Estancia is a “small” town with a fluctuating population that hovers around 1,600 (2010 Census). It has all the necessary amenities –post office, grocery store, Dollar Store, gas stations, restaurants, hair and barber shops, Estancia Schools, http://www.estancia.k12.nm.us/pages/Estancia_Municipal_Schools (as well as the necessary fire, police and Emergency Medical Services.
One of New Mexico’s best kept secrets is Estancia’s Arthur Park with its giant shade trees, a playground, the pond stocked with fish (for youth and seniors only), picnic areas as well as horseshoe and sand volley ball pits, a pavilion and basketball court.
This recreational area is central to the Torrance County Fairgrounds, the Estancia Library and the Estancia Aquatic Center (swimming pool.)
In the heart of Torrance County, Estancia is surrounded by an agricultural community that has been the foundation of the Town for more than 100 years. Ranching and farming industries remain strong influences to the flavor of life in the Estancia Valley and well as key contributing economic factors in the area.
An hour’s drive from Albuquerque, the Town offers a rural, homegrown atmosphere with easy access to big city offerings. Located in the heart of Torrance County, Estancia has been the county seat since 1905 and houses the offices of Torrance County including the Torrance County Sheriff’s Office as well as the 7th Judicial District.
Located within Town limits is the Torrance County Detention Facility (TCDF), owned and operated by Corrections Corporation of America (CCA). Originally as a 286-bed facility, in 1997, it was expanded to a 910-bed facility. TCDF currently houses NMCD, United States Marshals Service, Immigration and Naturalization Service, and Torrance County inmates.
CCA is an important addition to the Town, participating in many community activities such as United Way Blood Drive; various Youth Athletic Leagues; Alcoholics Anonymous; Estancia Rotary Club; Torrance County Fair Association; 4-H Club; local Boy Scouts of America; Estancia Town Council; Estancia Basin Resource Association; Estancia FFA Chapter; USSSA; New Mexico Activities Association; Local Fire Departments; Moriarty Lion's Club; New Mexico Special Olympics; R.E.S.P.E.C.T Program; and American Cancer Society Relay For Life.
The Salt Mission Trail Scenic Byway Corridor
Estancia is one of the designated stops on The Salt Missions Scenic Byway, a mapped scenic drive through a variety of beautiful New Mexico landscapes and a range of historic communities.
Estancia—New Mexico’s last hanging
By Julie Carter
With little fanfare, the last legal hanging in New Mexico took place on a Friday morning at sunrise. It was April 6, 1923, in the town of Estancia.
Led to a scaffold in the jail yard of the Torrance County Courthouse, the condemned man was prayed over by a Catholic priest and read his death warrant by a U.S. Marshal. He was asked if he had anything to say, to which he responded with a negative as the noose was adjusted around his neck.
Torrance County Sheriff John Block sprung the trap, sending 25-year-old Francisco Vaisa to eternity. Ten minutes later he was pronounced dead by two doctors and lowered into a coffin to be buried in the Estancia Cemetery.
Remembered more for being the last man to be executed by hanging in New Mexico than for his name, Vaisa was the last of four men to be hung for the murder of Duran, New Mexico merchant Anton J. Coury.
On a Saturday evening, Sept. 3, 1921, Coury was closing his store when five Mexican Nationals came into the store. They asked to buy some small items, and while Coury tended to their request, one of them asked for a drink. He was directed to the rear of the store while the others lingered at the front.
As Coury went behind the counter, the men drew revolvers and told him to “put up his hands.” Reportedly, instead of complying, Coury grabbed something on the counter and threw at his assailants. One of the men fired at Coury, shooting him twice in the face and killing him instantly.
A local newspaper reported that Mrs. Coury was present and made an attempt to wrestle with the murderer and in the struggle, was shot above her hip. It was later determined that the metal stay in her corset had deflected the bullet and saved her life. Her son Freddie became her hero when he peppered the assailants with canned goods when their last attempt to shoot was aborted by a jammed pistol. They fled the scene.
A call was made to the sheriff and a manhunt was launched. Word of the crime was sent by wire and phone in all directions as bloodhounds from the penitentiary in Santa Fe were summoned. Within days, Sheriff Block had captured Vaisa, Isidoro Miranda and Carlos Rentería. A fourth assailant, Luis Medrano, was captured several months later. The fifth perpetrator, identified as Eziquel Machucha, eluded capture presumably by returning to Mexico.
During the interrogation by the sheriff, Miranda was fingered as the shooter and the one who had planned the hold-up. He had a long criminal history including time served in the State Penitentiary for murder and forgery. He’d been given a pardon by Governor Larrazolo during his last days in office.
