By Janice Dunnahoo
Special to the Daily
As a follow-up to last week’s article on Ash Upson, I could not resist sharing more of his letters, which are so colorful, interesting, but mostly loaded with local history and insights into life at that time, both here, during his travels, and his home in Connecticut.
For a quick recap, he was well educated and trained for literary work, but he had wanderlust in his blood. During his travels, he was a roommate at one time to Edgar Allen Poe, he had his picture taken with Brigham Young, and wrote Pat Garrett’s book, “The Life of Billy the Kid,” for him. He lived in Roswell teaching at a school, and filling many roles, being the first and one of the few educated men during the time when this area was just beginning to be developed and cattle drives and disputes with the Mescalero Apache and Comanche tribes were the norm.
Following is an article from the Carlsbad Current-Argus, dated Friday, March 17, 1916.
“Uncle Ash’s Letters
“During the early part of 1909, several letters were published here, written by one of the pioneers “Uncle Ash Upson” back to his New England home. At the request of some of his old friends — realizing the literary and historical worth of the writings, we have arranged for publication a few more extracts from the delightful home letters of this widely known, universally loved, genial, erratic, old-time wanderer.
“In the preceding letters, Uncle Ash tells first of the beginnings of things when two adobe buildings constituted a town; when he set out trees — remembering New England, when people and conditions could never be found less than interesting. He speaks of mountains and caves and waxes enthusiastic over a Mexican heroine, besieged in one of them by Apaches. He tells of strange rooms, and adds: Should this portion of Uncle Sam’s domain ever be settled up, some astonishing discoveries will be made as to its ancient days. He gives an account of a journey across the desert, with a train of wagons, cattle and men: and tells with gusto of the plenty and comfort at Casey’s ranch, where his journey ended. Later: ‘Here I was duly installed as the proper agent to lick the Casey cubs into educational contour; and the fame of your uncle’s great store of knowledge went forth into all the land. Casey’s house was besieged by neighbors, with their progeny in hand, seeking the hidden mysteries of ABC. Now darn it, quit you’re laughing, I have as good a right to teach school as you have,’ and so on; giving later an account of his attempt to ferule “one of my lambs” — a 6-foot rancher, who came to learn how to keep accounts. His letters are full of memory quotations and literary criticisms.
“In one, his literary ability is shown in a burst of homesick longing: ‘I want to come home to Connecticut. I want to see a field of clover, a bed of cowslips, a pond of lilies and bulrushes, a pasture lot, bespangled with daisies and dandelions, a sweet, clear, babbling brook, where there are no tarantulas, no scorpions to bite a fellow. I want some homemade bread, some oysters, clams, softshell crabs, Indian pudding, yellow butter, good apples, popcorn, peaches, gingerbread, (these new England delights were not obtainable here in the early days,) puritanical sermons, old fashioned church music, mush and milk, quilting parties, hominy, sewing societies, sweet cider, singing schools, New England rum, Yankee girls, molasses, candy, the grace of God, and such other refreshments as I used to growl at and yawn over. I want to get back to my first love. I ponder often, contrasting these rugged mountains and barren plains, with the beautiful hills and green fields of my native New England. I’d like to swap off a few cacti for a big tree laden with ox heart cherries, or swap a few leagues of the ‘Journey of Death’ for an acre of Green Meadow on the Connecticut River; or a few tons of this hot sand, or my gold mines in the Placers, together with $30,000 in Militia warrants for an acre of garden spot where I could raise beans and peas and squashes! I want to go home.’
“Again, he dreams a trip for his niece in Yankee Land to New Mexico. Then Casey would bring us up the Valley (to early Roswell) and when you’re tired of your old uncle, the return could be made across to Las Cruces by Overland mail route some 190 miles, stage to Albuquerque, coach 400 miles to Kit Carson, Colorado, and there we strike a train which will carry you home. It is not so utterly impossible, to a spunky Yankee girl, with an experienced guide.” But, alas! for Uncle Ash’s dream! When many years later she finally came, it was in a Pullman, four days from Connecticut; and lovable Uncle Ash was not here to greet her and be her guide and protector.
“He gives a long dissertation on ‘Women, the only mortal hazard which can appall me!’ It is all written as only Uncle Ash could write — and is well worth a second reading. The following letters have not before been in print:
Casey’s Mill, Rio Hondo, March 9, 1872
“Just for novelty, I am going to answer promptly. Tomorrow, Sunday, is the most favorable day to get a letter to the Fort, 25 miles. The rancheros are putting in their crops, all cattle are herded in the mountains, as there are no fences here, except for corrals built of adobe. The laws in regard to herding are very strict. Acequias are considered fences. Few people leave their ranches except Sunday. My letters come safely, but irregularly. Your last was some days at a Mexican ranch above, awaiting a chance to send it down. Mr. Casey has lived in Texas nearly all his life, has been in this Valley going on four years. The ranch was considerably improved when he booked it, having been left on account of the Indians. Casey is an old Indian fighter. The Apaches fear him, as the devil abhors holy water. He has lost some stock, but not lately. He lost $2,000 worth at one time in 1869. Concerning their children, one, a very smart lad of 10 years, can fall on the floor, double himself up, and out laugh any youngster I’ve ever met. The next is a beauty. The best scholar of them all — just leaves her two older brothers standing still. Next comes one, nicknamed ‘Tricks’ the very devil at quiet mischief, has no confidants, just plots while the rest of the untamed crew are nearly tearing the house down, or are in the corral riding cows, sheep, hogs, or any other unfortunate animal which may happen in their way. But Tricks always looks innocent. The 4-year-old is smart as a steel trap. An infant giant, no unfit ‘caricature’ in solid flesh and blood of Johnny Bull can beat any sister he has got. There are still two younger ones, seven in all. Then there is a Mexican boy some 18 years old, whom Casey rescued from the Apaches while on a hunt for stolen stock. The boy had been captive for more than 10 years. Casey took him for an Indian and shot at him twice. Though he seldom misses his mark, strange to say he missed both times, when the boy cried: ‘Dijile! Dijile! Yo uno Mejicano.’
