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Capt. Joseph Calloway Lea


Captain Joseph Calloway Lea, known throughout New Mexico as the father of Roswell, had a most interesting life. He was born in Cleveland, Tennessee, on November 8, 1841. His father, Dr. Pleasant John Graves Lea, was also a native of Tennessee, of Virginia ancestry. The Captain's mother, Lucinda Calloway Lea, was from the North and of Yankee background. The Leas are descendants of one of three brothers who came from England to America in the early days. The orthography of the name was changed, one branch using the spelling Leigh another Lee, and the one from which the Captain is descended, Lea. In 1847 Dr. Lea moved with his wife, seven children and slaves to Jackson County, Missouri, where he became the owner of a fine farm, containing about 1000 acres. He was one of the first settlers to make his home on the Kansas border on the high land back from the unhealthful Missouri River. There he farmed and practiced medicine. The town of Lee's Summit was named for him, but in later years the Missouri Pacific Railroad twisted the name and the spelling was never corrected. Joe Lea, the one we are discussing, attended the neighborhood school, with his four brothers and two sisters and his three cousins, Cole, Bob and Jim Younger, who lived on an adjoining farm. Joe Lea had finished the common school course before he and his brothers, Tom, Frank and Alf, went across the plains to Colorado, in 1860. On this trip he was in charge of a large train of freight wagons. It was quite a trying experience for a young man of nineteen, as it was his first business venture and the Indians were numerous along the route. In Colorado he engaged in freighting, lumbering and prospecting. His life was not at all monotonous, for the many Arapahoes and Cheyennes in that country seemed to take a great interest in prospectors and miners. While in that country he visited Denver and Boulder, which were then mere shanty towns. Finally he settled on a ranch, where he remained until he was called home because of the death of his father, in the spring of 1862. During Joe Lea's two years absence from home, old factional animosities between the abolitionists of Kansas and the slave holders in Missouri had burst into a bloody sectional border war. Jayhawkers and Redlegs from Jim Lane's army of Lawrence, Kansas, viciously attacked the settlements in western Missouri, raiding and looting, carrying off negroes and stock, burning farm homes, and even hanging and killing old men. With the Missourians retaliating in kind, conditions around Lee's Summit had so deteriorated that Mrs. Lea and her two daughters had long since left Missouri for the safety of her parents' home in the North. Dr. Lea's life then became almost intolerable. Until the Civil War had cleft Missouri into two factions, Dr. Lea, a prominent physician of the community, was held in high esteem by all. The fact that Mrs. Lea was a Yankee made him suspect among the Southern sympathizers of that section, and because of his birth and being a slave holder he was Southern to all others. One night, in the spring of 1862, a band of Kansas Redlegs appeared at his front gate, ostensibly to ask road directions. They called for him to come out; and as he stepped through the door, they shot him down without provocation, killed the only slave remaining on the place, and left the house in flames, after looting all the furniture. In spite of what they found on their return from Colorado, Frank and Joe Lea, who were then eighteen and twenty years respectively, hoped to remain neutral. But it was impossible to do so, because the Northern sympathizers in that part of the country regarded them as Rebels. One day, as the two Lea boys were gathering corn in their father's field, a squad of Kansas border soldiers came along and arrested them. The next day they found themselves being lined up with eighteen others before a firing squad. They recognized the officer in charge as a boyhood friend. When he stepped in front of them he whispered, "You both duck and run like hell." In the confusion that followed, the Lea boys escaped. They soon found refuge in Quantrill's guerilla band. There they were welcomed by many neighborhood friends, including John Jarrette, Frank James and their three cousins, Cole, Bob and Jim Younger. They had all seen homes burned and close kin murdered by outlaw bands of Kansas Jayhawkers. Soon, Joe Lea's every passion became subservient to that of revenge. He quickly completed the school of the bushwhacker and evolved a seasoned guerilla fighter; and under Quantrill, the greatest of all guerilla chieftains, he became a fearless leader of bushmen. He possessed extraordinary resources and cunning. From Quantrill he learned to count the cost of everything, figure the odds, retreat often rather than fight and be worsted, but always to strike back with fury, fight desperately and kill everything. In 1863 Quantrill with 448 men retaliated against excesses committed by the Kansas forces by burning 185 buildings and killing 140 people of Lawrence, Kansas. Because 6000 Federal Troops were hot on his trail, he disbanded his guerillas for the winter and retired behind the Confederate lines into Louisiana, with 150 of his men. General Kirby Smith, commanding the Rebel army in Louisiana, soon notified the guerilla band that they could not join his army, nor would they be allowed to remain in Louisiana. Quantrill withdrew into Texas and set up