From Fil Byrne to Henry Gordon’s cattle drive through the Wild West

Photo courtesy John M. Motter
Fil Byrne is pictured here as county judge in his office in the county courthouse, where he served in various positions over a span of 28 years. This photo was probably taken in 1932, his last year of service to the county. The office is in the same courthouse we are using today.

We’re writing about Fil Byrne, Pagosa pioneer and first school teacher. I don’t know what Byrne’s education was, but I suspect he was a high school graduate and that was about it. In those days if you had a high school diploma to prove you finished high school, folks figured you knew enough to teach others what you knew.

Byrne arrived with the first settlers in Pagosa Springs and was involved in just about everything that went on. He finished his career by serving as county judge for eight years. That responsibility ended with his office in the present courthouse in 1932.

In last week’s photo, we showed Fil and a cowboy named Henry Gordon. Henry is another of my favorite Pagosa Pioneers. Henry died at the age of 101 in Pagosa Springs in May of 1934. He was born a little north of St. Louis, Mo., on Oct. 30, 1832.

You who know western history will recognize that the fur trapping business in the Rocky Mountains was in full swing in 1932. Kit Carson, Jim Bridger and other trappers were busy catching beavers and dodging Indians. Much U.S. history took place during Henry’s life, including the Civil War, Spanish American War and first World War.

As a teenager, he worked on the railroad between St. Louis and Kansas City. Later, he lived in Indian territory — now Oklahoma — and still later drifted down to Texas where, as a cowboy, he became associated with the O’Neals, Keiths and others in the Erath County area. The time was the mid-1870s, when the cattle drives from Texas to the railroads in Kansas, i.e. Dodge City and others, were in full swing. Wyatt Earp and others like him weren’t TV stars; they were real people packing real guns.

In any case, the O’Neals with Henry Gordon and others decided to have their own cattle drive. They rounded up a bunch of longhorns and headed for the Pecos Trail made famous by Charles Goodnight. One branch of the Pecos Trail ended up near Cimarron, N.M., and that’s where the O’Neal party stopped to rest and graze their cattle.

Cimarron in 1876 was about as Wild West as any place on the frontier. A major feud between cattle ranchers was taking place, the Jicarilla Apache had no reservation but were getting rations there and camping outside of town, and several well-known western outlaws called Cimarron home. This is the environment the O’Neal party chose for resting their cattle and horses.

It should be no surprise to learn that the Apaches barbecued several of the O’Neal party longhorns. Naturally, the O’Neals were smart enough to avoid taking on a whole band of Apaches. Instead, they went to the sheriff, who turned over their claim to the territorial government.

Imagine my surprise to learn just a few years ago while reading microfilm on New Mexico territorial history, that, through the Army, the government had reimbursed the O’Neals for “cattle stolen by Indians at Cimarron.”

A footnote might be in order to justify the Indians. Their main sources of food were nearly gone. The white man had killed most of the buffalo, deer and elk the Apache formerly depended on. As would any parents when their children were suffering from hunger, the Jicarilla took action. The nearest “corner store” was the herds of cattle owned by the white men. And, so, the Jicarilla fed their young ones.

More next week on Henry Gordon and the O’Neal trail drive to Pagosa Country.