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Mounted Police in the Sunshine Territory

By Chuck Hornung

“A rather unusual institution within New Mexico is the mounted police, who numbered 11 [men] in 1907, whose work was almost entirely in the cattle country, and who had authority to patrol the entire Territory and to make arrests  or to preserve order wherever their presence was needed, unhampered by the restrictions limiting the jurisdiction of  the local police.”

The Encyclopedia Britannica
,
1911 Edition

The New Mexico Mounted Police was born in a forge of frontier civil crisis and hammered to life upon the anvil of necessity. New Mexico, the Sunshine Territory of 121,510 square miles of mountains, desert, high plains and farm and range country, at the turn of the 20th century was the last stronghold of the legendary Wild West. Daily men would buckle on their pistol belts as part of getting dressed because the nearest lawman was often many miles away. The law was carried on a man’s hip.

The United States had fought a war of Manifest Destiny with the Spanish Empire in 1898. Many of America’s young men had sought adventure in the short lived conflict that Secretary of State John M. Hay had called a “splendid little war” and the Paris Peace Treaty had made America a world colonial power. Many of these young rough riding western volunteers returned to the southwest range country hoping to begin a new life. Some of these men chose illegal means to gain a living.   

Granville A. Richardson, an attorney serving as a Democrat lawmaker from Chaves County, saw the need for a ranger force to address New Mexico’s outlaw situation. As a neophyte councilman in the Thirty-Third Territorial Legislative Assembly in 1899, Richardson introduced Council Bill 54 to create a Territorial Mounted Police Company with Roswell, his home town, as their field headquarters. The New Mexico ranger force was designed to operate much like their Canadian namesake. The company was to be composed of a captain, a lieutenant, a sergeant and ten privates and cost the taxpayers $9,120 per year for the ranger’s salaries and expenses.

The Council’s Territorial Affairs Committee debated the need for rangers to help local lawmen combat the growing menace to peace, safety and economic development.  On March 14th the study committee presented their recommendations, but on a split vote the taxpayer’s pocketbook was the winner.  The Mounted Police idea was tabled because a new tax would be needed to pay for the police. A new tax was not a popular idea in a territory reeling from a weak economy.

The lawmakers reasoned that the job of catching criminals was the chief responsibility of the county sheriff, so they increased the governor’s ability to offer rewards for the capture of select law breakers. The lawmakers’ gamble failed; peaceful conditions did not improve with the dawn of the new century and economic growth of the Sunshine Territory continued to suffer. New Mexico’s path to statehood was seriously endangered by these conditions. 

In the spring of 1901, the legislative bodies in the State of Texas and the Arizona Territory had each authorized a ranger force to deal with roving outlaw bands in their frontier regions. Within four years of their formation, these two rangers groups had arrested, killed off, or driven the troublesome outlaw gangs from their jurisdiction. This aggressive action on New Mexico’s eastern and western borders had caused the territory to become the central outlaw haven in the southwest. This unwelcome lawless distinction was a strange twist of fate because the Arizona lawmakers had prudently adopted the territorial police plan first proposed and rejected in New Mexico just two years earlier. New Mexico’s Legislative Assembly hadn’t even discussed a ranger force at their 1901 session.

Burton Mossman, Arizona’s first ranger captain, was the son of a Las Cruces rancher. Following his visit home for Christmas in 1901, Captain Mossman lamented to the Tucson Citizen, “We only wish that the territorial government of New Mexico would organize a Ranger troop to cooperate with this work. With their aid we could soon clear both territories of the fugitives from justice who have sought refuge here and continue on their depredations.”  A year after Mossman expressed his wish, the Las Vegas Daily Optic reported that livestock raisers in the territory were “agitating” for a ranger force to patrol the territory’s vast remote areas. In spit of these pleas for help, as in 1899 and 1901, lawmakers in 1903 also refused to create a force of territorial rangers. 

