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Borderlands: James Gillett Showed Courage in El Paso 23 (2004-2005)

A unique resource of faculty edited college student articles on the history and culture of the El Paso, Juárez, and Southern New Mexico regions.

James Gillett Showed Courage in El Paso

Article first published in Vol. 23 (2004-2005)

By Elisa Figueroa-Pavia, Omar Guerrero, Julie Williams, Jeramiah Tovar and Rene Ochoa 

"What is a Legend? Commitment. Determination. Believing in your cause. It's what made a legend then and what still makes one today." -- Former Texas Rangers Foundation .

The legend of James Buchanan Gillett began with the famous Texas Rangers and continued as he maintained law and order in the West Texas town of El Paso .

Gillett was born on November 4, 1856, in Austin, Texas, to James S. and Bettie Lee Gillett. He attributed his love of danger, excitement and the open range to his father.

The younger Gillett found school a drudgery, and at the age of 11 traded his books for the outdoors and began to fish and hunt. He sold the fish and game on the streets of Austin, the money from sales allowing him to buy his first two guns, an Enfield musket used by Confederate soldiers and a double-barrel shotgun.

By the time he was 14, Gillett was skilled with a gun. Eventually, he moved to Menard County where he befriended a company of Texas Rangers fueling his desire to become a ranger.


Image caption: James B. Gillett was a Texas Ranger and served as as El Paso marshal. Photo courtesy of El Paso Public Library.

The Texas Rangers were established in the spring of 1836, when Mexican troops attacked the Alamo. General Sam Houston organized men to protect the borders of Texas. Gillett joined the Rangers on June 1, 1875, at the age of 19.

He fought against Comanches, Kiowas, and Apaches, including Victorio. The rangers also protected frontier settlers and their possessions against infamous outlaws from both sides of the Rio Grande.

In 1877, Gillett helped transfer the notorious John Wesley Hardin from Austin to Comanche to stand trial for the murder of Deputy Sheriff Charles Webb. Gillett later wrote, "The boy who had sold fish and game on the streets of Austin was now guarding the most desperate criminal in Texas." 

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In 1879, Gillett made the six-week trip to El Paso County from San Antonio with a ranger company headed by Lt. George Baylor. They were sent to reestablish the peace that was disturbed by the El Paso Salt War and to assume command of the ranger company that had been overtaken and imprisoned by an angry mob in San Elizario. By the time Gillett, the Baylor family and five other rangers arrived in Ysleta, the violence had stopped.

In 1881, while stationed in Ysleta, Gillett married Helen Baylor, the 16-year-old daughter of Lt. Baylor. They had two sons: Baylor, who died at age three, and James Harper Gillett, who took his grandmother's last name and was known as Harper Lee, the first American bullfighter in Mexico

On Christmas Eve 1881, an event took place at the Methodist Church in Socorro, New Mexico, which would seal Gillett's reputation for courage. A. M. Conklin, editor of the town's newspaper, ordered Abran and Onofre Baca to remove their mud-encrusted boots from a woman's shawl, which was lying on a pew. This enraged Onofre. They fought, and when Conklin left the church, the Baca brothers murdered him.

When Gillett heard that his good friend had been murdered, he asked permission to go after the killers. With a $500 reward offered for each of the fugitives, Gillett and George Lloyd, another ranger, set out after the Baca brothers.

Gillett details the story in his book, Six Years With the Texas Rangers, Gillett learned that the men were staying at the house of their uncle, Jose Baca, who happened to be a county judge in Ysleta. Judge Baca stopped Gillett and offered him a bribe of $1,000 to let his nephews go free. Gillett wrote, "All the money in El Paso County was not enough to buy me off from upholding the law." Authorities arrested Abran, but Onofre fled.

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A few days later, Gillett discovered that Baca was working in a store in Zaragosa, Mexico. Disregarding international law, Gillett and Lloyd crossed the river and apprehended Baca.


Gillett writes that he put a six-shooter to Baca's head and "ordered him to 'step lively,'" A posse of enraged Mexicans let loose with a hail of bullets as they chased the rangers across the border.

Gillett recalls that when they got back to camp, Lt. Baylor ordered Gillett to let Baca go free. Gillett refused, saying, "I have been with the Texas Rangers for six years, and I have seen many murderers go free because they crossed over into Mexico. This time I had to take the law into my own hands." Baylor allowed Gillett to turn Baca over and collect his $500 reward. An angry mob hanged Baca.

Mexico vigorously protested the Gillett invasion and the kidnapping of Baca. Washington, D. C., put pressure on Texas Governor Oran M. Roberts to force Gillett to resign from the rangers, which he did, on December 26, 1881.

