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Historically Speaking: Mountain men of New Mexico

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Janice Dunnahoo Historical Society for Southeast New Mexico Special to the Daily Record

Copyright © 2021 Roswell Daily Record

By Janice Dunnahoo

Special to the Daily Record

For many years I’ve had a fascination with some of the very first settlers in the West, that being the mountain men. How did they do it? Many trail blazed in unknown territory, they fought the elements, the wildlife, the vermin, hostile people, sickness and injuries, living completely alone in some instances for months, if not years.

There have been numerous movies made about them, some that come to mind are “Jeremiah Johnson” with Robert Redford, depicting the real life story of John Jeremiah Garrison Johnson; “The Revenant” with Leonardo DiCaprio, depicting the real life story of Hugh Glass; “Western Man of the Wilderness” with Richard Harris, also depicting the story of Hugh Glass. There are others, but these are the ones that come to my mind.

New Mexico also had its share of mountain men, trappers and hermits. Following are some articles depicting their lives, or parts of their lives; real men, true stories, right here in our state:

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Albuquerque Tribune

Albuquerque, New Mexico

Aug. 12, 1954

“New Mexico has had its share of wonders — men of the open range, in the mountains, and made their homes wherever their hats happened to be.

“One of these was the wondering school teacher and musician who was known throughout southwestern New Mexico simply as Walkin’ or Walk-along Smith.

Walk-along Smith was an educated man and a talented violinist. He roamed from ranch to ranch in Socorro and Catron counties, earning a few dollars now and then by serving as a tutor to isolated ranch children.

“The ranchers called him ‘Walk-along’ because he walked wherever he went in days, when most men lived on horseback. He would stay at a ranch for a while, then disappear as suddenly as he had appeared.

“By the time of his death in 1937, rumors had grown that ‘Walk-along Smith’ was Billy the Kid. Some ranchers whispered that Pat Garrett hadn’t really killed the kid, but had packed him off to Texas for a ‘second chance.’ They said Billy had returned to New Mexico later as a peaceful and educated man — in the person of ‘Walk-along Smith.’

“Smith traveled light during his wanderings across deserts and mountains. He never carried a gun. He didn’t even carry a canteen. He was a peaceful man who wouldn’t even kill a rattlesnake in his path.

“Sometimes he would spend the winter at Socorro or Reserve, teaching music to the children in those towns.

“Shortly before his death last month, John (Salty John) Cox, a frequent contributor to this column, cleared up some of the mystery surrounding ‘Walk-along Smith.’ He also spiked the rumor that Walk-along was Billy the Kid.

“‘His real name was Henry Smith,’ Mr. Cox said; ‘I know he wasn’t Billy the Kid because I went to school with Smith as a kid in southern New Mexico.’

“I asked Mr. Cox if Smith ever told anybody he was Billy the Kid.

“‘No,’ Cox replied, ‘but he didn’t do anything to discourage the belief, either.’

“Cox explained that this legend took root long ago when Smith happened to be walking across the plaza in Socorro. A group of children were playing nearby, and one of them, a small boy, looked up at the stranger smiling and said: ‘Hello there, Billy the Kid.’

“‘Smith smiled back and nodded his head,’ Cox continued, ‘apparently flattered by the salutation.’ In the years that followed, Smith always smiled and said nothing when it was hinted that he was the famous desperado.

“Cox said Smith sometimes would accept a ride in an automobile, but that he didn’t have much patience with them.

“‘If you were driving Smith someplace and had a flat tire,’ Cox said, ‘he wouldn’t wait for you to fix it. He would jump right out and start walking across the desert.’

“Walk-along Smith prophesied that death would find him in a mountain cave, far from signs of civilization.

“In 1937, his body was found on the desert near Lordsburg, between a highway and a mountain. He apparently was headed to that mountain cave when death overtook him.

“Most of you probably are familiar with the story of the long-bearded hunter Ben V. Lilly, who roamed New Mexico’s mountains for many years with his pack of hounds in search of stock killing bears, mountain lions and bobcats.

“Ben Lilly spent weeks at a time in the wilderness, stopping at intervals in towns or ranches to collect bounty money for the predatory animals he had killed. He worked for many years on a bounty basis on Victor Culberson’s big GOS Ranch in the Mogollons.