In the years since the territorial police concept was first proposed by Greenville Richardson, cattle and sheep growers had organized a corps of semi-official detectives or range riding bounty hunters. These manhunters freely roamed across New Mexico’s southern tier of counties empowered by the deputy sheriff commissions issued in each county they served.  The local stock associations paid the men a fee per case they handled and the governor would from time to time offer a reward for some special criminal, but this reward or bounty system was only partly successful as the Sunshine Territory continued to witness a steady increase in all levels of criminal activity.

A renewed crime wave hit New Mexico in 1904. Rustler gangs boldly raided in day light; killing some ranchers who tried to apprehend them. A postmaster was murdered during a robbery of the Golden Post Office, a Wells Fargo Express office was robbed in Magdalena, trains were stopped and robbed near Tularosa and Logan, fence cutters roomed over Taos County at will. The police force at Roswell was ‘treed” by a drunken mob, a lawman was killed in Silver City, a bank was robbed at Hillsboro, Indian parties hunted out of season, misdemeanor crime increased in all sections and both the territorial solicitor-general and the territorial superintendent of public education were assassinated. Local and county peace officers were unable to curb the violence.

 Miguel A. Otero, Jr. had become territorial governor in 1897 and had privately supported a ranger force since the issue was first introduced in 1899. On Monday, January 16, 1905 he publicly requested lawmakers to create a territorial police force in his bi-annual legislative message to a joint session of the 36th Legislative Assembly. The governor said, “I have been urged by stockmen to recommend the passage of a Ranger Law, whose duty it shall be to patrol the ranges, to prevent the theft of stock and to aid in the apprehension of criminals. The suggestion seems to me a good one.”

William H. Greer, a freshman Republican councilman, introduced Council Bill 26 as a revised version of the Richardson Mounted Police Bill of 1899. Bipartisan support, in all sections of the territory, had grown for a central police force that would, without favor, justly enforce the law in all localities. The Greer Mounted Police Bill quickly moved through committee and passed both houses of the assembly with limited debate, was signed by Governor Otero on February 15th and was published as chapter nine of the session Laws of 1905.

The Mounted Police Act authorized a single company of rangers composed of a captain, a lieutenant, a sergeant and eight privates. The governor was to be the commander-in-chief of the territorial police, but the captain would serve as the day-to-day leader in the field. Each of the rangers was furnished a Winchester 95 rifle, an Army size Colt .45, a gray military style uniform, a silver shield, a commission of office and all the ammunition he could use.  A Mounted Police had to supply his own horse and saddle, and a quality pack horse and camp equipment.  Each man paid for his own personal expenses, including the care and feeding of his horses. The territory would replace a policeman’s horse if it was killed or injured while on patrol duty, but if a ranger was hurt he had to pay his own medical expenses.  Over 200 men made application for appointment to the $60 per month range rider job.

When all the job’s pluses and minuses where added up, most of the new lawmen felt the positives won. Albuquerque’s Morning Journal caught the spirit of the new ranger force when it reported that the “members of the territorial mounted police are as tickled over their jobs as a boy with an all day sucker.”

The governor’s two man ranger selection committee chose Socorro County stockraiser John F. Fullerton to be the first captain of the Mounted Police at $2,000 per year.  He had no law enforcement background, but he was popular among the territory's stock growers and a strong supporter of the governor’s fiscal policies. The Mounted Police company’s second- in-command was Cipriano Baca.  He had served as a Socorro County deputy sheriff, Grant County’s chief deputy sheriff and Luna County’s first sheriff and was presently a deputy serving under United States Marshal Creighton Foraker. Baca earned $1,500 per year as the company’s lieutenant. The sergeant was paid $900 per year and the committee’s choice for this post also had Socorro County connections. He was former chief deputy sheriff Robert W. “Stuttering Bob” Lewis.

