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Jose Francisco Chaves

Born: 6-27-1833 - Died: 11-26-1904

Who Killed Jose Francisco Chaves?

By Mark Thompson

Only two members of the New Mexico Bar have been honored by the naming of a New Mexico county—Thomas B. Catron in 1921, just four months before his death, and Jose Francisco Chaves, for whom the county was named at the height of his political power in 1889. Although they essentially shared the political stage in territorial days, Catron is probably better known because he became one of the first U.S. Senators after statehood and his Santa Fe law firm continues today. The Chaves story is by no means untold, but a comprehensive biography of his life, or perhaps a good historical novel, is long overdue.

Chaves was born into the political aristocracy of the Rio Abajo at Los Padillas, now in Bernalillo County, June 27, 1833. Both his paternal grandfather, Francisco Xavier, and his father, Mariano, served as governor during the Mexican Republic era, 1821-46. After his father died, J. Francisco’s mother, Dolores, married Henry Connelly, later territorial governor of New Mexico, 1861-66. Legend has it that his father had sent him east to school to prepare for the coming of the “heretics,” and his academic studies included two years of liberal arts in St. Louis and two years at the College of Physician and Surgeons, now part of Columbia University, in New York City. By all accounts, Chaves was well prepared for a life of public service.

The military and political careers of J. Francisco Chaves clearly overshadow his work as a lawyer, but he did serve as district attorney for Bernalillo, Socorro, and Valencia Counties in 1881-82. Two private practice matters, however, are interesting because of his relationship to the landed gentry of Valencia County—two of his siblings had married into the Otero family. In 1883-84, he, along with Eugene Fisk of Santa Fe, successfully defended James Whitney, charged with the murder of Manuel B. Otero in the “war” over the Baca and Estancia land grants. In October of 1885, he represented the parties opposed to the administration of the Estate of Manuel A. Otero, (father of Manuel B.), by Dr. Edward C. Henriques. Henriques was also wounded in the Estancia Valley shootout and was a major witness for the prosecution at the Whitney trial. One can imagine the tension at the big family gatherings in Los Lunas.

The election of 1904 was a volatile one, particularly for the Republican Party, which had denied the incumbent Bernard Rodey nomination for his seat as the delegate to Congress, resulting in an independent campaign by Rodey. This was also the first election for the Territorial Council (Senate) seat, held by the Republican Chaves for nineteen years, in which voters in the county-in-waiting, Torrance, were counted separately from its primary “mother” county, Valencia. Some pundits believed that the new county had been created for Chaves’ convenience, but he faced a small revolt in Torrance and he only carried the county by a vote of 411 to 390, contrasted with his margin of victory in the “remaining” Valencia County, 1,825 to one!

On Saturday November 26, 1904, eighteen days after the election, Chaves was fatally shot while having supper at the home of his friend Juan de Dios Salas in Pinos Wells, a small community about six miles northeast of Cedarvale in Torrance County. The shot came from outside a window and the assailant got away before any identification occurred. Almost immediately, the case had a “round up the usual suspects” quality. District Attorney Frank W. Clancy said on Sunday that he was “firmly convinced that Colonel Chaves met his death at the hands of some one of a desperate band of stock thieves” and that he was “firmly convinced that the theory of political differences had nothing whatever to do with the crime.   On the day before the Chaves burial at the National Cemetery in Santa Fe, Domingo Valles, a person “said to be related to a man now serving time in the penitentiary [in Santa Fe] for stealing cattle,”  had been arrested at his home near Progresso.

By the second of December there was speculation that Valles would finger the “prominent stockmen of Torrance County” behind the murder but two weeks later the sheriff of the county was saying that Valles “had nothing to do with the crime."  That did not mean Valles was released, of course, and his preliminary hearing occurred on January 26, 1905, before Judge E.A. Mann in Estancia, Valles being represented by prominent lawyer and politician, O.A. Larrazolo of Las Vegas. There was much discussion of following footprints to the home of the accused, notwithstanding the failure of “bloodhounds” to pick up the scent, but the main evidence was the testimony of Procopius Cordova who said that Valles had admitted the killing to him. Valles were held over without bail. 

In territorial days, capital murder cases were often brought to trial within a year of the killing but this case proved to be the exception. Other than a change of venue to Albuquerque, later changed back to Estancia, nothing further happened in 1905. In January 1906, there was a flurry of activity because of a confession made to the sheriff of Yavapai County in Prescott, Arizona by a sometime resident of New Mexico, Frank Bell. Governor Hagerman sent Deputy U.S. Marshall Fred Fornoff to Prescott and he reported back that Bell’s story did not add up and may have been engineered by Valles himself. Bell eventually recanted saying that he was drunk when he confessed, behavior that was consistent with the opinion of a physician who examined Bell at Runoff’s request.  In the fall of 1906, defense counsel Larrazolo was otherwise occupied with another race for Congressional Delegate, although I found no indication that the political campaign had any impact on the progress of the Valles case. 

When the trial finally began on August 6, 1907, the condition of the facilities shared top billing. Estancia had no formal courtroom and the trial was conducted in a partially completed storeroom, which had to be “furnished” the morning of the voir dire, and the roof leaked to the extent that Judge Mann presided in a raincoat.  District Attorney Clancy’s opening statement convinced the newspaper that the prosecution would make a strong showing but after the witnesses took the stand that confidence seemed misplaced. Porcopio Cordova was nowhere to be found, apparently, but Clancy put on another witness who denied Valles had confessed to him and otherwise the prosecution witnesses were “disappointing.” 
The case went to the jury on Saturday August 10 and the jury deliberated into Sunday before Domingo Valles was found not guilty. After almost three years, I doubt that Valles took much solace in the declaration of the Albuquerque Journal that it was “One of the Most Interesting Trials in New Mexico’s History.”  Frank Clancy, at the unveiling of the Chaves bust in the State Senate, March 1925, naturally said that he had prosecuted the man he thought killed Colonel Chaves but admitted that Larrazolo had conducted a “masterly” defense. 

So the question remains, who killed J. Francisco Chaves?