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Quiet and reclusive, Frenchy was one of the bravest men in the Southwest

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Francois-Jean “Frenchy” Rochas’ grave in Our Lady of the Light Catholic Cemetery in La Luz in Otero County. (Photo courtesy of findagrave.com)

One of the early settlers of the Dog Canyon area near Alamogordo and White Sands National Monument was a pioneer named Francois-Jean Rochas, known by everyone who knew him as Frenchy.

Remnants of rock corrals. (Photo courtesy of the Historical Society for Southeast New Mexico)

Rocha, or Frenchy, was born in France in 1843 and emigrated to New Mexico in the 1880s. Frenchy was a sort of recluse/mountain man who was very interesting, brave and a hard-working character.

Back in the 1800s, Yankees and Texans — as well as Mexicans and Indians had one thing in common —they were not afraid of anything!

One-hundred-plus years ago, there were some staunch characters on the New Mexico frontier who fit this category. Indeed, quite a few of them could look into the muzzle of a 45 without batting an eye.

Such was the case of Frenchy, a quiet, sober, unassuming man — the recluse type who talked little, until someone tried to run over him. Whoever tried it didn’t have to be a Texan or an ex-soldier, or even a deputy sheriff. Courage was wherever you ran across it, and sometimes you found it in unexpected places.

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Frenchy was a stubborn little Frenchman who lived like a hermit up in the wild hill country of the Sacramentos. He was perhaps the bravest man who ever lived in the Tularosa country and possibly even all of the Southwest.

He spoke broken English, was never very well-dressed, and seldom went to town. When he did, hardly anyone showed him kindness or even attempted to be friendly.

In the early 1880s, Frenchy had moved to Dog Canyon.

“You’ve got no business living out there all by yourself,” his few friends told him. “Indians have a regular road running up that canyon, and if they don’t get you, the outlaws or rustlers will.”

Frenchy would only laugh at them, and say, “I don’t hurt nobody and nobody hurts me.”

So Frenchy had packed his supplies in his old buggy and moved up through the San Augustin Pass and on across the desolate Tularosa sands toward the place in the canyon, some 65 miles west. He probably felt no anxiety or fear about what he was doing. In fact, his whole philosophy of living and dying showed that he wasn’t afraid of whatever fate had to offer.

He built mortarless stone walls to corral his livestock, portions of which snaked along the slopes at the mouth of Little Dog Canyon. Frenchy raised cattle and tended an orchard and vineyard.

Texan Oliver Milton Lee settles Dog Canyon

The closest neighbor, Oliver Milton Lee, settled in Dog Canyon about the same time as Frenchy.

Lee was born in Buffalo Gap, near Abilene, Texas, on Nov. 8, 1865 and came to New Mexico Territory in the fall of 1884 with his half brother, Perry Altman. They were attracted to New Mexico by the open range, free land and a ready market for horses. Lee, already an established horseman and adept with the revolver, insisted on coming. He was only 18. Later, Lee brought his mother and servants and started the Dog Canyon Ranch.

Oliver and Frenchy jointly developed an irrigation system at Dog Canyon. Ditches carried the precious water to the ranch house and pastures. Ruins of the irrigation conduits still remain along the trail leading into the canyon. This was one of several irrigation systems Oliver established along the western escarpment of the Sacramento Mountains.

As competition for open range, land, and water increased during the late 1800s, violent rivalries sometimes ensued. Soon after Christmas 1884, Frenchy was found dead in his cabin at Dog Canyon. A coroner’s jury concluded it was suicide, but evidence and hearsay suggest it was murder. He was only 51 years old when he died. Some suggest Lee and Frenchy were disagreeing over the water ownership at this time. Other accounts suggest field hands did Frenchy in. No one was ever charged with the murder, and the mystery of his death has never been solved.

The Lincoln County War is an example of those violent times. Lee often became involved in these disputes and was accused by some of cattle rustling and stealing land. In 1896, A.J. Fountain, a prominent judge, local rancher and rival of Lee, was murdered along with his young son Henry in the Tularosa Valley. Sheriff Pat Garrett charged Lee with the murders. Lee evaded capture and refused to surrender, believing that he would not remain alive or receive a fair trial in Dona Anna County. This became known as the fountain murders.

No one knows for sure why Frenchy had left his father, mother, brother, two sisters and the peace of the mountains of France. However, more than likely it was his health that brought him to the arid mountains of the American Southwest, as he often talked about his “catarrh in the head” and “pains in the stomach.”

Frenchy always signed his letters as just plain “Frank.” Chances are Frank, or Frenchy, chose the wildest part of New Mexico in which to settle only because he found something there he really liked. He loved the peace and quiet he felt in the rugged canyon — a gorge with walls rising hundreds of feet above the little rock cabin that he built with his own hands. He could not have found a more magnificent place to live — and die. The Spaniards had named the place “Cannon Del Perro” — or “Canyon of the Dog.” Slicing through solid rock to the top of the mountain, the rugged “dog” turns and twists between mile-high cliffs. The place had been a haunt for the Indians and white men alike. The age-old trail up the canyon is a treacherous path which winds among the rocks until it tops out in the timber above.

The water in the canyon, and the ancient trail up its side, was a favorite stomping ground for the Apaches, as it had a unique feature. It was the best possible place for ambushes. About halfway up, the path stretched along a near vertical precipice, known as the Eyebrow Trail.

Apaches lie in waiting

In the early days when the Apaches were being pursued, they often waited above the path and seemed to take great satisfaction in listening to the screams of men as they plunged into the canyon far below.

Frenchy knew about these tragic incidents, as some of them had occurred only two or three years before he set up his first camp beside the canyon stream and began to work on his one-room rock hut. He felt he could handle any situation when he came to it. Apparently the Indians were impressed by his boldness, because they never bothered him.

