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George Curry

Biographical essay of Territorial Governor George Curry.

George Curry, the second to the last Territorial Governor of New Mexico, was born April 3, 1861 at Greenwood Plantation, West Feliciana Parish, Louisiana, located north of Baton Rouge. As the eldest of the four sons of George Alexander and Clara Madden Curry, his birth nearly coincided with the start of the Civil War. Thus, his first four years were marked by the absence of his father, a captain in the Confederate Army, the complete upheaval of the South's social structure, and economic disaster.

Much of Curry's history is gleaned from his autobiography written late in life. Apparently his family managed to survive quite well after the war because his father, a skilled mechanic, was made manager of the Greenwood Plantation and purchased the smaller Sevastopol Plantation. However, the family's life was soon torn asunder on October 16, 1870. On that day his father, a parish leader of the local Klu Klux Klan, was ambushed and killed. Curry blamed carpetbaggers or their agents for the murder.

Curry's mother, a Dublin University graduate, continued living at Sevastopol for three years, until a flood destroyed their property. She then moved the family to Dodge City, Kansas, where her sister and brother-in-law lived. It was here that twelve year-old Curry had his first job as a messenger boy in the mercantile establishment of Charles Rath & Company.

The 1870s on the Great Plains were a time of irrevocable change. Rath & Co supplied buffalo hunters and traded with Native Americans, but that business was dwindling. The railroad was marching across the Plains, disrupting buffalo migration patterns, and adding to hostilities between Anglo-Americans and Native Americans. Likewise, the great cattle drives were reaching their height at the time, adding to the importance of Dodge City as a railhead, and also causing friction with native inhabitants of the land they passed through.

Curry was transferred to the company's new store at Adobe Walls along the Canadian River in eastern Hutchinson County, Texas, and was en route back to Dodge City on business when the Battle of Adobe Walls took place. The story told is that only twenty-eight Americans were pitted against 1000 (more likely 250-300) Comanches, Cheyennes and Kiowas, including the notorious Quanah Parker, and most lived to tell the tale. However, the heightened hostilities convinced Rath & Company to abandon their store and Curry returned to the store in Dodge City.

In 1875 Curry made his first acquaintance with New Mexico. Accompanying his uncle John Riney on a merchandising trip from Granada, Colorado, they traveled by horse-drawn wagons to Ft. Union and Las Vegas. He reported in his memoirs that he was much taken with the high country of northern New Mexico. After the death of his mother in 1879 and the scattering of his brothers, George, on the advice of family friend Captain Lawton moved to Lincoln County, New Mexico. Here he obtained work as an errand boy on the 20,000 sheep Block Ranch north of the Capitan Mountains and east of Encinoso. Although the Lincoln County War had ended, many of its participants were still at large, including Billy the Kid. Curry recounts the night the Kid spent the evening at the ranch house and how he had no idea who he was entertaining. With the help of Captain Lawton, Curry obtained the position of chief clerk at the post trader's store in Ft. Stanton.

During the next two years Curry held three different jobs. By 1882 Curry had quit his job at Ft. Stanton and had taken a job as manager of the Trinidad Hotel, Trinidad, Colorado. After four months he was in Raton managing a hotel for McAuliffe & Wheeler. He then moved on to manage the grocery department of D.W. Stevens's store. It was in Colfax County at the age of twenty-three that Curry was bitten by the political bug and became a member of the county's delegation at the Democratic Territorial Convention in Albuquerque.

In the mid-1880s trouble was brewing and finally erupted between homesteaders and the holders of the over 1.7 million acre Maxwell Land Grant. The Land Grant Company hired men and deputized them to serve eviction papers on many of the homesteaders. Curry and his brother John helped escort these deputies out of Colfax County. Tensions remained between various factions, erupting in a shoot-out at the Springer jail, resulting in the death of several citizens, the killing of Curry's brother John and Curry’s own arrest on sixteen felony counts. After six weeks in jail he pled guilty to a misdemeanor and paid a five-dollar fine. Before long however he was serving as bailiff for Judge William A. Vincent, 1st Judicial District Court. With a change in judges, Curry lost his appointment and returned to seek his fortunes once again in Lincoln County.

