Ballots, bullets and bloodshed: an apron of truce

Posted Photo courtesy John M. Motter
J.T. Martinez was the son of J.B. Martinez, one of the Hispanic leaders in the 1886 fight for control of the Archuleta County government. He was reputed to be one of the richest men in Archuleta County as measured by land holdings, number of sheep, cattle and horses. J.T. is pictured here supervising the loading of bags of wool on the narrow gauge train at Pagosa Junction.

For several weeks we’ve been reporting the bitter struggle between Anglos and Hispanics for control of the Archuleta County government in 1886, following the first county election when the Hispanics won all three county commissioner positions. We’ve identified this conflagration as ballots, bullets and bloodshed.

As if that isn’t bad enough, Charlie Siringo, the top detective in the frontier West, is working undercover in Archuleta County and has just escaped a hangman’s noose. We continue this week with Siringo’s account of his involvement in the fracas immediately after he escaped from the hangman’s party.

“Two days later, after being appointed deputy sheriff by then Sheriff William Dyke, I saved the lives of the county commissioners, the county judge and Attorney Russell.

“A plot had been planned for both sides to stack all fire arms and leave two men from each side to guard them. Then a meeting of the commissioners could sit in the court house.”

Motter: This seems like a good time to interject into Siringo’s story that the courthouse in use at that time was the first Archuleta County courthouse. It was partially burned in this melee, but has been restored and retains the original safe and even today survives as a residence on the south side of San Juan Street on the east side of the river.

Back to Siringo: “The scheme was to have some rifles cached and make a raid on the fire arms and their guards. Then the slaughter was to begin.

“All the county officials with the exception of Bendito Martinez had agreed to the plan. All were trying to get Martinez’s consent. He finally caught my eye and I shook my head — as much as to say don’t do it. That settled it. He stood pat and the plot fell through.

“... Martinez caught a hint in a very light shake of my head. Poor fellow, he soon afterwards shot a man dead in the Durango court room, which broke him up financially.

“After holding the county officials and their armed escort at bay for about four days, peace was declared by the leaders of the revolutionists being promised an even division of the political pie in the future. Then the commissioners held their meeting and all departed for New Mexico.

“The blood of the insurgents had cooled off as the liquors in Bowling’s saloon diminished, hence peace was declared under a flag of truce — a woman’s white apron.”

Siringo hung around for a while and testified at a grand jury trial held in Durango. All of the elected Hispanic officials retained their elected positions. Several of the insurgents were indicted, but none tried in court or convicted in a regular court session.

The conflict between Anglos and Hispanics over local government matters continued for several years into the 1900s, but I am not going to chase all of the stories down at this time.

County Judge J.B. Martinez’s trial for shooting a man in the Durango courtroom was moved to Walsenburg and he beat the charge, but the cost of his defense nearly broke him. Martinez shot several people during his life, including a lady in Pagosa Springs who was said to be a prostitute. Prostituting was not against the law in those days, as long as the shady lady paid a regular fee to the town for the privilege of pursuing her chosen occupation, which was pursuing men.