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Pillaging the Silver City Stage

By John P. Wilson

 Robbing a stagecoach in the Old West didn’t always end with the driver throwing down the express box, or a chest with the payroll or gold bars, followed by the bandits allowing everybody to go their own way. Sometimes the highwaymen sought to unburden the passengers of their money and valuables, with a little .44 caliber persuasion. This could become hazardous for the holdup men, as when a rider on the stage westbound from Fort Yuma gave one of the outlaws who stopped it a shotgun load of buckshot in the belly. The passengers soon drove the luckless robbers away in a blazing gun battle.[1]

But holdups could also end with no one being hurt, apart from monetary damages.John Chisum was one of the most storied cattlemen of the American Southwest during the 1870s. His immense operations stretched for more than one hundred miles along the Pecos River in southeastern New Mexico, and by 1876 included his Eureka Springs Stock Ranch, a block of unoccupied federal domain in the Aravaipa Valley of southern Arizona.[2]

By this time John Chisum had become prosperous as well as prominent, and he no longer rode the range or helped trail the herds himself. In the summer of 1875 Chisum’s cowboys drove 11,000 head of cattle west across the Rio Grande and through Cookes Canyon in southern New Mexico to supply a beef contractor in Arizona. A newfound peace, following the recent closure of Fort Cummings at the eastern end of the canyon, didn’t mean that travelers in that part of the Southwest went entirely unmolested.[3]

Perhaps Chisum was headed home from his Arizona holdings when three knights of the road, as the newspapers termed them, stopped the diligence [stagecoach] bearing the rancher in Cooke's Canyon, east of Silver City, New Mexico. The date was January 19, 1876. Minus some of the literary excesses favored by newspaper editors, one Las Cruces paper gave this account of what happened next:

About 3 o’clock on Wednesday morning last, just after the diligence had ascended the steep and rugged hill at the ‘Divide’ in the Cañon celebrated for its many Indian fights and massacres in days of yore, the conductor fast asleep in the ‘Front Boot,’ the passengers, John S. Chisum of cattle notoriety and Hon. T. Conway of Santa Fe, snugly ensconced under their blankets and buffalo robes dreaming the happy hours away, three gallant Knights of the Road made their debut upon the stage and demanded an interview.

The driver obeyed the summons and informed the sleeping passengers of the somewhat unexpected nocturnal visit of the Free Lances and their polite request ‘To turn the passengers out at once,’ whereupon Messrs. Chisum and Conway made their appearance from under the blankets. The first objects that met their astonished gaze were the muzzles of a shotgun, Henry rifle, and a Colt revolver.

Active operations began at once; one of the robbers mounted the front boot and quickly emptied its contents on the ground, then taking a hatchet he commenced business on the express box. After the first blow on the lock, the conductor surrendered the key and in a few moments some $1000 in bullion and $150 in gold coin easily and quickly changed hands; an $80 package of greenbacks fortunately escaped notice and was saved.

In the meantime, the passengers were not idle. Chisum had a sudden call to the rear of the stage and the work on transferring greenbacks from his pocketbook to the inside of his unmentionables went briskly and rapidly on until he was politely requested to return and be searched. On his return, the robbers found but $150 out of $1000 that a few moments before had been in his pocketbook, and Chisum was mean enough to beg two dollars of that for incidental expenses on the road. Chisum’s watch escaped the rapacious claws of the first Interviewer, but unfortunately another and more expert hand took the business in charge and quick as thought, Chisum’s $300 watch deserted its owner.

Conway also managed to cheat the boys out of the greater part of the cash he had about his person while he fondly fancied that his watch was out of danger. The nimble searcher then began on Conway and rifled all his pockets but found no watch. Mr. Conway says he is certain the villain knew he had one; for not content with going through his pockets, the fellow began pressing out the creases and folds of his pants with his hand and he presently exclaimed ‘oh,’ and another $300 watch and chain had to vamos from its hiding place.

But the meanest and saddest part of the business is yet to be related. Last Wednesday morning was very cold up in the mountains; an indispensable article under such circumstances is a bottle of good whiskey. Well, there was just one bottle of the ‘crature’ in that stage. As soon as it was discovered by the robbers, Chisum, fearing the worst, proposed a drink all around. His request was at once complied with; all took a drink.

When the stage people were told to replace their baggage on the stage, C. asked for his bottle and was politely informed that he could not have it. This was too much; the unfeeling wretches would not heed his appeal, and as a last resort, he proposed a drink all around before they parted, which was acceded to. He parted with his bottle a sadder if not a wiser man. The robbers then ordered the coach to return to [Faywood] Hot Springs” – Rio Grande Eco.[4]

The newspaper Eco del Rio Grande survives as a half-dozen complete issues and scattered reprint articles, like this one, from a three-and-a-half year run (1874-1878) of what must have been an intriguing weekly. In 1878 its talented editor, Lawrence Lapoint, abandoned journalism to run a saloon, where supposedly Billy the Kid dealt monte for a while. Whatever else is lost, this tidbit survives to add one more window into a time when southern New Mexico was still part of the frontier.


[1]. The San Diego Union, November 11 and November 18, 1869, both page 2.

[2]. Harwood P. Hinton, Jr., “John Simpson Chisum, 1877-84,” New Mexico Historical Review 31 (1956), pp. 177-205. John P. Wilson, Islands in the Desert; Albuquerque, University of New Mexico Press (1995), page 188.

[3]. Donald Howard Couchman, Cooke’s Peak – Pasaron Por Aqui; New Mexico Bureau of Land Management, Cultural Resources Series No. 7 (1990), page 195.

[4] . The Republican Review; Albuquerque, N.M., January 26, 1876, page 2, reprinting from Eco del Rio Grande; Las Cruces, N.M., probably the January 22, 1876 issue.