The Discovery of Gold
The boom and bust of mining in the late 1800s gave rise to numerous tent cities and mining towns across New Mexico, including White Oaks, a gold mining town located twelve miles northeast of Carrizozo. White Oaks was known as one of the liveliest towns in the New Mexico territory in the 1880s. It was an amalgamation of commerce, culture and cattle rustling.
A man named John Wilson, allegedly an escapee from a Texas prison, discovered gold in the Jicarilla Mountains in 1879. Wilson had no interest in lingering to mine for gold so he told two friends, Jack Winters and Harry Baxter. This was the Old West’s version of winning the lottery. They were ecstatic. Wilson moved on, leaving his find to his friends.
Baxter and Winters established two claims, the Homestake Mine and the South Homestake Mine. Both mines were profitable. After a few years of mining, Baxter and Winters sold their claims for $300,000 each. Later, the mountain associated with those claims was named after Baxter.
Word of a rich vein of gold spread rapidly across the territory. Miners arrived daily, eager to strike it rich. Virtually overnight the mining camp became a tent city, with a post office and a newspaper established by 1880. The community was named after the white oaks that surrounded a nearby spring. A stage line was established quickly, linking White Oaks to Fort Stanton, Roswell and other settlements in the region.
With enormous wealth flowing out of the mines, the town grew rapidly throughout the 1880s. It became the second largest town in the territory behind Santa Fe within a few years, with notable differences in architecture and demographic. Whereas Santa Fe’s history is tied to Spanish colonialism and Puebloan influence, with plazas and adobe, White Oaks was settled after the Mexican American war, with a population of Anglo miners and settlers streaming in from the east. Homes were built with pitched roofs instead of the traditional flat roofs of the southwest, including a couple of magnificent Victorian homes that attest to the wealth of that bygone era.
Cultural Hub of Southeastern New Mexico
The 1880 U.S. census reflected a population of about eight hundred. The population tripled by 1890, reaching a peak of 2,500. During its heyday, White Oaks sustained fifty businesses, including four newspapers, two hotels, three churches, a sawmill, a bank, an opera house, livery stables, drama clubs, literary societies, as well as the obligatory saloons, brothels, and gambling houses. It was quite the cultural hub in an otherwise rough and rugged region, attracting ranchers, miners, lawyers and outlaws. There were so many legal disputes over claims in the 1880s that the number of lawyers was almost equal to the number of miners. Later, legal disputes played a role in the demise of the town as litigation over mining claims became commonplace and costly in the 1890s.
White Oak’s culture and wealth was reflected in its architecture. On the main street into town, White Oaks Avenue, the Exchange Bank Building, also known as the Hewett Building, still stands, though it is a shadow of its former glory. The stone façade was stripped decades ago to build a private residence. North of the bank, a large two-story schoolhouse remains. The school is much larger than most of the one room or two room schools found in early frontier town. There are four large classrooms, two upstairs and two downstairs. Just beyond the school, the Gumm family, who owned the sawmills and a woodworking factory, built a large wooden Victorian.
In 1887, Watt Hoyle, one of the owners of the Old Abe Mine, the largest, most profitable mine in White Oaks, built a magnificent two-story Victorian brick home for his fiancée south of main street. The home cost between $40,000 and $70,000, an exorbitant amount at that time. By comparison White Oak’s impressive schoolhouse only cost $10,000. However, his fiancée never arrived. She wrote him a “Dear Watt” letter letting him know that she wasn’t coming to White Oaks. The mansion, with its stately gables and widow’s walk encircling a sharply pitched roof, became known as “Hoyle’s folly.” Hoyle lived in the house with his older brother and his wife until he sold the home in the 1890’s and moved to Denver. The Hoyle house and Gumm house are similar, because the Gumms used the floorplan from the Hoyle house…in reverse.
