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Historically Speaking: Other men’s bones

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Photo Courtesy of the Historical Society for Southeast New Mexico Archives The caption on the back of the photo reads, "162-Rock of Ages in Carlsbad Caverns National Park, located near Carlsbad, New Mexico. Geologists estimate that this giant formation had its beginning about 60 million years ago ..." — date unknown.

By Janice Dunnahoo

Special to the Daily Record

The colorful history of our area never ceases to amaze. It matters not if it is Roswell, the Pecos Valley in general, the mountains or the history of Lincoln County, there are so many hidden stories that are just waiting to be told and shared. Such is the case of an article I am about to share — in part — with the kind permission of the editors of New Mexico Magazine. This article is taken from the January 1934 edition of New Mexico Magazine. Due to its length, it will have to be two parts, but rest assured you will be entertained. The more you read, the more exciting it will get.

“Other Men’s Bones

“By Carl Livingston, illustrated by Jane Robinson

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“There’s something fascinating about another man’s bones … especially when he has been dead for several centuries and his bones have taken on a faded and sinister aspect. If they have been thoughtfully deposited in a romantic setting, the fascination grows and the discoverer becomes something of a local hero, and gets a lot of free publicity.

“Vic Queen, a Carlsbad cowboy, had no particular training in the art of ballyhoo, but he didn’t need any. It came to him naturally. Back in 1893 when he and another cowboy were down in the Carlsbad Caverns — which hadn’t been named then — they stumbled accidentally upon the remains of some long-dead, prehistoric resident.

“There were no identifying marks on the body, so Queen and his companion claimed it as their own. Perhaps the man in early times had let his curiosity get the better of his judgment and had set out to explore the interior of the caverns without benefit of matches or guiding rope, as Jim White had in later years. Whatever reason had led his steps into the cavern, he had picked out a swell spot in which to deposit his remains. His skeleton was found near the King’s Palace, and, on close inspection by lantern light, Vic thought the bones took on a royal aspect and spoke to his companion about it. Long meditation wasn’t needed. The man decided that the deceased should go on exhibition, and carefully gathering up the skull and bones, they headed for Carlsbad, at that time called the town of Eddy. It wasn’t long before a skeleton with only a few ribs and some finger joints missing, was posed on the bar in Vic’s favorite saloon, and Vic and his companion were accepting free drinks, and modestly telling of their experience.

“‘There’s plenty more where that un come from,” said Vic, “and his companion backed him up.’

“Things would’ve been all right if only honest people, such as Queen and his companion, had been present. But there were two city slickers — I’ve forgotten their names — in the crowd. The old shell game was still going over big in the rural sections, and the slickers figured that humans who fell for the shell game would be easy pickings for the idea that was hatching in their brains.

“If these two simple cowboys could find a skeleton in the cavern, how easy it would be for them to find a whole petrified man they reasoned.

“The same action of nature which caused the formation of the great stalagmites might easily turn flesh and bone into stone! With the use of a little concrete and lots of imagination, a petrified man soon was produced and placed on exhibition — at two bits a look. He had been ‘discovered’ far back in the caverns. Nothing else like it on earth!

“For a few days the slickers did a thriving business, and if some curious soul hadn’t looked so closely that he saw the grains of sand mingling with the cement, as no petrified body is supposed to do, the exhibition would have proved a great success. As it developed, the two slickers were given a few years in prison during which they could let other fertile ideas develop — and the citizens of Carlsbad paid very little attention to the cavern until developments came along on a big scale about a generation later.

“For several years the idea had been spread abroad that Jim White, the picturesque cowboy, was the first discoverer of the Carlsbad Cavern and that he was the first man to explore the cave’s depths. I think I know how that legend developed, and it will hold in a subsequent article. As a matter of fact, the cavern was known before Jim White was born, and men had been partly through it.

“The old trail of the Forty-Niners ran by the Cavern and doubtless the Cavern was well-known as early as that. With millions of bats flying out of the earth at night it seems impossible that the cavern could have gone undiscovered. Certainly it was well-known in the ’70s. My uncle built his ranch house close to the cavern mouth in that year and it was spoken of as a well-known landmark then.

