Murder on the White Sands
The Disappearance of Albert and Henry Fountain
By Corey Recko
University of North Texas Press Copyright © 2007 Corey Recko
All rights reserved.
Albert Jennings Fountain
Born Albert Jennings on Staten Island, New York, on October 23, 1838, Albert was the son of Solomon and Catherine Jennings. The name Fountain came from his mother, who descended from a French Huguenot family named de la Fontaine, which later turned into Fountain. Why Albert took the last name Fountain is unknown. One theory is that a mysterious murder in the Jennings family caused many members to take other names. Another suggests that Albert took the Fountain name so as not to give himself away as he searched in China for his then missing father.
Fountain was educated in New York public schools and at Columbia College. It was said that during his Columbia days, at age fifteen, he and five other students went on a tour of Europe and the Far East. It was during this stage of Albert's life that his father, a sea captain, was purportedly lost at sea. In Solomon Jennings's last letter to his wife, written somewhere in the Orient, he wrote that food was running out and his crew was getting restless. He was never heard from again.
In the latter half of the 1850s, Fountain arrived in northern California. He worked various jobs until his introduction to journalism, when he took a job as a reporter for the Sacramento Union. On one of his first assignments, he was sent to Nicaragua to cover the William Walker expedition. When Fountain sent back reports that Walker planned to establish a slave-holding republic in Nicaragua, with Walker as president, Fountain was arrested and sentenced to execution by firing squad. The resourceful Fountain, disguised as a woman, slipped aboard a steamship to escape. It would not be the last time he would face death.
He spent the next two years as a clerk in a law office and passed the California State Bar. Then civil war broke out and before the young man could be certified he enlisted in the Union army. On August 26, 1861, Fountain enlisted in Company E, First California Infantry Volunteers. His service record describes him at five-foot seven and one-half inches tall, with brown hair, blue eyes, and a light complexion.
Fountain's company trained in Camp Downey near Oakland. As Fountain quickly moved up in the ranks, his company moved to southern California and then marched east. They never met Confederate forces while in Arizona and New Mexico but did battle the native Apaches.
While stationed in New Mexico, Fountain, now a sergeant, met teenaged Mariana Pérez, who on October 27, 1862, would become his wife. Albert and Mariana's first son Albert had just been born when Fountain, then a lieutenant, was discharged in 1864. Family was very important to the couple. In all, they would have ten children: Albert, Marianita, Edward (killed in 1891), Maggie, Thomas, Jack, Fannie, Henry (died in infancy), Catarina, and finally little Henry.
Amidst Indian raids in New Mexico, Fountain re-enlisted. He nearly lost his life while pursuing some uprising Navajos who had left the Bosque Reservation. He and another man, Corporal Val Sánchez, located the renegade Indians, but before they could return to Fort McRae to notify the colonel of the Indians' location, the fugitives became aware of the pair's presence. The two eventually split up and Fountain was alone when cornered in a narrow pass. His horse was killed and he was shot multiple times, with a bullet left in his thigh, an arrow in his forearm, and another arrow in his shoulder. Fountain described the last attacker who tried to get at him through the pass as "a villainous-looking fellow whose only garment was a red shirt." Fountain shot him dead as he charged. He spent the night alone, trapped under his dead horse.
Sánchez, meanwhile, had arrived at Fort McRae and Fountain was rescued early the next day. He was taken first to McRae and then to Fort Bliss, where he had the arrow removed. During Fountain's recovery, he was seen frequently in the streets of El Paso and became acquainted with the town. When healthy, he moved his wife and now two children to El Paso, where he started a law practice. He became a civic leader, joined the Free Masons (Aztec Lodge No. 130), was appointed and served as customs inspector and chief assistant to the collector of customs, was elected county surveyor, and became a leading organizer of the Republican Party in western Texas.
With the Civil War over and the Reconstruction of the South underway, President Lincoln pushed a reconstruction plan criticized by some as too soft. Following Lincoln's assassination neither his decree nor Congress's rival and far tougher Wade Davis Act was implemented as the fight over what to do with the South continued. The "radical" Republicans wanted the Confederate States to be treated the same as were conquered provinces. Andrew Johnson, the new president, adopted a plan that many thought favored the Southern planter elite, permitting them to pass "black codes" that sought to restrict the rights of freed people and restore land to former owners. As a result, Congress passed the Fourteenth Amendment, stating that persons born in the U.S., regardless of color, were U.S. citizens, and restricting a state's power to limit their rights. Congress also passed a series of Reconstruction Acts that limited state powers and set the terms of rebuilding. Fountain, now a leading Texas Republican, supported the Radical Reconstruction, or "hard-peace."