With its brothels and casinos, White Oaks was like a resort town on the frontier, attracting notable personalities from the Old West, including Pat Garrett, Shotgun John Collins, and the infamous William H. Bonney (aka Billy the Kid). With the prevalence of ranching in Lincoln county in the late 1800s, the town became a haven for cattle rustlers.
Billy the Kid
Billy the Kid visited White Oaks several times during his brief life, often involving run ins with the law. He hung out with a group of roughnecks that frequently stole cattle from ranches around White Oaks.
In November, 1880, after venturing into White Oaks to sell stolen cattle and to steal supplies, Billy and his friends were run out of town, with a posse of thirty men in pursuit. The chase culiminated in a standoff. Deputy Sheriff Jim Carlyle was killed while trying to negotiate with the fugitives and a reward was placed on Billy the Kid’s head. However, after a newspaper in Las Vegas published an account of the standoff, referencing Billy as the leader of a gang of outlaws, Billy wrote a letter to Governor Lew Wallace offering his version of the encounter.
Billy claimed that he and his friends were in a ranch house when a posse, led by Deputy Carlyle, surrounded it. Deputy Carlyle entered the house alone, demanding they surrender. Billy asked to see a warrant for their arrest and Carlyle admitted that he didn’t have one. Billy refused to surrender and he ordered Carlyle to remain in the house to keep the posse from attacking. The posse sent Billy a note demanding Carlyle’s release and threatening to kill Billy’s friend, Mr. Greathouse. One of Carlyle’s posse fired a shot at the house and Carlyle tried to jump out the window to escape. Unfortunately, his posse shot and killed him; however, Billy and his friends escaped unscathed in the melee.
Pat Garrett, who later killed Billy, was the sheriff of Lincoln County in the early 1880s. The day that Billy escaped from the Lincoln County jail in 1881, he was in White Oaks buying lumber to build a scaffold to hang him.
Like most mining towns, there were numerous saloons and brothels capitalizing on the gold extracted from the nearby mountains. In White Oaks that stretch of town was called “Hogtown.” Bars, casinos, and dance halls lined the road.
The most famous faro dealer in the casinos of White Oaks was Belle La Mar, aka Madame Varnish. Originally from Missouri, La Mar made a fortune in White Oaks, a mining camp dominated by men hungry for female companionship. She established the Little Casino Saloon, where she dealt faro, roulette and poker. A lot of the gold extracted from the mines around town ended up in her pockets. She earned her nickname because the miners said she was as “slick as varnish.” Though many miners lost their hard-earned gold gambling with Belle, her saloon was the most popular in town. The Star Saloon and Opera House were also popular establishments amongst the miners.
Susan McSween Barber
Another notable resident of White Oaks was Susan McSween Barber, widow of Alexander McSween, who was killed during the Lincoln County War. She had moved to Lincoln with her husband in 1875. He initially worked for James J. Dolan. Dolan had a monopoly on dry good and cattle in Lincoln County, the largest county in the country at that time. He had exclusive contracts with the military forts in the region, controlled most of the banks, and knew the judges personally.
Dolan acquired cattle from rustlers, but there wasn’t anything anyone could do about it. Lincoln County was essentially his personal fiefdom. He had the government contracts and a monopoly on merchandise and financing for farmers and ranchers. Dolan and his allies were aggressive towards anyone who dared to compete with him personally or professionally. His faction became known as “The House.”
Lincoln County War
When Englishman John Tunstall arrived in Lincoln and opened a competing store in 1876 with the backing of John Chisum. Alexander McSween quit Dolan’s operation and became Tunstall’s business partner. Conflict erupted immediately, with both sides rallying law men, business men and outlaws to support their cause. Dolan’s allies ambushed and murdered Tunstall in February, 1878. Several of Tunstall’s cowhands witnessed the murder, including Richard Brewer and Billy the Kid.
Tunstall’s employees, friends and allies formed a group known as the Regulators to avenge his murder. Sheriff Brady died in a shootout with a group of Regulators that included Billy the Kid in April, 1878. A 5-day shootout occurred between the two factions. On the final day Alexander McSween attempted to surrender. Despite being unarmed, he was shot and killed.