“In 1885, a group of cowboys went down into the cavern. So far as I know, this was the first party of any size to visit the caves. Their trip is still recalled in Carlsbad. (1934) Many of the men making this trip are still alive, some of them are George Lucas, Bill Jones, Julian Smith, Lum Anderson, Bill Ward and Sam Smith — all of them still residents of Carlsbad.

“Jim discovered the cavern in 1901, and, like Columbus, profited by his discovery. He explored the cavern as well as he could with the use of lantern and ropes. In the same year a California company opened up the bat wing of the cavern and started recovery of the great deposits of guano which are 100 feet in depth in some places. These operations were carried out on a large scale. White was one of their employees and for years remained at the cavern, serving as a guide to the few persons who wished to descend into the interior. But a visit to the interior in those days wasn’t what it is now.

“The exploration of the Carlsbad Cavern by a scientific party sent out by the National Geographic Society, which brought the caves to the attention of the world, was really accidental. For years a group of residents of Carlsbad including myself, had been attempting to get the National Geographic interested in the caves. I had corresponded with them several times without results. I either didn’t convey to them a true picture of the possibilities of the caverns, or else I did it too well and they placed me in a class with the Baron Munchausen. At least we didn’t get results.

“In 1923, the government sent out Dr. Willis T. Lee of the United States Geological Survey, to make a geological study of the terrain around Carlsbad in order to determine whether it was suitable for establishment of a third reservoir for irrigation purposes. I became acquainted with Dr. Lee and we went over much of the ground together. He was a picturesque character and just the type to use his imagination on the cavern. We discussed what had been done to interest the National Geographic Society in the place, but it never occurred to me then what Dr. Lee had in mind.

“A short time after he returned to the East, I received a telegram from him reading: ‘Send a runner post haste to the mountain fastnesses and procure for me the skull of an ancient man. Send the skull post haste.’

“For years I had been interested in exploring the caves in the Guadalupes and during those explorations I had discovered traces of an ancient race which turned out to be the basket makers. I did not know exactly what to do with this race, after I had discovered it to be in this region, especially since they had all been dead for many centuries, but scientists who later studied the artifacts I had dug up, and some of the skulls of the extinct people, pronounced it the oldest known culture in the west — probably 2000 years older than the cliff-dwellers.

“It looked as though I might now have some use for my tribe, but Dr. Lee didn’t know just what he was asking. He didn’t specify who the runner should be, and I had an idea that he had a mental picture of me as he penned that line. It would probably have taken a runner a month, running constantly, to find a skull of the basket makers. I vetoed the suggestion promptly.

“But an old German friend of mine had run across such a skull months before, polished it up and placed it in the parlor as a decoration for his piano. I walked over to my friend, Mat Ohenemus, explained my needs and borrowed his skull. This I sent post haste to Dr. Lee … and in his enthusiasm he never once remarked upon the speed with which my runner procured that ancient pate, much less polished it up and got it in the mails.

“Dr. Lee had access to the highest officials of the National Geographic Society. They listened to him where they paid scant heed to me. It wasn’t the cavern which interested the Society so much as it was the stories of prehistoric man. Once Dr. Lee had found their tender spot, he wired me for the skull to be used as his chief weapon. I had written the Society about such skulls, but they had scarcely answered. But when that skull arrived, Dr. Lee took it to the offices of the Society where it was showed to one of their famous consulting scientists of the Smithsonian Institution. The results were immediate. That scientist took one look at the skull, leapt high into the air yelling the Polish equivalent of ‘Eureka’ and before he had touched the floor again, Dr. Lee had the signatures of the Society officials on the dotted line. The National Geographic Society appropriated $16,000 for the expedition and placed Dr. Lee in charge.

“In the meantime I found myself one morning, not famous like Byron, but broke — dead broke. One day I rode into town, sold my personal saddle horse, and saddle, and discovered that Dr. Lee had arrived. He was jubilant and while he was in that mood I caught him unawares and suddenly he found himself the employer of one Carl Livingston as his chief assistant.

“The expedition was scientific and included a geologist, an ornithologist, entomologist, botanist, naturalist, and a good cook.

“We pitched camp in the old mining shacks east of the cavern mouth and after a weeks preparation descended into the caves themselves, where we spent two months. Four months were spent in the other caves of the region and on the surface studying and cataloging the various items of scientific interest. The work was hard. The cavern then in primitive state, the trails Rocky, and we had poor lights to work with. But many amazing things happened. …”

To be continued.

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.