By Joseph Bernal, Ashley Harris, Jessie Manzanares and Kristi Smith
His early life is sketchy. Born in New York to a sea captain and a French Huguenot, he mysteriously appeared in California in the 1850s. But his death in the New Mexico desert in 1896 would remain one of the greatest mysteries in the Southwest.
Albert Jennings was born on Staten Island on October 23, 1838, to Solomon Jennings, a sea captain, and Catherine de la Fontaine. Albert claimed to be a graduate of Columbia College, but no records exist. Whether he fled New York to avoid becoming an Episcopalian cleric as his father desired or undertook a search to find his father after his ship went down, the young man had traveled the world before settling in California. Here he Anglicized his mother's name, and from that point forward, he would be known as Albert Jennings Fountain.
Image caption: Albert Jennings Fountain mysteriously disappeared in the desert in 1896 Photo from Lee Myers Papers, MS24, Archives and Special Collections, NMSU library, Las Cruces, NM.
In Sacramento, Fountain prospected for gold and freighted supplies to mining camps, and he worked in retail and reported for newspapers. In 1860, he narrowly escaped execution in Nicaragua while covering a story for the Sacramento Union. Dressed as a woman, he sneaked aboard a ship headed to the States.
Back in California, Fountain began studying law, clerking for Judge N. Greene Curtis for two years. Fountain was only days away from being admitted to the California Bar when Union recruiters came to Sacramento, and he signed up immediately. In August 1861, he joined more than 2,000 men in the California Column in a march to gain control of Tucson and the Rio Grande Valley from the Confederates. Fountain's company was assigned to Fort Fillmore located south of Mesilla, New Mexico.
Tomas Perez, a local guide for the troops, invited Fountain to his home. He met Tomas' sister Mariana, and the two married on Oct. 27, 1862. Prior to their wedding, Fountain was reassigned to Fort Bliss with orders to find stray Confederate soldiers, only to discover that Indians were the biggest problem.
The Mescalero Apaches were well armed after defeating the Confederates and absconding with supplies. Author A. M. Gibson wrote that Fountain also confronted the Mimbreño and Chiricahua Apaches during his military career and shared in the responsibility for their relocation to reservations. Fountain would later change his attitude toward the Indians and support them.
By early 1866, Fountain's formal military service ended. He moved his wife and their two children to El Paso to begin his law career. The movers and shakers of the town hung out at Ben Dowell' s saloon. From connections made there, he gained employment with the U. S. Property Commissioner's office, investigating and disposing of Confederate properties. In Dowell's, Fountain became acquainted with W. W. Mills, the Collector of Customs.
Fountain ran for and won the office of county surveyor. Mills, impressed with Fountain's campaign, offered him the job of Customs Inspector and Chief Assistant to the Collector of Customs. Fountain handled this position so well that he was appointed election judge under the Reconstruction Act. An appointment as the Assessor and Collector of Internal Revenue for the Western District of Texas followed.
Meanwhile, Samuel A. Maverick, a San Antonio entrepreneur, enlisted Fountain to survey salt deposits on the southern base of the Guadalupe Mountains. Maverick claimed more than half of the area's total resource of salt. Mills, Fountain and some of their business associates decided to block Maverick's claim and to lay claim to the salt beds themselves, planning to charge locals for the salt to season and preserve their food. They became known as the "Salt Ring."
Word of the plan leaked and caused a huge outcry from Hispanic residents. Because even his wife's family had used the salt beds in the past, Fountain realized the importance of the salt to local residents and reconsidered his position. However, Fountain had no success in trying to convince Mills to change his stand, so Fountain, Gaylord Clarke, and Albert H. French formed the "anti-Salt Ring." A small "war" would follow. This was also the beginning of a long running public feud between Fountain and Mills.
Fountain won a seat in the Texas Senate while Mills lost his bid for the House in 1869. Fountain served as Majority Leader of the Senate. He worked in the Union Senate to benefit West Texas, serving on the Indian Affairs, Frontier Protection and Public Lands committees. Fountain spoke Spanish well and was an advocate for the Hispanic population. He succeeded in getting the state to publish documents in Spanish in addition to English and German.
Back in El Paso, Fountain helped establish the town's first Protestant house of worship, St. Clement's Episcopal Church. Gordon Owen writes that Fountain held the respect of many, but the disapproval and hatred of others, including his former friend, W. W. Mills. He received numerous death threats, which did not bode well for the upcoming Senate race. He knew that the Republican Party still maintained control of the New Mexico Territory House, so in 1873, Fountain decided to relocate his growing family to Mesilla, New Mexico, where he would be able to begin a new political career and where his family would be safer.
