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Historically Speaking: The biography — and other history — of the late Nicholas Hughes

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Photo Courtesy of the Historical Society for Southeast New Mexico Archives The caption on the photo reads, "Assay Office and Livery Stable, Shakespeare, New Mexico" — date unknown.

Copyright © 2021 Roswell Daily Record

By Janice Dunnahoo

Special to the Daily Record

Our state is so rich with its history of the Old West, and it is stories like the following that need to be told and retold. Following is a story I found with a few little-known facts.

If you have seen the movie “Tombstone,” there are a few facts that may surprise you, or at least give you a clearer picture of that era and its history.

This story was published in the Lordsburg Liberal, dated Friday, Sept. 27, 1940.

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Biography of the Late Nicholas Hughes

By Mrs. John T. Muir

“‘Give them a passing thought sometimes

These men of earlier days

The men who have founded the track we tread

The men who have paved the way.’

“The late Nicholas Hughes was one of Lordsburg’s best-known cattlemen and was familiar with the history of the Southwest from the early period of its development. He came to New Mexico before the first Butterfield Stage Coach came into this territory.

“Mr. Hughes came to United States from Ireland in the year of 1850 at the age of 15 years. For a time he worked as a glassblower in Brooklyn, New York. On October 4, 1858 he enlisted for a period of five years in Company C, Fifth Regiment, United States Infantry; was transferred to Company K, the same regiment and was honorably discharged from the service on October 4, 1863 at Old Town, Albuquerque, as a private, by reason of expiration of term of service.

“He was enrolled October 18, 1863 at Old Town, Albuquerque for a period of three years, was mustered into service November 23, 1863 as a private of Company D, 1st Regiment New Mexico Voluntary Infantry. He was mustered out and honorably discharged from service November 7, 1866 at Fort Union, New Mexico as a Corporal, when the company disbanded.

“His military experiments upon New Mexico’s frontier brought him in contact with all the hazardous things known to the pioneer settlers. Retiring from the Army he located in Puerto de Luna and engaged in the cattle business. The wide open spaces and thinly settled country furnished an excellent range.

“In 1863, Mr. Hughes was married in Old Town Albuquerque to Miss Joseph Armijo, into this union was born James, who was known as the ‘Sweetheart of San Simon’ and died some years later in the hospital in Deming and was laid to rest in the Shakespeare Cemetery. John, who was killed in Mexico, Mary, Nicholas Jr., born December 20, 1870 in Bernalillo County, New Mexico and is now living in Phoenix, Arizona.

“In later years, Mr. Hughes married Miss Jane Wood, unto them was born six children, William (1873) Jane (1876) Anna (1882) George (1884), John (1886), June (1889) and Winnie (1892). Jane died in Shakespeare in 1884 and is buried in the old Shakespeare cemetery by the side of the old Butterfield Stage road, resting in the arms of little Jane is my little China doll, which my mother carried in her arms on the immigrant train all the way from Virginia City, Nevada, to Shakespeare in August 1882.

“In 1870, he moved to Ascension, Chihuahua, Mexico, where he engaged in trade, largely dealing in cattle, horses and other stock. In 1878, with his family, he moved to the San Simon Valley in Arizona. Here he established a ranch and built his fort-like house with adjoining corral, some two or three miles east of the old Butterfield Stage station.

“The house with connecting corral was built for protection. There were four large adobe rooms, two on either side of the driveway. In order to enter the driveway one had to pass through a strong large gate, the only outside opening to the place which was always kept locked with heavy chain and a padlock. Passing between the four rooms, whose only windows and doors opened to the driveway, one entered a large adobe corral where stock was kept. Water was furnished from a well inside the corral.

“The house was built of thick adobe walls, one story high and the flat dirt roof served as a lookout for the ranch. The outer walls being a story and a half high, bulletproof and pierced with portholes. The port holes were wide on the inside and only a little larger than the barrel of a gun on the outside. A man standing on the flat roof with a pair of field glasses could sweep and see the valley up and down for miles and see every man on horseback, every animal, and watch the stage coaches going or coming and no one could approach without being seen.

