Your National Hispanic Heritage Month Assignment: Remember The Amazing Elfago Baca (February 10, 1865 – August 27, 1945)

Baca statue

As frequent readers of Ethics Alarms know, I fervently believe that history is important, and that we all have a duty to remember and honor the remarkable Americans who have gone before us, their exploits, triumphs, struggles and achievements, both for our sakes—for we can learn much from them—and theirs. I am constantly discouraged by the inspirational stories and fascinating historical figures who have nearly been forgotten. The schools don’t teach our children about them, and popular culture ignores them. This weakens the flavor and the power of our shared culture: it is wrong, that’s all.

Today, as I realized we were in the midst of National Hispanic Heritage Month ( September 15-October 15), I want to do my part to help keep alive the name and the story of a Mexican-American who may have faded from memory because the events of his life seem more fictional than real. Indeed, for most of my life, until a couple of years ago, I thought Elfago Baca was a creation of Walt Disney’s creative staff, who wrote a ten episode mini-series about him called “The Nine Lives of Elfago Baca” for the “Disneyland” show (“Now…from Frontierland!”) in 1958. I loved that series, but it never occurred to me that the series’ tales of a gunslinging, lawyer-sheriff in Old New Mexico could possibly have any connection to reality.

But they did. The real Elfago was, if anything, even more improbable than his fictionalized counterpart, portrayed by a very young and athletic Robert Loggia, who is best known as the toy magnate who plays “Chopsticks” on the giant keyboard with Tom Hanks in “Big.”

Elfago Baca was born in Socorro, New Mexico in 1865. Elfego’s father was a gunfighter, and he wanted to be one too, though on the side of the law, so he would be less likely to go to jail like his father did, for winning gunfights. The New Mexico territory was soon in the middle of a silver rush, bringing many outsiders into the region, a lot of them pretty wild. Baca acquired a sheriff’s badge through a mail-order house, and also bought two six-guns, which he taught himself to use with precision.

A cowboy named Charley McCarty got drunk in the town where Baca was working as store clerk, and did all the things you remember from old Western movies: whooping it up, shooting in the air, breaking windows, harassing townspeople, and bullying Mexicans by making them “dance” as he shot at their boots. Elfago Baca, 19 years old, deputized himself by pinning on his fake badge and by the authority invested in himself, by himself, arrested McCarty at gunpoint. The citizens of the town approved of his plan to take the rowdy to nearby Socorro to be tried for disturbing the peace, but that course was short-circuited when several of  McCarty’s friends—they all worked for the richest rancher in the region—arrived and demanded that Baca let the drunken jerk go.

Baca, in the manner that characterized his reaction to challenges his entire life, refused and said if the cowboys did not leave by the time he counted to three, he would start shooting….and then he started counting, fast. He reached three and opened fire, wounding one cowboy and killing another when one of his shots struck the ranch foreman’s horse, causing it to fall over and crush its rider. Then the group retreated…but they weren’t done with Elfago. And they had a lot of friends.

A local justice of the peace took charge of Baca’s prisoner, and McCarty was fined $50 for disturbing the peace. When Baca, flush with his first law enforcement success, prepared to leave for Socorro the next day he was confronted by a legion of eighty armed and vengeance-minded cowboys under the command of the rich rancher, the ominously named Tom Slaughter. What happened next became New Mexico’s most famous gunfight, and also the origin of the legend that Elfago Baca had “nine lives like a cat.” Here is Glenn Clayborn’s colorful account, from his post in Cracked, titled “6 Real-Life Gunslingers Who Put Billy the Kid to Shame”:

“Cornering Baca in a tiny adobe shack, the veritable army of cowboys laid siege to the building overnight, firing somewhere in the neighborhood of 4,000 rounds through the shack’s flimsy walls. They even tried to burn the place down and almost blasted it from the face of the Earth with a stick of dynamite, collapsing most of the roof on top of Baca. Essentially, it was the scene from “Die Hard 2” when the bad guys trap Bruce Willis in a plane, riddle the fuselage with bullets, and toss in some grenades for good measure. But Baca never took a single hit, and during the 33-hour ordeal actually managed to kill four of the cowboys and wound 10 others.”

The photo above is the Elfago Baca memorial, on the site of the shootout.

