Home News Vision Captain Joseph Calloway Lea and the rest of the story, part II

Captain Joseph Calloway Lea and the rest of the story, part II

Photo Courtesy of the Tom Lea Institute Tom Lea in 1935 with the mural study for the "Western Frontier: First Phase, 1830-1890," in his W.S. Hills building studio, El Paso, Texas.

Copyright © 2021 Roswell Daily Record

Historically Speaking

By Janice Dunnahoo

Special to the Daily Record

The article by James T. Padgitt, West Texas Historical Association Year Book, October, 1959, continues from the Historically Speaking column, Roswell Daily Record, Oct. 28.

“In the fall of 1877, Captain Lea with his family and entourage, consisting of employees and sheep and cattle, drifted his flocks into the Pecos Valley, and by the following year he had acquired the two adobe buildings and several hundred acres of land that comprised the town of Roswell, Lincoln County, New Mexico. Lincoln County was the largest, most isolated and wildest county in the United States in 1877.

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“Although the arrival of Captain Lea happened to fall just a few days before the killing of John H. Tunstall that triggered the Lincoln County War, in which Billy the Kid figured so prominently, he refused from the start to be drawn into the feud. He is said to have announced to both groups of belligerents that when he felt like doing any fighting, he would do it on his own — in the meanwhile they could settle their difficulties to suit themselves. Such a positive declaration enabled him to preserve neutrality throughout the months of confusion and excitement of the Lincoln County War.

“Captain Lea was not content with the feuding and fighting that was going on in the Lincoln section of the county and he did what he could to end the strife. He realized that if the feud was not checked and order restored Lincoln County could never be developed. The prospects had been dismaying, but he was of the stuff that sticks it out no matter what the difficulties.

“He sent for Billy the Kid, the most notorious outlaw of the region, and said to him in no uncertain terms, ‘Bonney, if I ever catch you here in Roswell cutting up any of your capers, I’ll take my Winchester and fill you full of holes.’ Billy the Kid laughed and replied, ‘All right Cap’n, I’ll sure leave this place alone. I promise you I won’t cut up any capers in your Roswell.’ And the Kid kept his word.

“Shortly thereafter a drunken cowboy knifed a man in front of Captain Lea’s store. He was promptly arrested and brought before a Justice of the Peace, who fined him $2.50. This is the first instance of record of law being enforced in the Pecos Valley.

“During the late summer and early fall of 1878, Lincoln County was in an even more desperate plight, than when the Lincoln County War was in its most active state. Where there had been two factions, each with some claim to acting on behalf of law and order, now appeared several aggregations of outlaws and desperate characters. The Mexican communities especially suffered at the hands of these terrorizers. The result was that the entire country became panic stricken.

“Whether it was Captain Lea’s reputation that he had tried to leave behind the Yankee lines, or his warm and friendly smile that was backed up by steel gray eyes that a gunman couldn’t face, the many outlaw gangs that had assumed command of southeastern New Mexico left Lea and his town strictly alone.

“Captain Lea, however, was determined to see this thing out. He was an ambitious man with unlimited vision. To Lea it was clear that the day was coming when Roswell would be a booming railroad town and fortunes would be made there by men of courage and imagination. The pictures that he tried to paint were hard to visualize, because, first, there must be some semblance of peace and order.

“It was Captain Lea’s inducement that brought Pat Garrett into Lincoln County and got him to take up valuable land near Roswell. This made it possible for the Roswell section to furnish the county with a useful and successful candidate for the office of sheriff. During his term of office, Pat Garett and his deputy, John W. Poe, who succeeded him in office, shot and killed Billy the Kid and killed, captured, or ran out of Lincoln County the backbone of the lawless element.”

During a cattle buying trip in 1885, Lea met and shortly after married the young widow Mabel Day.

“Mrs. Lea arrived in Lincoln County at a point which might be considered the beginning of the colonization period of the Pecos Valley. Roswell was still nothing but a cow trail with six houses on what was called main street, with about six more scattered about the prairie, with nothing but trails connecting.

“However, things were beginning to develop in the Pecos Valley. Lincoln County was still the largest and most isolated county in the United States. It was over 200 miles from corner to corner and still contained some of the wildest of the west. But the railroad, which had reached Pecos and El Paso, was building from the former city toward Roswell. Some of the Captain’s dreams had begun to materialize.

“When Mrs. Lea, who was a graduate of Hocker Female College of Lexington, Kentucky, set up housekeeping in the original adobe house of Roswell, there was not a public school in operation in the entire Territory of New Mexico.

