a loyal American. In both World Wars, the young men of the village have responded to the call of duty, and have fought and died bravely for their country.

The tree under which the signing took place has been replaced by the bandstand in La Mesilla’s plaza. Photo courtesy correspondence to author by Dave Walton, Temecula, CA. Historian
The tree under which the signing took place has been replaced by the bandstand in La Mesilla's plaza. Photo courtesy correspondence to author by Dave Walton, Temecula, CA. 

During the boisterous early days of the War between the States, La Mesilla was, for a brief period after its capture, headquarters for the Confederate Army. It was proclaimed so by Colonel John R. Baylor, the capital of the Confederate State of Arizona. La Mesilla was a busy place in these troubled times, and a mine of information passed through its boundaries that was vital to the outcome of the war.

The wrangle of politics caused a situation unlike any other known, for the residents of La Mesilla took their politics as seriously as Texas regarded cattle and the branding iron. The fight between the Republicans and the Democrats was called "battle of the bands." It began in August, 1861 and spread with astounding rapidity. Citizens were thrown into confusion. Many, panic-stricken with the sudden outbreak, took up arms, or ran in every direction seeking safety for their families.

The Republicans gathered at the house of Johnny Lemon; the Democrats met in the Plaza where they listened to Padre Gallego and other loyal Democrats warn them of the fearful fiends that would ravage and devastate the village.

General Gregg arrived with a full detachment of armed-to-the-teeth soldiers from Fort McRae after Washington had been informed of impending trouble between the two factions. They camped in those lands cut by erosion into odd-shaped hills with a few level places near the prairie lands for several days. The temperature was hot enough to melt ball bearings. Perhaps their presence avoided trouble. In any case, when it became evident that matters would be settled without gunplay, the General took his troops and galloped back to Fort McRae.

No sooner had the troops disappeared over the horizon than danger hung over La Mesilla like a vast funeral pall. The Democrats decided to antagonize their inhospitable neighbors by marching their band around the Plaza singing a song they knew would irritate the Republicans. The words were sung to the tune of Marching Though Georgia.

The Republicans retaliated by lining up their own band, led by Antonio Garcia playing heartily on his "flica" horn. They marched around the Plaza in one direction while the Democrats marched in the opposing direction, playing and singing just a loudly as their enemies. When they met at the end of the Plaza, the result was as volatile as a lighted match thrown into a can of gasoline.

It started with shouts of insults and curses and eventually erupted into flashes of sabers and revolvers. Before the sun set over this new and growing town, ten men lay dead in the streets, their wives and children rendered homeless without a bread winner. The dusty street in front of Grigg’s store was strewn with forty bleeding, wounded men. One individual lost his eyesight during the skirmish. Another had to have a leg amputated when gangrene set in and threatened his life.

Thinking fast, Old Man Griggs sent one of his clerks galloping hell-bent-for-leather on his fine Kentucky gelding, to overtake General Gregg and his regimental horsebackers. The general and his troops galloped the hard-packed soil back to La Mesilla with breakneck speed, but the damage had already been done.

A detachment of troops was left in town to discourage any further outbreak and the town quieted down. The dead were buried. Families rendered destitute depended on the charity of their neighbors. Both republicans and Democrats suffered; none escaped without experiencing a loss of some kind.

La Mesilla was in the third judicial district and no judge was appointed to the bench at this time; so no one on either side was ever tried for murder.

Among La Mesilla’s eminent visitors was Lew Wallace, whose greatest fame actually came from his novel, Ben Hur, which he wrote while governor of the Territory of New Mexico. Another was Kit Carson, famous Indian Scout and guide. Carson was a familiar sight on the dusty streets of La Mesilla where he carved his name on a tree that was carelessly cut down by a thoughtless resident and used for firewood. It is said that Carson ate regularly in the old La Posta Inn, a thick-walled fortress against rampaging Indians.

Sign history of Billy the Kid. Photo courtesy author’s collection
Sign history of Billy the Kid. Photo courtesy author's collection 

There can hardly be a resident left who can remember the days when Billy the Kid was lodged in the La Mesilla jail. Residents - especially youngsters - sought excuses to pass the old jailhouse, hoping they might see the famous outlaw peeking through the bars, or even that he might speak to them. The residents of La Mesilla both feared and admired young Billy.