At their trial in June, all four defendants were convicted of murder. Miranda, Rentería and Medrano were hung as the sun rose on July 28, 1922 in the Town of Estancia. Hundreds of people assembled to watch but the gallows platform had been draped by a tarp to shield the event from view. However, the rising sun shone on the tarp giving spectators a silhouetted outline of the defendants against the tarp.
The trio died a slow painful death with Miranda to be the last pronounced dead. His body was claimed by family and taken to Vaughn to be buried. The bodies of Rentería and Medrano were buried in the furthest remote corner of the Estancia Cemetery, reportedly away from the “good” Catholics in that section.
An interested party took up a collection and hired an attorney for Vaisa. The attorney applied for an appeal to the New Mexico Supreme Court, who ultimately upheld the conviction and Vaisa was sentenced to hang.
Less than a year after his gang members had met a similar fate, Vaisa marked a moment in New Mexico history with only a few witnesses and a last request for his letters to be mailed to his family in Lamesa, Texas.
The History of Estancia
A condensed version of this article appeared in the Mountain View Telegraph on July 23, 2009, as part of a supplement commemorating Estancia's 100th anniversary as an incorporated town.
WHAT HAPPENED BEFORE INCORPORATION By Morrow Hall
What’s In a Name?
Estancia is a Spanish word with several shades of meaning. It’s usually translated as “place of rest,” but it has other nuances. A “stay” in the hospital is an estancia in Spanish, as would be a “sojourn” abroad. The word also applies to the place one stays, and is used to mean “mansion” or “headquarters.” By extrapolation from that, big cattle ranches in South America are called estancias. It’s similar in usage to the English word, “estate,” which can also mean a big house as well as the land that surrounds it.
Estancia, New Mexico, wasn’t named after the headquarters of the old Spanish land grant of the same name, as you might conjecture; its name is of much earlier origin. There was apparently a Pueblo Indian village at the Estancia springs when the Spaniards arrived, and they probably christened it on their first visit.
The evidence for the pueblo is a map drawn in 1779 by Don Bernardo de Miera y Pacheco, by order of Governor de Anza. There is shown along the eastern side of the Manzano Mountains a string of old pueblos abandoned in the face of “enemy” Indian raids. From the north these are Chililí, Estancia, Quaraí, Tajique, Abó, and Tabira. (He switched the positions of Quarai and Tajique.) The residents of these towns, indeed of all the towns east of the Manzanos, had been forcibly evicted by bands of nomadic Indians, mostly Apaches and Comanches, in the late 17th Century, and for a while it was their undisputed territory. At some point resettlement occurred, but it was a dangerous existence for another two centuries, and those who returned were few.
It’s likely there had been a mission of some sort at Estancia, as there had been at most of the other pueblos mentioned. There may even have been a church. If there was, records of it may still exist in Mexican or Spanish archives. There seems to be no trace of it left on the ground, though.
From this evidence we can say that Estancia has carried that name for over 230 years, perhaps a lot longer. When it was incorporated it was already well over a century in age.
Spaniard met Indian at Estancia at some point between 1598, when Oñate’s large band of colonists came from Mexico (Coronado, who came here in 1540, didn’t mention Estancia), and 1779, when the map was drawn. But what happened before that?
Let’s look at the terrain. The Town of Estancia, situated near the center of the valley and basin of the same name, has an official elevation of 6,103 feet above sea level. A north-south string of mountain ranges lines the west side of the valley, separating it from the Río Grande Valley. From the south these are the Manzano (Apple Tree), Manzanita (Little Apple), and Sandía (Watermelon) ranges. These are new mountains, geologically speaking: they began forming about 30 million years ago, when the bottom fell out of what is called the Río Grande Rift, and they are still growing. They are part of the same huge chain that includes the Rocky Mountains to the north and the Sierra Madre range to the south in Mexico.
Along the east side of the valley is a string of rocky hills, the last visible remnants of a much older (around 300 million years) mountain chain that once ran from what is now Mexico into what is now Colorado. These are the Pedernal (Flint) Hills.
To the south is the Chupadera (Sucker or Sinkhole – the meaning is unclear – perhaps there were lots of ticks there) Mesa. To the north the land rises gradually to a big drop-off into the Galistéo Basin, where once all geologic hell broke loose, and to the northwest are the gold-bearing Ortiz (a surname) Mountains.
In the center of the Estancia Basin, at its lowest elevation, there is a chain of saline playas, or intermittent salt lakes. These are all that’s left of a much larger lake.
During the Ice Age, New Mexico was a cooler, wetter place. There were even glaciers at the higher elevations. In the Estancia Basin and in several similar basins across the state there were relatively permanent fresh water lakes. Lake Estancia was the largest, covering almost 700 square miles.
