Elfego Baca, New Mexico’s true hero among the pistoleros, was sixteen years old when Billy the Kid was killed by a shot from Sheriff Pat Garret’s gun in July of 1881. Although they were on opposite sides of the law, they were both part of that wild and wooly period in New Mexico where the Colt .45 dispensed justice and murder in seemingly equal measure.
Elfego Baca’s story began in Socorro, where he was said to have been born on a softball field. When he was fifteen, he broke his father out of a Los Lunas jail by sawing through the roof. By eighteen he was working in the store of Socorro mayor, Juan J. Baca. That building still stands and is pictured above circa 1890 and in its restored condition today. It now houses the Vertu Art Gallery and the Old Town Bistro.
Baca was working in the store when a deputy sheriff told him stories of torture, maiming, and gunfire directed at the Spanish speaking residents of Frisco, or what is now called Reserve. It was being done by cowboys from Texas working on local ranches. It is said that Elfego pinned on a toy badge, grabbed his guns, hopped on the deputy’s mule-drawn wagon and headed west.
That’s how Elfego Baca’s fame as a folk hero began: as a 19-year-old store clerk with a tin badge, battling fifty Texas ranch hands from a flimsy hut in the far western reaches of Socorro County in 1884. This lopsided gunfight, which resulted in a couple of dead cowboys, has become known as The Frisco Shootout. Elfego Baca was unharmed, having survived for two days in a small mud and picket house which was hit with thousands of rounds. Just the door had 400 bullet holes.
He returned to Socorro a hero, later becoming sheriff and mayor. Eventually he ended up as an attorney in Albuquerque where he died at the age of 80. He is buried in Sunset Memorial Park across from Menaul School.
Socorro has dozens of wonderful historical buildings like the J.J. Baca store, each with their own story, and detailed in a locally available walking tour brochure. Walking tours are one of our very favorite ways to explore the towns MaryAnn and I visit. And when there is a truly colorful character like Elfego Baca associated with a building that has a restaurant, well set the table.
Baca was a lawman whose reputation was made with his Colt .45’s. Yet Elfego Baca, who enforced the law from atop a horse with his six-gun, lived to see the atomic bomb dropped in 1945. In essence, we are just a little more than one life-span away from the days of the pistoleros.