AS LEGEND GOES . . .
George McJunkin (1851 – 1922) Afro-American Cowboy, Buffalo Hunter, Bronc Rider, & Amateur Archaeologist Discovers Folsom Site in 1908
The Folsom Point Embedded in Bison Bones sited at Wild Horse Arroyo, near Folsom, NM
By Matt Doherty
Early Years in Texas
As legend goes, George’s father purchased his freedom after the Civil War working as a blacksmith and raising mules for the freighters that hauled buffalo hide east from the Indian country. George eagerly learned horseback riding and roping from the “vaqueros” (Spanish for cowboys) who stayed behind. After the war ended, an abundance of cattle were left roaming Texas. The cattle multiplied to nearly 5 million head in the absence of men, who were away fighting. Cowboys would gather the cattle and drive them north to the railheads to be shipped to big cities in the east where they were slaughtered for meat.
At night George snuck off to the river listening to cowboy stories around the campfire circle. These trail drives followed the Chisom Trail, driving the longhorns north to Abilene, Kansas. George dreamed of the freedom of being a cowboy and noted, “that the black cowboys were treated like people – like equals. Men who had been slaves were riding away from slave country.” (Black Cowboy by Franklin Folsom) In early spring of 1867, George gathered up two ropes, an extra pair of wool pants and stuffed a couple of pieces of cornbread into a gunnysack while he headed barefooted down the dirt road. Stopping at the first house after sunup, George requests “tell (my family) I’m going to be a cowboy and look for schooling.”
Heading to Far Off Places
Not long after George returned home from his first cattle drive to Abilene, Kansas, Gideon Roberts sees George make an outstanding bronc ride on a big gray mare and offers him a wrangler job. Roberts is driving 700 horses across the Comanche controlled staked plains of west Texas to New Mexico to sell on the Santa Fe Trail. George takes him up on his offer and off they go. The men spend the winter in Palo Duro Canyon in West Texas where they build a cabin and spend the days rounding up more horses for the herd.
Besides as legend goes, one day George, all alone in the canyon, hears the sound of thundering hooves. A group of Comanche Indians were stealing all of the horses. In the frenzy George’s horse saddle broke loose and joined the stampeding mustangs. The Indians rode up to George, realizing he was unarmed, one laughed at him and said, “Black Mexican can walk now.” They held their rifles over their heads, spun the ponies around and rode off after the newly acquired herd. Discouraged but thankful to be alive, the men started the long task of reassembling the herd.
The Heart of Hi Lo Country*
Once the herd reached the original numbers before the Indian raid, they headed out for New Mexico. Upon arriving in the Hi Low Country* of northeastern New Mexico, George instantly fell in love with the Dry Cimarron Valley or the Seco Cimarron River, as the Spanish sheepherders called it. George climbed up the slopes of Capulin Mountain, an extinct volcano that jetted out of the landscape like an enormous anthill to take in spectacular view of the valley. The green meadows full of wild Iris that nestled the juniper-tree blanketed mesa reminded him of the ‘Promised Land’ in the Bible. At this time, the only inhabitants of this part of New Mexico were Spanish sheepherders, and two of the areas first cattlemen, Carlitos Cornay and Candido Archuleta. Both men had come to the area with the Dutch outfit and soon became two of George’s closest friends. George spent his days exploring the river and following the horses has they grazed on the open range.
Very few pioneers traveled along The Cimarron cut off of the Santa Fe Trail as most stayed on the main route. Following Charles Goodnight and the thousands of longhorns, Roberts had George drive the horses over Trinchera Pass into Colorado where they set up the first horse ranch a few miles east of Trinidad. The ranch was located on the Purgatory River near the Mountain branch of the Santa Fe Trail. From this better location Roberts sold his horses as fast as George could break them and it wasn’t long before a Roberts’ horses trained by George were a highly sought after commodity.
(*Hi Lo Country – ranchlands celebrated in Max Evans’s 1961 classic movie The Hi Lo Country, this area laces through both routes of the Santa Fe Trail where they entered New Mexico. Evans’s fictional town of Hi Lo was based on Des Moines with a dash of Springer, New Mexico.)
Cattle Ranches and Brands: The “101”
On one of his supply runs, George bought a fiddle as he often played fiddle and guitar at the old Trinchera Plaza. Serenading his friends when he wasn’t taking reading and writing lessons from Gideon Roberts sons Emmett and Coke, was his favorite pastime. As George’s reputation grew he was requested to help with the round up at the “101 Ranch” near no man’s land where Oklahoma joined New Mexico territory down on the Dry Cimarron River. After the round up was over, Ben Smith, foreman of the 101 Ranch asked George if he would like a job working for Dr. Thomas Owen, formerly the first mayor of Trinidad and partner of the 101 Ranch. The doctor was starting a new place at Hereford Park. George didn’t hesitate knowing the doctor raised some of the best horses in that part of the west. This ranch, located at the headwaters of the Dry Cimarron, in George’s beloved promised land.
George soon found himself with the Doctor and his brother, John, burying three sacks of gold from the sale of the cattle George had trailed up from Texas to Hereford Park. The three men were worried that the Coe Gang, who operated out of no man’s land, had heard of the sale and would surely be looking for the gold. George guarded the gold until the following spring when they returned to purchase more cattle. George’s responsibilities grew as Dr. Owen spent more time away from Hereford Park. He oversaw the crew of men that built the big house and barn and would teach the Doctor’s sons, Tom and Ben, the art of bronc-riding. He rewarded them with a new pair of spurs just as he did for the Roberts boys and the many others that he taught to ride over the years. On night, Dr. Owen told George that this would be the last round up before they fenced in the open range and that George was to be his wagon boss.