“With the miller, carpenter, and laborers, this constitutes the colony. Add of course your Uncle Ash.
“The Indians are quiet now yet we are looking for an outbreak any day. There are more than 1,500 of them, guarded by two parts of companies of soldiers. There’s a man or two killed occasionally about here, but that we have become accustomed to. Cattle thieves are plenty. The wolves and mountain lions carry off sheep or a calf now and then. The river and mountains afford an abundance of fish and game. At some future time, I will try to describe this beautiful valley — the finest in all the territory.
“The Rio Bonito connects above here with the Rio Hondo. The banks are lined with trees, bushes, and vines. Pecan, black walnut, sabonol, willow, locust, grapevines, and blooming shrubs. No japonicas, etc., everything here is wild. Cottonwood is abundant, and on the plains, cactus 30 feet high and as thick as a man’s thigh, and aloe from which mescal is made. I am going to put in a crop of peanuts soon.
“There is a cave some 20 miles from here, the terminus of which has never been found; also there are many ruins. I am going below with Casey as soon as the crops are in, and will write more then.
“(Some good advice from Uncle Ash to his niece.)
“You little whirlwind, hurricane, maelstrom, ninehaha, how shall I answer you? Why, the last time I saw you — well, I’ve forgotten whether your mother used to be forced to spank you, or not, but there was somebody in the house who used to undergo that process, and I know it was not me! And here you write me a letter declaring yourself a young lady — ever so old! Well, I shall be glad to be greeted by a bevy of young ladies if I ever go home, rather than a batch of cross babies. Now your mother will tell you that your Uncle Ash never liked babies when they cried. I heard you cry once — you’ve got a set of lungs, dear you have! Have you got a beau? If you have, tell me all about him. Don’t you talk about love to him yet, though because, you see, you don’t know anything about it, and the fewer lessons you take in its mysteries, the better. Just let the fellow slide.
“Your uncle is moralizing now, and though it may look ridiculous, he means what he says. Now, goodbye, and if your Uncle Ash should never see you, he will always love you as the daughter of the best sister the poor, unfortunate, wondering, good for nothing fellow was ever blessed with.
“(Copy of postal)
“Dear. If you want to get a good, long letter from me, you had better write at once. I don’t suppose my nose gets half as blue here as yours does in Connecticut. In fact, my nose is red, and no matter how fiercely blew the blasts, they fail to blue your Old Uncle’s nose. My nose is no chameleon, and refuses to change its color.
“Trinidad, Colorado, August 3, 1872.
“Trinidad is in Colorado territory. I have just arrived here. I started from Casey’s Ranch for San Antonio, Texas on horseback, with three companions, wanted to reach a ferro-carril (railroad.) Went by way of the Rio Hondo, crossing the Rio Pecos, Seven Rivers, Felix, Horse Head Bend, to the head of the Concho.
“Comanche Indians are robbing and murdering every white man on the plains whom they could catch napping. Slightly scared. Took the advice of many cattle drivers who were on their way north, who told me I would lose my small stock of hair if I went on. I returned with a cattle herd — drowned my horse in the Pecos — have been wet for some two months, my skin is turning brown, and I want someone to put me in my little bunk! Was throttled by liberal Republicans and conservative Democrats here, to stay and assist in the establishment of a newspaper. Hope to make enough out of the operation to get home respectably. Don’t abuse me dear Hurricane. I want sympathy. Love to everybody and much love to you.
“(Printed letterhead on this letter says: ‘Office of M.A. Upson, Civil Engineer, Surveyor, Notary Public, Conveyances and Land Agent.’
“In the biographical sketch which accompanied the first printed letter, it was noted that — in addition to above — Uncle Ash was for many years reporter, correspondent, editor of various papers in Spanish as well as English; that he had served as Adjutant General of the Territory, business manager for, and in company with Sheriff Pat Garrett, that he wrote the book ‘Billy the Kid’ for Garrett, that he was storekeeper, justice of the peace, teacher, postmaster, and in fact, being one of the few educated men in the country, he could and did turn his talents in almost any direction desired.”
For more about “Uncle Ash,” John LeMay is writing a soon-to-be-released book about his life. The Historical Society for Southeast New Mexico will notify of the release.
Janice Dunnahoo is chief archivist at the Historical Society for Southeast New Mexico Archives. She can be reached at 575-622-1176 or at email@example.com.