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Las Gorras Blancas of San Miguel County

By David Correia

From February 1889 until the summer of 1891 a clandestine organization of night riders known as Las Gorras Blancas cut the fences and burned the barns of ranchers enclosing the Las Vegas Land Grant commons and destroyed railroad ties and burned bridges in a related effort to disrupt the railroad—the foundation of commercial development of the land grant. Historians of New Mexico have viewed the clash between Las Gorras Blancas and commercial elites in racial and class terms. The fence cutters in New Mexico engaged in a conscious and extralegal challenge to the newly emerging economic order in New Mexico; an order founded on the coercive power of the range enclosures to establish durable private property rights buttressed by the power of the railroad to concentrate commercial power. The goal of Las Gorras Blancas was not merely the eradication of barbed wire fences, but the destruction of the underlying logic and ideology that fueled the commercial and industrial transformation of New Mexico. Las Gorras Blancas sought to develop a class-based consciousness among local people through the everyday tactics of resistance to the economic and social order confronting common property land grant communities. In reaction to the “White Cap Outrages”, as the group’s campaign of fence cutting came to be referred, local economic and political elites engaged in a retaliatory pattern of widespread rural repression. 

The secret group emerged following years of economic expansion that, at least in San Miguel county, was based on the large scale exploitation of natural resources on the Las Vegas land grant by grazing and timber operators. Between 1850 and 1890, increasing investment in railroads and mercantilist enterprises relied on unfettered access to the expansive resources on the Las Vegas land grant. As competition over those resources increased following the arrival of the railroad, a series of legal conflicts erupted among competing interests seeking to establish control over land in the region. Anglo economic power was combined with Hispano political authority to increasingly squeeze out San Miguel settlers. 

Following the U.S.-Mexican war, the town of Las Vegas became an important commercial center in Territorial New Mexico. With the arrival of the railroad in 1879, Las Vegas became the military, political and economic center of the region. As capital poured into New Mexico in the early 1880s, homesteaders and large cattle operators erected fences on the grant enclosing thousands of acres. The increasing economic power of these new commercial interests squeezed out subsistence settlers, whose livelihoods were totally dependent on the grant common lands. The pattern of commercial development was swift. Commercial ranching followed increased investment in railroad expansion; speculators bought land under homestead and timber culture claims, and timber operators cleared forests for the production of railroad ties while cattle operators flooded the open range with massive herds. An 1885 investigation in the administration of homestead claims in New Mexico revealed that the Santa Fe Land Office served as a fount of fraudulent land claims overflowing the territory with dubious property claims. Nearly every provision of federal law governing homestead claims had been violated.[1] The investigation uncovered a conspiracy between San Miguel District Attorney Miguel Salazar and Max Frost, registrar of the Santa Fe Land Office. The two engaged in a pattern of fraudulent homestead entries for land in the commons of the Las Vegas land grant. Salazar was prolific in his nearly decade-long effort to swindle grant heirs of their common lands.[2] In 1882 and 1883, during Salazar’s most prolific period representing homestead claimants, 7,200 acres in dozens of homestead and pre-emption claims in and around the Las Vegas land grant were fraudulent fronts by cattle operators seeking to establish vast ranch holdings.[3] In 1885, the problem had gotten so acute, that Territorial Governor Edmund Ross recommended the repeal of all laws for the disposal of public lands in New Mexico: “The absorption of large areas for stock ranges means the occupation of the country by dumb brutes to the exclusion of people, where there can be no society, no schools, no roads, no improvements, no development. Under such conditions the country would be condemned to perpetual semi-barbarism.”[4] With the help of Frost and Salazar, cattle operators were able to slowly consolidate control over the best grazing lands in San Miguel. It was these fences that Las Gorras Blancas targeted. By 1890, huge commercial operators dominated the commons. The 1890 San Miguel tax assessment recorded this new economic disparity in the County. Wilson Waddingham, who recorded no property claims in the County, owned 22,500 head of cattle. One tax assessment precinct, dominated by large cattle operations and territorial elites from the Beaubien and Maxwell families and Assistant Surveyor General William McBroom, grazed over 40,000 head of cattle. Averaging 2,356 head of  cattle per resident, two small, Anglo-dominated enclaves of economic elites accounted for nearly half of all cattle grazing on the Las Vegas land grant. Commercial operators overwhelmed subsistence producers, who averaged 16 head of cattle. The disparity produced sharp divisions in Las Vegas and fueled popular discontent among land grant heirs. Las Gorras Blancas received broad support from small grazers who had watched the common lands slowly disappear behind the barbed wire fences defending the dubious property claims of wealthy newcomers.
 

