There are some people you just don’t want to mess with. And then there was Elfego Baca. You really didn’t mess with him. In the words of one biographer, Kyle Crichton, he made “Billy the Kid look like a piker.”
Elfego and Billy knew each other. Some accounts say they made the rounds of Albuquerque’s gambling joints when Baca was 17.
A native of Socorra, descendant of a family who had come to what is now New Mexico in the 1600s, Baca was just shy of his eighteenth birthday when he first killed a man.
In January 1883 a group of Texas cowboys, drawn to the Socorro area to work on ranches owned by Texas cattle barons and English investors, rode through a Hispanic neighborhood whooping and shooting at cats and dogs. “Socorro’s Elfego Baca: Six-Guns Were His Calling Card,” by Michael Hayes on the Visit Socorro website says this occurred in Socorro, but Baca himself, in a July 13, 1936, interview he gave to a Janet Smith for the WPA Writer’s Project, placed it in Escondida near Socorro. In Baca’s version, the cowboys were “making a couple of Mexicans dance, shooting up the ground around their feet.”
When the sheriff arrived the tormentors took off and Baca, in response to the sheriff’s offer, joined the lawman in pursuing them. A little way north they saw their quarry fleeing in the distance; Elfego shot one of them in the back, killing him. Asked later if he knew the man’s name Baca replied, “He wasn’t able to tell me by the time I caught up with him.”
In October of the following year, at the town of San Francisco Plaza (commonly called Frisco, now named Reserve) west of Socorro, Baca entered the field of legend at the age of 19. Accounts differ considerably about what set the events in motion.
“The Legend of Elfego Baca,” by Marshall Trimble, True West magazine, June 5, 2017, says Baca arrested a drunken cowboy named Charlie McCarty, who had been firing his pistol in Milligan’s Saloon and shot self-proclaimed deputy Baca’s hat off. A group of cowboys led by ranch foreman Young Parham demanded McCarty’s release, and a gun battle ensued between the cowboys and Baca’s posse. Parham’s horse was shot and fell on its rider, mortally injuring him. Word went out that, in Trimble’s words, “the Mexicans had gone on the war path, killed several cowboys and were threatening to kill all Americans,” though in reality, “McCarty was taken to a local justice of the peace, given a small fine and released.”
A different version appears in Hayes’s article, which says a group of cowboys had recently tortured and maimed two Mexicans in a cantina owned by Pedro Sarracino, who was also the deputy sheriff of Frisco. (The Elfego Baca Project website says a cowboy castrated a young Mexican.) Hayes says Baca chastised Sarracino for a lack of courage and quotes Baca’s 1924 autobiographical pamphlet as saying, “I told him (Sarracino) that if he would take me back to Frisco with him, that I would make myself a self-made deputy.” (In his WPA interview Baca said he made a badge for himself and proclaimed himself a deputy; “if they didn’t believe I was a deputy, they’d better believe it, because I made ‘em believe it.”)
All sources agree that up to 80 cowboys came to Frisco looking for Baca’s blood. He took refuge in a jacal (“a hut … with a thatched roof and walls made of upright poles or sticks covered and chinked with mud or clay,” as Merriam-Webster defines the word).
Bullets began tearing into the jacal, but it had a sunken floor and Baca, armed with two pistols, took cover there, returning fire that kept his attackers at bay. Trimble’s True West account says a man named Bert Hearne tried to kick the door in, and Baca shot him fatally in the stomach.
Thousands of rounds were fired into the jacal. The door had more than 360 bullet holes in it.
The standoff went on for over 30 hours – considered America’s longest gunfight – until a real, duly authorized deputy showed up and put an end to it. Baca surrendered on condition he keep his guns, and he rode 25 steps behind the six men chosen to guard him on the way to trial in Socorro, to make sure he didn’t get back-shot. He was acquitted of murder and went on to become a sheriff, school superintendent, lawyer, district attorney, and mayor .
Decades later one of the men who’d been shooting at him, Jim Cook, sent him a photograph inscribed, “To Elfego Baca in memory of that day at Frisco.”
Baca died in 1945 at the age of 80. In 1958 the television series Walt Disney Presents aired a miniseries, The Nine Lives of Elfego Baca, starring Robert Loggia. A bronze statue in Reserve (shown above) depicts him during the gunfight, which has been called the largest and longest gunfight in American history.
Photo of statue by Peter Potrowl, February 18, 2013, Wikimedia Commons