In the elections of 1869, the Radical Republicans in Texas swept all state offices from the "soft-reconstructionists," including the election of new Governor Edmund J. Davis and of Albert Fountain to the state senate. Fountain served in the Texas Senate for one four-year term. His time in the senate saw Texas readmitted into the Union in 1870. As a senator, Fountain served as majority leader and spearheaded the Frontier Protection Bill, which reactivated the Texas Rangers. During this time, he was a founder of St. Clement's Church.
The senator had another brush with death, this time as the result of a political feud. A man named Frank Williams had become upset with Fountain and Judge Gaylord Clarke. Williams was angry when Fountain failed to find him a patronage job after he had supported him. During a subsequent trial, Clarke issued a "severe and emphatic reprimand" to Williams when his conduct as an attorney in Clarke's court became "abusive and disrespectful." Because Williams was now openly hostile towards the two, Fountain attempted to avoid him.
During a verbal attack on Fountain in Dowell's Saloon, Williams drew his gun on the unarmed Fountain, who had only a cane to defend himself. There is disagreement as to whether Fountain attacked Williams with his cane first, or Williams shot first. Either way, what is known is that Fountain was shot three times. One bullet struck him in the arm, another hit his scalp and sent blood running down his face, and a third penetrated his coat and five letters before striking his pocket watch. Williams retreated after emptying his gun. Fountain, Clarke, and a posse of three men went after him. When the five men found him, Williams shot and killed Clarke at point-blank range, which was followed by a shot from Fountain, who, fifty yards away, fired a bullet that hit Williams in the chest. Williams spun around and hit the ground. As Williams reached for his pistol, another man in the posse shot him in the head.
In 1873, the Fountains, now with five children, returned to settle in Mariana's former home of Mesilla, on the outskirts of Las Cruces. Fountain quickly established a law practice there. Still loyal to the Free Masons, he joined Aztec Lodge No. 3 of Las Cruces. The members included Numa Reymond, who would be involved in a fight to become the Doña Ana County sheriff when Fountain disappeared, and prominent New Mexicans William L. Rynerson and James J. Dolan. William H. H. Llewellyn, who would go on to become a good friend of Fountain, joined the lodge in 1883. Fountain became a leading member of the lodge, serving such posts as deputy grand master, senior grand warden, master, senior warden, and senior deacon.
In 1874, Fountain organized the Mesilla Dramatic Association and designed and painted sets, rewrote plays, and acted. He also founded the newspaper Mesilla Valley Independent, publishing its first issue on June 23, 1877. He was chief editor and translated for the weekly Spanish edition, El Independiente del Valle de la Mesilla.
It was in 1881 that Fountain, as a court-appointed defense attorney, defended his most famous client, William H. Bonney, also known as Billy the Kid. Though Bonney was found guilty of the murder of Sheriff William Brady, he wrote positively about Albert Fountain. "Mr. A. J. Fountain was appointed to defend me and has done the best he could for me. He is willing to carry the case further if I can raise the money to bear his expense." Bonney was brought to the town of Lincoln and held on the second floor of the courthouse to await his execution. He killed two deputies and escaped. He was eventually tracked down and killed by Pat Garrett on July 14, 1881.
Fountain continued his successful law practice and, as a result, he was appointed an assistant United States district attorney. As captain of the Mesilla Scouts, he led the militia that defended the town from Indian raids. His service in protecting the settlers would move him up further in the ranks, and in 1883 Fountain reached the rank of colonel. His work with the militia brought him into close contact with the area's Indian population, many of whom he went on to befriend.
Fountain also became involved in New Mexico politics. A Republican himself, he took on a group of Republicans known as the "Santa Fe Ring." The ring concentrated on amassing wealth and landholding for its members through control over federal patronage and favors from the territorial government. The head of the Santa Fe Ring was undoubtedly Thomas B. Catron. Its members included such notables as William L. Rynerson, James Dolan, and even lifelong Democrat Lawrence G. Murphy. During and after the Lincoln County War, in which Murphy and Dolan led one side and had close ties to Rynerson, Fountain left the Republican Party, helped form, and was elected president of a party he called the Law and Order Party. At this time, he also relinquished control of the Mesilla Valley Independent. Soon after, however, Fountain returned to the Republican Party and worked to fix its problems from the inside.