In the spring of 1889, with fences appearing more frequently in SanMiguelCounty, fence cutting began on the Las Vegas land grant. By May, the District Court in Las Vegas reported more than two-dozen cases of fence cutting. Twenty-six men, including Jose Gutierrez, Pablo Martinez and Bernabel Gallegos, were indicted in May of 1889 on various charges and tried in District Court. After the first trial ended in an acquittal on all counts, the remaining indictments were dismissed.[5] In early summer of 1889, Las Gorras Blancas cut miles of wire fencing on a ranch along the TecoloteRiver owned by two merchants. They burned down the homes of the Surveyor General, the Captain of the militia, and cut the fences of a former Governor and two French and English ranchers. They destroyed the fences of the Indian agent and the tax assessor. In August they destroyed the fences and crops of Sheriff Lorenzo Lopez who had over 1,500 head of cattle.[6] The sheriff learned his lesson apparently, and removed the remaining wire and posts. In November, the railroad agent in Rowe, New Mexico confronted Las Gorras Blancas while in the act of destroying his fence and barely survived a barrage of gunfire.[7]

In October, a grand jury investigation convened by Miguel Salazar relied on the confessions of three men incarcerated in the San Miguel jail on unrelated charges to indict 47 men implicated in fence cutting, including the brothers Juan Jose and Nicanor Herrera.[8] In December of 1889, Lopez jailed 23 people in Las Vegas to await trial in April of 1890 on various charges related to the fence cutting and fires. Following the arrests, Lopez noticed an increased presence of men surrounding the jail. On December 11th, Lopez sent a telegram to the Governor begging for “fifty rifles and ammunition” in a desperate effort to defend the jail from “a mob over one hundred strong.”[9] The additional arrests days later of the two Herrera brothers intensified the standoff.[10] But the expected attack never came and on December 16th all the arrested men were released from jail on bail and into the arms of a crowd of over 300 supporters and family members. With children holding the hands of the released men, families and supporters marched through the streets of Las Vegas in an impromptu parade waving American flags and singing “John Brown’s Body,” an abolitionist song sung to the tune of the Battle Hymn of the Republic. Less than two weeks later, masked night riders rode through streets of East and West Las Vegas distributing copies of a handbill titled “Nuestra Plataforma.” In the Manifesto, Las Gorras Blancas explained their actions as efforts “to protect the rights of the people in general; and especially those of the helpless classes… We want no ‘land grabbers’ or obstructionists of any sort to interfere” the handbill declares. “We will watch them… If the old system should continue, death would be a relief to our sufferings. And for our rights our lives are the least we can pledge.”[11] Salazar described the Plataforma to the Governor as “anarchical, revolutionary and communistic.”[12]

Following the very public White Cap demonstrations of 1889, the winter of 1889 produced a lull in activities. When Las Gorras Blancas resurfaced in the winter of 1890, their tactics and targets had shifted. The night-riders directed attacks at timber and tie operators on the land grant. In addition to continued attacks on the fences that enclosed the commons, Las Gorras Blancas destroyed railroad infrastructure throughout San Miguel County. 

On March 6, 1890, 300 masked and armed night-riders ripped up railroad ties and cut telegraph lines between Las Vegas the local hot springs and destroyed 6,000 railroad ties.[13] The spring attacks frightened prominent ranchers and merchants who responded with a flood of desperate letters to the Governor begging for protection or weapons to combat the White Caps. Despite increasing concern among wealthy and connected San Miguel residents, the White Caps continued to target wealthy cattle operators who fenced land in the County. In April they cut the fences of Probate Judge Manuel C de Baca who promptly wrote the Governor demanding a Militia be raised to put down the White Caps.[14]It was also in April that the trials for the men arrested following grand jury indictments were supposed to begin. But No trials were to occur however, as Sheriff Lopez was unable to locate the three witnesses. Salazar suspected that “those witnesses have been killed and disposed of by the white caps.”[15] Chief Justice O’Brien dismissed charges against all the men indicted by the Grand Jury while over three hundred people celebrated the victory in a huge demonstration on the Las Vegas Plaza.[16]

