A Death in Mesilla

The quaint little town of Mesilla, or La Mesilla as it was called at the time of its founding, started its life in 1852 on the Mesilla Civil Colony Grant that was intended to provide a Mexican refuge for those settlers of the Mesilla valley who did not want to live in the United States. The Gadsden Purchase dashed their hopes to remain in Mexico but the town soon prospered into the major settlement of southern New Mexico. One of its leading citizens was Robert P. Kelley, who owned, singly or in partnership, a number of businesses and mining properties and advertised his services as a surveyor: “I have thirteen years of experience as a Deputy Surveyor and use only the solar compass.” That was late in 1861, only days before his blood would soak into the dust of Mesilla.       

John W. Garretson was the first, and in October 1857 Robert P. Kelley became the second deputy surveyor to be employed by Surveyor General Pelham of the New Mexico land office. Under his contract, and a second one in April 1858, Kelley surveyed townships along the Principal Meridian from south of San Antonio to north of Albuquerque. In 1859 he had a contract to survey in the Las Vegas area. In the fall of 1860, in an air laden with talks of secession, he became a co-founder of the first New Mexico newspaper south of Santa Fe, the pro-southern Mesilla Times. A monument to local pride, the four-paged sheet left no doubt as to its political sympathies, for listed as the place of publication was “Mesilla, Arizona Territory.”

Frustrated by Congressional inaction, the “Territory of Arizona” had been proclaimed in April that year at a convention held in Tucson by delegates from thirteen towns in the Gadsden Purchase and was to include all of New Mexico south of 33 degrees 40 minutes. Kelley had become “Territorial Surveyor General” and quickly published a map of his new domain.

Mesilla was a town of some 3,000 inhabitants when on August 1st, 1861 it became capital of the Confederate Territory of Arizona, of which Lt. Colonel John Robert Baylor of the 2nd Texas Mounted Rifles was the self-appointed military governor. With an army of only about 450 men to which he had added some two hundred local militias, Baylor knew that he sooner or later would have to face a numerically superior Union army. His appeals to Richmond for re-enforcements had fallen on deaf ears, and while he had reported that: ”I shall do all in my power to hold the Territory against all odds,” when he heard that Union forces were gathering against him in California, he nervously made plans to abandon the Mesilla Valley and fall back on Fort Bliss or Fort Davis.

The pro-Confederate Kelley was fuming. From the beginning he had harbored an intense dislike for Baylor, and in a scathing editorial in his Mesilla Times he now accused him of cowardice. Kelley’s articles had irritated Baylor for some time and he demanded an apology. When Kelley refused the Colonel decided that it was time to silence his nagging pen.

It was two o’clock in the morning on December 12, 1861 and the feast of the Virgin of Guadalupe. Midnight mass had been held and people were celebrating in the plaza when Baylor met Kelley by chance on Main Street. There are several versions of what happened next. There may or may not have been an angry exchange of words or other provocation but Baylor swung a rifle and brought it crashing down on Kelley’s head, knocking him to the ground. The stunning blow had Kelley struggling to get back on his feet, and in the attempt he managed to get his hands on a knife he carried in his pockets. The two men wrestled. With his free left hand Baylor drew his revolver, cocking it on his thigh. “Throw the knife down!” he shouted, and when Kelley failed to do so Baylor pulled the trigger. The bullet ripped through Kelley’s jaw and neck and Baylor left him for dead. Kelley lived long enough to publish his own version of the attack, but the wound continued to bleed and he died on New Year’s Day 1862. After his death, and probably as a result of it, the Mesilla Times folded.

Robert P. Kelley’s name is also associated with one of the earliest land scams in New Mexico. In 1858 he met Sylvester Mowry, a prominent Arizona politician and mine developer. Learning of Mowry’s high standing among investors, Kelley participated in a scheme to establish and promote a place christened Mowry City, located near present Faywood about 25 miles north of Deming. The promotional literature showed steamboats plowing the waves of what in reality were dry arroyos. For a time the gold mines in not too distant Pinos Altos drew miners to Mowry City, but by the time of the Civil War the scheme had run its course and Mowry City returned to the dust from which it had sprung. –

– Now a few tid-bits about Kelley’s former employer. The reader may recall from past columns that William Pelham had resigned as surveyor general of New Mexico on August 29, 1860 and had left Santa Fe in the spring of 1862 in company of the retreating Texas troops. He returned to his farm at Manchaca Springs just to the south of Austin, there to spend the remaining years of his life farming and raising livestock. I found no evidence that he ever again worked as a surveyor. In his later years he was in poor health. The death in 1864 of his only son, who was serving with Terry’s Texas Rangers in the Confederate cavalry, affected him deeply and left him, characterized in a letter written by a relative, “…ruined in health, fortune & happiness.”

I have learned much about the Pelham family and in the process started to correspond with a distant relative and namesake of the surveyor general. “Bill” Pelham is a professional golfer and lives in Houston. Last October I paid him a visit. Bill is a descendant of surveyor Pelham’s brother Atkinson, father of Confederate war hero “Gallant Pelham” about whom several biographies have been written. Over dinner, Bill showed me a prized family heirloom, a varnished, knotty hickory cane with a handle consisting of an ornate golden knob. Engraved in the gold are the words “William Pelham, Surveyor General of New Mexico Territory.”

Bill knew nothing about his surveyor general kin until somebody sent him a copy of my biography of him, which contributed mightily to his appreciation of his cane. The cane came to him in a roundabout way from a nephew of surveyor Pelham. It seems that after the Civil War, and the resulting loss of his Negro slaves, William Pelham tried to farm with Mexican labor. To supervise them he called upon a brother’s son who was also named William. Surveyor Pelham died in 1879 and the cane was given to that namesake nephew in appreciation for his work on the farm. The nephew then took it to his home in Alabama, where he was killed in 1889 in a gun battle with the local sheriff, supposedly in a quarrel over a woman. The cane survived.

All that may be more than you ever wanted to know about our surveyor antepasados.