Perhaps you've heard stories about William Fraser, the legendary early miner and owner of the Fraser Mountain Copper Company in the Taos Ski Valley (TSV) area. Some historical annals report Fraser exaggerated the amount of gold and copper ore he found in the area once known as Twining, leading to the ruin of many investors – all leading up to being gunned down by one of his business partners.
It’s a well-known story. The only problem is, it turns out that it may not be true. At the very least, there is another side to the legend of Fraser.
Charlie (also known as Carlos) Lopez is Fraser’s great-grandson. He lives in the house in Valdez that Fraser built in 1914 out of bricks made from the clay in the Río Hondo canyon. Lopez says the reported history is very different than the stories he heard about his great-grandfather from his family and from the results of his research.
History as reported
There was mining activity all around the current site of TSV and high up into the Sangre de Cristo Mountains in the late 1800s. According to Robert Julyan in his book, “The Place Names of New Mexico,” Fraser was a mining man who – along with partner, Al Helphenstine – discovered silver and gold. That led to the founding of the town of Amizette.
When the ore here ran out, Fraser found copper and gold farther up the canyon and founded the Fraser Mountain Copper Company mines. According to Julyan, Fraser was a controversial figure whose allegedly exaggerated claims resulted in the ruin of several investors. He says Fraser died in 1914, shot in the head by a former business partner during a gun battle.
Carrie Leven, archaeologist with the Questa Ranger District of the Carson National Forest, reports that her research shows Fraser came to the upper Río Hondo mining district in the late 1800s and was instrumental in establishing the booming mining town of Twining.
According to Leven, “In 1892, Fraser and partner J.R. Wheeler owned patented mining claims located on the northern and eastern side of the valley called the Wigwam, Silver King, Dutch Joe and Zone Lodes, which make up some of the private property found today. Fraser’s greatest effort at Twining was developing the Fraser Mountain Copper Company mines and encouraging the founding of the town and a smelter, along with other investors and mining companies. Hopeful prospects and high costs of shipping ore to outlying processing plants led Fraser and investors to build an on-site smelter, which, unfortunately, failed on the first run in 1903. Fraser survived that mishap and investors’ anger, and he was among the few miners who stayed in Twining after 1904.”
Leven says that Fraser continued to work his mountain claims, but was shot and killed in 1914 by Jack Bidwell, his new partner at the Fraser Mountain Copper Company. The shooting was determined to be in self-defense. Bidwell continued to live in a miner’s cabin in the Twining ghost town, working small gold leads on his claims.
Another side to the story
Lopez is related to Fraser through his mother’s family. His grandmother, Margaret, was one of Fraser’s daughters born to his wife, Felipita Gonzales de Fraser. Lopez says that his family knows another side of the family patriarch. They say he was a family man who built a schoolhouse in Valdez for his children and the neighboring children, as well. He also supplied everyone with fruit from his extensive orchards located on some of the hundreds of acres he owned in Valdez.
Lopez’s mother, Mary Jane (born Barela) Lopez, was 4 or 5 years old when Fraser died. The stories passed down to Mary Jane Lopez from her grandmother hinted that many people thought Fraser was mean, but the family knew him as a good provider who had to appear mean in order to protect himself, his family and his businesses. Lopez says that we have to remember the times that Fraser was living in.
“It was the gold rush, the Old West; prospectors were tough men,” he says. “Fraser was involved with some shady characters and because he owned so much land in Twining, Valdez and El Salto, many people didn’t like him.”
Lopez has been gathering material for a book on his great-grandfather. He says the curious thing about the claims stating Fraser cheated investors is that all the ore that came out of the mines in the Twining area was sent to Denver, Colorado, by railcar from Tres Piedras and was carefully weighed in Denver, so there was little chance that investors could have been cheated out of their share. Lopez says that at some point, it was reported there was more than a million dollars of gold per week mined and thousands of dollars of copper brought out of the area.