Upon his return to Lincoln County, he worked at the J.J. Dolan store, the same Dolan who had played a part in the Lincoln County War. He also went into business for himself as a partner of the company Thornton & Curry, but sold his interest a year later began a career in politics. He was appointed deputy county treasurer, elected county clerk (1888-1890), county assessor (1890-1892), Democratic county chair, and finally county sheriff (1892-1894). Curry later reminisced: "As I look back on those years of 1888 through 1890, I believe they were the happiest of my life."

Curry expanded his political influence by his election to the Territorial Senate from Grant, Doña Ana, Lincoln, Chaves and Eddy counties in 1894 and again in 1896-97. His autobiography contains a wealth of information on the workings of the Territorial Legislature and its key political figures, including his own political maneuvering, vote swapping, legislative successes and failures. Between legislative sessions Curry was variously the clerk of the 5th New Mexico District Court in Roswell and the right-of-way agent for the El Paso & Northeastern Railroad out of Tularosa.

One of Curry's chief strengths was his unflagging support of his friends. Unfortunately, that characteristic did not always serve his best interests and involved him in two well-known cases: the Fountain murders and the Tea-pot Dome scandal. The first case (1896-1899) involved Oliver Lee, a rancher in the Sacramento Mountains, accused of the murder of Colonel Albert J. Fountain, an attorney for the New Mexico Cattle and Horse Growers Association, and his nine year-old son Henry as the pair traveled through White Sands, New Mexico. Their bodies were never recovered, so officially no crime had occurred but law enforcement continued to pursue the case with Lee as its focus for several years. Despite the efforts of Pat Garrett, Lee was acquitted and not charged for various crimes related to the case. Throughout the ordeal Curry stuck by Lee who maintained his innocence but made enemies of those who thought Lee guilty.

The other case, the Tea-pot Dome Scandal (1923-1931), involved his long-time friend Albert Fall, and cost Curry his position on the International Boundary Commission. Fall, as Secretary of the Interior, was charged and convicted of accepting a bribe from oil companies who were seeking naval oil reserve leases. Curry believed Fall's story that it was not a bribe but a loan and as is common in politics, once Fall was sent to prison, those close to him were removed from office.

War broke out between Spain and the United States in April 1898 over the sinking of the ship the Maine. Although it was determined much later that the ship had exploded due to a faulty boiler and not Spanish sabotage, war was declared. Governor Miguel Otero called for volunteers for a cavalry troop from southern New Mexico and Curry was appointed captain of Troop H.

As a member of the 2nd Squadron of the 1st US Volunteer Cavalry, he was under the command of Colonel Theodore Roosevelt and a member of Roosevelt's Rough Riders. Although eager to fight, Curry's company was not sent to Cuba but remained in Tampa, Florida to keep supplies flowing to the troops. He tells the story that he and Captain Maximiliano Luna flipped a coin to see who would go and he lost. After the four month engagement all the Rough Riders were mustered out of the Army. Due to his high regard for his commanding officer, Curry switched party allegiances from Democrat to Republican and supported Roosevelt's bid for the presidency.

With Spanish surrender in December 1898, the US was ceded many Spanish possessions, including the Philippines. With Spanish control removed differences between various internal factions erupted in violence. Thus, by the following year Otero County sheriff Curry was commissioned a 1st Lieutenant in the 11th Volunteer Cavalry with orders to recruit 100 men from New Mexico. He easily reached his quota which included twenty former Rough Riders and was shipped out in October. He spent the next seven years in the Philippines. He was appointed Provost Marshal for Niaic, governor of Ambos Camarines, chief of police for Manila, governor of both the provinces of Isabela and Samar. At one point in his stay in the islands he embarked on a private enterprise venture, the Camarines Mercantile Company, only to have it cut short after he contracted cholera.