“Ben’s baggage on these long trips which sometimes took him down into Mexico, consisted of his rifle, an axe, a frying pan, and a few articles of food. He carried a light blanket in the winter time.

“He always was accompanied by a pack of well trained hounds, and he sometimes leashed one of the dogs to his belt to help him pull over rough country.

“Lilly was a very religious man who refused to hunt on Sundays. No matter how close he might be to an illusive grizzly on Saturday night, he would put down his rifle and wait until Monday before resuming the chase.

“The famous hunter visited Albuquerque in 1921 when he came here to join a group of wealthy sportsmen on a big game expedition through the state. As he climbed off a train with his hounds at the local depot one Sunday morning, a friend asked him why he ‘happened’ to be working on a Sunday.

“‘The ox is in the ditch,’ the old hunter replied. ‘These dogs got to be fed.’

“Lilly was born in Alabama in 1856, spent most of his life in the open, shunning company and preferring the hard ground at night to a soft bed indoors. “Nevertheless, he died in a bed in a ranch home near Silver City in 1936.”

Las Vegas Daily Optic

Las Vegas, New Mexico

May 18, 1911

“Writes of his recollections of the ’40s

“Abner E. Adair, of Oddesa, Mo., Relates Interesting Pioneer History

“Abner E. Adair, of Oddesa, has written interestingly of his recollections of the ’40s in the Oddesa, Mo., Democrat, as follows:

“In my early recollections of the ’40s in Oddesa, Missouri, such expressions as mountain men on the plains, trappers, traders, Mexicans, Indians, buffalo and bear, were indelibly stamped upon my mind. The writer first saw the light of day back in 1833 in the little town of Independence, then the outfitting point for the Santa Fe and California trade.

“In those days one was accustomed to see the bronzed face of the Indian who lived in the vicinity. St. Louis was about half French, and furnished merchandise and men who traded with Indians on the plains and in the mountains. A company of those trappers and traders spent most of their time near the foot of the mountains.

“Goods were shipped up the Missouri River to Independence, then carried on pack mules to various trading points in the almost unknown West.

“The Indians were glad to meet the traders and exchange or barter his robes, furs and pelts for blankets, beads, coffee, sugar, knives, tobacco, pipes, looking glasses and many articles which struck his fancy.

“The Bents, St. Vrain, Folger and others were at that time leaders in that traffic, but later were joined by Kit Carson.

“Independence was the starting point and general headquarters for all these people. Jackson County always welcomed the return of mountain men. And these traders always celebrated the event with a carousel which lasted for an indefinite period of time.

“Captain Smith from Tennessee was a great and bold character. In a severe fight with some Indians, he was wounded in the leg, which would have been fatal had the limb not been cut off.

“No surgeon accompanied the party and Smith determined to do the work himself. He used a sharp butcher knife and a small saw. Mr. St. Vrain, ex territorial governor of New Mexico, told me some years ago that he was there and saw Smith cut off his leg. Smith recovered and was afterward known as ‘Pegleg’ Smith. When this party ceased to exist, Smith lived with the Indians a number of years and then went to California where he died in 1853.

“Bent’s fort on the Arkansas was an important place and was built by traders.

“In 1840, a mule train of wagons belonging to a Mexican named Chavez, of Peralta, New Mexico, was camped on Cow Creek, not far west of Westport. In those days much gold and silver from old Mexico was boxed up and hauled in wagons to the States. A few men from Westport went to Chavez’s camp and managed to kill all except two Mexicans who escaped, went to Ft. Leavenworth, told their tale, and a troop of Calvary went in pursuit, and soon overcame the robbers and got the money. Some of these men were hanged, some went to prison, and one turned state’s evidence and was released.

“Dr. Henry Connelly, who for years was engaged in the Chihuahua trade, was given possession of the money and effects of Chavez, and on his return to New Mexico delivered all of his wealth to the widow. She repaid by becoming his wife. Connelly was made Governor of New Mexico in the early 1860’s.

“In October 1848, Tom Flourney of Independence, and some 10 or 12 others, started from Santa Fe to Missouri. On the Arkansas River a fierce freezing blizzard came up and they all froze to death. Their bodies were found the next summer. In those days trade was suspended in winter months, as it was hazardous in the extreme to cross the bleak plains.”