The ranger law required that Captain Fullerton select “as his base the most unprotected and exposed settlement of the territory” so the captain chose Socorro. The Mounted Police Department was the only territorial agency not housed in the capitol at Santa Fe in 1905. The three officers and a ranger private were stationed in the city while the other rangers were assigned to three or four man squads to patrol troubled areas across the territory. Their office was on the back of a horse. This first company of Mounted Police were commonly called Fullerton’ Rangers. They were New Mexico’s premier police agency with authority to enforce all level of laws in all sections of the territory and the future state.

Sam Ballard holds the dubious distinction of being the first man arrested by a new territorial policeman. He was taken into custody by Ranger Will Dudley, who was on a single man scout, and charged with “larceny of stock” after the ranger found him in the rugged mountains of Lincoln County rebranding some stolen cattle.    

Shortly after the mustering of the Mounted Police, the Otero County Advertiser commented on the new lawmen, “The mounted police force is made up of experienced men, all dead shots, who can be relied on to capture or kill.” A few months later, Ranger Fate Avant became the first Mounted Police to kill a criminal in the line of duty. During the morning of Thursday, August 24, 1905, Avant single handedly arrested a gang of cattle thieves near Capitan. The arrest was affected following an extended gunfight with the three longropers. Later that same evening in a shootout with a career criminal who was attempting to burglarize a Capitan store, Avant’s shotgun proved to be deadly. A Lincoln County coroner’s jury found the ranger’s lethal action was justified and he faced no criminal charges for killing Robert Rusher. Attorney General George Prichard issued an opinion that the rangers could use what every force was needed to make an arrest. This judgment made it clear that no Mounted Policeman would ever have a reason to back down in the face of danger. Other men made the same mistake that Rusher had made and each met the same ending.

Two Mounted Police gave their lives for the cause of justice while helping to tame New Mexico’s outlaws.  Special Mounted Police John A. McClure was murdered by a father and sons train robber gang near Abo in 1911. McClure’s fellow rangers hunted down his murderers. John B. Rusk faced a different type of death. The ranger died in a Colorado hospital the day after New Mexico had gained statehood. He was attempting to return a wanted man to New Mexico during a winter storm when he developed a cold. The resulting pneumonia killed him.

Sergeant Bob Lewis epitomized the Mounted Police’s dogged determination to get their man. The sergeant spent the first months of 1906 trailing a murderer across the snow covered western mountains of the territory, then south across the border into Old Mexico. Lewis finally arrested a fugitive from justice and returned him to the Sunshine Territory, but during this 71 day scout Lewis’ young daughter died in a tragic accident. Duty is a law enforcement tradition; it even comes before family. 

Lt. Cipriano Baca became the example of faithfulness to duty, and the Mounted Police mission to protect and serve. He spent more days on scout duty than any other member of Fullerton’s Rangers. The first company of Mounted Police made 72 arrests before their one-year enlistments expired.

The professional relationship between New Mexico’s county sheriffs and the Mounted Police was a stormy one from the inception. Sheriffs were elected officials and often supported local values and the judgment of the voters over unpopular laws like gambling and alcohol sales. The Mounted Police, without local favoritism, were able to track and capture suspects that local officers could not or would not attempt to apprehend. Many these county officers felt the rangers’ forthright activities cut into their pocketbook. The police earned an annual salary regardless of their job performance, while county sheriffs earned compensation in the form of fees for each warrant and subpoena he or his deputies served. Mileage and prisoner fees were another source of income. County sheriffs were elected officials and voters often remembered that the police had done the job they had elected their sheriff to perform.  On one occasion a Mounted Police investigation ended with the local grand jury bring criminal charges against a Torrance County sheriff.  He was convicted and removed from office

Captain Fullerton was not asked to continue his command by the new territorial governor, Herbert J. Hagerman, in April 1906. The rest of Fullerton’s force was reappointed for another year. President Roosevelt had named Hagerman governor and ordered him to clear up the territory and make it ready for statehood. Hagerman named veteran lawman Fred Fornoff as the new ranger captain and gave him Roosevelt’s directive. Fornoff was a former Albuquerque city marshal, secret service agent, deputy US marshal, and had served with President Roosevelt’s Rough Riders in 1898.

