Old Times and Old Timers

by Don Bullis

New Mexico’s Old Times & Old Timers

The Rynerson-Slough Duel

There were numerous man-to-man gunfights in the Old West, although few of them were anything like the gunfights portrayed on television and in the movies. Neither was the fatal fight between William Rynerson and John Slough in December 1867 at Santa Fe.  Few agree on the details of that affair of honor.

William Logan Rynerson was born in Kentucky in 1828 and arrived in California in 1852. Ten years later he volunteered for service in the 1st California Infantry and, as a sergeant, marched off to New Mexico. The Union Army’s California Column, of which the 1st was a part, was a response to Confederate Army’s incursions into the New Mexico territory early in the Civil War. Rynerson served until 1866 and was mustered out at Mesilla, New Mexico, with the rank of captain or lieutenant colonel, depending on the source.

He chose to remain in New Mexico after the war and he invested in mining claims near the town of Pinos Altos, which was then a part of Doña Ana County. He also became interested in politics and was elected to the Territorial Legislature. Historian Marc Simmons described Rynerson as a “sensitive, combative individual who often wore his long frock coat draped over his shoulders in the style of Count Dracula.”

John P. Slough was probably born in Ohio around 1830. He moved to Denver in the 1850s and practiced law there. When the Civil War began, at the request of Colorado Governor William Gilpin, he organized the 1st Colorado Volunteers and became the regimental commander.  Slough’s troops were instrumental in turning back the Confederate invasion of New Mexico at Glorieta Pass in 1862. His military star was on the rise after that.

He traveled to Washington, D. C. where he was promoted to Brigadier General and ultimately became military governor of Alexandria, Virginia. He was a pallbearer at the funeral of President Abraham Lincoln.  President Andrew Johnson appointed him Chief Justice of the New Mexico Supreme Court after the Civil War. One observer described Slough as an “abrasive, quick-tempered, highly opinionated jurist with numerous bitter political enemies.” Another says he “had an exceptional command of abusive language, which he used masterfully and willingly against any opponent.”

Great enmity between Rynerson and Slough soon developed in Santa Fe; perhaps because they were so much alike.  Rynerson introduced a resolution in the legislature calling for the censure of Judge Slough for his lack of judicial impartiality, and he signed off on a letter to Washington demanding the Chief Justice’s recall. In response, the Judge declaimed that Rynerson was “A thief in the army, a thief out of the army, a coward and a SOB.”

Such effrontery could not be ignored.

The two men came face to face in the Exchange Hotel (or La Fonda Americana) in Santa Fe on December 17, 1867, and here is where the confusion begins.

Simmons gave this account of the affair. Slough entered the hotel and found Rynerson waiting, and the latter spoke first: “I want you to take it back!” To which Slough responded, “Take what back?”  “You called me a thief and a liar,” Rynerson rejoined. “I won’t take it back,” the Judge said. Whereupon Rynerson pulled his gun and said, “If you don’t take it back, I’ll shoot you.” Slough put his hand into his pocket and said, “Shoot and be damned!”  (Not a judicious demand.) Rynerson fired and Slough, hit in the stomach, dropped the Derringer pistol he had concealed in his pocket, and fell to the floor. He died a few minutes later.

But there are other versions. For one thing, Simmons reported that the fight took place in the hotel lobby, near the bar.  Historian Ralph Emerson Twitchell said it happened in the hotel office. Yet a third historian, Don Alberts, wrote that it happened in the hotel’s billiard room. Alberts also asserted that Slough was unarmed, and other writers, including Bob Alexander, skirted the issue. Alexander said, too, “Slough collapsed to the floor, sledgehammer dead. Rynerson pocketed his smoking six-shooter and calmly waited for the law to take its due course.” Simmons reported thus: “. . . Rynerson appeared about to fire again, but a bystander shoved him through the doors of the bar and disarmed him.”

There are two certain things about the matter: John P. Slough was dead and William L. Rynerson, clearly the killer, was subsequently acquitted of murder upon a plea of self-defense.

It would be nice to conclude the story with something positive about Rynerson, who came to be called “The Tall Sycamore of the Rio Grande,” but that is not possible.  The remainder of his public life was frequently surrounded by accusations of self-serving misdeeds and corruption. He even committed his corrupt ways to paper when, as District Attorney in Doña Ana County, he wrote a letter to members of the Riley-Dolan faction in the days leading up to the Lincoln County War: “It must be made too hot for Tunstall and his friends, the hotter the better, shake that outfit up till it shells out and squares up and then shake it out of Lincoln. You have good men about to aid Brady, and be assured I will aid you all I can.”

Four days later John Henry Tunstall was dead, murdered by members of Sheriff William Brady’s posse.

Selected Sources:

Alberts, The Battle of Glorieta

Alberts, Rebels on The Rio Grande

Alexander, Six-Guns and Single-Jacks, A History of Silver City and Southwestern New Mexico

Bryan, Santa Fe Tales & More

Bullis, New Mexico Historical Biographies, Hening, ed., George Curry 1861-1947: An Autobiography

Melzer, Buried Treasures,

Santa Fe New Mexican, January 14, 1868

Thrapp, Encyclopedia of Frontier Biography

Twitchell, Leading Facts of New Mexico History, Vol. II

Utley, High Noon in Lincoln

Wallis, Billy the Kid

Wilson, Merchants, Guns and Money

Don Bullis’ latest book, Unsolved: New Mexico’s American Valley Ranch Murders & Other Mysteries, available at www.donbullis.biz or www.NMSantos.com