The beaten and thoroughly impressed cowboys agreed to a truce if Baca would turn himself in to face murder charges, which he did. He then defended himself in the ensuing trial, perhaps planting the seeds of his future legal career, and came up with a stratagem worthy of Clarence Darrow. He entered as evidence of self-defense the wooden door of the shack where he huddled during the siege. There were over 400 bullet holes in it. He was acquitted immediately.

He also was instantly feared and respected from that day on. As a lawman, Baca seldom had to deliver warrants and usually could get suspects to surrender by sending them a form letter that read:

“I have a warrant here for your arrest. Please … 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. Very truly yours, Elfego Baca, sheriff.”

Baca officially became the sheriff of Socorro County, and thus no longer needed his mail order badge. In 1888, he became a U.S. Marshal, and also began studying law.He was admitted to the bar in 1894 and joined a Socorro law firm. Thanks to his legal skills and his still current notoriety, Elfago Baca assumed many  public offices over his long career, including county clerk, school superintendent and mayor of Socorro, as well as district attorney for Socorro and Sierra counties. (Also bouncer…and he ran a  casino. too.) He  ran for governor and Congress when New Mexico became a state, but was deemed a bit too colorful for those high positions: by that time he had already been in another gun fight, killed his adversary, and again been acquitted of murder.

One of Baca’s biographers writes that while “most reports say he was the best peace officer Socorro ever had,” Baca“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.” He was involved in several controversies and scandals. One of his close associates was lawyer and later Senator Albert Fall, a key figure (he went to jail)  in the Teapot Dome Scandal. Nor was Elfago a particularly ethical lawyer as he worked to save Mexican-Americans from jail or worse, passionately believing, correctly, that they often treated unfairly by the frontier justice system. The story is told that when he was practicing law in Albuquerque, Baca received a telegram from a former client in El Paso, Texas. “Need you at once,” the urgent message said, “Have just been charged with murder.” According to lore, Baca wired back, “Leaving at once with three eyewitnesses.” On his 75th birthday, Baca told the Albuquerque Tribune that he had defended 30 people, mostly Mexicans, charged with murder, and only one was convicted. It could be true. Some of them might have been innocent, too.

Elfago Baca was no saint or Ethics Hero, but he had at least as dramatic and colorful career as icons of the Old West like Wyatt Earp and Wild Bill Hickock, was about as, uh, ethically complex, and demonstrates how Hispanic Americans contributed to the civilizing of the West, at the risk of becoming corrupted, or dead, in the attempt. Like all of the American Western heroes, he was a tantalizing mixture of good and bad, cockiness and compassion, principles, courage and ruthlessness. I wouldn’t call him a role model, but damn! What a life!

I think he earned the right to be remembered, especially on National Hispanic Heritage Month.

And here’s a song about him:

_______________________________

Sources: Cracked, EPCC, Spell of the West, Wikipedia

25 thoughts on “Your National Hispanic Heritage Month Assignment: Remember The Amazing Elfago Baca (February 10, 1865 – August 27, 1945)

  1. He definitely joins my list of “Most Interesting Men Ever” as a counterbalance to the fictitious exploits of the Dos Equis ‘spokesman’.

    “Baca drank too much; talked too much … he had a weakness for wild women; he was often arrogant”

    And the people didn’t consider him fit for higher office? I thought those were prerequisites…

    However, I don’t think the civilizing forces of the American expansion are necessarily corrupting however, or if the people who lived there before hand were somehow in some blissful condition lacking corruption that was at anymore risk when the settling occurred.

    • I think he means that the lawless conditions, when mixed with some of the baser American instincts, were corruptive. He could have easily been on the other side of the badge, and he could have easily given in to the corrosive influence of his own power.

      • That’s about right, Chase. The West could be pretty lawless, and thus throwing oneself into the battle over civilization meant mixing it up with bad people doing bad things with only your own wits and skills to protect you. A lot of the ethical principles I quote here just don’t work very well under those conditions, so fighting the bad guys created a significant risk of becoming one. Some, like Wyatt Earp, ended up being drawn hard over to the dark side. Some of the criminals, like Jesse James, thought of themselves as heroes, but really were not. No doubt, Baca crossed the lines, but he kept coming back—he was determined to be a builder rather than a destroyer, and in the end was a force for civilization and the right values. In a different time, he’d have ended up in jail, at least. In his time, though, it was very difficult to do good without slipping, and Baca’s life deserves to be measured by a different standard.

