Inside the Capitol

Tuesday, September 28, 2004

Santa Fe Ring

SANTA FE The whole of this place “is under the control of a ring composed of two or three lawyers and their practices and power throughout New Mexico are quite astonishing. At the sitting of the courts men who had been in the graves a dozen years or more were indicted, summoned for various causes, (and) one of the ring defended the case.”
This is not another of my exposes on Gov. Richardson’s attorney Bill Robins speaking for dead Billy the Kid to get him dug up. This is John Tunstall talking about the Santa Fe Ring in 1877. They would murder him in eleven months and the Lincoln County War would start.
Looking at the cast of characters in the current Billy the Kid case makes me wonder if history is repeating itself 127 years later.
In those days the little people, including Billy the Kid, fought the corrupt head of the Santa Fe Ring, Thomas Benton Catron, and his minions, which included Gov. Samuel Axtell, District Attorney William Rynerson, Judge Warren Bristol, Lincoln County Sheriff William Brady and his deputies, Fort Stanton Commander N.A.M. Dudley, merchant James Dolan, and hit men like Jessie Evans.
Though most of the opposition was either murdered or fled, the little people did succeed in getting the governor, Catron, and Dudley removed. Brady fell victim to ambush. Evans left for Texas. But the people were crushed and the power structure regrouped. Catron became the first senator from New Mexico and amassed more land than any American.
What can we learn from our history so that we aren’t doomed to repeat it.? I turned to England’s Frederick Nolan, world famous historian of the Lincoln County War, with my question. Here is his extremely candid answer.
Nolan says, “I have watched the Billy the Kid case with despair and anger. After devoting fifty years to writing the history, I find people without knowledge, expertise, or research presuming literally to make up their own version and foist it on the American public. Worst of all, no matter how many facts they are given by historians, scientists, or lawyers, they proceed undaunted and unimpeded like some terrifyingly irrational and destructive force of nature. The truth makes no difference to their process of invention.”
It reminded me of Sheriff William Brady in 1878, who illegally imprisoned William Bonney, before the was The Kid, and Fred Waite, who were deputy constables, and Town Constable Atanacio Martinez. When asked by what authority he did it, he answered, “I have the power.”
Nolan pointed out that the Lincoln County War was fought on many levels. The Santa Fe Ring was investigated by President Rutherford B. Hayes and British Ambassador Sir Edward Thornton. In New Mexico John Tunstall and Attorney Alexander McSween naively turned to the law for protection. And the people fought in the streets.
There are some who say they can give the old names to the modern antagonists. And there are many calling the year-long battle of the Billy the Kid case the Second Lincoln County War.
But my question is, “have we learned anything in 126 years?” It occurred to me that the problem with history lessons is those motivated by self-gain and greed don’t want to change. So Santa Fe Rings always lurk in the shadows.
The real question then is how people who cherish truth can protect their intellectual heritage and their achievements in history, science and law.
The answer seems simple. Just look at the year of unrelenting opposition to the Billy the Kid case mounted by people from every walk of life, from coffee shop conversations and e-mail chats, to town council meetings, to experts speaking out in the press, to courts of law.
The decisive battle of the first Lincoln County War was July 19, 1878. Some are calling the Fort Sumner Billy the Kid Case hearing on September 27th the big day of the Second Lincoln County War. We’ll see then what we’ve learned.


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