Welcome to Hillsboro, New Mexico

About Hillsboro:
Hillsboro’s history is a tale ripped from the pages of a western novel. Geronimo’s Apache tribe once roamed the rugged Black Range Mountains above where Hillsboro sits along the Percha Creek. The center of a thriving mining district that included Kingston and Lake Valley, in the 1880s the region’s rich silver strikes attracted thousands of treasure-seeking prospectors, who dug mines and tunnels with sweat and blood.

From hundreds of holes in the ground, miners produced millions of dollars worth of silver, attracting merchants, saloons, and madams seeking gold from another kind of digging. This pioneer community suffered from hunger, illness, Apache raids, and each other. Some did strike it rich. But these classic boom towns went bust, when in 1893 the price of silver took a permanent nose dive. People left in droves. From more than 10,000, fewer than 2,000 residents remained by the mid 1890s.

Hillsboro managed to survive, buoyed by gold mines in the area, and surrounded by area ranches that used the wild and rocky landscape for grazing cattle. The city served as the Sierra County seat of government from these territory days, until 1936.

In1892 Hillsboro residents constructed a large, handsome brick courthouse as a symbol of their commitment to civilization in the harsh, lawless frontier. The courthouse is said to be the same design as the one that still stands in Tombstone, Arizona.

A notorious murder trial put Hillsboro on the map in 1896. The alleged crime was so horrific – the murder of Judge Albert Jennings Fountain and his 8-year-old son Henry – that it was said to have delayed statehood for New Mexico Territory until 1912.

Judge Fountain was returning from a trip to Lincoln County, where he had entered an indictment against rancher Oliver Lee and others for cattle rustling. He and his son disappeared on a lonely stretch of desert between Lincoln and Mesilla, where their family waited in vain for them to return. Their bodies were never found. Immediately the powerful Oliver Lee was suspected of being involved.

In addition to the indictment, the two men had had an ongoing social and political feud — Fountain was a friend to the Hispanic community and a republican, and Lee, a democrat. The disappearance was investigated by the Pinkertons and famed Sheriff Pat Garrett. Still, it took more than two years to build the case and safely arrest Lee and two of his ranch hands. The trial couldn’t take place in Fountain’s home-town of Mesilla, as there Oliver Lee would be a dead man. The presiding judge moved the proceedings to Hillsboro, to the stately brick courthouse overlooking the town.

Thomas Catron was the prosecuting attorney. Lawyer Albert Bacon Fall represented the defendants. Lee also had another friend in town — the local “madam”, Sadie Orchard. She also owned the Orchard Grove Hotel and restaurant, from which she made a big show of delivering meals to the jail for the defendants each day during the eighteen-day trial. Telegraph lines were strung 20 miles from Lake Valley to Hillsboro for the occasion, and reporters transmitted the trial proceedings to the Wall Street Journal in New York City.

In the absence of bodies, the case against Oliver Lee and his men couldn’t be proved. After deliberating less than an hour, the jury returned with a verdict: Not guilty. Lee and Sadie celebrated. Pat Garrett and Albert Fall took the first stage coach out of town.

The celebrated courthouse was sold in 1939, and taken apart brick by brick. Its demise resulted from a dispute that erupted when the seat of county government was moved from Hillsboro, to the more populous and prosperous city of Hot Springs (now Truth or Consequences). The salvaged bricks were trucked down the road thirty-two miles, where they were used to build new storefronts in downtown Hot Springs.

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