Susan McSween hired an attorney to press charges and to assist in negotiations with Governor Lew Wallace to procure amnesty for the Regulators. Due to the corruption in the territory at the time, she was unsuccessful and all of the participants, including Dolan, were acquitted or escaped. Susan received financial help from John Tunstall’s family in England and served as the executor of his estate.
She remarried George Barber in 1880. He had worked for John Chisum, the famous cattle man responsible for the Chisum trail. Chisum gave them 40 cattle as a wedding gift. Susan later divorced Barber, she took over 1158 acres of land bordering the Mescalero Apache Indian Reservation, the Three Rivers Ranch, southwest of White Oaks. By 1890 she had over 5000 head of cattle. By 1895 her ranch holdings were some of the largest in the territory. Between the cattle and a small vein of silver on her property she became extremely wealthy. She sold her ranch and moved to White Oaks in 1902, where she remained until her death in 1931.
By 1885, most of the unsavory characters had left White Oaks or had been chased out of town. The rowdy mining camp became a community of (mostly) law-abiding citizens; however, tragedy struck in July, 1891. A fire broke out at the South Homestake Mine, killing two miners. Mining continued at both the Homestake Mines for an additional 5 years until the vein gave out in 1890.
At the time, White Oaks was home to about two thousand people. Though there were other mining operations, including the Robert E. Lee, the Smuggler, the Rita, Lady Godive, Little Mack, Silver Cliff, Miners Cabin and other small, individual claims, but none of them generated the wealth of the Homestake Mines. The community was totally reliant on ore extraction. Fortunately, it was saved when another mine, called the “Old Abe” was developed. The Old Abe was the most profitable mine in White Oak’s brief history, employing forty men and boosting the town’s population to its peak of 2,500
A fire in the Old Abe Mine claimed 8 lives in March, 1895; however, the mining continued until the early 1900s when the market for precious metals began to decline. In 1907 the gold market collapsed, wiping out most of the gold mining towns in the region. White Oaks, with a burgeoning business district, might have survived the collapse were it not for the arrogance and greed of local merchants and lawyers.
45-50 tons of gold ore was extracted daily from the mines around White Oaks. Collectively the mines yielded $20 million dollars of gold and other minerals.
Rebuffing the Railroad
In the late 1890s the Santa Fe and the El Paso-Northeastern railroads planned to extend the railroad to White Oaks. Prominent businessmen in town attempted to charge outrageous prices for right-of-way. They were convinced that the companies would engage in a bidding war for the honor of laying track through their community. They overestimated their power and influence in the region, blind to the impact the railroad would have on the town’s fate. The El Paso and Northeastern line was built 12 miles west of town, through Carrizozo. When the mining production waned and the gold market collapsed, the population of White Oaks dissipated. By 1910 there were about 200 residents remaining.
White Oaks is still home to a small handful of residents. In 1970, White Oaks was listed on the National Register of Historic Places as a historic district. Many of the original buildings are still intact, including Brown’s Store, the Hoyle House, the Gumm house, the school and several smaller homes. One of the old saloons is still open: The No ScumAllowed Saloon, named one of American Cowboy Magazine’s “Best Cowboy Bars in the West.” Based on observation this saloon is more popular with bikers than cowboys these days.
If you decide to visit White Oaks, consider stopping at the Cedarvale Cemetery to pay your respects to several people who were an important part of New Mexico history, including John Wilson, one of the original discoverers of the gold strike, and William C. McDonald, once a White Oaks surveyor and later the first New Mexico governor after statehood. Susan McSween Barber is also buried there, though they misspelled her name on the gravestone.
There are additional ghost towns in the area. An unpaved forest road leads northwest out of White Oaks. The circuitous dirt road weaves through the mountains, passing through the ghost towns of Jicarillo and Ancho. The road is well maintained and can be traversed in most vehicles.