These lakes lasted a very long time, to our way of thinking. We know this in part because when the lakes were full they were home to lots of tiny, shrimp-like creatures whose remains can be carbon-dated. When the lakes became shallow, another shrimp flourished. The tiny skeletons of these creatures are found along the shoreline of ancient Lake Estancia, which can be seen at many places in the valley. Many of the valley’s gravel pits are along it, where creeks and streams came down from the mountains.
Scientists have found that Lake Estancia’s surface was just shy of 6,200 feet above sea level. That means that today’s townsite was under almost 100 feet of water. This level was maintained for most of the time between 24,000 and 12,000 years ago. Occasionally the water level would dip to lower levels for a few centuries, but then it would fill again. It never exceeded 6,200 feet, so there was apparently an outlet at that elevation.
The lake filled again, at least partially, several times as the Ice Age came to an end. The most recent time was only about 7,000 years ago, a blink of the eye in geological time. One scientist calculated that with 70% more precipitation and 40% less evaporation than we get now the lake would begin to fill again.
The Estancia Valley can be compared to a big bowl filled with dirt. That dirt is the remnant of thousands of years of dust and runoff and organic sediment settling in the lake. It’s deepest in the center of the valley; below it is much less permeable limestone. The dirt is wet, too, under the surface. Today we mine the water beneath us at an unsustainable rate, but before irrigation really got started, in the 1950s, there were running springs scattered across the valley. Several of them were clustered at Estancia, where they fed a shallow lake. This is why there was a village here.
Estancia probably served as a camping site for thousands of years. It was undoubtedly well known to the nomadic tribes that hunted here, and it was near one of the only surface deposits of salt in the region. The distinctive points (arrowheads) of Folsom Man have been found in the valley, indicating a presence some 10,000 to 11,000 years ago. Perhaps these early people lived along the lake shore. Sandía Man, thought to have lived before that, had his famous cave on the north end of the mountains after which he was named, and he was probably familiar with nearby Lake Estancia.
The history of those who lived here that long ago is written only in rare and durable artifacts. This was before the agricultural revolution, and thus before the pueblo era. Everybody was a hunter-gatherer then.
The First Land Grant.
Let’s jump forward again, to 1819, when Don Bartolomé Baca petitioned the governor of the Province of New Mexico, Don Facundo Melgárez, for a tract of land. Baca was a captain of cavalry stationed at Tomé. He told the governor he had sheep, cattle, and horses and did not have a place to graze them. He described a huge piece of the Estancia Valley as a suitable place.
Governor Melgárez sent his commissioner of justice, Don José García de la Mora, to inspect the property with Captain Baca. García reported that the land was uninhabited and unclaimed. Citing the “great services” Baca had rendered for the king, he related: “I have given him possession in the name of His Majesty, the King of Spain, and taking him by the hand we went over the place, acclaiming, pulling out grass and throwing rocks in the name of the King, saying, ‘Long live our Beloved Monarch Don Fernando Septime! May God save him!’ with all my might and on hearing the echoes I wept.”
The boundaries of the grant were established as Pedernal Peak to the east, Buffalo Springs (between Chililí and Moriarty) to the north, and the ridge of the Manzano Mountains to the west. The southern boundary was marked by two springs whose location I do not know, but probably followed about the same route as present-day US-60.
This was an enormous piece of land, somewhere around 1.2 million acres. Sheepherders for Captain Baca probably had a camp at every spring, and dwellings of some sort were constructed. Estancia was the headquarters, perhaps from the beginning, but there were quite a few other residences around the valley.
Only three years later, in 1821, over three centuries of Spanish domination in North America ended when Mexico declared independence. “New Spain” became “New Mexico.” It probably had little effect on the sheepherders of the Estancia Valley.
The Second Land Grant.
On December 7, 1845, the governor of New Mexico, Manuel Armijo, granted much of the land within the Baca grant to Antonio Sandoval, a provincial official who was owed a sizeable sum in back wages. No reference was made to the Spanish grant of a quarter century earlier. Estancia was included in the 350,000-acre tract.
Governor Armijo is better known for what he did less than a year later, during the Mexican War, which was to position his forces east of Santa Fe to oppose the impending arrival of General Stephen Watts Kearney and his Army of the West – and then think better of such an unfriendly gesture, dismiss his troops, and hightail it south to El Paso.
Was he unaware of the Baca grant, or had it been annulled? Or did he make the grant to quiet a disgruntled employee, knowing that war was brewing and others would have to deal with the consequences? The answer isn’t clear from the remaining public records of the time. What is clear is that he had just lit a slow-burning fuse that would eventually explode.