Reluctantly, George assumed the job of managing 20 cowboys, 2000 head of cattle and 200 head of horses. Dr. Owen reassured him he was the best cowboy in New Mexico and there wasn’t another man better suited for the job. It didn’t take long to earn the respect of the other Texas cowboys, who initially resented working for a black man. In the fall of 1889, George and 14 cowboys from the Cross L, Pitchfork and the “101” were caught in a 10 day blizzard on the roundup outside of Clayton. The storm was so severe it wiped out most of the 1200 head of steers and the Pitchforks entire 200 head remuda. If it weren’t for George taking control on the third day and leading them to the Bramlett Ranch, the cows would’ve met the same fate.
Foreman of the Crowfoot Ranch -1989
Two years after the blizzard, Dr. Owen asked George to hitch up the buggy and take him into Folsom to meet the train. This would be their last ride together. George helped him on the train and the doctor said “Thank you, thank you! I know you’ll take good care of things.” With that the train pulled out and his friend and teacher was dead before he arrived in Trinidad. George then assumed the challenge to be the father figure for Tom and Ben who were too young to run the ranch alone. George caught the eye of neighbor, Bill Jack’s, owner of the Crowfoot Ranch a mile upriver and soon found himself managing the 8000-acre spread.
End of the Outlaws
One evening, as legend goes, George was riding back to the Crowfoot from Folsom, when he came upon a camp of strange men. After visiting with them, George grew suspicious. The next day he learned his suspicions were right. A train had been robbed between Folsom and Des Moines, the Ketchum Gang members of the Wild Bunch had made off with a large sum of gold and silver. McJunkin took Sheriff George Titsworth to the spot where he had seen the men camping where they found a note shredded into pieces. They took the pieces back to Folsom in reassembled the letter. Titsworth concluded that they were headed for Cimarron, NM. Loading the posse on the train and cut the outlaws off in Turkey Canyon near Cimarron. A shoot out commenced that left Sheriff Ed Farr dead. Two of the outlaws, Sam Ketchum and Elza Lay, were both shot. Ketchum died in the New Mexico State penitentiary of his wounds and Elza Lay apprehended a short time later. This is marked the beginning of the end for the Wild Bunch and Ketchum gang whose members often rode together.
George McJunkin’s greatest achievement arises out of the worst natural catastrophe the Dry Cimarron Valley had ever seen. On August 27, 1908 a thunderstorm dropped fourteen inches of rain on Johnson Mesa just above the Crowfoot. The flood decimated the town of Folsom and eroded the valley. After the flood, George surveyed the damage. While riding up Wild Horse Arroyo he noticed some unusually large bones protruding from the bank nearly eleven feet below the surface. He got off his horse and dug out a bone, rolled it up in his slicker and took it with him. He would return to his “bone pit” as often as he could. It was on one of these visits that he found a skull of the mysterious animal. It was a buffalo but much larger than the ones he had seen on the Texas Prairie. He realizes that it must be a type of buffalo that no longer existed. Knowing he had stumbled across some thing great he took it home and placed it on his mantle above the fireplace along with the other rocks and fossils he had collected over his many years riding the valley. For the next 14 years he unsuccessfully tried to get numerous people to the site.
Fortunately, one of the men he showed it to was Carl Schwahiem, a blacksmith in Raton. George passed away in the Folsom Hotel in January 1922 never knowing the significance of his find. It was Schwacheim that was able to convince the Denver Museum of Natural History to send people down to the bone pit. The museum decided to excavate the prehistoric bones of the Bison Antiques, a species they already knew roamed North America during the last Ice Age. It was what they found during the excavation that turn the archaeological world upside down. During the dig they noticed pieces of stone that appeared to work by humans. They now begin to handle the site more delicately looking for more evidence that man played a role in the bones having come to rest in such great numbers. They soon discovered what they were looking for. Between the ribs of one of the skeletons they found a projectile point. This directly linked the death of the nearly 8000-Year-old animal to the hand of man. The projectile point would famously be known as the Folsom point and indisputably proved man inhabited North American thousands of years before scholars previously thought. George’s discovery turned out to be the greatest archaeological find of the 21st-century, changing the way archaeologists viewed the history of mankind.
“It’s a discovery that made him famous, but his courage, determination and perseverance is what is remembered about the man – a true cowboy!” So nearly 100 years after his death, George McJunkin took his rightful place at the Cowboy Hall of Fame with his fellow legends of the American West. The 2019 Western Heritage Awards induction ceremony at the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City took place on April 12-13, 2019 and honored Union County’s own – George McJunkin in the Hall of Great Westerners.
2019 WESTERN HERITAGE AWARDS INDUCTEES
Hall of Great Western Performers – Kevin Costner
Hall of Great Western Performers – Howard Keel (1919 −2004)
Hall of Great Westerners – Clark McEntire (1927 − 2014)
Hall of Great Westerners – George McJunkin (1851 − 1922)
Chester A. Reynolds Memorial Award – Dave Stamey
Lifetime Achievement Award – Michael Martin Murphey
About the Author: Matt Doherty is the son of the late John Doherty and Shirley Doherty Jeffers. Matt is restoring the Folsom Hotel and runs the family ranch with his brothers. He serves on the Folsom Museum Board of Directors.
For more information contact: www.folsommuseum.org or
The Folsom Museum
101 Main Street
Folsom, NM 88419
Phone: (575) 278-2122
Attending the April event at the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony were Abbie Reaves, Matt and Ginger Doherty, their children Hudson, and Regan, Eddie and Shirley Jeffers, Nate and Amanda green and their children Caulder, Cash and Chance, Jeff and Mary Cornay, and Maria and Mike Grange.