Home News Vision Historically Speaking: The life and times of Ash Upson

Historically Speaking: The life and times of Ash Upson

Photo Courtesy of the Historical Society for Southeast New Mexico Ash Upson in Roswell — date unknown.

Copyright © 2021 Roswell Daily Record

By Janice Dunnahoo

Special to the Daily


Southeastern New Mexico and Roswell is somewhat magical in that it has produced so many “greats.” They may not have been born here, and they may not have achieved fame on a national level — though many have — but they are truly amazing in their own right.

What is it about this place? Possibly our artesian water?

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This week, I would like to showcase the life and times of one of our pioneers by the name of “Uncle” Ash Upson.

His full name was Marshall Ashmun Upson. He was born Nov. 23, 1828, of the good old New England stock, with ancestry reaching far back into the Old World. His parents lived and died in Connecticut. He was well educated and trained for literary work; but the wanderlust was in his blood and more than half of his life, he anticipated author and journalist Rudyard Kipling’s lines: “I must go — go — away from here; On the other side of the world I am overdue.”

The great Southwest seemed to have called for him especially and he followed that calling, meeting the Native Americans and the first settlers. Upson left home when he was little more than a boy and began work as a “printers devil” in New Haven, New York City.

While living in New York he was fond of telling that he was employed in an office in which Edgar Allan Poe was engaged at the time. Poe befriended him and for a short period of time, he shared a room with the future great poet, until a sudden illness caused him to have to return home to New Haven. Poe assisted him to the boat, which returned him home to his mother.

In 1853, and again in 1862, Upson was in Cincinnati working for the Cincinnati Enquirer. Between these dates, he crossed the plains into Colorado bearing witness to the sight of unnumbered herds of buffalo. He doubtless was sent on this expedition by the Enquirer, as one letter of his speaks of the possibility of accompanying a party from that office against the Sioux. Upson climbed Pikes Peak, visited Utah territory and made his first visit to New Mexico.

He also says in this letter that he had served as assistant quartermaster in the Federal Army.

Upson writes: “I am a Democrat, of the old school, from the crown of my head to the sole of my foot, and have been since the demolition of the old Whig party.”

So when Lincoln and Douglas made their famous senatorial campaign, Upson was with them throughout — as reporter, no doubt, for the Cincinnati Enquirer. During this time, he wrote home, ending his letter — in spite of his sympathies — with, “and three cheers for the scar strangled banner and old Abe.”

In 1866, he was in Kansas City, in 1870, he was in Santa Fe, in 1871, in Las Vegas, New Mexico, in 1874, in Roswell, in 1876, at its founding. He spoke of many other places, including Salt Lake City, Utah and San Antonio, Texas. In Salt Lake City, Brigham Young gave him his photograph. In fact, for more than 40 years he led a wanderer’s life and many of his letters home express with pathos the conflict in his being between his longing for home and the life of the wild. Wherever he went, he made friends and only few enemies. For many years during the end of his life, he was righthand man and business manager to Pat F. Garrett, the famous sheriff of Lincoln County. The business letterhead carried the firm name of “Upson and Garrett.”

It was while with Garrett that Upson wrote for him, “The Life of Billy the Kid.” Upson once boarded in Silver City with the kid’s mother. Besides his newspaper and other literary connections — being a frequent correspondent for New York newspapers — he was a surveyor, notary public, storekeeper, postmaster, justice of the peace and school teacher. He was one of the few educated men in Roswell’s early days. At one time he served as adjutant general of the New Mexico Territory and was often called upon to assist different circumstances. “Viva Este dia, y manana cuidado por manana,” he writes in a letter home, and he would seem to have lived up to his motto, which means to live this day and let tomorrow take care of itself.

When Garrett moved to Uvalde County, Texas, and Upson accompanied him. Upson returned to Connecticut in 1892 remaining a few months, during which time his mother, at age 91, passed away; his father had died two years earlier. The couple had been married 71 years. Upson then returned to Garrett’s in Uvalde County, Texas, where he, too, died in 1895.

Through the courtesy of family members, a few of the letters of “Uncle Ash,” have been shared. These letters have great historic interest and value to Roswell and the Pecos Valley and all are characteristic of this unique and gifted pioneer of the West. Following is one of his letters, which tells of the very beginnings of Roswell:

“Roswell, Lincoln County, New Mexico, August 30, 1876

“Dear Father,

“Your letter of late date was duly received. You will see by date that I have again changed my base. The causes which brought me here were the following: In the first place, Mrs. Casey is harvesting her crops and has kept her children employed in planting, herding cattle, building new houses, etc., since last April. Since the first of April, I have not held three weeks school. Nothing to do but keep her books and write a few letters except attending to chickens and such like trifling employment. I became very much ennuyed, as the French would say.

“John S. Chisum, the cattle king, of whom I wrote to you, wanted me to survey 320 acres of land for him, four miles from here, where his store is. He went to Arizona some six weeks ago, with two large herds of cattle — some 4,000 or 5,000 head, and is daily expected back. He stopped at Mrs. Casey’s as he went away and told me to come down at any time and survey his land. So, some three weeks ago, I came down. I only had a compass and chain. I could not find any monuments on the land and will have to procure a transit from Ft. Stanton.

“This place, Roswell, is only four miles from Chisum’s principal ranch, and there is no one living here except F. G. Christie, the acting deputy postmaster. He is an old California miner, and is very much dissatisfied here, all alone, and making nothing except a small salary for looking out for the property. I did not wish to return to Mrs. Casey’s until I had completed my survey, and Mr. Christie urgently requested me to remain with him, and to promise to accept the postmaster’s position with the perquisites, etc. I consented to stay for the present. Have been here two weeks. Christie has written to Van C. Smith, who owns the place, and lives in Santa Fe, to find out what he says in the matter. In the meantime, let me describe the man, and the place.

