The LC Ranch — Cattle Baron of the Gila

Gila River Valley. Photo by Carla DeMarco
Gila River Valley 

By It has been written that behind every great personal fortune lies a crime, and there is probably no better illustration of that adage than the cattle empires of the Old West. New Mexico’s territorial days offer a number of such illustrations, but perhaps none better than the story of the Lyons and Campbell Ranch and Cattle Company of the Gila River country and beyond.

Angus Campbell, a Scotsman, came to New Mexico from California after gold-rushing with his parents. He discovered what became the Gosette Mine on Lone Mountain in the late 1870s, established a foundry in Silver City, and went into business with Thomas Lyons, an Englishman who had recently arrived in the Territory from Wisconsin. The partnership prospered, but the two decided that the future was in cattle and in 1880 sold their mine and foundry and began to acquire land and cattle. The "LC," as the company was popularly known, began its climb from modest ranch to cattle empire, and its holdings at the turn of the century stretched from Silver City west to Arizona and from Mule Creek south to Animas - more, it was said, than five hundred thousand acres.

As was so often the case in the cattle-raising regions of the Old West, the aggressive ambitions of the larger ranchmen were thwarted by the presence of small-holders, many of whom held choice grass and water areas. In the fall of 1891, Lyons and Campbell decided it was time to move against the small-holders in the western part of Grant County. Using his influence with Justice of the Peace Thomas J. Clark, Lyons caused the arrest of Peter J. Hall, Sr., Thomas Hall, W. J. Witt, Nealy Jackson, John Spears, John Willson, and Peter Hall, Jr. He also prevailed upon the Justice to have warrants sworn out on Robert Hall, Richard Hall, and Daniel Neal. All of these families held small ranches with a few hundred head of cattle using the same general rangelands as the "LC," and all were charged with cattle theft except Peter Hall, Jr., who was charged with stealing a horse.

Lyons had his foreman, John M. Johnson, deputized by Sheriff James R. Lockhart, and at Lyons’ request, Johnson arrested Peter Hall (father of the other Halls), Peter Hall, Jr., Thomas Hall, and W. T. Witt. The arrests, made in the dead of night, were effected by Johnson and a posse of thirty-four armed men supplied by Thomas Lyons. It was understood that the four men were to be murdered while in Johnson’s charge, two locations having been chosen earlier by Lyons: one at a point on the Gila River about four miles south of the stage crossing on the Mogollon and Silver City road, on the ranch of Justice of the Peace Clark; the second location was in Mangus Canyon, three miles from Clark’s place.

Deputy Johnson’s situation was a precarious one: He already knew of the deaths of Robert and Richard Hall, who had been murdered in Arizona a few days earlier by three men who were now members of his posse; he knew that Lyons, fearing discovery of the bodies by family members who were searching for them, sent several men in a hack to the murder site to obliterate all traces of the crime; and he knew that any recognizable resistance to Lyons’ plan would make him suspect and jeopardize his own life.

Johnson managed to convince Lyons that the posse was too large and too many witnesses to the murders would make secrecy impossible. It was then agreed Johnson would proceed slowly with four other guards and the four prisoners in a hack, while Lyons would return with the others to his headquarters ranch. He would then return with several of his most trusted men, two of whom had murdered the Hall brothers, and this group would overtake Johnson, relieve him of his prisoners, murder them, and dispose of the bodies.

As soon as Lyons and the posse members were out of sight and hearing, Johnson ordered the prisoners to drive through the canyon as fast as the hack would permit. The goal was James K. Metcalf’s place at Mangus Springs. The horses were played out at the end of the canyon, and fresh horses were obtained at the O Ranch at the mouth of the Mangus River. Lyons and his men failed to overtake Johnson, and the prisoners made it safely to jail.

In the subsequent trials, some held in Grant County and some held in Sierra County, twenty-odd indictments were filed against the defendants, and even though the prosecution selected the indictments upon which the defendants would be tried, verdicts of not guilty were returned. John M. Johnson was a witness in the trials, but refused to testify as Lyons wanted him to, thus straining the relations between the two. In fear for his life, Johnson remained silent about the true state of affairs and resigned his position as foreman of the "LC."

Peter Hall, Jr. was indicted for horse theft, and upon advice of council pleaded guilty. He was imprisoned in the State Penitentiary at Santa Fe for a term of five years, effective April 2, 1892. Thomas Lyons’ partner, Angus Campbell, died that year and Lyons became sole owner of the "LC." Public opinion in the area was strongly with the "LC," but as the months passed and people came to understand the true nature of the cattle war they had endured, the realization of murder, assassination, perjury, and subornation of perjury turned the tide of opinion in favor of the Halls and other small-holders.

A movement developed to secure the pardon of young Peter Hall, Jr., and on May 21, 1894, John Johnson gave his deposition in support of a pardon. The deposition outlined the entire "LC" conspiracy to rid the area of small-holders, and was supported in a character reference signed by thirty-seven cattlemen and ranchers from Grant County. Forty-one men signed a petition to the Governor asking for Hall’s release, and his attorney, John J. Bell, informed the governor of his own mishandling of the case. On September 3, 1894, Governor Thornton signed Hall’s complete and full pardon.

The range war was over, and Lyons and the "LC" continued to prosper. Famous guests, large hunting parties, and lavish entertainment made Lyons a byword in the Southwest. He was truly, in a phrase, a Cattle Baron. In 1917, he made a trip to El Paso apparently to close a cattle deal. He arrived the evening of Thursday, May 17, and his brutally beaten, badly mutilated body was found in a ditch the following morning. On June 25, 1917, the El Paso grand jury indicted three men from Fort Worth, Texas in connection with Lyons’ death. The El Paso police believed the murder was the work of hired assassins, but despite trial and punishment, no clear motive for the crime was found. For many people in Grant County, no clear motive was necessary:  the chickens had come home to roost.

In a generation following Lyons’ death, the "LC" was a ghost of its former self. Sold off in small pieces as money was needed, the empire of the Cattle Baron of the Gila disappeared.