Enter Albert B. Fall and Other Men of Note
In November 1888, Fountain ran against Democratic newcomer Albert B. Fall for a seat in the New Mexico State Legislature. Fountain won the election and went on to be chosen speaker of the house. While in the legislature, Fountain pushed for public education for both boys and girls, an unpopular idea at the time. He successfully fought to have the state's land grant college situated in Las Cruces. (It now is New Mexico State University.) He also worked vigorously for statehood. The rest of Fountain's life would be intertwined with that of his opponent in the 1888 election. The two men, Fountain as a leader of the Republicans and Fall a soon-to-be leader of the Democrats, grew to despise each other.
Albert Bacon Fall was born in Frankfort, Franklin County, Kentucky, on November 26, 1861. He married Emma Morgan on May 8, 1883, and they settled in New Mexico in 1887. According to his service record, Fall stood five feet, ten and one-half inches tall, had a fair complexion, brown eyes, and black hair. Despite his limited formal education, the former miner rose quickly in the Democratic Party, founded the Las Cruces newspaper Independent Democrat, and established a successful law practice. He made it his goal to turn this traditionally Republican state into a Democratic state, with two Democratic senators once statehood was achieved, going so far as to fight to delay statehood until New Mexico was Democratic. Fall was once described as a "cowboy, miner, lawyer, judge, gunfighter, able editor, rough rider, farmer, cavalier, and brevet captain of industry," which speaks to the life he had ahead of him.
In 1890, Fountain again ran against Fall for a legislative seat. This time Fall won by forty-five votes. The rivalry between the two men only increased. The 1892 elections showed just how far the distrust ran between these two men and the two parties. The Republicans sent in the militia, led by Major William H. H. Llewellyn with Captain Thomas Branigan second in command, to guard the polls. Fall, who argued that the militia was brought in to intimidate voters, countered this move by calling on his friend Oliver Lee to lead some armed men, including James Gililland and William McNew, into town. The Democrats swept the election and Fall went back to the legislature.
Two of the men who came out in the militia would go on to play important roles in trying to solve the murder of Colonel Fountain. William Henry Harrison Llewellyn was born on September 9, 1851, in Monroe, Green County, Wisconsin. Llewellyn attended public schools and then Tabor College. He moved to Montana to mine gold at Trinity Gulch, where he spent eight years, but did not find his fortune. He moved to Nebraska and worked a few jobs before being appointed a special agent in the Justice Department by President Hayes. Llewellyn relocated to New Mexico Territory in 1881, arriving on June 16 at the Mescalero Apache Reservation where he had been appointed Indian agent. Working to improve the conditions of the reservation, he won the respect of the Mescaleros, who referred to him as "Tata Crooked Nose." He moved to Las Cruces in 1885 and began to practice law. Later he served as district attorney of Doña Ana County. Llewellyn was a large man, standing over six feet tall and weighing considerably over two hundred pounds.
Captain Thomas Branigan was born in Edinburgh, Scotland, in 1847. His family came to the United States in 1849 and settled in Ohio. At only fourteen years of age, Branigan enlisted in the Union Army. After the Civil War, Branigan attended the Mennonite College in Wadsworth, Ohio, before going West in 1867. He served as captain of Indian Police and was involved in the campaign to capture Geronimo. Branigan finally settled in Las Cruces, purchased land, and began the raising of bees for the production of honey. He was also interested in gold mining in Sierra country.
On the other side during the election were Lee, Gililland, and McNew, whom Fall, after his appointment as a district judge in 1893, appointed U. S. Deputy Marshals.
The year 1894 marked the formation of the Southeastern New Mexico Stock Growers' Association. The association was a group of cattle companies and ranchmen whose purpose was to stop the rampant cattle rustling that was hurting their businesses. One of its members was Oliver Lee. Albert Fountain, who drafted the association's constitution and bylaws, was their special investigator and lawyer.
Fountain lobbied for various pieces of legislation and went after cattle rustlers. He had two investigators working for him: Ben Williams, a constable from Las Cruces, and Les Dow, who was a U. S. Marshal from Texas.
Williams and Dow locked on a cattle rustling gang headed by Ely "Slick" Miller, alias Jim Rose, which included Lee Williams, Abram Miller, Doc Evans, and Ed Brown. Located near Socorro, they were suspected of plundering association calf crops to build their own herds and of stealing cattle and horses and driving them to markets in Mexico and Indian Territory. The evidence led to warrants for the arrest of Miller and members of the gang. The trial, which began in late November, took place in Roswell because of a change of venue to Chaves County. Ed Brown was missing, but proceedings continued against the rest of the gang, who all pled guilty. Miller received a ten-year sentence, Evans two years, and Williams one year. (Continues...)
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