Interview With Historiographer Don Bullis | HistoryNet MENU

Interview With Historiographer Don Bullis

By Johnny D. Boggs
4/2/2014 • Interviews, Wild West, Wild West Interviews

As a former newspaperman and criminal investigator, Don Bullis knows all about research. As a historiographer or historian—take your pick—he has become one of the go-to guys when it comes to New Mexico history. His recent books include New Mexico Historical Biographies and Unsolved: New Mexico’s American Valley Ranch Murders & Other Mysteries (both from Rio Grande Books). A 1970 graduate of Eastern New Mexico University (named an outstanding alumni last year), Bullis worked for newspapers and then entered law enforcement in 1982, retiring in 2002. He has nine nonfiction books and two novels to his credit—and plenty of awards, including the 2013 Eric Hoffer Award for Best Reference Book. The New Mexico State Library named Bullis the state’s Centennial Author in 2010, and last fall Bullis was presented the Rounders Award from the state Department of Agriculture for living, articulating and promoting the Western way of life. He lives with wife Gloria in Rio Rancho, N.M., where he took time from researching his latest project, New Mexico Historical Encyclopedia (Rio Grande Books, due out in 2015), to discuss his career.

How did writing New Mexico Historical Biographies come about?
I have been writing regular newspaper and magazine columns for more than 30 years. Since I’m not particularly well organized, I had bits and pieces of information scattered around my office in two or three filing cabinets and in several stacks of varying heights. What started out to be an effort to bring some order to that mess evolved into New Mexico Historical Biographies. Now most of my work has been digested into a book of about 1,500 entries, which makes my work much easier. It probably would have ended there but my publisher—Rio Grande Books in Albuquerque—thought it would make a good book. Tony Hillerman, Howard Bryan and a couple of other writers thought so too. I’m proud to be able to say that the book has won half a dozen important awards.

Who are some of your favorite lesser known New Mexicans?
One of my favorites is Dan Dedrick. All most folks know—if they know of him at all—is that he appears in history as the original owner of the famous ferrotype photograph of Billy the Kid, which sold for millions of dollars only a few years back. But actually, Dan and his brothers, Sam and Mose, were active outlaws in and around Lincoln County, New Mexico Territory, at the time of the war there in the late 1870s. They stood on the McSween side in the conflict, and Dan was seriously wounded in the Five-Day Battle in Lincoln in July 1878 and lost the use of one arm as a result of it. He fled New Mexico Territory by 1882 and settled in northern California, where he became a successful prospector and actually had a town named for him. The town of Dedrick, Calif., is now as forgotten as Dan Dedrick himself.

On the other side of the law would be Perfecto Armijo, sheriff of Bernalillo County, New Mexico Territory, in the 1880s. He was important simply because he was an honest and effective lawman who generally kept a lid on Albuquerque when good peace officers were few and far between. It was Perfecto, too, who hanged outlaw/lawman Milt Yarberry in 1883.

Yarberry is another of my favorite characters in New Mexico history. Here is a criminal thug and bully who got himself appointed Albuquerque’s town marshal only to commit two murders in less than a year before his career ended at the end of a rope.

What was the hardest part of compiling entries for that book?
The single most difficult thing was, and is, figuring out when to stop. New Mexico Historical Biographies was originally published with 800 or so entries. It was just off the press when it became clear that another volume would be necessary, and a second volume followed with a similar number of entries. Then last year a third volume was published, which combined the first two, plus a couple hundred more entries. But that was not nearly the end. The third volume is currently under revision.

So what’s your take on Pat Garrett’s murder?
Every writer has a different take. Probably my favorite is the one offered by writer Chuck Hornung. I like it because it is simple. Chuck holds that Garrett was killed by Billy McNew, one of the original four men—Oliver Lee, Jim Gilliland and Bill Carr were the other three—accused of killing Albert J. Fountain and his son Henry. Garrett had held McNew in the Doña Ana County jail for a year without ever trying him for any crime. Garrett’s murder was a crime of opportunity. McNew simply learned Garrett would be passing nearby and used the occasion to settle his score with the old lawman by shooting him from ambush. The other two men present when Garrett died, Carl Adamson and Jesse Wayne Brazil, probably liked Bill McNew more than they liked Pat Garrett, and they simply waved goodbye as McNew tipped his hat and rode away. There were a number of folks at the time, by the way, who considered McNew the most dangerous of Oliver Lee’s riders.

And the disappearance of Albert Fountain and his young son?
It is an unsolved crime and will most likely remain that way. No bodies were ever found; no one was ever convicted of the crime. There was a lot of circumstantial evidence, and numerous trails to follow, but none of them conclusively proved the father and son were murdered, much less who did it. The search will continue, however.

What was the genesis of Unsolved?
In the late 1950s Albuquerque newsman Howard Bryan wrote a five-column series on the trials of the men accused of the murders on the American Valley Ranch in western New Mexico in the early 1880s. I came across the columns a few years ago; they piqued my interest. I did a little research and discovered that it was a heck of a story, but not enough for a book. The simple solution was to make the American Valley murders the lead story in a book of enigmatic events in New Mexico history. It was not a problem to find 40 additional stories.

Which of those stories intrigues you the most?
They all intrigued me in one way or the other. The most enigmatic, I think, is the murder of gold miner Harris Dupont (or William Vipond), allegedly by Perfecto Padilla but most likely by another miner, F.D. Thompson, in 1884 (or 1894). Two somewhat divergent stories go with the crime, one a confession by F.D. Thompson, who wrote it out and gave it to a priest after he learned that sheepherder Perfecto Padilla had been hanged for the crime. Thompson said he wanted to clear his conscience. One writer used the confession as the basis of a story published in 1963.

