Mabel Luke Madison

During the Great Depression from 1936 to 1940 there a federal program, the WPA Writers’ Project, hired local authors to interview older local citizens they considered pioneers, and then write a "manuscript" or report of that interview. The goal was to collect and preserve oral histories of pioneers.

Marie Carter of Anthony was an author selected to work for this Project. In 1937, Ms. Carter interviewed Mrs. Mabel Luke Madison, who was then living in La Mesa. The manuscript she wrote after her interview is now archived at the Library of Congress. Here is her report of what Mabel Madison, who was 68 years old in 1936, told her.

In speaking of old times, Mrs. Mabel Luke Madison said:

"When mother and I left Montgomery, Alabama, and moved to Temple, Texas, we didn’t know much about New Mexico. That was in 1880. Six years later I met and married James Madison, a Texas cattleman, and went to live in Marlan, Texas. We moved from Marlan to Rotan, but Jim couldn’t get anything to do in that town, so we pushed on up to Alamogordo, New Mexico, where he landed a job on the Oliver Lee cattle ranch.

"Lee paid Jim some money and the rest in calves. After awhile we had a well-stocked ranch of our own about fourteen miles out from Alamogordo.

"I liked ranch life right from the start, for I rode the range with Jim, learned to cook and eat chuck-wagon food and to ride and rope with the best of them. Our cowpunchers were a jolly bunch and always ready for a good time. We got lots of fun out of rodeos, chuck suppers, roping contests and dances. Our ranch was the J-M ranch, and our cattle was branded with the J on the shoulder, the bar on the side, and the M on the hip."

Mrs. Madison related an exciting episode in her life on the range:

It happened early one morning while we were still in bed. We heard horses moving around outside, and heard men talking in low but excited voices. Jim got up and went outside. I stayed in bed, straining my ears to hear what the strange men were talking about. Then someone came into my room and by the dim morning light I thought it was my husband. I started to speak when suddenly I felt the cold steel of a gun pressed against my forehead. I started to cry out but ended with a feeble moan.

When the man, whoever he was, heard my voice he backed toward the door saying, ‘Oh, I thought you were Tucker.’ Just why he said that I don’t know. But I think he was so excited that he didn’t know just what he was saying.

I was so scared I didn’t know what to do, but finally decided to get up and dress, which I did. Then the door opened, admitting a small figure. It was my son who had been sneaking around outside to see what the men were doing in our corral. He put his finger to his lips and cautioned me to be quiet because Oliver Lee, our old boss, and some of his henchmen were hiding on top of the house... and that the sheriff was after them because he heard that they had killed Albert Fountain over at the White Sands.

The quick thud of horses hoofs sent me flying to the window. I looked out—sure enough—the sheriff and his deputies had arrived.

The sheriff was Pat Garrett, the same man who had caught and killed Billy the Kid in 1881. Pat and his deputies were starting toward the corral when they saw a red saddle blanket drying on the fence. The sheriff paused, pointed at the blanket, than motioned his men to follow him. My husband, who was outside, told me that they went straight to the corral where Lee’s horse was nosing about with several other white horses. The sheriff had no trouble in picking out the horse he wanted, for the saddle blanket, while wet, had faded, leaving great red streaks on the animal’s back.

Shortly after finding Oliver Lee’s horse in our corral, Pat Garrett, Lincoln County Sheriff, caught sight of the fugitives on top of our house and opened fire. The charge was returned with a volley from the guns on the roof, and we could hear the bullets falling like hail all around us. Just as I grabbed my son and pulled him down beside me on the floor, a bullet crashed through the window, whistled through the room, and buried itself in the wall above the bed.

My husband told me that the sheriff went up to bring Lee and his men down, but just as he reached the top of the ladder one of his deputies who had climbed up the other side, was shot and rolled off the roof into a wagon just outside the kitchen door. The accident brought the shooting to a sudden stop, for Garrett and his men went back down to look after their companion. Finding him still alive they decided to take him to the station and when the train came in send him to Alamogordo.

So they called my husband and told him to get out a team of horses and hitch up the old wagon. He told them that he hadn’t used that wagon for years and didn’t have any way to hitch ‘em. Then they did the next best thing; they tied rope to the tongue of the wagon, rode along in front and dragged it after ‘em.

As they started toward the station they called back to the men on the roof, ‘We’ll be back to get you fellows by eleven.’"

‘Be sure ye don’t get here before that time, or we might get ye first.’ Lee answered.

The injured man died on his way to Alamogordo, and the sheriff and his deputy were back by eleven o’clock, but Lee and his henchmen were gone.


Mrs. Mabel Madison was born in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1870 and moved to Temple, Texas, with her mother, Sofia Luke, in 1880. She married James Madison in 1886, and they moved to Marlin, Texas—then to Alamogordo, New Mexico, where her husband worked for Oliver Lee for three years. They then moved from Lee’s ranch to their own ranch, fourteen miles out from Alamogordo. Mrs. Madison has lived in La Mesa, New Mexico, for twenty years on the present family ranch.