Old Times and Old Timers

by Don Bullis

New Mexico’s Old Times & Old Timers

Giovanni Maria Deagostini

Who was El Ermitaño, & Who Killed Him?

That a man who was called El Solitario or El Ermitaño lived in New Mexico around the middle years of the 19th century is certainly a fact. He was well-known in the Las Vegas area where he lived in the mountains—Hermit’s Peak near town is named for him—and in the Las Cruces/Mesilla area where he lived in a cave in the Organ Mountains east of town.

Little about him can be stated with much certainty.

The problems begin with his name. Some writers asserted it was Giovanni Maria Deagostini; others have insisted that it is correctly d’Agostini or Marie Augustine, or Juan Bautista Agustiniani, and several others. Folks couldn’t even agree on a sobriquet. Some preferred El Solitario (the solitary or lonely one) while others referred to him as El Ermitaño (the hermit). Historian Arthur L. Campa, who examined the entire matter of his life and death, wrote, “It has never been strictly determined what his actual name was….”

He was said to have been born in northern Italy, but there is a question as to exactly where. Compa wrote that according to one of his sources El Ermitaño “. . .  was born in the Province of Novara in Lombardy. There is no Province of Novara, but there is a village by that name in Piedmont, which is next to Lombardy.” Historian Daniel Aranda states that El Ermitaño was born in “Lombardia.”

Again, there are questions about his up-bringing and education. One source stated that as a young man he rejected the riotous living in which his father engaged in favor of the Church and a quiet life. Before he could complete his religious education, though, he became infatuated with a young woman and succumbed to earthly desire. Whatever became of that relationship is not reported, but at some point after it ended—if indeed there ever was such an assignation—he swore to devote his life to penance, service to humanity, and personal solitude. Somewhere along the way, he also became disillusioned with the Catholic Church and turned away from much church doctrine.

Some sources aver that he began his life of wandering by about 1827, and that his travels took him various places in Europe, before he arrived in Venezuela, South America, in 1838. After further travels which took him back to Europe and then to Central America and Mexico he found himself in Council Grove, Kansas, where in May 1863 he met Manuel Romero y Baca, a Santa Fe trader, who was about to embark on a trip to New Mexico over the Santa Fe Trail. El Ermitaño accompanied the wagon train, but did not ride. He walked to Las Vegas.

Over the years, el Ermitaño is said to have learned a great deal about healing, and he applied that knowledge to the folks in Las Vegas who needed his attention. He did not perform miracles, nor did he pretend to. A local man, Hipólito Baca, said this: “People say that he performed miracles, but that isn’t so. He was a religious man, but since he did not believe in the sacraments he could not have been given the power to perform miracles. All the Hermit ever wanted was to live in solitude.”

One day, unceremoniously, he announced that he’d be leaving shortly, and he did, even though his followers beseeched him not to abandon them. He said that Mexico beckoned him. He arrived in Mesilla, New Mexico, in 1867, perhaps as a part of another wagon train.

One source reported that he went south at the behest of Colonel Albert Jennings Fountain of Mesilla. Yet another reported that El Ermitaño left Las Vegas and traveled south to seek legal counsel from Col. Fountain. And as El Ermitaño’s story came to a tragic conclusion, it is said that Col. Fountain played a major part. And there is more. One historian wrote: “In the spring of 1867, the Hermit arrived in Old Mesilla and presented himself to Colonel Albert J. Fountain, with whom he arranged a system of signal fires [to be lit each Friday evening, as long as he was alive]. He then retired to a retreat in the Organ Mountains. In April 1869, no signal fires were seen. A search party found the anchorite’s body with a dagger thrust in his back.” One source even reported that Col. Fountain organized the posse which investigated the death of the Hermit.

Because so many historians and other writers make reference to a relationship between El Ermitaño and Fountain it seems likely that they were at least acquainted; but how did that come to pass?

Albert Jennings Fountain arrived in New Mexico’s Rio Grande Valley with the California Column in August 1862. He remained active in military pursuits in southern New Mexico until he was wounded in an Indian ambush in June 1865 and went to El Paso, Texas, to recover. Back on his feet, he commenced a law practice in Texas, and became active in Republican politics there. He was elected to the Texas State Senate and became president of that body. He and his family remained in Texas until December 1873 when he returned to Mesilla.

The point is, of course, that Fountain did not reside in Mesilla during the time that El Ermitaño resided east of the town. Not only that, the notion that Fountain was among those who found the Hermit’s body in 1869 is disputed by historian Daniel Aranda who noted that the party that discovered the old man missing included Mariano Barela, Antonio Garcia, Pedro Onopa and Rodrigo Ruelas. No mention is made of Fountain.

So, how did El Ermitaño and Fountain meet?

Several sources mention that El Ermitaño spent some time in West Texas, in the El Paso area, before he settled into his cave in the Organ Mountains, so it is possible that the two men met there in the late 1860s. It is also possible that Don Manuel Romero y Baca of Las Vegas, who was earlier acquainted with Fountain, provided el Ermitaño with an introduction to the colonel.

However they met, the Fountain family came into possession of what few personal effects El Ermitaño left behind. But it is of passing note that three of Fountain’s biographers—Gordon R. Owen, A. M. Gibson and Dan Thrapp—make no mention of any relationship between the colonel and El Ermitaño.

And what of the Hermit’s death on or about April 17th of 1869? More mystery.  One source reported that the group mentioned above only found that the old man was not present at his cave; that his body was found later by a sheepherder. Another reported that his body was found inside his cave, dressed only in underwear and stabbed in the back with a dagger. Yet others stated that searchers found his body some distance from his cave, pierced with arrows. Some believed that he was killed by Apaches; others think he was slain by robbers. Local legend held that a man called El Indio Chacón did the foul deed, or, failing that, a priest named Manuel Chávez was the guilty party. No one was ever convicted of the crime.

Deagostini is interred at Mesilla and his personal effects are housed at the Gadsden Museum there.

Selected sources:
Aranda, Daniel, “Western Lore,” Wild West, October 2006
Aranda, Daniel, “A Reflection on the Enigmatic Hermit,” Southern New Mexico Historical Review, January 2007
Don Bullis, New Mexico Historical Biographies
Thomas E. Chávez, An Illustrated History of New Mexico (Photograph)
Fugate & Fugate, Roadside History of New Mexico
Elizabeth Ann Galligan, “El Solitario: The Man Who Lived in Caves,” Voices of New Mexico, Too
A. M. Gibson, The Life and Death of Colonel Albert Jennings Fountain
Robert Julyan, The Place Names of New Mexico
Gordon R. Owen, The Two Alberts: Fountain and Fall
David Pike, Roadside New Mexico
Dan Thrapp, Encyclopedia of Frontier Biography
Weigle & White, The Lore of New Mexico