    • Nah, because Seguin is better known now than he was 100 years ago. He’s been the beneficiary of historical affirmative action, where a conscious effort is made to identify minority participants in historical events in US history and pump up their importance. Yeah, he was a prominent Mexican-American politician and soldier in Texas, but he is also the only prominent participant in the Alamo that managed not to get killed. At the end of his career he resigned from office due to threats on his life, something Elfago would find laughable.He basically cracked up under political criticism—-couldn’t handle the heat—then went to Mexico to “seek refuge amongst my enemies,” and was captured, arrested and enlisted in the Mexican army as a staff official. Then he served under Santa Anna in the Mexican-American War of 1846–1848!

      I’m not a Juan Seguin fan. He is only famous because of his ethnicity, like, say, Crispus Attucks, and there is significant evidence that he was weenie and a turncoat. Besides, Elfago Baca could have beaten the crap out of him…

      • You fucking kill me. Juan didn’t get killed because he was a courier and had been sent to get reinforcements, which he did return with, plus Houston thought highly enough of him to give him a command in later battles. The label of traitor was given to him to later anglo immigrants to Texas,

        • Yes, but I don’t know what else you’d call one who turned around after the Revolution and went back to fighting under Santa Anna.

          I’m not saying there’s anything shameful about Seguin not getting killed at the Alamo–I’m saying, and it’s true, that making him a major part of the Alamo story and some kind of a hero is a big stretch, and that he’s been shoe-horned into every Alamo movie after the Wayne version primarily as a nod to political correctness.

          Eight curriers, I believe, returned from Houston to the mission to die with their comrades in arms—those guys impress me. Juan managed to arrive with his reinforcements after everyone was dead. That doesn’t.

            • I have lots of references on him in all my Alamo books. He had a rough time, it’s true. But you can’t whitewash the fact that he turned around and fought against the US, and for a ruthless, preening dictator, which is what Santa Anna was. The Wiki entry on Seguin is accurate—it just doesn’t list all the excuses his defenders make for him. Why would you admire such a character?

          • I’m still pissed about learning of Juan Seguin’s change of heart (to put it hyperbolically softly). However, I think “managed to arrive with his reinforcements after everyone was dead” downplays his efforts to return to the Alamo. It implies he waited until the coast was clear to arrive and say “well at least I tried”. That’s not true. During the middle days of the siege (he was dispatched by Travis on day 2 of the siege, with an appeal to Houston for aid) he spent time in Gonzalez raising troops and eventually, on orders from Houston to rendezvous at the Cibolo river and guide Fannin’s force to Gonzalez, he camped out waiting on the river. At the end of the siege after learning that Fannin was not coming, he and his company along with a company of Anglo scouts had been discretely probing the Mexican lines to attempt a breakthrough to the Alamo (having no way of knowing that the garrison had been annihilated). Every location they got close they encountered pickets that would have inevitably sounded an alarm and rendered any dash into the Alamo a hopeless slaughter.

            “managed to arrive with his reinforcements after everyone was dead” doesn’t do justice to the fact that he had countermanding orders from Houston that delayed his return and that he had no way of knowing the garrison was destroyed when he was actually able to make a push towards the Alamo.

            • The point is only that being a hero isn’t horseshoes, and a rescue when the imperiled all have already died isn’t a rescue at all. Heck, if Fanin hadn’t been slaughtered, he might have saved the Alamo too. These are all reasons and excuses, but the effect of it all was to render Seguin’s actual impact minimal. So why is he always included in the honor roll? Affirmative action, as far as I can see. In history almost doesn’t count, unless you are in the right ethnic group and a rep is desperately needed.

              And I’m sorry, but there’s a plaque in the Alamo, my favorite one, listing all the couriers Travis sent to Houston who came back to almost certain death (Bonham returned twice). Seguin’s not on the plaque, and I’m sure there were good reasons, but he’s not on the plaque.

