OUTLAWS & DESPERADOS
A New Mexico Federal Writers' Project Book
A few years ago at the New Mexico State Record Center and Archives, we donned the white gloves brought to us by friendly archivists and began to peruse Works Project Administration files documenting the life and times of Territorial New Mexico. Before we knew it, the cool, quiet research room seemed to be filling with gun smoke; the walls rang with shouts of outlaws pulling off a train robbery; a sheriff's posse thundered between the library tables in hot pursuit of a notorious outlaw they fully intended to hang by the neck from the limb of a cottonwood tree.
As researchers, we knew we'd struck a mother lode with this collection. Inside folders labeled "WPA 1936-1939" we discovered hundreds of articles pecked out on old upright typewriters by New Mexico writers determined to make a buck by their wits, not incidentally documenting some of their state's historical highlights. Many of these articles depicted hair-trigger encounters between various factions in the New Mexico Territory during the last decades of the 19th century into the early 20th: cattle rustlers vs. ranchers, bad men vs. good sheriffs, bad sheriffs vs. good-hearted outlaws, "gentle townspeople" vs. "notorious desperados." Here and there, groups of Apaches or Mexican banditos dashed across the pages, making their mark on the pages of New Mexico history.
Inside its covers, the land of Outlaws & Desperados, is a dangerous place, where greed and violence--both random and intentional--prevail. Many of the central players described in these stories appear as cruel and often racist characters. It's a man's world, where winner takes all. In this collection, cameo appearances by women--Silly Sally; the sassy matron from Lamy who cooks for Curley Bill; a girl who escapes the Apaches and takes refuge in Silver City--are rare occurrences. The macho culture of "Gunfight at the O.K. Corral" that dazzled the silver screen in the 1950s seems tame compared to the tales of risk and outrageous bravado found in these pages.
Some of the accounts resound with zany playfulness or instances of heroic self-sacrifice. The language is often colored by the vernacular of the day. For example, from "Devil Dick's Career and His Ignominious End": "And say Dick was figurin' on startin' a brand new graveyard with Baldy and Shorty and Lem and Long Tom throwed in as headstones." We remind ourselves that such casual narrative tends to mask the gravitas--feelings of fear, grief and loss--that surely underscored the lives of those who lived and died in Territorial New Mexico.
Though the NMFWP writers represented in this collection came from various backgrounds and lived in different parts of the state, their surnames indicate that they are predominantly Anglos. History told by one ethnic or cultural group is biased by definition: many viewpoints are left out of the telling of the story. We know that where a person stands has everything to do with their vision and point of view. That said, readers may appreciate the fact that a group of writers in the 1930s devoted themselves to rescuing a set of stories of New Mexico for the rest of us.
Writers enlisted for the New Mexico Federal Writers Project represent a range of linguistic abilities and proclivities. The prolific writer N. Howard (Jack) Thorp, perhaps best known for writing and collecting cowboy songs, left behind a highbrow life in the east for the "Wild West." He apparently preferred the view from the saddle to that of the lecture hall (he may have attended Harvard from 1883 to 1886), as he spent the rest of his life in New Mexico, making a name for himself as a cowboy writer and storyteller.
Outlaws & Desperados includes more submissions from N. Howard Thorp than any other writer, narratives that read as if he was spinning a yarn around a campfire. A born romantic, Thorp made free with opinionated pronouncements. Toward the end of his piece about the Dalton brothers' demise ("The Dalton Gang's Last Hold-Up"), he submits, "I hold no grief for those who are professional hold-ups, but a kid like Emmett Dalton's admiration for an elder brother is quite easily understood, for Bob Dalton certainly had plenty of dash and nerve, and in the eyes of the kid was enshrined as a hero."
W. M. Emery wrote with a more philosophical, elegiac tone: He concludes "The Fate of a Horse Thief" with this: "So the horse thief was buried where he had fallen, and occupies an unknown grave within a few feet of the well traveled road, and the autoists who whisk past the place in their fine cars today, little dream of the tragedy that took place in that beautiful spot less than a half a century ago."
Field writer Elinor Crans organized her articles around dialogue, sometimes in Spanish. From "Bad Hombres": "'Plenty of bad men in the old days,'" explains Filipiano, my aged informant. 'Si, plenty then--plenty now--plenty always.'"
Reyes N. Martinez used Spanish phrases liberally, and translated them for the reader. Mrs. Frances Totty wrote with a general disregard for formal structure, as if in a rush to get her informant's story down on the page, while Kenneth Fordyce displayed a "just the facts" exactness. In "Crime Did Not Pay in '73," he writes, "The cowhand, Helling, proved rather obstinate for he was convinced that lynching was too good for the murder of his former employer."
Administrators for the Federal Writers' Project divided New Mexico into four approximate quadrants--Northeast, Southeast, Northwest and Southwest--and we have followed suit as a way of organizing a voluminous body of material. Though project writers sometimes submitted newspaper articles or excerpts from published books, their most lively submissions are those based on the reminiscences of New Mexicans who lived during territorial times or were passing down stories in the oral tradition.
Journalistic standards of 1936-1939 were looser, less grammatically formalized than they are today, and it's not always clear to the reader which remarks come straight from the informant and which are shaped by the artist. Our solution to this quandary was to attribute the by-line for each submission (with one exception, a story by Colonel Jack Potter) to the NMFWP field writer and to specifically credit the informant or narrator--those old-timers who fueled most of the stories--at the end of the article.
