Travel the back roads of New Mexico and it’s amazing what you can find.
Recently my daughter Maya and I took a day trip to the northeastern tip of New Mexico, for a meeting I had in Clayton.
Then we returned to our hometown of Las Vegas by way of Folsom, Capulin and Raton.
Clayton, our planned destination for the day, is the Union County seat with about 2,500 people populating it. A few minutes before and after my meeting with Terry Martin, head honcho at the Union County Leader, Maya and I looked around and were impressed with how wide the residential streets are, how green the lawns and how laid- back the environment — at least on that particular summer afternoon.
The town grew up along the Cimarron Cutoff of the Santa Fe Trail and has an abiding relationship with the livestock industry, with lush (when not in a drought) fields that now include the Kiowa National Grasslands.
While I was in my meeting, Maya visited the Herzstein Memorial Museum, where she learned about Thomas “Black Jack” Ketchum, a cowboy-turned-criminal who got himself hanged in 1901 for an attempted train robbery. My daughter is not quite as passionate about history as is her old man, so I was impressed with her enthusiasm in telling me about Ketchum and some of the relics in the museum she visited.
From there, we drove to Folsom and visited the museum there. We saw old photographs of Ketchum’s hanging, along with his decapitated body (his head reportedly snapped off with the hanging). But that was nothing compared to Folsom’s biggest claim to fame.
Back in the 1920s, a cowboy happened upon a site where several bison had been killed several millennia earlier. The discovery included human-made artifacts, mainly tools and weapons, and archaeologists dated the kill site to sometime between 9000 and 8000 B.C. At the time of the discovery, archaeologists believed Native Americans came into North America only a couple thousands years before the Europeans, so the Folsom find was a very big deal — and still is.
What’s more, the cowboy who discovered the site was an African-American named George McJunkin, who was foreman of the Crowfoot Ranch at the time.
McJunkin was a Texas slave until age 14, when the Civil War ended. He went on to teach himself how to read and write, and to speak Spanish — and eventually became a student of archaeology and history.
Did you know that following the Civil War, thousands of freed slaves went west and became cowboys? It’s a sad commentary on our pop culture that men such as McJunkin don’t get the historical recognition they deserve. Sure, history has remembered the Buffalo Soldiers, an all-black cavalry regiment that formed in 1866, but African-Americans cut a much wider swath through the American West than we give them credit for.
We left Folsom through the fields of volcanic rock along the base of the Capulin Volcano National Monument, now a mountain that you can drive up and then walk around its rim. We didn’t stop there, but we have before — and it’s an impressive a site to see.
We hit Raton a little before 5 p.m., and I just had to go by the old Raton Range newspaper building, where we peeked in the windows to see that the old press has been removed. Sold for scrap, a former worker who happened to be next door told me. It’s sad to see an operation where “the first draft of history” was written for decades is now fading into history itself. Moreover, its demise is indicative of the economic struggle this former mining town is experiencing right now.
As we left this city of about 6,500 people, Maya and I discussed how New Mexico is so incredibly rich in geography and history. And this was just the northeastern corner of the state!
New Mexico is known worldwide for a few things: Billy the Kid, the Roswell UFO incident, the development of the first atomic bomb. But there are so many other things — the dinosaur museum in Tucumcari; the cave dweller ruins in the Bandelier and the Gila; the petroglyphs in and around Albuquerque — and most people have no idea they’re there.
What’s really unfortunate is how many New Mexicans don’t even know what’s in their own backyards.
So go ahead and explore your state; you’ll be glad you did. Just treat it with the respect that all its gems deserve.
Tom McDonald is editor of the New Mexico Community News Exchange and owner-manager of Gazette Media Services. He may be reached at email@example.com.