Books

When the West was still wild

Las Vegas author presents true tales of a frontier town on the Santa Fe Trail

By Lynne Robinson
tempo@taosnews.com
Posted 1/8/20

These days Las Vegas, New Mexico, is known primarily as a college town and also the production site of the now-canceled Netflix TV series "Longmire." But during its early era as a frontier town, it was a place of random killing sprees, gunfights and barroom brawls, cattle rustling, stagecoach robberies and vigilante justice.

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Books

When the West was still wild

Las Vegas author presents true tales of a frontier town on the Santa Fe Trail

Posted

These days Las Vegas, New Mexico, is known primarily as a college town, home of New Mexico Highlands University, and also the production site of the now-canceled Netflix TV series "Longmire." But during its early era as a frontier town, it was a place of random killing sprees, gunfights and barroom brawls, cattle rustling, stagecoach robberies and vigilante justice.

Author and humorist Jim Terr is a longtime Las Vegas resident. He moved there with his family while still a boy, and grew up in the shadow of stories about this Wild West town, but wasn't fully cognizant of their influence on its history until he read the late Howard Bryan's book, "Wildest of the Wild West: True Tales of a Frontier Town on the Santa Fe Trail" (Clear Light Publishers 1988), which includes a foreword by former Taoseño and renowned Western author Max Evans.

"Las Vegas is known as one of the friendliest towns in New Mexico," Terr said, "but I always had the feeling of an undercurrent of violence. I recall seeing more murders in the newspaper than I ever had before we moved here." He explained, "Once I reread the book recently, it all began to make sense."

Now, Terr has brought some of these tales to life with an audiobook, which he produced and narrates, titled "Wildest of the Wild West: True Tales of a Frontier Town on the Santa Fe Trail." Terr is hosting a reading and book signing event planned Saturday (Jan. 11), at 2 p.m., at the Taos Public Library, 402 Camino de la Placita. Admission is free.

"I first read the book in the early 1990s, when I wasn't as aware of the history of Las Vegas as I am now, but after reading it again, I realized how crazy some of these stories really are. So colorful and vivid."

The stories include the tragic tale of Paula Angel, a woman sentenced to death for killing her lover, and who endured not one but two hangings, before she died, as well as the trials of Billy the Kid as he passed through the town's jail and into another, providing amusement for the children who came around by going "bang bang" with his finger as if it were a gun.

"They are quite macabre really," Terr said of the tales. "Although there's nothing very funny about the violence or about the hangings, many of the stories are darkly amusing.

"It occurred to me after reading it the second time, that these stories -- this book -- would make a great 'driving companion,' Terr said, "so I approached the publisher and they were totally open to it."

The history of Las Vegas, as gleaned from the book, is filled with enough fascinating imagery and descriptions of frontier life to fill dozens of screenplays.

By the 1860s Las Vegas was the leading commercial center in New Mexico and home to merchants of many nationalities including German Jews and French Canadians.Textiles, furniture, whiskey, metal tools, furs and tobacco could be bought cheaper from the U.S. territory than from Mexico, and was sold in the new merchant establishments of Las Vegas.

The Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad reached Las Vegas. During the railroad era Las Vegas boomed, quickly becoming one of the largest cities in the American Southwest. It also began attracting the aforementioned colorful characters, the names of whom read like fictional protagonists out of a Wild West tale. Only these characters and the tales they inspired are historical, actual people.

"They started to come from other boomtowns, specifically from Dodge City, Kansas," Terr said. "Doc Holliday stayed for awhile - he was a dentist as well as an outlaw."

But the story that may be one of the most violent is that of Vicente Silva and his 40 Thieves.

"They were operating here out of a saloon," Terr said, "creating a lot of mayhem including rustling cattle, which triggered his demise." The cornered Silva shocked even his band of thieves, when he asked his wife to come to his hideout and bring him all of her money. Terr tells that she did just that and was promptly murdered on the spot by her erstwhile husband, who stole her jewelry as well. Silva's elation was short-lived as his comrades soon turned on him, killing him and taking off with the money.

Taos makes an appearance in the book as well, with a tale about a local outlaw named Jesus Maria Martínez, whose crime was so heinous that Judge Benedict, who had been appointed by President Abraham Lincoln, sentenced him to hanging "with no mercy on his soul."

In 1876, a windmill was erected in Las Vegas Plaza that was used for a brief time as a gallows. Terr said that among the infamous characters who visited the town were "Web-Fingered Billy, Johnny Behind-the-Rocks, Scar-Face Charlie and Hoodoo Brown."

But by 1880, the windmill, that symbol of vigilante justice, was replaced by a bandstand in the middle of the plaza.

Terr is a wonderfully engaging storyteller, and his reading at the library this Saturday promises to be highly entertaining.

The audiobook, which retails for $24.95, is available from hookintohistory.com. A $2 shipping cost is added for United States orders. For more information, call the library at (575) 758-3063.

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