Above: the real Elfego Baca, left, and actor Robert Loggia portraying Baca in 1958.
ON THIS DATE in 1884, a nineteen-year-old semi-lawman fought off 80 rampaging cowboys during a 30-plus-hour attack in the New Mexico territory. Elfego Baca, a Mexican American who had never been formally deputized, killed four cowboys and wounded eight more in the shootout; somehow, he emerged from it unscathed.
The Baca-vs-cowboys saga began the previous day when a drunken hellraiser named McCarty fired shots at two Mexicans, making them “dance” in the town of Frisco. Baca arrested the cowboy, which incensed McCarty’s pals. When one cowboy, backed by others, demanded McCarty’s release, Baca said he’d count to three and start shooting if the men didn’t disperse. As good as his word, he said “one- two-three” and opened fire, killing one and injuring another.
The next day, the 80 remaining Anglo cowboys came after Baca. After the first volley of shots, the self-styled deputy retreated to a small Mexican hut. For 33 to 38 hours (stories differ), the cowboys fired on the hut and Baca fired back through an 18-inch opening beneath the door. Using shotguns and buffalo guns, the cowboys blasted away at the roof, making it collapse, but the occupant seemed unfazed: the next morning, onlookers saw him calmly cooking his breakfast though the ruins of the hut.
Eventually a pair of lawmen convinced the cowboys and deputy to give up the fight. After surrendering to the Justice of the Peace, Baca was tried for the murder of the four cowboys. The key piece of evidence was the door to the adobe hut, which was brought to court and shown to have 367 bullet holes in it. Acquitted on grounds of self-defense, Baca would later serve as a marshal, district attorney, school superintendent, and mayor.
In 1958 Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color broadcast a one-hour episode titled “The Nine Lives of Elfego Baca.” Robert Loggia starred as the death-defying deputy.