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A Moment in Time: Albert Fountain and the Nutt Grassland

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The 1860s were perilous times, with both the Civil War and the Apaches making it difficult to settle the Nutt-Lake Valley in present-day Sierra County, north of Las Cruces.

As a result, the first ranching and mining activity in the southern Black Range occurred in the mid- to late-1870s with the founding of Hillsboro in 1877 and Lake Valley in 1878.

The mining industry attracted thousands who must have quickly decimated the deer, elk and antelope populations. This created a large demand for beef. The McEvers Ranch and Lloyd’s Ranch, both attacked by Victorio’s Apache in 1879, must have been some of the earliest ranches in the area.

With the growth of Lake Valley, a stage line (1878) and a railroad (1881-82), crossed the Nutt Grasslands and connected Lake Valley to Nutt and the rest of the world.

Demand for beef and the establishment of ranches quickly led to large-scale cattle rustling. In 1883, Major Albert Fountain and the Mesilla Independent Cavalry or Mesilla Scouts, as they were known, were authorized by the governor of New Mexico territory to pursue and capture members of a large gang operating in southern New Mexico.

With some gang members already in the Mesilla jail, Fountain received word from mine owners in the Lake Valley area that a number of the wanted men were staying at Irwin’s Ranch. Loading 45 men and horses in box cars, the Mesilla Scouts arrived at Nutt Station in the wee hours of the morning, where they unloaded their horses and rode across the grasslands to Lake Valley.

Arriving at Irwin’s ranch at 2:30 a.m., they surrounded the house and, after firing through the windows, effected the capture of six men. Continuing toward Hillsboro, the party made a stop for breakfast. Three of the men slipped their bonds and made a run for it. All of them were immediately shot down. Fountain’s tactics, although lawful, were considered by some to be high-handed. The ill will that Fountain earned during this incident set the stage for Hillsboro to be the preferred change of venue for the trial of Oliver Lee and Jim Gilliland when they were tried for the murder of Fountain and his son in 1899.

Human Systems Research, Inc. (HSR), with offices in Las Cruces, was founded in 1972 and is the oldest nonprofit in New Mexico doing archeological research. HSR has been involved in a wide range of research and excavation projects since its founding.  Contact Executive Director Deb Dennis at 575-524-9456 and ddennis@humansystemsresearch.org. Visit www.exhibition.canadaalamosaproject.org/.

 

Raised on a northeastern New Mexico ranch, Karl Laumbach has pursued an archaeological career in southern New Mexico since 1974. A graduate of New Mexico State University, Laumbach joined HSR in 1983. His research interests include land grant research in his native northeastern New Mexico, the pueblo archaeology of southern New Mexico and the history and archaeology of the Apache. Fascinated with the history of south-central New Mexico, Laumbach has been involved in recording sites and collecting local history in that area for the last 40-plus years.