In 1907 President Roosevelt named Curry to replace Herbert Hagerman as territorial governor of New Mexico, apparently due to deep divisions within the Republican Party itself and Hagerman's lack of political savvy. Curry later wrote that he accepted the post on the condition that Roosevelt would support separate statehood for New Mexico. Congress had already approved joint statehood for New Mexico and Arizona, but Arizona had rejected the idea. He also later obtained assurances from President Taft that he, too, would support separate statehood for New Mexico, which was finally proclaimed in January 1912. Curry, along with Harvey B. Fergusson, were the state's first Congressmen.

During his gubernatorial term (1907-1909) he experienced sustained opposition to his legislative initiatives from Richard A. Ballinger, Commissioner of Public Lands, Department of the Interior. Ballinger favored and pushed for the dispossession of homesteaders in Clovis, which Curry vehemently opposed. Unfortunately for Curry's career, Ballinger became the Secretary of the Interior in the Taft administration and Curry's boss.

During the 1910s he tried his hand at several businesses in El Paso, Texas, and in Tularosa, Cutter and Socorro, New Mexico. He reported that he was grateful to be named to the International Boundary Commission in 1922 and thought he might have held the job indefinitely had not the "Tea-pot Dome" scandal put an end to that hope.

For the next twenty years he lived in Sierra County at Hot Springs (now Truth or Consequences) and Kingston, still serving in political capacities and working in real estate. In 1945 the Office of the State Historian was created and Governor John Dempsey appointed him to that office. He began assembling materials from old-timers, including himself, and moved his office to Lincoln. In the year of his death he was additionally appointed custodian of the old Lincoln County Courthouse State Museum (now part of the Lincoln State Monument and National Historic Landmark) and supervised restoration of the Murphy-Dolan store of Lincoln County War fame and his former place of employment.

George Curry was married twice, first to Rebecca Hughes in November of 1888. From this union he had three sons: Frank Thornton, Charles Ernest and George Clifford. When his stay in the Philippines was extended he and Rebecca were divorced in late 1903 or early 1904. Sometime around 1914 or 1915 he married Virginia Gans. By 1921 they were either separated or divorced and she returned to Pennsylvania. George Clifford Curry, a justice of the peace in Las Cruces, died 1951, Frank died in New York City in 1938, and Charles was still a resident of Alamogordo in 1958.

On Thanksgiving Day, November 24, 1947 George Curry died from complications resulting from a kidney ailment at the advanced age of 87 in the Veterans Hospital, Albuquerque. Governor Mabry ordered the flags to be flown at half-staff and said of Curry, "We have lost a great and colorful citizen who never quit working for the welfare of his state," and "As a public official he exemplified official and personal honesty, courage and non-partisanship to a degree which made him beloved by thousands of New Mexicans." He was buried with military honors at the National Cemetery in Santa Fe on December 1st. His pallbearers included Arthur Spencer, a fellow Rough Rider.

Historian Robert Larson later wrote of Curry's accomplishments as a crafter of the State's constitution, a Republican reformer, and a Roosevelt-type Republican Progressive. He credited Curry with a conservation record "quite remarkable for a Western governor." He was also intimately involved in the creation of several new counties, including, Eddy, Chaves, and his namesake, Curry.

Who better to sum up the life of George Curry than the man himself. "In the main, it has been a busy life, with its share of happiness. Memories of old enmities have long since faded. Memories of valued friendships abide. I am content."

Sources Used:

Albuquerque Journal. Obituary, November 28, 1947.

Albuquerque Tribune. Obituary, November 28, 1947.

Curry, George. George Curry, 1861-1947: An Autobiography. Edited by H.B. Hening. Foreword by Robert W. Larson. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1995.

Dykes, Jeff C. Law on a Wild Frontier: Four Sheriffs of Lincoln County. The Great Western Series, No. 5, Potomac Corral. Washington, DC: The Westerners, 1969.

Larson, Robert W. "The Profile of a NM Progressive." New Mexico Historical Review 45(3) (July 1970): 233-244.

Rathjen, Frederick W. The Texas Panhandle Frontier. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1973.