In late summer, they once again turned their attention to the railroad. They stopped teamsters hauling ties for the railroad and ordered them to charge more for their labor. In August of 1890, a notice posted to a depot and section house at Bernal read “to all section foreman and operators, you are advised to leave here at once otherwise you will not be able to do so.” A number of employees quit work following the posting and the RR pleaded for protection by Territorial officials.[17] In addition to the railroad, the spring and summer of 1890 saw the fence cutting reach an epidemic level. Throughout this period, the fence cutting raids usually began with a notice posted on fences ordering the wire and posts removed. If not removed, they would be destroyed almost immediately. If rebuilt, destroyed again along with a threat to, “prepare for eternity.”[18] Often the notices were written with a stark formality, as with the notice posted in July of 1890 at Wilson Waddingham’s ranch:

 “Sir:

This notice is with the object of requesting you to coil up your wire as soon as possible from the North and South sides. They are fences which are damaging the unhappy people and we request you further to coil up your wire as soon as you can to the agricultural land, and if you do not do it, you will suffer the consequences from us.

Your Servants,

The White Caps[19]

In July of 1890, the Secretary of the Interior wrote to New Mexico’s Governor L. Bradford Prince, directing him to conduct a wide-ranging investigation of what was referred to as the “White Cap Outrages.”[20] Secretary Noble was under intense pressure to resolve the property damage in San Miguel. A week earlier a prominent Washington, D.C. attorney and former Civil War General named Beny Butler wrote to Noble demanding federal intervention in New Mexico to protect his investments. Butler had sent an employee to New Mexico in June of 1890 to investigate White Cap threats to his “interests.”[21] Butler’s investigatory, O.D. Barrett, wrote a hasty report based on conversations with only a few prominent Las Vegas residents including Judge Long. TANM 8:570.[22] Barrett’s report was sent to Noble and eventually to New Mexico Governor Prince and became the basis for both territorial and federal investigations.  The report included a June 27 Las Vegas Optic article in which the newspaper called for the hanging of all fence cutters.[23] In a follow-up report Butler’s representative explained to the Governor that “you must recollect that these are Mexicans; that the Mexicans in New Mexico, with the exception of perhaps five per cent, are the most ignorant people on the face of the earth.”[24] Prince explained the conflict to the Secretary by referencing the land grant issue: “while an unfortunate feeling exists there (sic) arising principally from the usettled titles to Land Grants and the belief of a large body of people that they have rights in common in certain Grants on which others have been fencing considerable areas, yet there is naturally much exaggeration about the matter and that every kind of wrong doing however committed is now very naturally attributed to the so-called ‘White Caps.’”[25] Nonetheless, Prince pursued the investigation, writing all the victims listed in Barrett’s report, writing the newspapers and various County authorities for information, and advertising a small reward for information on the White Caps.
 

Scores of letters poured into the Governor’s mansion from aggrieved ranchers listing their losses. Along with outraged cattle ranchers came letters also from a number of San Miguel residents that suggested the actions of large ranching interests, rather than the actions of fence cutters, were to blame for unrest in the county. One writer reminded the Governor that “many parties fenced in big tracts of land in the Las Vegas grant, shutting of from water and wood from people settled on parcels of these lands long ago and thereby left without means of support” (121:594-5). Another (James O’Brien) located the origins of unrest with “the establishment of large landed estates, or baronial feudalism” in SanMiguelCounty (614-5). Most letter writers, however, claimed to be victims of White Caps and demanded a military response. Prince remained under enormous pressure from the Secretary of the Interior, who demanded the Governor resolve the issue and “enforce private rights” which Secretary Noble suggested was the “expectation of the Executive.”[26]


