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Elfego Baca and the Frisco shootout: One man against many

This Old West gunfight pitched a 19-year-old deputy sheriff against many gun-toting cowboys who exchanged 1000 rounds over 33 hours


Elfego Baca.

Photo/Public Domain

Elfego Baca (February 10, 1865 – August 27, 1945) was a gunman, lawman, lawyer and politician, who became a deputy sheriff at the age of 19. The Frisco shootout was an Old West gunfight that began on December 1, 1884, stemming from Baca’s arrest of a cowboy who had been shooting into the air and into buildings at random while intoxicated.

In October 1884, 19-year-old Elfego Baca was approached in Socorro, New Mexico, by his friend Pedro Sarracino, who was the sheriff of Lower Frisco (now Reserve, New Mexico.)

The sheriff told Baca that his community was being terrorized by a band of lawless “cowboys.”

Elfego was outraged and voiced his opinion that someone had to do something. The sheriff is said to have replied, ‘If you want the job you can have it,” and retired to the nearest saloon.

Elfego pinned on a badge, strapped on his Colt 45 and made the long ride to Frisco.

Deputy Sheriff Baca makes his first arrest

As Deputy Sheriff Baca arrived in Upper Frisco, saloon owner Bill Milligan asked for assistance. A cowboy named Charlie McCarty had shot up his place while in a drunken reverie and, by sheer luck, not killed anyone.

The deputy sheriff walked into the saloon, and disarmed and arrested McCarty. Baca shoved McCarty’s gun into his own gun belt and walked him over to the local magistrate, who was too intimidated to hear the case as McCarty worked for John B. Slaughter, whose men were known to be the rowdiest of the rowdy.

Baca took his prisoner to an adobe hut in the middle of Frisco Plaza while he considered transporting him back to Socorro for justice.

Before Baca could make that move, Slaughter, and his second-in-command, Young Parham, rode up to the adobe house on the plaza followed by about a dozen cowboys. All present had Winchesters in hand and demanded Baca hand McCarty over to them.

When this demand wasn’t met, they tried to break the door in, but it held. Baca ordered the armed mob to back off or he would fire.

Unimpressed the group made jokes about “his kind,” neither having the courage to carry through on their promise to break the door down, or the intelligence to count to three.

Baco interrupted their laughter by loudly and deliberately counting, “One, two, three!” after which he fired on the armed aggressors.

One of Elfego’s bullets hit the horse Young Parham was on. The horse reared and fell backward onto Parham, killing him, ensuring that Young Parham would not get any older.

A stand-off followed and on the next day, Baca was given free passage to take his prisoner back to Milligan’s Saloon for a proper hearing.

The prisoner was tried and fined $5.00, but he instantly demanded his pistol back.

Baca rightly sensed he was going to be the one taught a lesson, not McCarty, and quickly made his way out a side door and took refuge in the home of Geronimo Armija.

Baca warned Armija and his neighbors to clear out and they did. The home was made out of cedar and adobe, which offered little protection, but the floor inside was dug about a foot and a half lower than the outside, turning the entire residence into a large fortified foxhole.

Deputy Sheriff Baca comes under siege

The numbers are disputed, but historian Jesse Wolf Hardin indicates varying accounts place the number of besiegers of the lone Deputy Baca at between 40 and 80.

The residents, who had fled the Frisco Plaza to the surrounding hill, watched in amazement at what unfolded.

The cowboys and ranchers formed a mob and made a simple plan.

A cowboy named Hearne said, “Let’s get him.” He was the first to hit the door, gun in hand. Baca fired, hitting Hearne squarely in the stomach and Hearne went down.

After these shots, volley upon volley poured into the hut that Baca held. Hour after hour he would take the fire and return fire often enough to hold back the swarm.

One gutsy cowboy who braved Baca’s fire carried an iron stove door for armor, while he assaulted the house. Baca sent him staggering back with a creased scalp.

As night rolled in the cowboys started the roof on fire, causing one wall to cave in as darkness fell.

Thinking the battle was over, the cowboys held fire until morning, when they were shocked to discover Baca nonchalantly cooking breakfast.

Deputy Ross arrives, mediates agreement

The battle began again in earnest and continued until Deputy Ross from Socorro, along with a James Cook, arrived. They mediated an agreement to take Baca to Socorro for trial.

The siege had lasted 33 hours with around 1000 rounds fired. Baca agreed to come out, but with a gun in each hand and a badge still on his chest.

The cowboys had been sufficiently bloodied by now for they did not resist the law further. Historian Jesse Wolf Hardin wrote that by one telling, two men were killed and one was wounded, and by another, four men were killed and eight wounded.

What is undisputed is that only Elfego Baca and a consecrated statue of Nuestra Senora Dona Ana emerged from the riddled house unscathed.

Ultimately Baca was acquitted of any wrongdoing after his defense attorney produced a document declaring him to be a deputy sheriff with legal authority to arrest Charlie McCarty. Also produced was the door of the hut, which had 67 bullet holes in it.

Shortly thereafter Elfego was elected Sheriff of Socorro. He avoided having to look for many wanted men, because he would send this letter to wanted persons:

“Dear Sir,

Please come in on (Date) and give yourself up. If you don’t, I’ll know you intend to resist arrest and will feel justified in shooting you on sight, when I come after you.

Yours truly,

Sheriff Elfego Baca.”

Most wanted suspects turned themselves in on the date provided.

During Sheriff Elfego Baca’s long life he wore many hats. In the Southwest, however, he will be remembered as that 19-year-old law man who could have done nothing and risked nothing, but chose instead to risk everything, pin on a badge and take a principled stand as just one man against many…and he prevailed.

Lt. Dan Marcou is an internationally-recognized police trainer who was a highly-decorated police officer with 33 years of full-time law enforcement experience. Marcou’s awards include Police Officer of the Year, SWAT Officer of the Year, Humanitarian of the Year and Domestic Violence Officer of the Year. Upon retiring, Lt. Marcou began writing. Additional awards Lt. Marcou received were 15 departmental citations (his department’s highest award), two Chief’s Superior Achievement Awards and the Distinguished Service Medal for his response to an active shooter. He is a co-author of “Street Survival II, Tactics for Deadly Encounters,” which is now available. His novels, “The Calling, the Making of a Veteran Cop,” “SWAT, Blue Knights in Black Armor,” “Nobody’s Heroes” and Destiny of Heroes,” as well as his latest non-fiction offering, “Law Dogs, Great Cops in American History,” are all available at Amazon. Dan is a member of the Police1 Editorial Advisory Board.