Among the new ranger captain’s first acts was to relocate the territorial police headquarters, from Socorro to Santa Fe in violation of the Mounted Police Act, to two rooms on the first floor of the capitol building. The Mounted Police office remained in that location until December 1913; the headquarters move was made legal as part of the Mounted Police Reorganization Act of 1909. From 1914-1918, the police had no central headquarters. The reorganized state Mounted Police office was established in Silver City in the spring of 1918, but was relocated to Las Vegas in January 1919 and remained in that city until the force was disbanded in January 1921.

Captain Fornoff made two other major changes. He ordered the rangers to hang up their gray uniforms and to ride the back country dressed in range rider gear. The Mounted Police no longer made extended group scouting trips. Fornoff’s Boys, as the Mounted Police were commonly called during these years, rode their own trail and used their new five-pointed silver-star as his badge of authority.

In 1909 territorial lawmakers, due to “economic reasons” and strong support from county officers, reduced the size of the Mounted Police from three officers and eight rangers down to two officers and four rangers.  This new six man force was on occasion augmented by one or two “additional members” who served short term appointments as salaried rangers. The 1909 law also provided that the governor could appoint non-salaried Special Mounted Police with the same police authority as the regular force. Many of these men were railroad police detectives or railyard guards. Captain Fornoff’s men made almost 900 recorded arrests during the closing years of the territorial era.  This number did not include arrests made by the Special Mounted Police. 

In 1910, two Mounted Police investigated a series of stage robberies near the gold mining camp of Mogollon.  The local deputy sheriff was less then effective in his enforcement of territorial law and was the cover man for the businessmen who wished to have a “wide open” town. The deputy’s actions were supported by the local peace justice.  The territorial police quickly arrested the robbery suspects, and then began to close down the town’s many illegal saloon operations, illegal gambling dens and enforced the regulation of the camp’s two red light districts. The deputy sheriff stationed at Mogollon was paid by subscriptions from the local saloonmen and gamblers, but his authority came from the county sheriff who fired him. The peace justice was removed from office by the county commissioners. The Mogollon “gang” quickly sought revenge.

The former deputy sheriff and peace justice joined a plot to kill or discredit the territorial officers.  The trap was to be sprung in the discharged deputy’s own saloon.  However, none of the conspirators had counted upon how quick and deadly accurate Mounted Policeman John A. Beal’s was with a pistol. The former deputy was fatally shot as he attempted to kill the ranger. Beal and his partner Bob Putman were now forced to confront a mob of angry saloonmen and gamblers for a few days until Mounted Police Sergeant John W. Collier could arrive in Mogollon to backup the two rangers.  Beal and Putman were later tried and acquitted of all charges during their murder trial.  The law and order legend of the New Mexico Mounted Police had reached a zenith.   

On Saturday, January 6, 1912, President William H. Taft signed a special bill granting statehood to New Mexico.  The Sunshine Territory, after 62 years, was no more and with that action the Territorial Mounted Police became the new state's first police force with statewide authority. By the time the second session of the new State Legislature met in the spring of 1913, the Mounted Police had once again earned their reputation for fearlessness in enforcing the letter of the law.  This time the arrested suspects were state senators charged with accepting bribes for their votes. 

A bill to abolish the state mounted police was quickly introduced in the Senate and a lengthy pro and con debate on the merits of the state police followed. Governor William C. McDonald, a Democrat, quickly made it clear that he would veto any measure to abolish the popular police force.  The Republican lawmaker’s answer was to bypass the chief executive, and public sentiment, by excluding any funding for the Mounted Police from the state’s annual Appropriation Bill.  No money, no police.

