BUZZARD BRAINS

“He ain’t got the brains God gave a buzzard,” the old man grumbled. He picked up his mattock and glared at the black-hatted figure retreating down the bottom of Humbug Gulch toward Elizabethtown. Then he looked uphill, toward Baldy Peak. “Idiot can’t even figure out there’s a storm up there and this gully likely t’wash out in another half hour.” He sniffed disdainfully and went back to work, breaking rock on the gully’s southern lip, searching for the gold that was bound to be there if a man worked the stones long enough.

The young man in the black bowler hat chewed thoughtfully on his lower lip as he trudged down the center of the gulch through the gravel and broken rock. He’d offered every dollar he had for the claim, but the miner clearly wasn’t interested in selling. He shook his head. There must be other options.

Halfway down the gulch, he paused to catch his breath and gaze at the mountain above. That dark cloud spoke rain. Given the southeast position of the cloud and the angle of the gulch, it was unlikely that particular cloudburst would wet this particular gully. However, just to be on the safe side, he moved halfway up the gully’s north slope before he continued his downward trek.

The sun was glaringly bright on the dry rocks. The young man sat down on a large sandstone boulder and took off his hat. He brushed at the dust on the black felt and shook his head. He needed to find something lighter weight and less apt to show dust. He’d keep wearing this in the meantime, though. If nothing else, it protected him from sunstroke. He glanced down at the shadowed side of his rocky seat and grinned. Like this boulder was protecting that bit of grass, growing here among the pitiless rocks where no plant had a right to be.

The young man’s eyes narrowed and he leaned forward. He shaded the clump of grass with his hat and peered down at it and the rocks around it. Then he straightened abruptly, glanced up the gully where the miner had gone back to work, and slid off the boulder. He crouched beside the big rock and gently pried a piece of broken quartz from the ground. He turned it slowly back and forth, examining every facet and seam.

Five minutes later, the young man sat back on his heels and turned the rock again, just to be certain. Then he picked up a stick and poked around a bit in the ground beside the boulder. He nodded thoughtfully, then stood and looked carefully at the gulch’s rocky slopes for any sign of possession. But this piece of land clearly hadn’t been claimed. Apparently, no one had thought there was gold this far down Humbug Gulch.

The young man chuckled, tucked the piece of quartz into his pocket, clapped his dusty black hat on his head, and headed into Elizabethtown to file the necessary paperwork for his claim.

from Old One Eye Pete

Troops Save Gold Miner From Etown Mob

On Thursday, April 9, 1868, gold prospector William “Wall” W. Henderson killed a man in Humbug Gulch east of Elizabethtown, New Mexico Territory. Being a law-abiding man, Henderson went to Etown to turn himself into the authorities. The authorities seem to have been fairly weak at the time, because a mob of about eighty men threatened to take matters into their own hands. Fortunately, a messenger was able to reach the Fort Union cavalry troops stationed thirty miles away at Maxwell’s Ranch (today’s Cimarron) in time to request assistance.

April 9 illustration.Humbug Gulch Map
Source: 1889 Sectional map of Colfax & Mora Counties, New Mexico Territory

A sergeant and ten men travelled up Cimarron canyon overnight to reach Elizabethtown early the next morning and disperse the mob. They took Henderson back to Maxwell’s, out of harm’s way, and the miners went back to work. In fact, things calmed so much that Henderson returned to Elizabethtown and went back to mining. He was still there the following year, when he served as a member of the petit jury during the Colfax County District Court’s 1869 Spring session. And he did well financially. By the summer of 1870, Henderson had amassed $5,000 in real estate.

That year, he also stood security for Charles Kennedy’s bond to appear before the Fall Court response to embezzlement and assault charges. Ironically, Kennedy himself would be lynched by an Etown mob later that fall, following accusations that he’d killed and robbed a series of men at his cabin about ten miles south of Humbug Gulch.

Sources: Fort Union and the Frontier Army in the Southwest, Leo E. Oliva, Southwest Cultural Resources Center, National Park Service, 1993; 1870 Colfax County Census, Etown precinct; New Mexico Territory District 1 Court Records, 1869 through 1870.

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