Old Times and Old Timers

Dick Rogers, Gunfighter.  

Not much is known about gunfighter Dick Rogers, and that is probably because his career didn’t last long. He did manage to get himself involved in a couple of violent confrontations in Colfax County, New Mexico in the mid 1880s.

That was the time of the so-called Maxwell Grant troubles, early in 1885. The “troubles” stemmed from a dispute between those who supported the Maxwell Land Grant Company in its efforts to dispossess “squatters” who had taken up residence on company property¹ over the years, and those who supported the unauthorized settlers. The Company, to bolster its position, brought in a well-known gunman named Jim Masterson from Dodge City, Kansas, by way of Trinidad, Colorado, to head up a company of “Malitia.”² Supported by Territorial Governor Lionel Sheldon, Masterson was authorized to raise a force of 35 gunmen for the purpose of serving ejection orders that local officers refused to enforce. Militia Company “H” was made up of “gunmen, killers, thugs and bums from places outside of New Mexico.”

Masterson and his group seem to have gone about their work with a little too much enthusiasm. A petition was soon circulated condemning the actions of the militia, and a group of prominent citizens took the train to Santa Fe for the purpose of “interviewing” the Governor. When faced with a bit of political pressure, Sheldon backed down and disbanded the militia unit on March 1, 1885. Masterson was in Cimarron when he received word that he was out of work. He and some of his cohorts rode back to Raton where they proceeded to set upon some of the petition signers, including Mr. D. F. Stevens, Chairman of the Board of County Commissioners.

Feelings ran high in Raton. A vigilante group made up of settlers and cowboys as well as local citizens was organized. Dick Rogers was elected captain. One source describes him as “a fearless cowboy” and another as “a daring young cow puncher.” A third was not quite as charitable. He said this: “[Rogers was] a nasty Texan who had reportedly laid at least four men to rest within the [previous] year.” Yet another source called Rogers an “outlaw-vigilante.” It seems likely that the reason he was elected captain was that the previous January, he and some of his friends were able get the drop on Masterson and some of his friends in a Raton saloon. It is said that Rogers made Masterson dance by shooting holes in the floorboards at Masterson’s feet.

With the vigilantes in place, Masterson and some of his friends holed up in the Moulton Hotel. A young fellow named George Curry³ had lived in Dodge City as a boy and was casually acquainted with Jim Masterson. He arranged for a peaceful resolution. All of Masterson’s men were rounded up, fed a noon meal, and marched — that is to say escorted by 300 vigilantes — to the Colorado state line. They were ordered to never return to New Mexico. Curry said later that he believed that none of them ever did.

But the violence was not over. John Dodds, a cowboy from the Cow Creek outfit and a member of the vigilantes, rode into Springer, the Colfax County Seat, on March 15, to get a load of corn. He ran into deputy sheriff Jesse Lee, former member of Company “H” and they exchanged words. Later in the day Dodds got drunk and shot up the town and got into an altercation with a constable named Carter. He was arrested and plead guilty to disturbing the peace. He paid a fine and started for home with his load of corn.

Lee and Carter overtook Dodds a mile from town and attempted to arrest him for assault on Carter. He drove them off with gunfire, but decided to return to Springer on his own. The first thing he did was send a wire to Dick Rogers in Raton. Jesse Lee then arrested him. Dick Rogers hurried to Springer, rounding up John Curry (George’s younger brother), Red River Tom Whealington and Bob Lee (no relation to Jesse) at the Cow Creek ranch, along the way.

Jesse Lee received word that Rogers meant to “deliver” Dodds from custody, and he and other deputies forted up in the courthouse. A deputy U. S. Marshal named Jack Williams thought he might help avoid violence by negotiating with Jesse Lee. Williams and Dick Rogers approached the courthouse. Lee and deputies Kimberly and Hixenbaugh immediately opened fire, killing Rogers instantly. Red River Tom rode up on his horse in an effort to get to Rogers, and Jesse Lee killed him, too. John Curry rushed forward, rifle in hand, and Lee shot him down. He died the next morning. Gunfire aimed at the courthouse became general, but no one inside was injured.

The army had to be called into Springer before order could be restored, and this incident marked the highpoint of violence in the Maxwell Grant troubles.

Dick Rogers was 28 years old at the time of his death. He probably was a native of Texas. One source claims that he participated in the Lincoln County War five or six years earlier, but highly regarded sources on that event make no mention of him. Neither do many other sources, but then, he wasn’t around long. Gunfighting was a dangerous business.

¹ The Maxwell Land Grant in northeastern New Mexico, at its peak, covered 1,714,764 acres, or 2,679 square miles. The State of Rhode Island, by comparison, covers 1,545 square miles.
² Jim was the younger brother of Bat and Ed Masterson. One source says he was Colfax County Undersheriff at the time of these events. Many sources skip this entire incident, preferring to show Jim in the good-guy mode. He died at age 40 of “quick consumption.”
³ Curry served as territorial governor (1907-1910) and became New Mexico’s first congressman after statehood in 1912.