Old Times and Old Timers

by Don Bullis

New Mexico’s Old Times & Old Timers

The Saga of Seven Rivers

One source claims that cowboys settled around Seven Rivers at the time of the Civil War (1861-65). Another claims the town was established in 1867 when a man named Dick Reed opened a trading post there, and competitor Sam Samson opened a mercantile near-by. Yet another says it was settled by “Ma and Pa Jones” who arrived from Virginia in an ox cart in 1870. It does seem certain that there was a community there by 1870, although the post office was not established until 1877.

The original settlement, about 15 miles north of present-day Carlsbad, was called Dogtown because of the prairie dog villages in the area. At some point, probably around 1877, it was renamed Seven Rivers because of the seven streams (arroyos) that drained into the Pecos River. In 1883, the whole town moved about a mile west of the original location and came to be called Henpeck. No source identifies the source of that name. One source also reports that the place was called Ashland at one time or another, but offers no elaboration. It was also called White City, after a rancher in the area (this White City should not be confused with the White’s City located in southern Eddy County, near Carlsbad Cavern National Park). Finally, though, the place came to be called Seven Rivers, before it disappeared from the face of the earth.

Seven Rivers was a cow town in the classical sense. It was located along the Goodnight-Loving cattle trail, and became an important stop for cowboys tending transient herds bound for Fort Sumner, New Mexico, and the gold camps of Colorado and the grasslands of Wyoming and Montana. The trail itself was named for Charles Goodnight and Oliver Loving who sought to take advantage of cattle prices that were higher in the Rocky Mountain west than they were in Texas. The trail began at Red Fork on the Brazos River in Central Texas, then northwest to the Pecos River and north to Seven Rivers and on to Fort Sumner where it broke into four different trails that continued north to four separate destinations.

Seven Rivers was also surrounded by large cattle ranching operations. The southern boundary of the famed Chisum Ranch was nearby. By 1875, Chisum claimed to run 80,000 head of cattle and employ 100 cowboys. Also nearby was the Holt Cattle Company which was much smaller with only about 8,000 head. The Eddy Brothers also ranched in the area.

Seven Rivers was originally located in Lincoln County (Eddy County was not created until 1889) but played virtually no part in the Lincoln County War (1878-81). Many residents participated in the violence, however. They were mostly outlaws who referred to themselves as the “Seven Rivers Men,” the “Banditti” or simply as “the Boys.” Led by Jesse Evans, they were fond of stealing cattle, particularly that belonging to John Chisum, and then selling the livestock to L. G. Murphy, the economic dictator of Lincoln County. When Murphy needed gunmen to do his bidding, he called on Evans and The Boys. Members of that bunch murdered John Tunstall in February 1878.

Isolation made the town ideal for outlaws. There were no other towns around—Eddy, later Carlsbad, was not established until 1888—and it was 125 miles to the county seat at Lincoln. There was no rail or stage service, so if the trip was made, it was done on horseback or by use of horse-drawn conveyance.

A census of Lincoln County communities conducted in 1885 showed that Seven Rivers was home to about 300 people (most of “The Boys” were dead or in jail by then). There was no church, but predictably enough, several saloons. One of the latter establishments boasted “a door with easy hinges.” That is, a door which could be easily removed and used to bear the body of someone too fast with his mouth and too slow with his gun. In that same year, Les Dow, Eddy County’s ill-fated sheriff who was murdered by former sheriff Dave Kemp in 1897, opened a saloon in Seven Rivers.

The Seven Rivers town site was flooded by waters of the Pecos when Brantley Dam was constructed in the 1980s.1 Because of that, the cemetery was exhumed and the remains removed to Twin Oaks Memorial Park north of Artesia. Before being re-interred, the skeletons were studied by forensic experts. Newspapers and court documents were also studied.  All of this provides an interesting picture of life in old Seven Rivers.

Here is what one source says about study:

“Bullet or knife fragments were found in the bodies of ten of fourteen men in the 18 to 45 age group. Two had knives still in place, a third had a knife wound in the head. Although many men may have died with their boots on, none was buried in his boots.  In those days, boots were too expensive to waste by burial in a grave.”

Among the residents of the graveyard was K. S. Keith who was killed by Indians who then cut off his right leg above the knee. No reason is given for the amputation. John Northern was shot dead in the saloon where he worked. William Johnson was murdered with a shotgun, by his father-in-law, because he mentioned that he had been a Union man during the Civil War.

There were 14 children in the cemetery under the age of two. Their deaths were attributed to scarlet fever, diphtheria, measles, croup and other disorders considered relatively minor today. One family lost four members, grandmother, mother and two children, to dysentery, the result of bad drinking water.

One other point on the complexion of the Seven Rivers area: Texans dominated it. Chism, Dow, Goodnight, Kemp, Loving, and Evans were all Texans. Many Texans had a propensity for unceremoniously taking what they wanted and what they wanted most was land. It didn’t matter that people who had acquired land under Mexican or Spanish rule already owned it.  The Texans held that the “Mexicans” were without rights.

So, if you were Anglo, you were allowed to live in Seven Rivers. If you survived infancy, and avoided being shot or stabbed as an adult, you might live 45 or 50 years.  There was no place to worship, but plenty of places to drink.

There does not appear to have been much to recommend life in Seven Rivers, New Mexico.

1 The dam was originally built in 1893, but was destroyed by a major flood.  Reconstructed in 1906, it was incapable of holding back major floods because of silt buildup. Money for the latest structure was approved by congress in 1972.

 

Don Bullis’ newest book, Unsolved: New Mexico’s American Valley Ranch Murders & Other Mysteries, was published in early October. It may be ordered from Rio Grande Books at www.LPDPress.com

SELECTED SOURCES: Eve Ball, Ma’am Jones of the Pecos

Beck & Haase. Historical Atlas of New MexicoFugate & Fugate, Roadside History of New Mexico

Robert Julyan. The Place Names of New Mexico

William A. Keleher. Violence in Lincoln County

David Lamb. Albuquerque Journal, May 31, 1988.

Leon Metz. Pat Garrett, The Story of A Western Lawman

T. M. Pearce. New Mexico Place Names

Dan L. Thrapp. Encyclopedia of Frontier Biography