White Oaks, New Mexico
White Oaks Historic District
Old commercial building in White Oaks
|Location||12 mi. NE of Carrizozo, on NM 349|
|Area||1,822.5 acres (737.5 ha)|
|NRHP Reference #||70000403|
|Added to NRHP||September 4, 1970|
|Designated NMSRCP||February 21, 1969|
White Oaks is a ghost town in Lincoln County, New Mexico, United States. Located on the outskirts of the Lincoln National Forest, it became a boomtown in 1879 following the discovery of gold and coal in the nearby Jicarilla Mountains.
Before White Oaks became known as the liveliest town in New Mexico Territory the area was first roamed by the Piros Indians before they were forced out by the Apache. The Indians found the area abundant with game and made it one of their hunting grounds.
The first Europeans to travel into the area were members of Don Juan de Onate's expedition in the late 1500s, who called the land Malpais after a nearby lava flow.
John J. Baxter, a disappointed California '49er, heard rumors of gold discovery in the area. He followed local Mexican prospectors to a shallow canyon running east to the mountains uncovering what would later become the Homestake mine. (Florin Page 660) Word soon spread of the gold find and within a year, a new mining camp filled with tents was born. The camp was called White Oaks after a small stream near the community that was lined with white oak trees. In 1880 a post office was established and permanent buildings began to replace tents and rambling shacks. The boom town quickly grew, supporting some 50 different businesses, including four newspapers, two hotels, three churches, a sawmill, a bank, an opera house, livery stables, and the ever-present saloons and gambling houses.
In the meantime, prospectors Winters and Baxter founded two claims called the Homestake Mine and the South Homestake Mine. The mountain where the gold was found was called Baxter Mountain. Eventually, the two gold miners sold their claims for $300,000 each. The town was frequented by notable Old West personalities, including Dave Rudabaugh, Billy the Kid, Pat Garrett, and Shotgun John Collins. Jonathan H. Wise established the town's first newspaper in 1880, called the White Oaks Golden Era. Additional newspapers included the Lincoln County Leader, the Old Abe Eagle and the New Mexico Interpreter. (Florin, 1970, P. 662)
In November, 1880, a posse originating in White Oaks pursued Billy the Kid a distance of over forty miles, culminating in a standoff, during which someone shot and killed Deputy Sheriff Jim Carlyle, as the latter was attempting to negotiate with the outlaw. Per former National Park Service historian Robert M. Utley, in his new book "Wanted: The Outlaw Lives of Billy the Kid and Ned Kelly," it remains undetermined today who shot Carlyle and why. (Page 79) Billy the Kid escaped.
Billy the Kid later sent a letter to Governor Lew Wallace about the death of Deputy Carlyle, disputing an article written by a Las Vegas, New Mexico newspaper claiming that he was the leader of a band of outlaws. In his letter, the Kid claimed that the house in which they were located was surrounded by lawmen, and Deputy Carlyle entered demanding surrender. Billy alleged that he asked for their "papers", meaning warrants, to which Carlyle replied that they had none. With that, he alleged that he concluded that without warrants, the posse accounted to nothing more than a mob, and he told Carlyle that he would have to stay in the house and lead them out the next day. Soon after this, the posse had sent in a note saying that if Carlyle did not exit in a matter of minutes, a local friend of Billy the Kid, a "Mr. Greathouse", would be killed by the posse members. Minutes later, there was a shot, after which Carlyle jumped from the window, at which time he was allegedly shot to death by his own posse. The identity of the shooter or shooters is still not confirmed today.
The population of the town was 800 in July 1880. It later peaked at 4,000 people. (Florin Page 661) In 1882, construction was completed on Starr's Opera House, and the town sported several saloons, several general stores, a school, and a town hall. In 1884 Lyman Hood held the first church services in an actual church building, these meetings having previously taken place in the town hall. During this period, there were brothels with many prostitutes, and the town was frequently a haven for cattle rustlers and other outlaws.
By 1885, White Oaks had settled down and was beginning to thrive. Three attorneys, John Y. Hewitt, Harvey B. Ferguson, and George Barber, opened businesses there, and other professionals began to arrive in town to open their own businesses. However, its continued existence was dependent on a railroad passing through it. In the late 1890s, both the Santa Fe and the El Paso and Northeastern railroads were planning to extend tracks toward White Oaks. Local business interests refused to make concessions to lure the railroad to town. Instead they attempted to charge premium prices for right-of-way properties, convinced that the railroads would compete for the privilege. As a result, the railroad chose to run twelve miles to the west, through Carrizozo, New Mexico, and by the late 1890s the mines had become exhausted and the population dwindled. An additional source of decline was the presence of an excessive number of lawyers, with the accompanying excessive litigation surrounding land titles, mine claims, and livestock profits. By the early 1900s the town was a shadow of its previous self. It is now a ghost town, with several of the more permanent buildings still standing today.
Susan McSween Barber, widow of Alexander McSween who was killed during the Lincoln County War, became known as the "Cattle Queen of New Mexico" in the late 19th century. She bought and developed the Three Rivers Ranch southwest of the town, eventually owning over 5,000 head of cattle. In 1902 she sold out and moved to White Oaks, where she remained until her death in 1931. She is buried in the old White Oaks cemetery, along with another notable, former New Mexico state Governor William McDonald, the state's first governor after achieving statehood, who had been President of the Exchange Bank of White Oaks and a local attorney.
In 1970, White Oaks was listed on the National Register of Historic Places as a historic district. By that time, very little remained of the original community; although the district covered over 1,800 acres (730 ha), only 6 buildings had enough historical integrity to qualify as contributing properties.
Today one of the old saloons remains open, The No Scum Allowed Saloon.
- National Park Service (2010-07-09). "National Register Information System". National Register of Historic Places. National Park Service.
Ghost Towns of the West, Lambert Florin. Promontory Press, 1970
Wanted: The Outlaw Lives of Billy the Kid and Ned Kelly, Robert M. Utley, Yale University Press, 2015