#55 Las Gorras Blancas Fight Back

San Miguel County in the late 1880s was a microcosm of America’s gilded age. Vast personal fortunes were produced at the expense of working class communities.1

When New Mexico became part of the U.S. in 1848, Las Vegas grew quickly to become an important commercial center. Growing investment in the railroad and new business enterprises relied on local resources to continue growing.

The U.S. issued new land grants to encourage economic activity in the region. These grants replaced earlier ones that had been made by Mexico under their rule, and Spain before that. They came in two types – private grants to individuals, and common grants made to groups of individuals for the purpose of establishing settlements.

As capital poured into New Mexico, newly arrived homesteaders and large cattle operators erected fences on the grant lands enclosing thousands of acres. The increasing economic power of these new commercial interests squeezed out subsistence settlers, whose livelihoods were totally dependent on the common lands.1

Desperate People, Desperate Acts

From the winter of 1889 until the summer 1891, a group of about 1,500 Las Vegas-area farmers, ranchers, herders and concerned citizens banded together to fight against an onslaught of opportunist settlers, businessmen and political authorities. At stake was the right to survive and to preserve a way of life they and their ancestors had known for generations.

They became known as Las Gorras Blancas (The White Caps) for the white hoods each wore when they assembled on horseback in public protests, and on raids to destroy the property of the “land grabbers” who would ultimately destroy them.

The destruction caused by Las Gorras Blancas was mainly focused on property, not people. Violence directly upon individuals was unusual, however there were isolated shootings and killings blamed on the White Caps.

David vs. Goliath

Historians of New Mexico have viewed the clash between Las Gorras Blancas and commercial elites in racial and class terms.

As a political struggle, it was simply not a fair fight for the native New Mexicans. These were very desirable lands to a rapidly increasing number of Anglos, non-Hispanic settlers and wealthy, influential Hispanic families of the region. Those who wanted them would find a way to get them using new federal and territorial laws to gain ownership of existing ranches and farms.

For the small, powerless Las Vegas area farmers and ranchers, these newly redefined land use laws were overwhelmingly confusing. The conditions were ripe for dishonest land grabbers to steal what rightfully belonged to the original owners.

While Las Gorras Blancas made a desperate effort to get a foothold in state politics, the odds were against them. Once they failed, they resorted to the only solution they had left; in organized missions, they used blunt force to discourage the advancing settlers.

This secret organization of volunteers became nightriders, cutting fences and burning the barns and haystacks of ranchers cutting them off from what used to be common land. They destroyed railroad ties, cut telegraph lines and burned bridges in an effort to disrupt the emerging railroad that was the foundation of commercial development in the New Mexico land grant.

Goliath Wins

The goal of Las Gorras Blancas was not merely the eradication of barbed wire fences, but the destruction of the underlying logic and ideology that fueled the commercial and industrial transformation of New Mexico. Las Gorras Blancas sought to develop a class-based consciousness among local people through the everyday tactics of resistance to the economic and social order confronting common property land grant communities. In reaction to the “White Cap Outrages”, as the group’s campaign of fence cutting came to be referred, local economic and political elites engaged in a retaliatory pattern of widespread rural repression. 1

In time, outside merchant, ranching, and railroad interests won out. As letters of outrage flooded the Governor’s office, both State and Federal pressure was applied. Many White Caps were captured and tried for their crimes. Because of the political volatility of the issue, and the widespread sympathy for their cause, many charges were dropped. Eventually, their raids on their enemies evolved into a less violent, political-based movement in the form of groups such as el Partido del Pueblo Unido (the People’s Party).

Illustration detail from The People’s History of El Norte mural in Las Vegas, made possible by Casa de Cultura. Shown: Juan Jose, Pablo, and Nicanor Herrera, founders and leaders of Las Gorras Blancas.

Note: Our thanks to NewMexicoHistory.Org for their permission to excerpt from their site. For an in-depth account of this historical event, we recommend visiting: NewMexicoHistory.org

1. [NewMexicoHistory.org, Las Gorras Blancas of San Miguel County, by David Correia]

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