District Attorney Salazar responded to Governor Prince’s request for information in July of 1890 with a letter in which he reported that the three missing witnesses from the previous years grand jury had implicated Juan Jose Herrera as the primary organizer of the White Caps. The White Caps, Salazar, claimed, preyed on “ignorant people, easily deceived and swayed by such a wicked and evil design in persons, as this leader and his lieutenants are.” Salazar suggested the legislature pass “a law making the destruction of any kind of property, as felony, punishable with at least five years in the Penitentiary.” He promised the group would “go to pieces” without Herrera and his assistants.[27] Unable to resolve the issue from Santa Fe, Prince traveled to Las Vegas in late July of 1890. He came to deliver a speech to the Commercial Club and to meet with City and County officials.[28] One East Las Vegas merchant used the opportunity to present the Governor with a bill for damages done by the White Caps.[29]  Two weeks later, Prince called a public meeting while in Las Vegas with the hopes that such a meeting would result in the “appointment of a committee to take steps to protect property and especially to obtain testimony on which the authorities could act.”[30] It had been during Prince’s visit to Las Vegas that Las Gorras Blancas has shut down the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe. The August 16th public meeting was held in the San Miguel County Courthouse. But rather than hearing of widespread concern and outrage over the White Caps, Prince listened to residents complain bitterly about the enclosures and the cattle operators fencing in the commonlands. Prince was confronted by angry grant heirs who denounced the “landgrabbers” and praised “those who were defending the rights of the people against them.”[31] The Governor came away from the meeting shocked at the almost universal support given the White Caps. Prince was amazed to find that “more than one half of the people of that town, including many of those whom we would call the best citizens, sympathize with the fence cutting on the Las Vegas Grant, and this prevents that strong public sentiment which we ought to have as an aid in suppressing these outrages.”[32]

Prince’s visit to Las Vegas failed to build public opinion against Las Gorras Blancas. Instead, White Cap actions expanded. The Las Vegas Optic editorialized with a particular anti-White Cap frenzy that increasingly became shrill. They mocked the confidence of White Cap tactics in targeting the Railroad: “There is a powerful corporation owning this system which has submitted the control of the road to determined men, who are not apt to put-up with foolishness.”[33] The railroad, however, was as unsure what to do as Governor Prince. The agent in Las Vegas sent a desperate telegram to various federal and territorial officials begging for a military intervention to allow the railroad to continue to operate.[34] Prince concluded his investigation in August and wrote in his report to the Secretary of the Interior that “there can be no doubt that there is a secret oath-bound organization in SanMiguelCounty… It is believed to be confined entirely to natives of New Mexico and almost entirely to the most ignorant class. As nearly as can be ascertained a few active and educated men have arranged this organization, working on the idea that the common people are being deprived of their rights.” Recognizing that “anyone desiring to injure a neighbor from personal malice finds this a convenient time” Prince recommended that troops be dispatched to restore order and undercover agents charged to infiltrate the White Caps.[35]

On August 19th 1890 the Secretary of the Interior briefed the Secretary of War and the President of the United States on Prince’s report. The President once again declined to send federal troops and through an aide reminded Prince that “the military cannot be called into operation until the civil force is defied and resisted to a degree that the public peace is overthrown… When this, however, fails, you will not hesitate to advise me or the President direct.”[36]  The US Attorney General did, however, dispatch a US Marshal to San Miguel County to investigate the White Caps.[37] After a short investigation, however, the US Attorney for the Territory, like Salazar before him, failed to get grand jury indictments of fence cutters.[38]

In the fall of 1890, a number of suspected White Caps, included Juan Jose Herrera, joined el Partido del Pueblo Unido (or the People’s Party). During the fall elections, the entire slate of el Partido candidates was elected, including Juan Jose as Probate Judge and his brother Pablo Herrera to the Territorial legislature.

With significant political power consolidated, the el Partido targeted District Attorney Miguel Salazar. His role in prosecuting fence cutters, and more importantly in various land fraud cases regarding Homestead entries on the Las Vegas land grant had long made him a marked man for Gorras Blancas. Salazar became alarmed that his political future was in jeopardy after hearing rumors that “there is a move on foot on the part of the White Caps… to oppose my re-nomination as District Attorney” (P: 668). Salazar was worried enough about his position to write the Governor clearly hoping that patronage would protect his future: “It was my intention never to say a word to you with reference to that appointment, knowing well that you never forget your friends or past favors, and therefore was willing to stand on that, as well as on my own merits to obtain the appointment without asking for it.” (emphasis original 668-670).

