Elfego Baca — taming Socorro

Elfego Baca
Elfego Baca

Silver was discovered in the Magdalena Mountains west of Socorro in 1867, creating growth in that army town. (Ft. Craig was 20 miles to the south.) By 1890, Socorro was the largest city in New Mexico. Reportedly 3,000 miners made it their home and their trading, gambling, and drinking center. Between thirty and forty saloons were built to accommodate their demands. It became evident before long that law and order were unknown qualities.

Enter Elfego Baca. Born in 1865, his arrival into the world was dramatic. His mother was pregnant at 19 and, so the story goes, was playing baseball. She jumped for the ball, came down with a thump, and “Elfego entered the ball game!”

His legendary fame was similar to that of Billy the Kid, except he was on the side of the law as sheriff, marshal, district attorney, school superintendent, and mayor. At age nineteen, he established his reputation as a quick draw with a deadly aim when he held 80 Texas cowboys at bay for thirty-six hours, killing four and wounding eight.

His goal in life was to be an A-1 peace officer. He wanted, he said, “the outlaws to hear my steps a block away.” After he became sheriff of Socorro County, indictments were handed down for the arrests of many of the county’s criminals. When his deputies began to arm themselves, Baca stopped their pursuit of lawbreakers. Instead, he sent a letter to each of the accused, saying, “I have a warrant here for your arrest. Please come in by March 15 and give yourself up. If you don’t, I’ll know you intend to resist arrest, and I will feel justified in shooting you on sight when I come after you.”

One by one, they arrived and laid down their guns.

Baca reportedly stole a gun from Pancho Villa, and Villa retaliated by offering a $30,000 reward for Baca, dead or alive. Baca did die in 1945 at the age of 80. In 1958, Walt Disney released a movie titled “Nine Lives of Elfego Baca.”

Socorro suffered reverses with silver losing its value. There were droughts and floods. The mines and smelter shut down as did the Crown Flour Mill. However, Socorro’s mining glory lives on in the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology that opened in 1893 under the name “New Mexico School of Mines.” The Magdalena Mountains, with the remaining shafts and tunnels of the mines, are its laboratory.

About Phyllis Eileen Banks