Billy was often seen swaggering down the streets of La Mesilla laughing and joking with residents. A newspaper man visiting the little village representing the Las Vegas (New Mexico) Gazette, wrote: "He is about 5’8" tall, slightly built and lithe, weighing about 140, with a frank and
open countenance . . . roguish blue eyes, light hair and complexion. He is in all quite a handsome looking fellow . . . and he had agreeable and winning ways."

Billy and his sidekick, Jesse Evans, frequented the noisy bars where they gambled and drank, always armed and always in ill-fitting clothes. Several other historical favorites drank and gambled with them - Frank Baker, Billy Morton and Jimmy McDaniels, the latter reportedly being the gent who gave his young companion the nickname of Billy the Kid.

A piece in the Gazette by this same reporter said the children of La Mesilla all had wooden guns and practiced the quick-draw and pretended to be their hero, Billy the Kid.

The Kid went on trial in La Mesilla for the murder of Sheriff Brady, and for the killing of Agency Clerk Bernstein of the Mescalero Reservation . While the trial was going on, the town was overflowing with curiosity seekers who came from all over the Southwest to get a look at the Kid. Hotels were full; the tills at restaurants and saloons never stopped ringing.

Many old time residents who witnessed this event left behind diaries and documents that have been handed down from generation to generation. Some reports said people cheered to the rafters when the Kid was acquitted of the Bernstein killing because no witnesses testified against him. But their exaltation was short-lived. There had been witnesses to the cold-blooded shooting of Sheriff Brady, and the jury found Billy guilty. He was sentenced to death by hanging, although many thought he should have been given only a stiff prison sentence.

Witnesses spoke of his loyalty to his friends, and recalled how Billy had taken an oath to kill every man who had been involved with the murder of his dear friend John Tunstall while he was unarmed. That was the thunder of the Lincoln County War.

Mrs. Aureliano Fountain Armendarez, granddaughter of Judge Albert J. Fountain, who played an important role in New Mexico’s history, was featured in an old issue of Frontier Times magazine, probably in the Sixties, as one of the most interesting citizens of La Mesilla. She was born and raised in then-nearly-century old Fountain house made of adobe, with deep windows set in two and one-half-foot walls. The ceiling was said to be high and a wide hallway divided the old mansion.

"One of Mrs. Armendarez’s most prized possessions is the large and beautiful collection of "Santos," one of which has been in the family for seven generations," the article said. "This is in the Santo Barbara which is painted in tin. There is likewise a Santo carved on wood by Jose Aragon, New Mexico’s Santo primero. There is a life-sized Santo that is carried on Good Friday processions every year. This is an old Spanish ritual performed in the United States only in La Mesilla."

Antonio Garcia (L) Circle shows bullet hole in his flica. Photo courtesy State Historical Society of New Mexico
Antonio Garcia (L) Circle shows bullet hole in his flica. Photo courtesy State Historical Society of New Mexico 

Mrs. Armendarez reportedly owned the flag left behind when the Union soldiers evacuated Fort Fillmore a few miles southwest of Las Cruces. The same old brass flica horn that her father played on that incredible day the bands collided, hung in her corridor for guests to admire and take pictures of. A clump of lead filled the hole put there by a sharpshooter with a fierce aim.

Her neighbors passed by the steel doors that separated Billy the Kid from freedom while he was incarcerated in La Mesilla, having been used as a room divider in the Armendarez garage.

Every September the residents of La Mesilla dress up in their fanciest duds and welcome tourists to their Pan-American Fiesta, which draws hundreds of spectators. These festivities last from Saturday afternoon until Sunday evening. Parades, lots of music in the Plaza and in private residents, are non stop during this event.

The main attraction of the Fiesta is a Saturday night dance when the Fiesta Queen is crowned. Every young Cinderella in town waits all year with anticipation of a dream coming true.

Treats of roast beef, barbecued lamb, frijoles, and other delicious Mexican and American food are enjoyed by everyone.

While many old towns of the so-called, Wild West have barely enough remains left to give some vague outlines - foundations, shapeless piles of stone, and brick, and streets overgrown with sage brush - the last hundred years has seen little change in La Mesilla, New Mexico.