“This famous old ranch was often visited by many persons among them good, bad and indifferent. Following the custom of the times, all people passing by were invited to dismount, rest their animals and eat. Among the throngs were many outlaws, who stopped at the ranch while passing to and from their hideout some miles north of the ranch. The heavy old gate was unlocked, swung open and welcome to the following outlaws: Joe Hill, Curly Bill, Tom and Frank McLowery, Ike Clanton, Dick Lloyd, Billy Gounds, Zwing Hunt, Milt Hix, Jack McKenzie, John McGeil, Bud Snow and John Ringo.

“John Ringo, tall and lean and darkly handsome was a man of silent mystery. He was an honorable outlaw (if there ever was such a person.) He spoke a different language than his associates. It was rumored that he had a college education. At any rate, he had fallen far. Ringo was always ‘courtesy itself’ concerning women. No matter what her station in life was.

“From B.B. Ownby we learned that John Ringo was the only outlaw in this section of New Mexico that came from California. Those that saw the motion picture ‘Stagecoach’ (1939 with John Wayne as Ringo Kid, the outlaw) will remember this character.

“Little Mary Hughes living on this isolated ranch looked forward with pleasure to Ringo’s visits. From him, she learned Bible stories and he told her of lands and people far away. It was he who taught the little lady to read and write.

“In later years, she became the bride of John Robson, superintendent of the Viola mine at Pyramid, which was operating in a large way at that time. Mr. Hughes gave his daughter Mary 100 head of cattle as a wedding present and when the mine closed, the Robsons engaged in the cattle business. Their ranch was the one now owned by Mrs. Fay Clayton, near the present Southern Pacific pump house. The house and improvements are no longer there. Mr. Robson was president of the First National Bank of Lordsburg for many years.

“Mr. Hughes did his trading at Ralston, now Shakespeare, New Mexico, and in 1883 established a ranch north of Shakespeare and supplied the town with meat from his butcher shop. In 1887 he closed his San Simon and Shakespeare ranches and built up a new ranch northeast of Lordsburg, the ranch now known as the Bobby Woods ranch. He developed water at several places adjacent to his ranch. He owned and operated a farm near Red Rock.

“None of the perils and dangers of the frontier were unknown to him. He had many encounters with the Indians and if his life history was written in detail, it would be a most thrilling story of valid experiences where his life was endangered and his escape seemed miraculous.

“The pioneers here will remember the time Mr. Hughes was returning to Silver City from Chihuahua, Mexico, where he had, it was said, delivered 1,000 head of cattle. While carrying a large sack of gold and silver which he had received as payment for these cattle, he was attacked by rustlers but escaped. Later he was jumped by a band of Indians and again escaped. On each occasion, he owed his life to the fact that his horse was a splendid animal and outdistanced his pursuers.

“Mr. Hughes, hearing that the first great passenger train would be in San Simon, September 15, 1880, hitched a team to one of the old Concord Stage Coaches he had bought, and put his family into it. John, Annie and Mary were willing to take the ride in the coach but Nick absolutely refused to go unless he could ride his fastest pony, because, as he said, ‘You can’t tell about them Iron Horses.’

“It will be remembered that when Mr. Hughes came to New Mexico that there were only nine counties in the territory and what is now Arizona was part of New Mexico territory. There was not a single public school.

“He watched with interest the many changes that came as the tide of immigration steadily flowed into this region, reclaiming this district for the use of civilization.

“Today, pleasant cities stand where Mr. Hughes once watched the Indian campfires glow, and today, our state offers to the world untold opportunities: An educational system of which we are justly proud, mines with precious and useful minerals yet undiscovered, broad acres, yet to be transformed into lovely garden spots. Mountains and streams and sunsets, whose glories have been sung by our sweetest singers. Caves — pregnant with age old mysteries. The White Sands and the deserts with her ever-changing moods, today, a laughing carefree gypsy, tomorrow a somber quaker maid, and again a stern task master, challenging the best in man. The land of opportunity, beauty and charm, where plenty, peace and contentment abide, and above all a friendly smile in the welcoming hand of God’s own people.

“The last years of Mr. Hughes life were spent at the Soldiers Home at Sautell, near Los Angeles, California, and he is buried in the soldier’s cemetery there.”

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.