However, in 2008 former New Mexico State Historian Robert Tórrez took up the matter of Padilla’s hanging and introduced an element of political skullduggery into the case in his book Myth of the Hanging Tree. The only thing certain in the entire matter is that Padilla was executed. It is likely, however, that he was not guilty. So who did murder Dupont? F.D. Thompson disappeared from history completely, if indeed that was his name, and besides, his “confession” was somewhat contradictory. There were two other men, also miners, who had the motive, opportunity and ability to commit the crime, not to mention a couple of politicians who stood to benefit from the death of Perfecto Padilla.

You even write about Roswell in 1947. Why is that important in New Mexico lore?
Roswell has gained a worldwide reputation as the focus of a visit from extraterrestrials, and that alone makes the so-called “Roswell Incident” worth mentioning. Aside from the myths and legends that have to do with little green men and indestructible metallic objects, there are questions about things as basic as when it happened. I mention in my book that one source reported it happened on July 4, 1947, another asserted it was on the 3rd, yet another says the 2nd, and one source claims the debris field was discovered as early as June 14. UFO buffs are free to pick and choose, I guess.

You also publish the New Mexico Historical Notebook. Describe that.
The New Mexico Historical Notebook is a monthly email publication intended to let about a thousand free subscribers know what is going on with New Mexico’s numerous historical organizations: meeting, events, presentations, etc. I’ve been doing it for about seven years. It also serves as a newsletter for both the Historical Society of New Mexico and the Central New Mexico Corral of Westerners. I try to get it out during the first week of each month.

How did you get interested in history?
The flippant answer, I suppose, is, “Just lucky, I guess.” The fact is that while some folks learn early that they have a talent for math, or science or mechanical arts, I learned that I had a head for dates, names and events. I wasn’t a particularly good student in the public schools, but my grades in history were consistently good. I majored in American history in college. When I got to New Mexico to stay nearly 50 years ago—I had visited the Land of Enchantment in 1955 but didn’t stay—I determined that I wanted to know more about my new home than anyone else. While I have not reached that goal, I have certainly tried, and I continue to learn more each day. The study of New Mexico history is never boring.

Why call yourself a historiographer?
Historiography has been defined as a study of the history of historical writing; to a large extent that is what I do regarding New Mexico’s past. It is important to take a look at what was being written on any given subject 50 or 100 or 400 years ago and to compare it to what is being written today. That creates many questions: Why have the several versions of an event changed over the years? Was it because new primary sources had been discovered? Or was it because the several writers had divergent points of view? Is the product of one writer more valid than that of another? Or did one writer have an agenda which had little or nothing to do with the subject at hand? What I hope to share with my readers is that there are important and significant approaches to any historic event or figure and all of them should be considered. The critical historian, or history buff, is of course free to reject sources he or she finds wanting in any respect, even though it is worth knowing that such sources exist, and that other people are using them. Billy the Kid and the Lincoln County War are, of course, obvious examples of why this is important. It is hard to appreciate the great writers on these subjects—Fred Nolan, Robert Utley, William Keleher, Leon Metz and a few others—if you haven’t looked at many of the others.

I mentioned all of this to New Mexico historian Tom Chávez not long ago, and he suggested I should forget the semantics; that I was a historian whether I liked it or not. Maybe he’s right. I certainly go to primary sources when I consider it necessary. Keep in mind, though, that primary sources, may not always agree.

Your background is in law enforcement. Has that helped you regarding research?
Actually, my background was in newspaper work before I got into law enforcement, and because of that I became a criminal investigator long before I was ever obliged to wear a uniform and write traffic tickets. Criminal investigations involve research, but of different dimensions and with different goals. The main difference is that work as an investigator is examined by numerous officials who pass judgment on it in a very critical way: prosecuting and defense attorneys, judges and juries. Also, the quality of the investigative work may result in proving the innocence or guilt of those accused of crimes. It behooves one to be as accurate, complete and comprehensive as possible. All of those things also apply to historical research.

One New Mexico legend has it that Jesse James met Billy the Kid in Las Vegas. What’s your take?
Tales like that are fun to consider, but they have virtually no value. There are others, too, by the way. One is that Jesse and Billy met in Hot Springs (now Truth or Consequences), or in the bar at the St. James Hotel in Cimarron. I have never seen anything that proves they ever met, anywhere. Period. They were quite different personality types, and except for being murderers, they had nothing in common. But even if they did meet, so what? Nothing indicates either of them influenced the other in any significant way, and they committed no crimes together. They were at least 10 years apart in age, although they did die within a year of each other.

Of the books you’ve written, does one stand out for you?
There is a cliché about that: Asking a writer which of his books he or she likes best is like asking a parent which of his children he likes best. Cliché or not, it makes the point. I would have to say, though, that I am still enamored with Unsolved simply because it is my most recent book. It’s like spoiling one’s youngest child. I am most impressed with New Mexico Historical Biographies because it is the most comprehensive work I’ve done on New Mexico history. It’s like comparing your child who had the perseverance to earn a Ph.D. with the others who only managed to got master’s degrees: They’re all good kids, but that Ph.D., well…

What does your wife think about what you do?
Gloria is my greatest fan! It would have been impossible for me to do the work I have done over the past 30 or so years without her support and encouragement. She created the environment that made it all possible.


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