On Saturday, September 15, 1855, the political atmosphere of New Mexico was so tense that a group of political operatives took it upon themselves to steal the Rio Arriba County poll books at gunpoint. The poll books in question contained the county records of the recent election for New Mexico’s territorial delegate to Congress. The two candidates for the post were Jose Manuel Gallegos and Miguel Antonio Otero.
In Rio Arriba County, a Gallegos stronghold, Probate Court Clerk Ellis T. Clark was responsible for getting the vote results to Santa Fe. He stashed the records in his saddlebags and, accompanied by Territorial Attorney General Theodore Wheaton, headed south.
About 25 miles north of Santa Fe, near Pojoaque Creek, Wheaton and Clark happened to meet five men from Otero’s party. The meeting seemed innocent enough. According to the Santa Fe Weekly Gazette account of the incident, the two groups “halted and passed the usual compliments, the former not suspecting the object of the latter.” During the ensuing conversation, one of Otero’s partisans asked Clark if he had the poll books and he said he did. The men continued to chat.
Then suddenly the mood changed. As their companions pulled out six shooters, two of Otero’s friends grabbed Clark’s and Wheaton’s arms and demanded the voting records. Then one of them pilfered Clark’s saddle-bags and grabbed the books.
The thieves didn’t take off immediately. They paused long enough to explain that they planned to hold the records hostage until the votes for Otero’s home county, Valencia, were tallied. They’d heard that there were plans afoot to “disappear” the Valencia poll books and hand Gallegos the election. If Valencia’s votes were “lost”, the records for Rio Arriba would also disappear.
Then the five rode off, heading north. Clark and Wheaton continued south. They arrived in Santa Fe around 10 o’clock that night and told the Sheriff what had happened. He, Clark, and a posse immediately headed north after the thieves. A duplicate set of the Rio Arriba poll books were in Clark’s house. They figured the Otero partisans would want to acquire those as well.
They were right. In fact, when the posse arrived at Clark’s house the next day, they learned that three of the thieves had already been there. They’d tried to bully Clark’s wife into giving them the records and, when she refused, went in search of a lawman who’d force her to do what they wanted. There’s no record of who they found to play that role. When the Otero men returned to the house, the posse was waiting and the thieves were arrested.
They’d actually had good reason to be concerned about the election results. When all the votes were counted, Gallegos had won by 99 votes. However, Otero contested the results, alleging illegal activities related to the vote, and was ultimately awarded the Delegate seat. He served in that position until 1861, when he lost a re-election bid to John S. Watts.
As for the theft, the Gazette expressed its editorial sorrow “that men, in the excitement of politics, should commit acts their judgment will condemn in their sober moments,” and called for more stringent laws related to election fraud.
Ironically, we’re still expressing the same kind of sorrow and calling for the same kind of laws today. Some things never change.
Sources: Don Bullis, New Mexico, A Biographical Dictionary, 1540-1980, Vol. 1. Los Ranchos de Albuquerque: Rio Grande books, 2007; Santa Fe Weekly Gazette, September 22, 1855, page 2.