“Captain and Mrs. Lea, who were absent from Roswell much of their time during the fall of 1889, looking after their separate interests, expressed a growing concern for the education of their three children, Willie Day, Wildy and Ella Lea. During the Christmas holidays of 1890, Mrs. Lea persuaded Colonel Robert S. Goss, Commandant of Cadets of Fort Worth University, to come to Roswell to look over the prospects or organizing a military school there, with the idea in mind of providing some form of adequate schooling for the Territory. After much persuasion and financial backing of Captain Lea and other interested parties in Roswell and the surrounding territory, Colonel Goss started Goss Military Institute in the other original adobe house in Roswell on September 3, 1891. This was the beginning of what is now New Mexico Military Institute. This school became one of Captain Lea’s obsessions and he was continued as regent of the school until his death.

“Captain Lea’s ambition for Roswell as a great railroad point was finally reached on October 10, 1894, when with great celebration the train arrived.

“Southeastern New Mexico during this period had experienced a phenomenal growth. Captain Lea, who had led the home builders to Roswell, had seen hundreds of families settle in the Pecos Valley to take up newly developed irrigated farm lands.

“With the repeated efforts of the Hondo irrigation project and the artesian discoveries, to put the Pecos Valley under water, Roswell and its territory continued to grow. The settlers that continued to flow into the Pecos Valley were a good class of hard working people that were to develop a culture of their own.

“By 1890, Roswell was boasting a population of 2,000 and felt itself ready to become a city. In 1903, it assumed the status of a municipality and held its first city election. The Father of Roswell, Captain J.C. Lea, was elected mayor. In his only campaign speech he said, ‘I would rather be elected the mayor of Roswell, than be the governor of New Mexico.’

The rest of the story …

Thomas C. Lea was Joseph’s oldest brother. Thomas Lea had a grandson, Thomas Calloway Lea III, who went by Tom Lea. (July 11, 1907 – January 29, 2001)

Tom Lea was a genius of the 20th century with extraordinary gifts as a muralist, illustrator, war correspondent, portraitist, landscapist, novelist and historian. His murals, dating from the 1930s, express the history and character of distinct regions of the United States and are found on the walls of public buildings from Washington, D.C., to El Paso, Texas. They are arguably the finest murals of the period. As an eye-witness artist correspondent for LIFE magazine during World War II, Tom Lea traveled more than 100,000 miles to record U.S. and allied soldiers, sailors and airmen waging war worldwide. He wrote and illustrated bestselling novels — ‘The Brave Bulls and The Wonderful Country’ — that were adapted into Hollywood movies, and a dozen other books about subjects as diverse as mountaineering in Wyoming, horse training in 16th century New Spain and the history of the King Ranch. His paintings depict remote and exotic places from Ecuador to China, but primarily capture subjects found near his home on the border between Mexico and Texas.

“Despite his accomplishments, Tom Lea was relatively unknown outside of Texas. His work took him to every continent, but he always returned home to El Paso — to paint and to write near Mount Franklin — far from Art World trends. Tom Lea never sought the approval of critics or the favors of museum directors. His work was placed primarily in the private collections of his personal friends.”

Thomas Calloway Lea III died on January 29, 2001.

Adair Margo, founder of the Tom Lea Institute (2009), said about him, “Slightly more than a year before he died, Tom Lea told me there are so very few artists with enough reverence for the vastness of the world … the definition of two things: infinity and eternity. You know, that’s the majesty and mystery of what’s all around us.

“Tom’s greatest desire was to use the tools of both artist and writer to express the wonder of life.”

The Tom Lea Institute partners with institutions that house Tom Lea’s art and archives, including the El Paso Museum of Art, the C.L. Sonnichsen Special Collections at the University of Texas at El Paso, the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center at the University of Texas at Austin and the U.S. Army Center of Military History, Fort Belvoir, Virginia. In 2013, the Institute launched the Tom Lea Trail, the first artist trail in Texas, connecting the regional histories of 11 Texas cities through Tom Lea’s art and writing. For more information, visit tomlea.com.

There is more — Alfred E. Lea, Joseph C. Lea’s brother lived in Roswell for a while and surveyed the first streets in town, which were marked off by horse drawn graders.

Alfred E. Lea is also known as the founder of Steamboat Springs, Colorado.

Joseph C. Lea and his family visited his brother when he lived in Los Angeles, California.

Alfred E. Lea’s son was named Homer Lea. He was an author and a general in the Chinese army under Sun Yat-sen. Sun Yat-sen was the founding father of the Republic of China.

Homer Lea authored the book in 1909, “The Valor of Ignorance.” Thirty two years later, Gen. Douglas MacArthur read the book and believed in its warning about surprise attacks of the Japanese Empire. He foresaw the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. In fact, the work seemed so prescient that members of MacArthur’s staff later went on to label its American author, who had acquired his own share of experience fighting in the Far East, a clairvoyant.

For more information, visit americanheritage.com/content/homer-lea-decline-west, historynet.com/homer-lea-author-of-the-valor-of-ignorance.htm

Credits go to The Tom Lea Institute, El Paso, Texas and the above mentioned sources, as well as Patty Parkin, whose ancestor is Frank Lea, Joseph C. Lea’s younger brother.

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

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