Gillett briefly worked as a Santa Fe railroad guard but resigned to take a job in El Paso as a deputy marshal for the infamous Dallas Stoudenmire, another ex-ranger. In April 1881, Stoudenmire had been involved in the "Four Dead in Five Seconds" gunfight in which former marshal George Campbell, former Texas Ranger Gus Krempkau, Johnny Hale and an innocent bystander were killed.

While Stoudenmire may have been one of El Paso's most well-known marshals, his short temper and drinking habits made him dangerous and hostile. Stoudenmire's drunken antics soon forced the city council to ask him to explain his behavior. The marshal showed up and threatened the council with a gun.

A few days later when he finally stopped drinking and became clear-headed, Stoudenmire submitted his resignation to the council, which made James Gillett the new city marshal.

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Gillett took over at a time when the railroad made El Paso an inviting destination. Leon Metz wrote in his book, The Shooters: "Land speculators, businessmen, preachers, outlaws, fiddle foots of every description and degree or lack of integrity headed for El Paso like maggots towards an open wound."

Gillett also had to deal with stubborn, dangerous drunkards frequenting popular saloons and brothels. He did not swear nor drink. It was rare to find someone who could deny himself a shot of whiskey at a time when hard drinking was acceptable. His sobriety was one of the major factors that helped him retire from bloody El Paso unscathed.

Gillett believed in crime prevention. With his calm, cool temperament, Gillett approached outlaws in a non-confrontational manner whenever possible. He would psychologically demolish his enemies' ability to fight at a time when man's instinct greatly outweighed man's logic. These traits might indicate that Gillett was a big, intimidating figure. On the contrary, he stood only five feet, nine inches tall, every fiber of his wiry body ready for action.

His background as a Texas Ranger and as an excellent shot prevented many from testing his dexterity with weapons. Of course, he did sport a specially made gun belt that allowed him to shoot without drawing his guns. Gillett even prevented the former marshal Stoudenmire and an ex-deputy from killing each other while both were drunk. Gillett took both to court, where they were fined and Stoudenmire placed under bond to keep the peace.

Gillett soon had a reputation as an outstanding citizen and an adept lawman. Even criminals had respect for him. They knew that he was not the type to shoot first and ask questions later, like Stoudenmire. Unlike most common men of the time who showed their bravado only after a couple of shots of whiskey, Jim Gillett's bravery was a natural one.

Even though Gillett was an excellent lawman, the pressures of a failing marriage would prove to be too much. On March 24, 1885, Gillett resigned his position as marshal when he clashed with mayor pro-tem Paul Keating, a saloon owner. Gillett unwisely accused Keating of drunkenness. Keating claimed Gillett collected fees and taxes without properly accounting for them. Gillett finally lost his temper. The enraged Gillett struck the alderman and threatened to shoot him. The council dismissed Gillett, and he took up ranching near Marfa, Texas.

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Contrary to Keating's accusations, Gillett did keep records of fines, cases and criminals. Following his resignation, a Lone Star newspaper article listed Gillett's accomplishments as marshal: "1,254 arrests made in the city and 1,111 convictions. There were 430 drunks, 284 cases of vagrancy, 145 breaches of the peace, 108 gambling charges, 62 cases for unlawfully carrying weapons, 52 cases of assault and battery, 41 violations of [the] opium ordinance, and for committing nuisances, trespass, and other minor offenses." El Paso had lost one of its best lawmen.

Divorced from Helen in 1889, Gillett married Lou Chastain and had several more children. He later became sheriff of Brewster County, Texas, for two years and tax assessor for four years.

Gillett retired from ranching at the age of 67. He was a 32nd degree Scottish Rite Mason, director of the Marfa National Bank and for many years the president of the Boys Camp Meeting. He helped organize the West Texas Historical Association and was instrumental in organizing the Highland Hereford Breeders Association. In 1921, he published the autobiographical  Six Years With the Texas Rangers: 1875-1881, which was used as a textbook in 17 states.

At the age of 80, Jim Gillett died of a heart attack. The Texas Legislature and the Texas Department of Public Safety created the Texas Ranger Hall of Fame and Museum in Waco as a memorial to James Buchanan Gillett and 29 other outstanding Texas Rangers. A Texas historical marker can be found at his gravesite in Marfa.

His many contributions to El Paso earn him a place as one of El Paso's most impressive historical figures. Leon Metz wrote, "Gillett [was] a man of courage, intelligence, and resourcefulness: within his limitations, he epitomized the near perfect lawman, and set standards equaled but never excelled to this day." It was a mere six years as a Texas Ranger and a short stint as El Paso marshal that created the legend that would continue long after his death.

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