winter camp on Mineral Creek, some fifteen miles northwest of the town of Sherman. At this camp dissension arose and the disintegration of the guerilla band began. The headquarters of the Louisiana state government was then at Shreveport and Henry W. Allen was the chief executive. He heard of Kirby Smith's refusal to allow the men of Quantrill's command to become soldiers in the regular army or remain in the state and he sent for them himself and requested they join the state scouting service and be under his immediate control. Quantrill declined the invitation, but a number of his followers, among them John Jarette, Frank and Jesse James and the Younger Brothers, accepted the offer of Governor Allen. This group elected as their captain one of their number, Joseph C. Lea. Captain Lea was a young man as desperate as any. He knew nothing of fear and had been in many a close encounter on the Kansas border. He was a powerful man, well over six feet tall, built from the ground up, had a wild dashing air that always distinguished him in any company, and had a face altogether more pleasing than disagreeable. The place of rendezvous for this company of state scouts was Carroll Parish, about twenty-five miles from the Mississippi River, directly across from Vicksburg. Before the war this country had been in a high state of cultivation, but the neglect of the river levees had made it subject to inundations. For many miles in every direction much of the land was covered with water a great portion of the year. A good class of people lived there. Many of them had been wealthy planters and the owners of a large number of slaves. It was one of the richest portions of the state, being in the center of the great cotton belt of the South. Captain Lea and his followers had no trouble finding friends and abettors, and that too, among the most respectable people of the community. There were two little towns in the parish, Floyd and Delhi. At these two hamlets and in their vicinity the guerillas made their homes. They came and went without let or hindrance, and were always full of money. Joe Lea, Frank and Jesse James and John Jarrett stopped with a planter named Dickson. He, above all others of the parish, was confidential friend of the guerillas. They were all active, well built men, of that dashing, reckless air that captures the hearts of women. They kept the community in a state of perpetual excitement and enthusiasm. They made sad havoc among wives and maidens. While Lea's men were resting between forays, it was one round of revelry. Every night there was a party or ball at the house of some planter. The guerillas were the lions of all these occasions. They sported the most gaudy dress, flourished the finest pistols and rode the finest horses. They were the only heroes the people there could have with them. To the negroes they were a terror. In fact, they were supreme in the mastery of Carroll Parish. As was the fashion with the Missouri guerillas, they dressed in Federal uniforms whenever they were on one of their frequent raids behind the enemy lines. By waylaying Federal supply trains and couriers servicing front line troops, they kept the lines of communication and supply in a constant state of fear and turmoil. The Yankees could not tell friend from foe, and thus disguised Lea and his raiders decoyed hundreds of Yankee soldiers into the jaws of death. They would completely wipe out the enemy, taking his money and horses. They kept on hand at all times a large supply of government mules, harness, wagons and various sorts of military supplies. There was no quarter given and certain death if captured. Captain Lea was well known to the Union army operating in Louisiana, Mississippi, Arkansas and Tennessee, and was the subject of frequent Federal dispatches between the General Headquarters of New Orleans and Memphis. The first message to be found of record was dispatched to General Davis who was then occupying Morgan's Ferry, Louisiana. Hq. U. S. Forces Morganza, La. October 20, 1864 . . . . I am informed that a Captain Lee, with 100 men of Quantrill's band, dressed in Federal uniforms, has made application to the officer commanding confederate forces at Simsport [La.] to be permitted to cross to this side of the Atchafalaya. He refused permission and threatened to fire on them in case they should attempt to cross, as General Smith and the Confederate authorities regard them as outlaws. If you capture any of these men and trouble the commissary for rations for them I shall certainly quarrel with you. M. K. Lawler Brig. Gen., Commanding That following day General Lawler sent a similar message to General Headquarters at New Orleans warning that Captain Lea might strike the river lower down. But Lea, who possessed the same extraordinary resources and cunning of his former leader, did not turn up where the enemy most suspected. He had learned to travel a multitude of long roads rather than a short one once too often. He was next reported across the Mississippi River deep behind the enemy lines northeast of Vicksburg. Hq. Mil Div. of Mississippi Office of the Chief Signal Officer New Orleans, La. Nov. 25, 1864 Lt. Col. C. T. Christiensen, Asst. Adjutant General, Military Division of W. Mississippi, New Orleans, La. . . . . Captain Lee (guerilla) was at Trinity, on Black River with 500 men, mostly deserters from Harrison's Brigade, and paroled prisoners. . . . A.M. Jackson, 2nd Lt. Signal Corps, U. S. Army. On this foray, Lea no doubt troubled the