The Texans were different, however. They came with their herds and their lust for grass and water. Every small stream was worth fighting for. Frenchy’s water was plentiful and to the cowmen it was “liquid gold.” How Frenchy lasted as long as he did was questioned for many years.

For more than 10 years, Frenchy worked hard in the canyon. He completed his house and built corrals for his growing herd. He developed a garden and set out peach, pear, and cherry trees. He created a beautiful oasis and “garden of Eden.”

Trouble begins for Frenchy

Frenchy’s life was not to remain so peaceful, however. His first trouble started on July 1, 1886, when he became involved in a little shoot out. He had suspected that a young man named Morrison, who had been working for him, was stealing from him. Frenchy went to La Luz in Otero County, swore out a warrant and had Morrison arrested.

In any event Morrison was soon free and on his way back to Dog Canyon. Long before daybreak he was behind a rock with his gun, waiting for Frenchy to come outside.

A trail of smoke was soon coming from Frenchy’s stove-pipe chimney as he cooked his breakfast. Later, he went outside and began his work as usual. Morrison waited until he had an opportune time then sent a slug from a Winchester into Frenchy’s body.

The Frenchman knew instantly what had happened and covered his wound with his hands, as he staggered toward his cabin. A second shot echoed among the canyon walls, the bullet hitting Frenchy in the arm, but the settler somehow made it to his hut where he crawled into his bed.

About 10 o’clock that night Morrison acted again, evidently deciding to finish his murderous task. He broke open the door and dashed inside, quickly finding his man. Frenchy, calm and steady, was ready and waiting. His gun was lined up on the intruder, and moments later, Morrison, carrying a bullet, took off for parts unknown.

Frenchy, in poor condition, eventually made it to the nearest ranch where he told his story. Soon a posse set out to get the would-be killer, and in good time he was in the Las Cruces jail.

In a short time, Frenchy’s wounds had healed and he was back on his place. With 500 head of cattle carrying his Scoop R brand, he was becoming quite prosperous. He did not put up with any nonsense. When neighboring ranchers cattle drifted up the canyon, he chased them off, and during each round up he carefully watched to see if anyone was stealing from him.

One of Frenchy’s neighbors didn’t like the squatter’s ranching methods, and told him how he felt. The Frenchman answered him in his crude English: “You are stealing my cows, if I catch you, I have you arrested!”

Frenchy knew what to expect from brave talk like that, but he was not afraid. The neighbor, a Texan, along with those who rode with him, were baffled by the coolness of the man. They rode off mumbling, “Somebody will get that fool Frenchman if he don’t look out!”

Frenchy stayed, but he began to worry about something else. He hadn’t staked out a claim on his land and he had no legal right to the place.

Frenchy writes to family back home

In December 1894, Frenchy sat down and began writing letters. He wrote to his brother and sister in France, telling them about his place and how he would like to live without trouble. Then he wrote to a friend in Santa Fe, requesting that he look up a certain surveyor who had recorded the location of his property. “I would like to get my land surveyed,” he told his friend.

Frenchy spent that Christmas alone. The letters were still lying there on Dec. 26, when three cowboys rode up to his hut and called out to him. He opened the door with his rifle in his hand and walked out. He probably knew what to expect, but he was not afraid. He cursed the riders in both French and broken English. Finally one of the riders pulled his six-shooter and fired three quick shots. As the riders loped away, Frenchy crawled back to his bed and lay down to die.

Two days later, a cowboy rode up to La Luz and reported that the Frenchman had been killed. The justice of the peace called together a coroner’s jury and they rode out to Frenchy’s place to see what had happened. When the investigation was over, the jury ruled that Francois-Jean Rochas just of a gunshot wound, not even mentioning that he had been murdered.

Memories of Frenchy fade away over time

Civilization soon forgot the old Frenchman and all he had done in the canyon. The “Scoop R” brand faded into oblivion. The trail to his cabin disappeared, the fruit trees died. Year by year, the memory of Frenchy grew dimmer.

Such was the story of the brave little Frenchman who lived alone, tended his land and bothered no one. The times were hard in those days, and they were harder still if you came from another land or spoke a different language.

Credits to Clarence Adams and the “Historical Round-up.”

Janice Dunnahoo is an archive volunteer at the Historical Society for Southeast New Mexico Archives. She can be reached at 575-622-1176 or by email at jdhist4@outlook.com.

Make Me No Grave

Make me no grave within that quiet placeWhere friends shall sadly view the grassy mound,Politely solemn for a little space,As though the spirit slept beneath the ground.For me no sorrow, nor the hopeless tear,No chant, no prayer, no tender eulogyI may be laughing with the gods while here  You weep alone.

Then make no grave for meBut lay me where the pines, austere and tall, Sing in the wind that sweeps across the West:Where night, imperious, sets her coronalOf silver stars upon the mountain crest.Where dawn, rejoicing, rises from the deep,And life, rejoicing, rises with the dawn:Mark not the spot upon the sunny steep,For with the morning light I shall be gone.Far trails await me; valleys vast and still,Vistas undreamed of, canyon-guarded streams,Lowland and range, fair meadow, flower-girt hill, Forests enchanted, filled with magic dreams.And I shall find brave comrades on the wayNone shall be lonely in adventuring,For each a chosen task to round the day, New glories to amaze, new songs to sing.Loud swells the wind along the mountain-side, High burns the sun, unfettered swings the sea,Clear gleam the trails whereon the vanished ride,Life calls to life

Then make no grave for me!

— Henry Herbert Knibbs, from “Songs of the Trail,” 1920.