Captain Fred Fornoff sued the state auditor to make him pay the Mounted Police under a provision of the original Mounted Police enabling act of 1905.  The state district court at Santa Fe upheld Fornoff’s complaint, but the State Supreme Court reversed the lower court and the Mounted Police ran out of money on December 1, 1913. The police were not abolished because the law that had established their authority still existed; the rangers just ceased to be a body in the field and became a phantom force.

During the mid-teen years of 1914 -1917, Governor McDonald made use of his office contingency fund to support limited actions by the Mounted Police.  Fred Lambert was the “Phantom Ranger Force” and he seemed to be everywhere there was trouble.

National security became a major concern when the United States entered the First World War.  Particular concern centered on security along the Mexico border area after the New Mexico National Guard was federalized because the Mexican government was pro-Imperial Germany in the global conflict of 1914-1918. New Mexico’s governor reactivated the Mounted Police with special funding from the State War Council in the spring of 1918.  He selected Herbert J. McGrath, a veteran Grant County sheriff and one of Fullerton’s Rangers, to lead the new ranger force.  During their eight months of operation the 16 man force made 452 felony arrests for crimes ranging from murder, to bootlegging, prostitution, burglary, violation of the stock laws and the new automobile code.  McGrath's men also recovered over $12,000 worth of stolen property. These men had set a new standard for effectiveness of a state police agency.

In 1919, a new governor appointed Apolonio A. Sena, a former ranger and deputy US marshal, to head a reorganized and fully funded company of Mounted Police.  Sena commanded a gray uniformed ranger corps of five sergeants and 16 policemen divided into five service districts.  The men used automobiles as well as horses to patrol their areas. In an unpopular action, the governor ordered the whole Mounted Police force to Gallup, during the final months of 1919, to maintain civil order during a coal miner’s strike. The ranger’s image, among the working class populace, was damaged by this ill-advised action. In 1920, the Mounted Police continued to deal with the old frontier era crimes as well as some "modern day" crimes like auto theft, speeding and “running a car without a license.”

The Mounted Police arrest record for 1919 was 114 persons. The state police documented 103 cases in 1920, but no arrest data is now available for the few days the token ranger force operated in January 1921.

Former Governor Hagerman chaired a special legislative finance committee in 1920 that recommended that the Mounted Police be abolished and that a three man state marshal team be established in their place.  This move would still keep a state police function in the field, but would save the state $40,000 per year.  The newly elected governor had won election by supporting a tax cut plan designed to balance the state budget and jumpstart the state’s post-war economy.  Captain Sena resigned in December and was replaced by former San Miguel County Sheriff Lorenzo Delgado.

Captain Delgado and Governor M. C. Mechem agreed that Lorenzo would be the caretaker head of the state police until the new marshal system was established by the legislature.  He would then become the new chief marshal.  The governor signed the bill that abolished the Mounted Police on February 15, 1921, sixteen years to the day when the New Mexico’s rangers had been born. Lawmakers had done with a vote what outlaw bullets had not been unable to accomplish. In a further twist of fate, the state marshal plan was never debated or established by the New Mexico State Legislature.

The obligation of the historian is incomplete if their account ends in the past and fails to provide direction for the future. The citizens of the Land of Enchantment can look to the future with pride and respect for the guardians of the law in their state. The legacy of public service created by the New Mexico Territorial Mounted Police lives on in the courage and devotion of the men and women who wear the black and gray uniform of the present day New Mexico State Police.

Sources

This article is based upon the author’s forty years of research on the New Mexico Mounted Police. For more information about the rangers, consult the author’s series of ranger books listed below.

The Thin Gray Line: The New Mexico Mounted Police (Fort Worth, TX: Western Heritage Press, 1971).

Fullerton’s Rangers: A History of the New Mexico Territorial Mounted Police (Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, 2005).

New Mexico’s Rangers: The Mounted Police (Charleston, SC: Arcadia publishing, 2010).

Cipriano Baca, Frontier Lawman of New Mexico (Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, 2012).