Federal commissary and made himself felt in other ways, because on December 21st Major General E. R. S. Camby, commanding at New Orleans, sent a somewhat urgent request to Major General N. J. T. Dana, at Memphis, Tennessee: Sir: I wish you as soon as possible to organize an expedition for the purpose of driving off the guerilla and partisan bands under Harrison and Lee that now infest the upper parishes of Louisiana between the Washita and Mississippi Rivers, and desire that you will organize a force for that purpose as soon as possible. If you need it, some cavalry can be sent to you from the Department of the Gulf. General Reynolds will be instructed to make a demonstration from Pine Bluff [Arkansas] to distract the attention of the rebels from your movement. You can communicate directly with General Reynolds and arrange the time of your operation. General Dana, commanding the Department of Mississippi with headquarters at Memphis, replied on December 28th. I have the honor to acknowledge the receipt of the cipher dispatch of the Major General commanding the division, dated 21st inst. As is already known to him, all the cavalry of this command is absent, and I consider it necessary to wait its return before making the expedition spoken of, both for the force required and the officers to command it. In my opinion, to make a thorough work, 2000 or 2500 cavalry will be required, and as that now absent will probably be well used up on its return, I ought to be supplied with 1000 effective re-enforcements. I would recommend that that number be held in readiness for my call, but not sent here until called for, as it is better they should not ascend the river higher than the point where it is decided to rendezvous and make a landing. I have been contemplating a movement in that district since early October, but the necessary detachments of force frm Vicksburg and Natchez to General Reynolds in that month, and the expeditions against the Mississippi Central and Mobile and Ohio Railroads have unavoidably delayed it. I can easily drive Harrison and Lee almost anywhere, but they will immediately return on our retirement. I will at once communicate with General Reynolds on the subject, and will notify him in full of my plans when I am ready to act. . . . . It is hard to say whether General Dana carried out his expedition against Lea, but if he was supplied with the required cavalry it may well be assumed that he did. If he did attempt the expedition, it did no good, because Lea, who was accustomed to being driven from the flanks of one column, only to appear in the rear of another was still in the field for two months after General Lee's surrender to Grant at Appomattox on April 9, 1865. Captain Lea's value as a fearless field commander was finally recognized by General Kirby Smith who gave him a battlefield promotion to full colonel in the Confederate Army in the early months of 1864. But to those who accompanied him on numbers of gallant charges and to his close and personal friends, he was always known affectionately as Captain Lea. While the clouds of war were hovering over the remnants of the Confederacy, still holding out in Louisiana and Texas, General Shelby and General Kirby Smith asked Lea to go with them and make a union with Maximilian in Mexico. But Captain Lea, who had suffered all manner of hardships, had been tried in the most trying places, and who had not cared much whether he lived or died, had seen all he wanted of war. Unlike some of his contemporaries who had learned to live on plunder, he took off his side arms, and was never again known to wear a gun. Thomas Calloway, a Yankee uncle, soon interceded for Captain Lea, through his personal friendship with President Andrew Johnson and secured for the Captain a full pardon for his part in the rebellion. And from that moment on he dedicated his life to the support of law and order and good will toward his fellow man. Lea soon left Louisiana for Georgia where he obtained a quarter interest in the contract to rebuild the Georgia and Central Railroad, which had been destroyed by Sherman on his march to the sea. In 1867 he married Mrs. Douglas Burbridge, but her death some four years later left him a widower. He became engaged in cotton planting in Mississippi and in 1875 he married the daughter of Major W. W. Wildy of Yazoo County. Soon thereafter they moved to Colfax County, New Mexico, where Lea went into the sheep and cattle business and a son, Wildy, was born. In the fall of 1877, Captain Lea with his family and entourage, consisting of employees and sheep and cattle, drifted his flocks into the Pecos Valley, and by the following year he had acquired the two adobe buildings and several hundred acres of land that comprised the town of Roswell, Lincoln County, New Mexico. Lincoln County was the largest, most isolated and wildest county in the United States in 1877. Although the arrival of Captain Lea happened to fall just a few days before the killing of John H. Turnstall that triggered the Lincoln County War, in which Billy the Kid figured so prominently, he refused from the start to be drawn into the feud. He is said to have announced to both groups of belligerents that when he felt like doing any fighting, he would do it on his own hook—in the meanwhile they could settle their difficulties to suit themselves. Such a positive declaration enabled him to preserve neutrality throughout the months of confusion and excitement of the Lincoln County War. Captain Lea was not