Home News Vision Historically Speaking: More than a governor: Lew Wallace, part I

Historically Speaking: More than a governor: Lew Wallace, part I

Photo Courtesy of the Historical Society for Southeast New Mexico Governor of New Mexico, Lew Wallace, September 1878-March 1881 — date unknown.

Copyright © 2021 Roswell Daily Record

By Janice Dunnahoo

Special to the Daily Record

Lew Wallace (April 10, 1827 – February 15, 1905) was the 10th Governor of the Territory of New Mexico (1878-81) during the Lincoln County War. Having had correspondence and dealings with Billy the Kid, he also authored one of the most famous books ever written, “Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ,” among others. There is more to his story, much more.

How Wallace came to New Mexico:

Wallace was a loyal supporter of the Republican Party since the Civil War. Founded in 1854 as a coalition opposing the extension of slavery into Western territories, the Republican Party fought to protect the rights of African Americans after the Civil War.

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In 1876, Wallace acted as legal counsel for the Republicans in the disputed presidential election, which was later known as Hayes-Tilden contest (Rutherford B. Hayes against Samuel J. Tilden). It was resolved by giving the contested electoral votes in Louisiana, South Carolina and Florida to Hayes, thereby assuring his election.

In turn, Hayes appointed Wallace governor of the New Mexico Territory in September 1878, replacing Samuel Axtell. Axtell had been accused of corruption and was closely linked in business dealings and political patronage with several members of the notorious Santa Fe Ring — a powerful group of entrepreneurs and land speculators in Santa Fe. Axtell had done little or nothing to quell the lawlessness and violence in New Mexico — especially in Lincoln and Colfax Counties, where members and minions of the Santa Fe Ring were at war with local ranchers and businessmen. Axtell was even accused of contributing to the violence through his support of the Santa Fe Ring parties.

It is most likely that Wallace was appointed — and accepted the appointment — in order to clean up the lawlessness and corruption in New Mexico. His reputation for honesty and his record in cases of many famous trials made him an ideal candidate for the position. He served on the military commission for the trials of the Lincoln assassination conspirators, and presided over the trial of Henry Wirz, the Confederate commandant of the Andersonville prison camp.

Further, Wallace had a long-standing interest and some experience in Mexico, dating back to the Mexican-American War (1846-1848), and he knew some Spanish.

Wallace first went to Washington for briefings on his new position, and then traveled by train to Trinidad, Colorado before riding a buckboard carriage to Santa Fe, arriving Sept. 29, 1878.

His first task was to inform Axtell that he was removed from office.

Within four days of arriving, Wallace requested information from the United States Marshal on the situation in Lincoln County, and two days later telegraphed Secretary of the Interior Carl Schurz, requesting that the president declare a state of insurrection in the county. Another two days later, on Oct. 7, Hayes issued a proclamation demanding that the warring parties cease and disperse by Oct 13.

In November, Wallace issued a general amnesty for many of the participants in the Lincoln County War, but for others — including the outlaw Billy Bonney (Billy the Kid) — he issued arrest warrants.

The amnesty calmed the situation somewhat, but the lawyer for the widow of Alexander McSween — one of the murdered protagonists in the war — was himself murdered on the streets of Lincoln in February 1879.

Bonney, having witnessed the murder, attempted to receive pardon by offering himself to Governor Wallace as a prosecution witness. He had at least two secret meetings with Wallace and testified against the men accused of the murder, but charges against them were dismissed by a friendly judge.

Governor Wallace found that the commander at Fort Stanton, Col. Nathan Dudley, was also implicated in the Lincoln County War; Dudley was accused of favoring the side of the Santa Fe Ring, which resulted in the murder of McSween.

In March 1879, Wallace made a personal journey to Lincoln to investigate the situation, accompanied by the military commander for New Mexico, Gen. Edward Hatch. Wallace twice requested Dudley’s removal as commander, and Hatch finally suspended him on March 8. Dudley was brought to trial for complicity in the murder of McSween, and Bonney also testified against him, but he was acquitted.

In spite of Bonney’s cooperation, Wallace seemingly bowed to his powerful enemies and did not grant him the pardon.

Bonney continued his lawless ways and was involved in another murder. He soon came to be considered the most notorious outlaw in New Mexico. The newspapers sensationalized his exploits and dubbed him “Billy the Kid.” Wallace issued a proclamation offering a reward of $500 for his capture.

In 1881, Bonney was captured and jailed in Santa Fe where he wrote four letters to Wallace, still petitioning for pardon, to which apparently Wallace made no reply. Wallace’s lack of response is not surprising since Susan Wallace, later noted that Bonney had threatened to ride into the Santa Fe Plaza and shoot her husband. Bonney was moved to jail in Mesilla, tried on murder charges and convicted in April 1881.

Wallace signed his death sentence, just as Bonney broke out of jail at Lincoln, where he had been transferred to await execution, killing his two guards in the process.

Bonney was finally killed by Sheriff Pat Garrett at Fort Sumner in July 1881. While the case of Col. Dudley was pending, Wallace did not want to rely on U.S. troops under his command, so he organized a local militia company of armed riflemen in Lincoln County to keep order, empowering them to make arrests.

Wallace was also concerned with the problems caused by the nomadic tribes, especially the Apaches in southern New Mexico, who resented the Americans settling on their traditional lands and frequently raided the ranches of settlers. Wallace was responsive to the concerns of the settlers and made a trip to Hot Springs (now Truth or Consequences) and Silver City in December 1879. In 1880, with the Legislature’s approval, he organized a territorial militia to attempt to deal with the Apache and other Indian problems. The death of the Apache leader Victorio in Mexico in October 1880 eased the problem somewhat, but did not solve it.

To his credit, Wallace made efforts of great insight and importance for preservation of the cultural heritage of New Mexico. He was the first official to realize that the Palace of the Governors in Santa Fe was a remarkable historic monument — it dating from 1610 — as well as being the center of government and home of the governor in constant everyday use. He promoted its renovation with various authorities in Washington. Although Congress did not appropriate funds for this purpose during his administration, he had planted the seed for the future restoration of this important building. He also recognized the great value of the early Spanish and Mexican-period archives of New Mexico, which had been badly neglected and were at that time stored in a leaky outbuilding of the palace. Past governors had mistreated them, used them as waste paper, and even sold them to local shopkeepers for wrapping paper.

In February 1879, Wallace requested funds from Washington to hire an archivist to organize and preserve the papers. In October — with no federal funds forthcoming — he hired on his own authority Samuel Ellison who was fluent in Spanish and had served as translator for the Legislature. In 1880, Ellison was appointed territorial librarian. Susan Wallace shared her husband’s concern with the neglected archives. She claimed to have discovered them in an unused office north of the palace, and she assisted Ellison in the work of preserving them. She described them prophetically as a “rich treasure for the mining of the future historian.”

In addition to his administrative duties, Wallace took the time to finish his most famous novel, “Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ,” while in residence in Santa Fe. He completed the sixth, seventh and eighth books, working evenings by candlelight in his quarters at the Palace of the Governors. When he finished the manuscript in March 1880, he set out for New York, delivering it to Harper and Brothers for publication. “Ben-Hur” became one of the most popular and best-selling novels in history, with several film versions of it made in the 20th and 21st centuries.

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