“Van C. Smith is a gambler of what is called the superior class. That is, he is looked upon as an honorable man, who can step into the store of a merchant and borrow a few hundreds whenever he chooses — if he is dealing faro, and a greenhorn comes in and bets on his game, Van will tell him honestly when he wins or loses. In short, will not cheat at his game. He is a friend of mine to such an extent that he would not let me bet at his game if I wanted to (which I don’t) saying: ‘Ash, unless you are going to follow gambling as a profession, let it alone altogether. I don’t want your money.’

“Well sometime in 1870, I think, Van took it in his head to play the game of “reformed gambler.” He had some thousands in the bank. He purchased this ground and built upon it. I never saw a more beautiful uncultivated place. It is on the Rio Hondo, the same river that Mrs. Casey’s Ranch is on, and just about 50 miles southeast of there. The Hondo is south of the houses. Northwest of the houses is the North Spring River about 100 yards distant. This river is as transparent as crystal, and about 40 feet wide opposite the house. The house is only two miles from the rise of the river, and it is only four miles from the house to the mouth; it empties into the Rio Pecos.

“The Pecos is fully as large as the Rio Grande, although the Rio Grande is several hundred miles longer, the Pecos rising only some 30 miles from Santa Fe, whilst the Rio Grande, rises in Colorado, in the Rocky Mountains. I have stepped across both of them at their fountain heads. They both empty into the Gulf of Mexico. I was mistaken about North Spring River emptying into the Pecos. It empties into the Hondo about 1 1/2 miles from the house, and the Hondo empties into the Pecos about 2 1/2 miles from the mouth of the North Spring River some 3 1/2 miles long. Besides N. Spring River, there is South Spring River, which has its rise just 1 1/2 miles south of this house, and makes a junction with the Hondo at its mouth, where both, or rather, all three empty into the Pecos.

“Besides these four rivers there are two smaller ones, their rise from springs not more than 2 1/2 and 3 1/2 miles from this house, and emptying into the Pecos 2 and 3 1/2 miles below the mouth of the Hondo. Six rivers within four miles of our door — two within pistol shot — literally alive, all of them, with fish. Catfish, sunfish, bull pouts, suckers, eels, and in the two Spring rivers and the two Antelopes, splendid bass. These four rivers are so pellucid that you can discern the smallest object at their greatest depth. The Hondo is opaque and the Pecos is so red with mud that any object is obscured as soon as it strikes water. Here is where the immense catfish are caught. I pulled one out, 4 1/2 years ago, that weighed 57 pounds. Eels 5 and 6 feet long are common. Bass, in the clear streams, from 2 to 4 pounds is an average.

“Well, to return to Van Smith, he put up two good buildings — adobe, of course. One, a dwelling, one and one-half stories high-square — four rooms below and one above. The other larger square-one — half for a store and the back divided into two rooms and a half story above. (These were built across from where the courthouse now stands.) He built, also, a blacksmith shop, stables, chicken house, two very large corrals — one for horses and one for cattle — he set out trees all about the houses, brought water from North Spring River by Acequias in front and behind the houses — built three farmhouses on the Hondo within 1/4 to 1/2 mile distance — stocked his store with the best assortment of goods ever brought to the country — furnished his houses splendidly, and went to accumulating stock and cultivating the ground.

“The misfortune was that he would have nothing but fast racehorses, full-blooded cattle, game chickens, and bulldogs. He was a constitutional gambler. He next built a cockpit and race track, with judges stand, etc. His gambling friends would come 250 miles from Santa Fe and Las Vegas to spend a few weeks. Horse racing, dog fighting, chicken fighting, poker, etc., was the order of the day. No merchant, farmer, or stockman ever succeeded in business whilst his best time was spent in gambling. Van had named this place Roswell, being the name of his father. He had succeeded in getting a post office established, and there is no reason why he should not have thousands of cattle, horses, sheep, hogs, etc., roaming over miles and miles of inexhaustible pastures, (in winter as in summer) except that he could not refrain from gambling, nor stay away from the cities where he could indulge his passion.

“He went to Santa Fe and established what is called a first-class billiard and gambling saloon, where he is now, having shared the smiles and frowns of Fortune at intervals, but no better off than he was when he left here. He has not been here for more than a year, but has paid someone to stay and attend to the post office and look out for his small amount of stock and other property here. There is in the store the remnant of his old stock worth $200 or $300, with all the fixtures, counters, shelving, safe, scales, etc., enough to do a first-class business in New Haven. Sixteen head of blooded cattle — 7 good mulch cows, and some beef cattle — two racehorses, one a broken-down mare, and the other a 4-year-old race nag, cost $600. A few hogs, pure Chester Whites, two dogs, one a full-blooded setter-fine stock, the other a bull terrier, for which Van paid $100 in gold, in St. Louis. There are 70 odd game chickens here. You may, or may not know that cockfighting is the national amusement in Old and New Mexico. These chickens sell for $10 and $25 a trio, that is two pullets and one rooster. If I stay here, I propose to sell off most of the roosters. The hens are good layers and I like eggs.”

The letter continues with Upson’s plan to buy out Van Smith and what he proposes to do — more of his correspondences to come in the future.

What an amazing man, living in an amazing time, being in the center of this country’s and the area’s development.

Janice Dunnahoo is chief archivist 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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