content with the feuding and fighting that was going on in the Lincoln section of the county and he did what he could to end the strife. He realized that if the feud was not checked and order restored Lincoln County could never be developed. The prospects had been dismaying, but he was of the stuff that sticks it out no matter what the difficulties. It did not daunt him that John Chisum, who had been the mainstay of the Pecos Valley in a business way, had determined to leave for a more peaceful location. Captain Lea's mind was fully made up to develop Roswell, his privately owned community, into what might be an example of law and order to the surrounding country, which had an utter disregard for law or life. With the withdrawal of Chisum, he naturally assumed the position of leadership. He sent for Billy the Kid, the most notorious outlaw of the region, and said to him in no uncertain terms, "Bonney, if I ever catch you here in Roswell cutting up any of your capers, I'll take my Winchester and fill you full of holes." Billy the Kid laughed and replied, "All right Cap'in, I'll sure leave this place alone. I promise you I won't cut up any capers in your Roswell." And the Kid kept his word. Shortly thereafter a drunken cowboy knifed a man in front of Captain Lea's store. He was promptly arrested and brought before a Justice of the Peace, who fined him $2.50. This is the first instance of record of law being enforced in the Pecos Valley. During the late summer and early fall of 1878, Lincoln County was in an even more desperate plight, than when the Lincoln County War was in its most active state. Where there had been two factions, each with some claim to acting in behalf of law and order, now appeared several aggregations of outlaws and desperate characters, roaming at will over the country and making no pretense to motives other than a selfish greed and a desire to fatten off the spoils. The Mexican communities especially suffered at the hands of these terrorizers. The result was that the entire country became panic stricken. Whether it was Captain Lea's reputation that he had tried to leave behind the Yankee lines, or his warm and friendly smile that was backed up by steel gray eyes that a gunman couldn't face, the many outlaw gangs that had assumed command of southeastern New Mexico left Lea and his town strictly alone. The outlaws and professional rustlers, however, were in full charge of the country, even to the outskirts of the Captain's little cowtown village. They were driving off sizeable bunches of cattle, holding up the stage from Las Vegas and robbing the United States mail. Even Captain Lea had been held up in his buckboard and had his Winchester taken from him. Captain Lea, however, was determined to see this thing out. He was an ambitious man with unlimited vision. To Lea it was clear that the day was coming when Roswell would be a booming railroad town and fortunes would be made there by men of courage and imagination. The pictures that he tried to paint were hard to visualize, because, first, there must be some semblance of peace and order. It was Captain Lea's inducement that brought Pat Garrett into Lincoln County and got him to take up valuable land near Roswell. This made it possible for the Roswell section to furnish the county with a useful and successful candidate for the office of sheriff. During his term of office, Pat Garett and his deputy, John W. Poe, who succeeded him in office, shot and killed Billy the Kid and killed, captured, or ran out of Lincoln County the backbone of the lawless element. Captain Lea's character and reputation throughout Lincoln County had made for him a host of friends. Lea, now a county commissioner, an influential merchant at Roswell and a successful cattleman, had become practically the new boss of the county. Leaving his store in the hands of Ash Upson, the postmaster at Roswell, he spent much of his time locating water rights and expanding his cattle business. With the coming of the big cattle boom of the early Eighties, Lea interested H. K. Thurber in joining him in carving out a cattle empire in New Mexico. Thurber, a wealthy New York wholesale grocer, steamship owner, and owner of the Thurber-Arbuckle Coffee Company, was a man of seemingly unlimited means. Together they organized the Lea Cattle Company, in which Mr. Thurber invested $500,000 in cattle and put up $250,000 to secure further lands with water rights. Under the management of Captain Lea they were running between thirty and fifty thousand cattle west of the Pecos to include the Capitan Mountains and many miles to the west. On a cattle buying trip to Texas in 1885, Captain Lea became fascinated with a young widow, who was known throughout that state as the Cattle Queen of Texas. Mrs. Mabel Day was the only unattached woman in the entire state who ran cattle on a large spread and could talk the language of cattle kings. She owned and operated the largest ranch ever to be put under fence in Coleman County. Captain Lea pressed his case for four years and finally in 1889 they were married. Mrs. Mabel Day Lea left her ranch in charge of her brother, Will Doss, and with her nine year old daughter, Willie Day, moved to Roswell. Mrs. Lea arrived in Lincoln County at a point which might be considered the beginning of the colonization period of the Pecos Valley. Roswell was still nothing but a cow trail with six houses on what was called main street, with about six more scattered about the prairie, with nothing but