Fountain's law practice quickly took off and he became a champion of the underdog and the exploited. He often addressed the jury in Spanish, endearing himself to Mesilla residents, ninety percent of whom were Hispanic. One newspaper saw it differently, however, and wrote, "Give us a Mexican jury with Fountain for lawyer and [Warren] Bristol for judge and we can murder anyone we please with impunity."
Fountain defended such historical figures as Billy the Kid and "Bronco Sue" Dodson. He was appointed assistant district attorney shortly after arriving in Mesilla and became known for his impressive prosecutions. From 1876 to 1878, Fountain served as probate judge and deputy court clerk, and became editor of a local weekly newspaper, the Mesilla Independent. In 1879, Fountain took a hiatus from his law career and joined the state volunteer militia known as the Mesilla Scouts, charged with protecting residents from Indian raids. He started as a captain and had been promoted to colonel by 1882. He would be known as "Colonel Fountain" the rest of his life. Even though he led his men against the Apaches, Fountain had a long history with several tribes, and many individual Mescaleros called him their friend. Fountain even wrote a fictitious article in the local paper, The Thirty-Four, entitled "The Apache Chronicle" which he wrote with the voice of a warring Apache.
Fountain became one of New Mexico's most powerful Republican leaders, but just as in Texas, he acquired numerous political enemies. One such foe was Albert Bacon Fall. The two had a long drawn out feud in the late 1880s and 1890s. Fall was a Democrat and ran against Fountain in a race for a seat in the New Mexico legislature in 1888. Although the race was close, Fountain won and became Speaker of the House.
During his one term in the legislature, Fountain placed education bills at the top of the agenda, urging quality education for both sexes. He saw statehood for New Mexico closely tied to education. Fountain largely was responsible for bringing about the Las Cruces School of Agriculture, the forerunner of New Mexico State University.
Fall also opposed Fountain on the matter of New Mexico's statehood. Despite efforts by Fountain and others, New Mexico did not gain its statehood until January 6, 1912. Fall beat Fountain in his 1892 bid to maintain his seat in the New Mexico Senate.
Fountain became the enemy of cattle rustlers when the Southeast New Mexico Stock Growers Association hired him as attorney in 1894. He prosecuted John Kinney, the head of the most active rustling gang in the area. Of 123 grand jury indictments against the gang, 14 were against Kinney himself. Owen makes note of the fact that Kinney offered Fountain $3,000 to defend him. In 1894 alone, Fountain secured the convictions of 20 cattle rustlers. His success probably led to his death.
The Fall-Fountain conflict continued as Fall defended the same people that Fountain targeted -- cattle rustlers. Fountain suspected Fall's friend, Oliver Lee , of rustling and collected enough evidence against Lee and his associates to present to the grand jury. In January 1896, he traveled to Lincoln accompanied by his young son Henry. Fountain secured 32 indictments against 23 men, including Lee and Bill McNew, his assistant, for rustling and changing brands. Fountain and his eight-year-old son began the 100-mile journey home, but they were never to arrive.
Many theories exist about what happened to Albert and Henry Fountain on February 1, 1896. Testimony shows that Saturnino Barela, a stage driver, saw three men following the Fountains somewhere between Tularosa and Las Cruces.
When they did not arrive home, two of Fountain's older sons went searching for them. Close to Chalk Hill on what is now White Sands Missile Range, they found a spot where the buggy had suddenly swerved. A large patch of blood stained the ground. After following the tracks for 12 miles, they found the buckboard containing Henry's hat and Fountain's cartridge belt.
Three years later, Oliver Lee and Jim Gilliland were tried and acquitted in Hillsboro for Henry's murder, but no one was ever tried for Fountain's death. And who defended the duo? None other than Fountain's enemy, Albert B. Fall.
Some historians believe that Fall was behind the murders, but no solid proof ever emerged against him. Pat Garrett spent a lot of time investigating the murders, to no avail. Then in a 1949 deathbed confession, Sam Ketchum, a known train robber, told authorities that he had seen his brother Tom kill the Fountains and then burn the bodies. He then produced the Masonic Lodge pin Fountain had worn the day of his death. Ketchum said he had been one of the three men following Fountain.
However, bodies have yet to be found, and speculations on what happened that day have filled books, journals and newspapers all over the country. The mystery has taken on legendary proportions. The disappearance of Fountain and his son has overshadowed the many contributions that Fountain made to the development of the Southwest.
Fountain's life can be further studied in Mesilla where his family runs the Gadsden Museum. The Fountain Theater in Mesilla, still owned by a member of the family, now shows art films. Colonel Fountain and his family were involved in dramatic productions in Mesilla, and the family continued the tradition after his death.
Albert Jennings Fountain - an extraordinary pioneer of West Texas and New Mexico - lived during an exciting era in the Southwest, and the story of his life, not just his death, is one well worth preserving.Go to top