Fraser first partnered with Albert Twining in the late 1800s. Twining was a banker from New Jersey, and the mining area where TSV sits was named after him. He was eventually imprisoned for embezzlement.
Fraser sought new business partners to invest in a smelter for copper, but the smelter was not successful and his partners accused him of pocketing their investments. Lopez rebuts, “With mining, nothing is guaranteed. Fraser never did anything shady. All his transactions are well documented.” In his research, Lopez has turned up stories in the Taos Valley News that report on the many lawsuits Fraser was involved in. Interestingly, although at least two of Fraser’s business partners went to jail for embezzlement, there are no reports of Fraser being indicted on the same offense.
In 1912, Fraser did file a suit in order to dissolve a partnership between himself, Bidwell and Clarence Probert, a Taos banker. Fraser had been in an accident on the rim of the Valdez valley — a bear spooked his horses and sent Fraser flying off the wagon. He hit his head and, according to some, was never the same. Fraser argued that due to the accident, he was not competent to enter into a contract with the business partners. The judge found that Fraser seemed competent enough and denied the claim. Probert, however, was convicted of embezzlement in 1914 and sentenced to six years in prison.
Perhaps most interesting of all are the conflicting stories of how Fraser died. It has been reported that on July 16, 1914, Fraser went up to cabins that he owned in Twining. There, he found Bidwell, his former partner. An argument ensued, guns were drawn and Fraser was shot and killed.
Lopez says that his great-grandmother told another version of what happened that day; one she said was the true account. Felipita Gonzales de Fraser’s account begins when a friend of the family, Tom Holder, came to pick up Fraser to go up to Twining to look at a cabin Holder wanted to buy. She said Holder seemed nervous and would not stop for her to make him a breakfast of fish – an offer he never turned down.
Holder and Fraser departed the house in Valdez and apparently stopped on the way up the canyon to pick up Holder’s young son, Tom Holder Jr. Although Holder said that Bidwell was not in Twining, when the two arrived, Bidwell was in fact on-site. An argument ensued and Bidwell shot Fraser with .30-30 caliber Winchester rifle. Bidwell claimed he acted in self-defense.
In part, an obituary compiled by Alberto Vidaurre on the website nmahgp.genealogyvillage.com/taos/taosobituaries11.html reported the alleged reason for the altercation: “... They had been involved in a dispute for about 3 years as to who owned the mine. It was reported that William Frazer [sic] with gun in hand had tried to expel John B. Bidwell from a house near the mine. Bidwell retreated and armed himself with a .30-30 caliber Winchester rifle and shot William Frazer.”
However, when Fraser’s body was brought back down from Twining and washed in the Río Hondo near the mouth of the canyon (where they were met by the coroner), numerous observers reported that the gunshot entered Fraser’s side and passed out through his back – perhaps indicating there was no gun battle, but rather Fraser was attempting to flee. Some young boys tending to cattle in Twining told Fraser’s wife they heard the argument and saw Fraser leaving the area when he was shot.
Most curious of all is that the bullet that hit Fraser passed through his body and lodged in Holder Jr.’s spine, causing a crippling paralysis. Although some say the bullet that hit Fraser ricocheted off a rock and hit young Holder, Lopez says after looking at all the reports, it is more likely that the bullet passed directly through Fraser and hit Holder Jr. as they were sitting together on the buckboard attempting to leave the cabin.
At the trial that followed, young Holder testified on Bidwell’s behalf and he was cleared. Nothing more than speculation can possibly explain why Holder Jr. would come to the defense of the man who pulled the trigger and caused his permanent injury.
After Fraser’s death, many investors and their lawyers descended on the estate and the family was left with very little. Fraser’s family retained none of the former lands in Twining.
Fraser was 69 years old. He is buried in Kit Carson Cemetery, but the headstone that once stood there has been lost. Lopez would like to see a new headstone placed on the grave to commemorate his great-grandfather.
A mountain standing at 12,163 feet within the Northside property near TSV is named for Fraser.
The story of William Fraser reminds us that the legends we read in history may not be the whole story or even the real story.