Baca vs. Sandoval.
The heirs of the Baca grant sold it in 1874 to Manuel Antonio Otero of La Costancia, near Belén. Otero had made a fortune by herding many sheep from the Río Grande Valley to California after gold was discovered in 1849. Hungry prospectors paid handsomely for them. He and his family lived in luxury almost unequaled in the vast, empty region between California and Missouri.
Estancia was headquarters for the agricultural activities of the grant, but the Otero family were absentee owners most of the time. There was a one-story ranch house made of terrones, sod bricks, cut from the wet grassy area around the springs. It was located north and east of the present fire station, partially in what is now Highland Avenue. It was dismantled early in the 20th Century and the terrones were recycled to build two new houses, one of which still stands.
Most of the people in the grant at that time had partido (sharecropper) agreements with the owners. They herded and cared for the sheep and cattle and were given a percentage of the increase as payment. Don Manuel, the patron, or boss, visited once in a while, but his foreman was in charge most of the time.
Meanwhile, ownership of the Sandoval grant changed hands as well. In 1878, it was purchased by a rich Boston industrialist named Joel P. Whitney.
The Gringo & Greaser.
When New Mexico became a U.S. Territory, county lines were drawn and county seats named. Changes were made just about every time the legislature met, but Estancia remained part of Valencia County until 1903, when Torrance County was created with Estancia as its seat. Los Lunas was the seat of Valencia County, and the biggest village on this side of the mountains was Manzano.
When the AT&SF railroad entered New Mexico, in 1879, it put an end to the sleepy isolation of past centuries. Lots of people came here to seek their fortunes. Around the beginning of 1880, a thirty-something young man from Albany, New York, with a small letterpress, a font of miniscule italic type, and some fancy capitals and dingbats, arrived in Manzano. His name, in the abbreviated style of the time, was Chas. L. Kusz, Jr.
He came with a sharp intellect, a satirical sense of humor, and dreams of empire. He was the first representative of the Fourth Estate to meddle in the affairs of the local citizenry in this valley, and he did it up fine and gave them all seconds without extra charge. He managed to survive for four years before someone shot and killed him, but that’s another story.
He apparently decided to ruffle everyone’s feathers at once when he chose the name for his newspaper. He called it “The Gringo & Greaser,” highly insulting terms Anglos and Hispanics used to describe each other, and he published a four-page edition, t
“There is more money invested outside of Manzano than in any other City in the Territory, or perhaps in the world,” he wrote. That’s still true today, as is another comment he made: “It is famous for its weather, hardly ever being without a spell.”
On August 18, 1883, Editor Kusz published an “Extra Edition” of his paper, thus leaving us a contemporary account of the “War” that had taken place the day before.
War at la Estancia.
Joel P. Whitney, the purchaser of the Sandoval grant, and his brother, James G. Whitney, came to the valley and began telling the sheepherders scattered around it, whom they called “squatters,” that they would have to leave. They had been to Albuquerque and obtained a court order of eviction. Of course it wasn’t long before word of this development reached the Otero family.
Manuel B. Otero, the son of Don Manuel Antonio Otero, set out with two of his cousins to see what was happening at the Estancia ranch. He was a truly elegant scion of his patrician family. He was a graduate of Heidelberg University in Germany, and he had married a lovely young heiress of the other rich family in the area, the Lunas of Los Lunas.
James B. Whitney was already at the headquarters, along with his brother-in-law and a friend. The six men met in the house and parleyed. Before long someone got tired of talking and started shooting. Seconds later, Whitney’s brother-in-law was dead, and Whitney was badly wounded. As for Otero, I’ll let Editor Kusz tell the story. He could be as maudlin as he was droll:
“The Priest, Rev. L. Bourdier, was at once summoned to administer the rites of the church to the dying Otero, but he arrived too late; he was beyond human help; his lips were already sealed and the icy hand of death had already touched the lower part of his body, and as the sun was sinking behind the mountains to light up a new world, his spirit took its flight to the hands that gave it, passed the valley of the shadow of death and entered that great undiscovered bourne whence no traveler returns….”
There’s more of that, a lot more. I can imagine the man with his composing stick in hand, furiously selecting each tiny italic letter from his font box as he constructed his grand eulogy.
The opposing parties retreated to tend their wounds and bury their dead, and the validity of the competing land grants became a matter for the courts to decide. They took their time. Finally, as if to usher in a new era for the Estancia Valley in the 20th Century, they decided that neither claim was valid.
The land was opened for homesteading, a railroad was built across the valley, and the rest, as they say, is history.