Born: February 10, 1865, Socorro, New Mexico
Died: August 27, 1945, Socorro, New Mexico
Memorial Park, Albuquerque, Bernalillo County, New Mexico
Elfego Baca was a gunman, lawman, lawyer,
and politician in the closing days of the American Old West.
Baca was born in Socorro, New Mexico just before the end of the
American Civil War to Francisco and Juana Maria Baca. His family
moved to Topeka, Kansas when he was a young child. Upon his
mother’s death in 1880, Baca returned with his father to Belen,
New Mexico where his father became a marshal.
In 1884, at
age 19, Baca acquired some guns, and became a deputy sheriff in
(whether through purchasing a badge or by being appointed is
unclear) Socorro County, New Mexico.
His goal in life was
to be a peace officer. He wanted, he said, “the outlaws to hear
my steps a block away.” Southwestern New Mexico at the time was
still relatively sparsely settled cattle ranching country.
Cowboys roamed the land and did as they pleased. They might come
into a town, drink at the saloon, harass the locals, and then
shoot up the town out of boredom. Baca meant to put an end to
The Frisco Shootout
1884, in the town of Middle San Francisco Plaza (now Reserve,
New Mexico), Elfego Baca arrested a drunk cowboy named Charlie
McCarty. Baca flashed his badge at McCarty and took Charlie's
gun. McCarty's fellow cowboys tried to take him by force, but
Baca refused and opened fire on the cowboys, killing the horse
of one, which fell on his rider killing him. Baca shot another
Cowboy in the knee.
Justice of the Peace Ted White
granted Charlie's freedom. After the verdict, Elfego Baca ran
out of the courtroom still in possession of McCarty's gun. Baca
took refuge in the house of Geronimo Armijo.
a rancher from Spur Lake Ranch, was summoned to bring Baca back
to the Justice for questioning in the murder of Jon Slaughter's
foreman. After Baca refused to come out of the adobe jacal,
Hearne broke down the door and ordered Baca to come out with his
hands up. Soon after that, shots volleyed from the jacal and hit
Hearne in the stomach, resulting in his death.
with the cowboys ensued. The number of cowboys that gathered has
been disputed, with villagers at the scene reporting about forty
were present, while Elfego himself later claiming there had been
at least eighty. Allegedly, the cowboys fired more than 4,000
shots into the house, until the adobe building was full of
holes. Incredibly, not one of the bullets struck Baca. (The
floor of the home is said to have been slightly lower than
ground level; thus Baca was able to escape injury.)
During the siege, Baca shot and killed four of his attackers and
wounded eight others. After about 33 hours, and roughly 1,000
rounds of open fire, the battle ended when Francisquito Naranjo
convinced Baca to surrender. In May 1885, Baca was charged with
murder for the death of Jon Slaughter's foreman and Bert Hearne.
He was jailed to await his trial. In August 1885, Baca was
acquitted after the door of Armijo’s house was entered as
evidence. It had more than 400 bullet holes in it. The incident
became known as the Frisco Shootout. Rumor has it that Elfego
Baca's defense attorney had false documentation proving Baca's
legal deputization because Baca's biography suggests he
deputized himself just before the arrest of Charlie McCarty.
Law and Order
Baca officially became the
sheriff of Socorro County and secured indictments for the arrest
of the area's lawbreakers. Instead of ordering his deputies to
pursue the wanted men, he sent each of the accused a letter. It
said, "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." Most of the offenders
turned themselves in voluntarily.
In 1888, Baca became a
U.S. Marshal. He served for two years and then began studying
law. In December 1894, he was admitted to the bar and joined a
Socorro law firm. He practiced law on San Antonio Street in El
Paso between 1902 and 1904.
Baca held a succession of public
offices, including county clerk, mayor and school superintendent
of Socorro County, and district attorney for Socorro and Sierra
Counties. In his book The Shooters, historian Leon Metz writes
that “most reports say he was the best peace officer Socorro
From 1913 to 1916, Baca served as the official
representative in the U.S. of Victoriano Huerta's government
during the Mexican Revolution. In April 1915, Baca was charged
with criminal conspiracy for allegedly masterminding the
November 1914 escape of Mexican general José Inés Salazar
escaped from the Albuquerque jail. Successfully defended by the
New Mexican lawyer and politician Octaviano Larrazolo, Baca's
reputation grew among Southwestern residents.
Mexico became a state in 1912, Baca unsuccessfully ran for
Congress as a Republican. Nevertheless, he remained a valued
political figure because of his ability to turn out the vote
among the Hispanic population. Working at times as a private
detective, Baca also took a job as a bouncer in a casino across
the border in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico.
Baca worked closely
with New Mexico’s longtime Senator Bronson Cutting as a
political investigator and wrote a weekly column in Spanish
praising Cutting’s work on behalf of local Hispanics. Baca
considered running for governor despite his declining health,
but he failed to secure the Democratic Party’s nomination for
district attorney in 1944.
Metz, his biographer, wrote: “Elfego
was, and is, controversial. He drank too much; talked too much
... he had a weakness for wild women. He was often arrogant and,
of course, he showed no compunction about killing people.” On
his 75th birthday, Baca told the Albuquerque Tribune that as a
lawyer he had defended 30 people charged with murder, and only
one went to the penitentiary.
In July 1936, several years
before his death, Janet Smith conducted an interview with Elfego
Baca. Her notes can be found in the Library of Congress,
Manuscript Division, WPA Federal Writers’ Project Collection.
Baca told Smith, “I never wanted to kill anybody, but if a man
had it in his mind to kill me, I made it my business to get him