Two shootings in February of 1891 crystallized the slow decline in White Cap influence. Following the end of the legislative session in February, Pablo left in disgust convinced that radical reform could not come through formal politics. “[T]he time I spent in the penitentiary was more enjoyable than the time I spent here,” Pablo said in remarks to the entire legislature. “There is more honesty in the halls of the Territorial prison than in the halls of the legislature.”[39] Returning to San Miguel County, Pablo attempted to reorganize White Cap efforts when he was killed by Felipe Lopez, the brother of frequent Gorras Blancas target Sheriff Lorenzo Lopez, in what the shooter called self defense. Pablo’s Herrera’s death signaled the beginning of a broad backlash against el Partido as a front for the White Caps. In late February, when shots were fired into the offices of Thomas B. Catron, a prominent member of the Santa Fe Ring, injuring territorial assemblyman Arturo Ancheta, Governor Prince, hired Pinkerton Detectives to infiltrate and destroy Las Gorras Blancas.[40] Pinkerton detective Charles Siringo spent the summer of 1891 investigating connections between the el Partido and Las Gorras Blancas. Despite Siringo’s bluster of having infiltrated and been initiated into the White Caps and having lived with Nicanor Herrera in Tecolote throughout the summer, the final report recommended arrests of suspects based only on a “partial confession” and circumstantial evidence.[41]

Conclusion

San Miguel County in the late 1880s was a microcosm of America’s gilded age. Vast personal fortunes were produced at the expense of subsistence and working class communities. Elaborate structures of political power were constructed to extend the interests of capital accumulation while repressive agents of social control were needed to defend the interests of capital against resistance by groups such as Las Gorras Blancas.

Following the move into formal politics, White Cap influence began to wane. Hundreds of San Miguel residents joined a reactionary group called the United Protection Association in 1891 in the wake of constant denunciations by Republican party leaders and conservative newspapers, all scared that White Cap activities threatened New Mexico’s chances at statehood.[42] The swift and overwhelming reaction was territory-wide. Newspapers throughout the territory frequently editorialized against the Knights of Labor, the People’s Party and the White Caps. In addition, the People’s Party was unable to recreate their success in the 1890 elections.

The White Caps emerged as a resistance movement out of the struggle over control of the Vegas Grandes. The increasing encroachment of commercial interests reflected a peculiar political economy of 1880s San Miguel County and crystallized a potent rural resistance movement.  While the White Caps power dissolved amid political pressure and the weight of their own success (there were no fences left to cut by 1891), the economic power of local elites weathered the storm of the 1893 economic panic and regained control of the Las Vegas land grant. The continued easy access to land and credit and the huge continued demand for lumber, ties and coal serving the railroad allowed commercial development to quickly rebound from the White Cap challenge.



[1] Annual Report of the Commissioner of the General Land Office for the Year 1885 (Washington, D.C. 1885)

[2] See Victor Westphall, Public Domain, 105-108; Malcolm Ebright, Land Grants and Lawsuits, 214.

[3] Lorin Brown “Unlawful Homestead Entries and Enclosures of the Public Domain” WPA 104 NMSRCA

[4] Report of the Governor of New Mexico Made to the Secretary of the Interior, 1879. WPA #1036, Box 10, NMSRCA.

[5] L. Bradford Prince Collection, New Mexico State Records Center and Archive. 121:626.

[6] Prince, 121:590.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Prince, 121: 590 & 626.

[9] Prince, 121:572-3.

[10] Prince, 121: 574

[11] TANM 8: 625

[12] Prince, 121: 591

[13] Prince, 121: 580-1

[14] Prince, 121: 577-8.

[15] Prince, 121:591

[16] TANM 8:621

[17] Prince 121:628-9

[18] Prince, 121: 582-3

[19] Prince, 121: 584

[20] Prince 121:589 & TANM 8:563

[21] TANM 8:565

[22] TANM 8:570.

[23] Optic, June 27, 1890

[24] TANM 8:623

[25] TANM 8:582

[26] Prince, 121:607-8

[27] Prince, 121:590-2

[28] TANM 8:612.

[29] TANM 8:610

[30] Prince 121:642

[31] TANM 8:640

[32] TANM 8:639

[33] TANM 8:614.

[34] TANM 8:606 & 634

[35] Prince, 121:639-43, 657

[36] Prince, 121:652-3

[37] Prince, 121: 658

[38] Prince, 121: 671

[39] A. Schlesinger, "Las Gorras Blancas, 1889-1891," Journal of Mexican American History, 1 (1971) 87-143.

[40] T. Duran, Francisco Chavez, Thomas B. Catron, and "Organized Political Violence in Santa Fe in the 1890s", New Mexico Historical Review, 59 (1984) 291-310.

[41] C. Siringo,  Cowboy Detective: A True Story of Twenty-two Years with a World-famous Detective Agency, Chicago, 1912.

[42] Schlesinger.