As manuscript editors, we were torn. Would it be better to publish the original articles with their idiosyncrasies intact, or to correct obvious errors of spelling and punctuation to deliver a smooth read? We came down in the center, with a policy of constructive minimalism. For instance, we decided that if a comma was placed so that it obscured the writer's meaning (many of these writers exhibited an inordinate fondness for commas), we would move it or remove it altogether. We chose to correct misspellings of common words but generally left proper names alone, as well as extraneous capital letters and quotation marks.
Typos presented a similar quandary, as we had no way to distinguish a slip of the typist's fingers from intellectual intention. Similarly, we wondered if changes that were sometimes handwritten on the rough-typed manuscripts had been added by the writer or perhaps by an editor in the bureau office. Since we couldn't know, we made judgment calls on a case-by-case basis. Our hope was to preserve as much of the flavor of the times and of the writer's personal style as possible short of allowing the language to lapse into obscurity. N. Howard Thorp's reports all ended with the words at one time beloved by youthful narrators: The End. We left these in place for your enjoyment. We also refrained from adding italics or accent marks to Spanish words. And where it wasn't obvious to us who was speaking within a particular narrative we left the passage intact, as the reader's guess is at least as good as our own.
We hope you will read these accounts with wonder and enjoyment, as we did. Whatever the vagaries and variables regarding accuracy and authorship, these records provide us with a one-of-a-kind record of thrilling and dangerous times in the "wild and wooly" territory of New Mexico.
About the New Mexico Federal Writers' Project
March, 2008, marked the seventy-fifth anniversary of President Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal. The Great Depression that came on the heels of the stock market crash of 1929 threw the country's financial institutions into chaos and put many people across the nation out of work. In 1933, FDR inaugurated his New Deal administration, a comprehensive program designed to stimulate the country's economy while lending a hand to the unemployed.
At a time when many people were down on their luck during the Great Depression, the New Deal's New Mexico Federal Writers' Project (NMFWP) employed writers around the state to record the extraordinary history and lore of New Mexico. The Federal Writers' Project was one of a number of white-collar relief projects of the Works Progress Administration (WPA) that put Americans back to work. In addition to the Federal Writers' Project (FWP), the projects included the Federal Art Project, the Federal Music Project, the Federal Theater Project and the Historical Records Survey.
The New Mexico Federal Writers' Project was officially launched on August 2, 1935, under the direction of poet and writer Ina Sizer Cassidy. Between October, 1935, and August, 1939, a cadre of field writers wrote stories, collected articles, conducted interviews and transposed documents for the public record. Although each of the 48 states across the nation launched their own Federal Writers' Project, New Mexico was seen as geographically and culturally unique. From his office in Washington, DC, the national director of the Federal Writers' Project, Henry G. Alsberg, urged New Mexico project writers to emphasize the state's visual, scenic and human interest subjects in the project's guide, New Mexico: A Guide to the Colorful State. "Try to make the readers see the white midsummer haze, the dust that rises in unpaved New Mexican streets, the slithery red earth roads of winter, the purple shadows of later afternoon, the brilliant yellow of autumn foliage against brilliant blue skies . . . ," he urged.
New Mexico field writers apparently felt a similar enthusiasm, for they recorded New Mexico's vivid lore and scenic locale in thousands of documents to preserve the state's colorful past for future generations. Their subjects ranged from the colonial New Mexico days of the 1600s and 1700s to the beginnings of the 1900s--from horse-drawn cart to car! Their many lively selections included first hand oral accounts and remembrances by settlers and residents who were alive during New Mexico's Territorial times and "lived to tell the story."
The NMFWP field writers plumbed the local resources in four prescribed areas of New Mexico, as follows: District One: Taos, Colfax, Union, Harding, Quay, Guadalupe, San Miguel, and Mora counties; District Two: Curry, Roosevelt, Lea, Eddy, Otero, Lincoln, De Baca, and Chaves counties; District Three: Santa Fe, Rio Arriba, San Juan, McKinley, Valencia, Bernalillo, and Sandoval counties; District Four: Socorro, Dona Ana, Luna, Hidalgo, Grant, Catron, and Sierra counties.
Although parts of the state were more heavily weighted with field writers than others, taken together their subject areas included Native American lore and accounts of encounters with Anglos; Hispano folklore; trails and settlement; the Mexican Revolution and Pancho Villa's raid on Columbus, New Mexico as well as detailed descriptions of the state's geography and demography, landmarks, and travel routes.
In 1939, under the WPA's reorganization, the New Mexico Federal Writers' Project became the Writers' Program. By that time, Aileen O'Bryan Nussbaum had replaced Ina Sizer Cassidy as director. In Washington, DC, Charles Ethrige Minton supervised the New Mexico Writers Program until its closure in 1943. Through its tenure, the New Mexico program produced Calendar of Events written by project writers and illustrated by Federal New Mexico Art Project artists as well as Over the Turquoise Trail and The Turquoise Trail, two anthologies of New Mexican poems, stories, and folklore. A major achievement of the FWP was an American Guide Series publication entitled New Mexico: A Guide to the Colorful State, first published in 1940.
NMFWP field workers had a treasure trove of sources to draw from and they mined them well: Old-timers with a colorful heritage and culture and those who entered the territory as early explorers; diarists and journalists; poets and artists; miners, ranchers and cowboys; farmers and merchants; lawmen and outlaws; anthropologists and folklorists--all the many travelers, paso por aquî, who animate New Mexico history.
The efforts of the NMFWP field workers have left us a rich compilation of documents stored in various collections in New Mexico, including the New Mexico State Archives and museum and university collections. The Library of Congress in Washington, DC also holds copies of many of the manuscripts. Now, with the New Mexico Federal Writers' Project book series, seventy-five years after FDR launched the New Deal, a substantial number of these readings have found their way out of archival folders and into print for the public's interest and enjoyment.