trails connecting. However, things were beginning to develop in the Pecos Valley. Lincoln County was still the largest and most isolated county in the United States. It was over 200 miles from corner to corner and still contained some of the wildest of the west. But the railroad, which had reached Pecos and El Paso, was building from the former city toward Roswell. Some of the Captain's dreams had begun to materialize. Charles Eddy, man of nerve and imagination, the type that Captain Lea had spoken of, had thrown up a tent city, to be later known as Carlsbad, in the path of the oncoming railroad. He was strictly an idea man, an incurable promoter, who for the next twenty years was to be identified with men willing to pour millions of risk capital into his many irrigation, mining and railroad schemes, which eventually were to make him a millionaire. Charles Eddy had a great respect and admiration for Captain Lea. He confided in a letter to Mrs. Lea before her marriage: I am confident that your life here will be a happy one, for Captain Lea is one of the best men I ever knew. His character and reputation is excelled by none. He is very kind hearted, liberal and generous to a fault, extremely popular and has a host of friends. He is a large land owner in Lincoln County and stands as high as any man in the Territory among business men. When the Leas arrived in Roswell, horse drawn graders were marking off the streets surveyed out by the Captain's brother, Alfred E. Lea, who was the founder of Steamboat Springs, Colorado. Nothing else had happened in Roswell, but things were at a turning point. In Bancroft's History of New Mexico, published in 1889, the only reference to Roswell was: "Roswell is regarded as the prospective site of an important agricultural center." The magic through which this might be accomplished seemed to be irrigation. Several irrigation companies were organized to take the waters from the mountains to the west flowing through the Hondo, but it was not until the discovery of artesian water, in January 1891, that Bancroft's predictions became a reality. When Mrs. Lea, who was a graduate of Hocker Female College of Lexington, Kentucky, set up housekeeping in the original adobe house of Roswell, there was not a public school in operation in the entire Territory of New Mexico. Captain and Mrs. Lea, who were absent from Roswell much of their time during the fall of 1889, looking after their seperate interests, expressed a growing concern for the education of their three children, Willie Day, Wildy and Ella Lea. During the Christmas holidays of 1890, Mrs. Lea persuaded Colonel Robert S. Goss, Commandant of Cadets of Fort Worth University, to come to Roswell to look over the prospects of organizing a military school there, with the idea in mind of providing some form of adequate schooling for the Territory. After much persuasion and financial backing of Captain Lea and other interested parties in Roswell and the surrounding territory, Colonel Goss started Goss Military Institute in the other original adobe house in Roswell on September 3, 1891. This was the beginning of what is now New Mexico Military Institute. This school became one of Captain Lea's obsessions and he was continued as regent of the school until his death. Captain Lea's ambition for Roswell as a great railroad point was finally reached on October 10, 1894, when with great celebration the train arrived there. Southeastern New Mexico during this period had experienced a phenomenal growth. Captain Lea, who had "led the home builders to Roswell" had seen hundreds of families settle in the Pecos Valley to take up newly developed irrigated farm lands. Up until 1898 Captain Lea and the other eighteen cow outfits that were running over thirty thousand head, plus countless other smaller operators up and down the Pecos Valley, had survived their ups and downs. But in that year something happened that is still known as the big "die out" along the Pecos River. Everybody was wiped out by blizzard and drouth. H. K. Thurber's cattle empire folded with the drouth and the accompanying money panic. Captain Lea's empire collapsed with that of H. K. Thurber and he withdrew, as he had done many times under Yankee attack, this time to the bounds of his original holdings at Roswell. These would yet make him rich, so thought the Captain. With the repeated efforts of the Hondo irrigation project and the artesian discoveries, to put the Pecos Valley under water, Roswell and its territory continued to grow. The settlers that continued to flow into the Pecos Valley were of Anglo-Saxon origin and a good class of people that were to develop a culture of their own. By 1990 Roswell was boasting a population of 2000 and felt itself ready to become a city. In 1903 it assumed the status of a municipality and held its first city election. The Father of Roswell, Captain J. C. Lea, was elected mayor. In his only campaign speech he said, "I would rather be elected the mayor of Roswell, than be the governor of New Mexico." The people of Roswell still love Captain Lea. A county was named for him. At New Mexico Military Institute they have a Lea Hall. And though when Captain Lea died in 1904, he only had one dollar in the bank, because his banker would not let him over draw, he still owned the town of Roswell and still resides there in the memories of many people. James T. Padgitt, West Texas Historical Association Year Book, October, 1959

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