              • I haven’t asserted he is a hero. Affirmative action does seem like the explanation for his name being elevated above any of the other recently commissioned Captains who were raising forces in Gonzalez. That still doesn’t seem like a valid reason to pile it on him and minimize the efforts he did make as some sort counterbalance to the apologists who take it to the opposite extreme. That Seguin didn’t succeed in getting his company to the Alamo is an excuse to deride his effort (an effort that only few others tried) sounds a lot like Consequentialism.

                As for Fannin, history has taken a grim view of him because of his final acts as a tactician. But, as a matter of accuracy, he wasn’t slaughtered on his way to save the Alamo. His force was intercepted on its way to Victoria in support of Houston’s orders to form a defensive line on the Colorado river. His ‘effort’ to save the Alamo lasted less than a few hours, a few miles, and one broken wagon wheel and was evidence of his non-committal attitude in that regard. And honestly, if it weren’t for his blunders leading to his demise in the field above Coleto Creek, we’d probably regard his decision not to relieve the Alamo with greater tolerance…. his was the only Texan force capable of blocking the Mexican advance along the coastal colonies. The fact of the matter is, Fannin had no intention of relieving the Alamo, and only upon orders of Houston (prior to the orders to displace to Victoria on the Colorado River) to assemble in Gonzalez did Fannin pretend like he would move that direction…which he delayed anyway until receiving the Victoria orders.

                • I’ll cop to being too hard on Seguin…again, Bill advocated him as an appropriate object of the “duty to remember,’ and my response to that is “phooey.” I’d prefer to have the argument over whether there is anything about his life and career that elevates him above thousands of other involved soldiers, officials and bureaucrats during various important US events and conflicts, than how “important” or unique he was. Upon examination, he seems to me to be at best inconsequential (that is known as “Inconsequentialism”) and at worst feckless.

                  But I’ll talk about the Alamo any time, with pleasure. One of my favorite places on Earth.

                  • Almost cult like, I consider trips to the Alamo semi-mandatory for any good citizen (especially Texan). On one of my visits to what rightly should be considered hallowed ground, I was behind a teenager who threw his candy bar wrapper on the ground. He got a solid and less than dignifying ass-chewing. I’m sure I could have been more polite, but I wasn’t happy.

                  • Jack,

                    What Alamo/Texas Revolution books do you prefer?

                    My go-to’s are Stephen Hardin’s “Texian Iliad”, Stephen Moore’s “Eighteen Minutes”, and another somewhat controversial “Alamo Traces” by Thomas Lindley. I don’t swear by the last one, an agressive author who tries to draw conclusions about certain “blind spots” in the history as well unshrouding some of the myths makes pretty convincing arguments with logical conclusions deduced from scant documents. I think though he relies too much on some of his conclusion as premises for later conclusions. But his arguments make alot of sense for some topics.

                    General Castrillon gets points for refusing to run at San Jacinto. General Jose Urrea gets points for making an effort to avoid Santa Anna’s no-quarters policy.

                    • I love Davis’s “Three Roads to the Alamo,” though it isn’t strictly an Alamo book—the footnotes are wonderful, and he was the first to debunk the old death totals. I love my first Alamo book, “A Time To Stand,” by Walter lord, though a lot of it is out of date now. Texian Illiad is terrific.

  2. (in the video) The singing was good, but they couldn’t play guitar. Either that, or they used the Rube Goldberg-est string tuning ever known. (I only watched it once; the string bass-plucker might have been doing it right.)

      • It wasn’t the sound reproduction or guitars being out-of-tune that caught my attention. It was the visual, of the guy standing/leaning on the right with the guitar, who looked like he was playing a folksy, relatively simple (in terms of chords) “Wild West Anglo cowboy” type of song, by fingering strings like some virtuoso improvising jazz.

  3. It’s a good thing no school administrators saw that statue. They’d flip out if they realized it looks like someone cast bronze to look like a firearm!

    A statue, heroicizing an individual opposing bad men with a firearm, doesn’t bring about protest?

  4. I’m sorry I missed this conversation until now. There are a number of items about Baca and Seguin that I was unaware of. It needs to be pointed out that Seguin was the first vice president of the Texas Republic under the constitution (Gonzales was VP during the revolution) and that Baca has a county in New Mexico named for him. Seguin is also a prosperous small city in central Texas and the home of Texas Lutheran College.

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