Captain Joseph Callaway Lea Chaves County, New Mexico

Captain Joseph Callaway Lea is always spoken of as the pioneer of Chaves County, and to no man is due in as great measure the early development of this part of the Territory. Roswell largely stands as a monument to his enterprise and labor, and in the days of lawlessness and violence he ever stood for justice, right, honor and truth. He was a man among men, who in any community and under any circumstances would have been respected and honored. No history of Chaves County would be complete without the record of his career.

He was born in the hamlet of Cleveland, Tennessee, on the 8th of November. 1841, and was the second son of Dr. Pleasant J. G. and Lucinda (Callaway) Lea. In 1849 the parents removed to Missouri with their family, settling at Lea's Summit, which was so named in honor of Dr. Lea. Educational opportunities were limited at that early day, and, although Dr. Lea was a successful country practitioner and farmer, he was able to give his children only the rudiments of an education, but by precept, admonition and example he instilled in them the principles of honor, sobriety and rectitude of purpose, more valuable than the world's accumulated store of knowledge.

Joseph C. Lea grew to manhood, a hard-working, energetic farmer boy of simple tastes, who viewed the internecine struggle then just beginning as something at a distance that did not concern boys of his age. From this, however, he was suddenly awakened, when, in December, 1861, he and his younger brother, Frank H. Lea. were arrested while gathering corn in their father's field by a squad of Kansas border soldiers, making their escape just before all the other captives of that raid were shot down, and, realizing that their safety depended upon staying away from home, they immediately joined their fortunes with the Confederacy as members of the Sixth Missouri Regiment, forming a part of Shelby's brigade. How well he bore his part in the great struggle is attested by the records. He entered the service a farmer boy, without any training, and was a colonel before the third year of his service had expired. He made a reputation as captain and that title ever after stuck to him. A dashing- young officer who seemed to have no thought of fear, yet he was constantly on the alert to protect his men, especially his close personal friends. A vacancy in the office of first lieutenant was to be filled, and Captain Jason W. James, of this county, and another whose name is not now at hand were aspirants. Captain James felt hurt at not getting the place and asked Captain Lea why he had turned him down. With a look that showed his heart was touched, he replied: "James, I love you too well to put you in a place where I know you will get killed." Many instances of this character could he given concerning Captain Lea. When the war ended he accepted the situation with the same fortitude he displayed in everything else and went to Georgia, where he engaged in railroad building and in cotton-planting, "but in a short time he removed to Mississippi.


In the year 1867 was celebrated the marriage of Captain Lea and Mrs. Douglass Burbridge, who lived about four years after their marriage.

In 1875 he married Miss Sallie Wildy, a sister of Ernest L. Wildy and Mrs. George T. Davis. In 1876 they removed to Colfax County, New Mexico, and in 1877 became residents of Roswell, where in 1884 Mrs. Lea died, leaving two children: Harry Wildy Lea, and Mrs. Ella L. Bedell.

In 1889, Captain Lea married Mrs. Mabel Doss Day, of Coleman, Texas, who survived him until April, 1906. As stated, Captain Lea came to the Territory and was one of the first white settlers of Chaves County who left the impress of his individuality upon its development and upbuilding. Those were wild days when death was to be feared not only at the hands of the savages but of lawless white men as well. Having become convinced that Colfax County did not possess the elements for a future home, he journeyed down into the Pecos valley and on the 12th of February reached the present site of Roswell with his little caravan. There were few settlers in the country then. A number of Mexicans lived on the Berrendo and a few white people at Missouri Plaza, a short distance up the Hondo. The country, however, was almost totally a wilderness. Captain Lea began his life here as other pioneer settlers, handling, raising and dealing in cattle. In the '70s he turned his attention to merchandising and so continued until the '80s, his place of business being on the site now occupied by the Record building. For many years this was the principal mercantile establishment of the great Pecos Country and the trading point for hundreds of miles in every direction. All the while Captain Lea kept on investing his money in lands and at one time owned a vast tract of what is today the most valuable land in the country. When he arrived here the only law was one of might and the six shooter, and undoubtedly he would not have escaped with his life if it had not been that the lawless band recognized a dauntless spirit in his clear gray eve. He was about the only man who was able to maintain absolute neutrality in the historic Lincoln county war. He told the belligerents that when he felt like doing any fighting he would do it on his own hook and they could fight out their little un-pleasantness to suit themselves; nor did they question his decision. They knew better, and while the conflict raged Captain Lea attended strictly to his own business. Money was plenty in those days and he prospered, amassing much of this world's goods, consisting mostly of land and cattle. He was known to every man. woman and child in the great valley, up into the mountains, and out upon the llano, and neither then nor in the years that have come and gone was the voice of dishonor ever raised against him. By the people of every decade he was regarded with general respect and trust.

Captain Lea was one of the first to realize the great future that lay before Chaves County and Roswell. His wide experience had taught him that every element of greatness was here, soil that was a veritable mine of richness, a splendid water supply adequate, it seemed, to the demands of all time, a matchless climate, a wealth of all the elements necessary to cattle growing, were at every hand. The first fruit trees had given forth great promise and the captain realized that there was a great future in store for the country, and from the beginning of his residence here until his death he has been an active co-operant in every measure to help build up the town and valley. No project has ever been advanced for the common good that he did not do his part.

On one occasion Captain Lea suffered heavy losses. When there was a great decline in the value of cattle he was the central figure in the Lea Cattle Company. The financial disaster overtook the company and he parted with the greater portion of his wealth. In keeping with the sterling integrity that had always marked the man was his conduct at this period. Instead of saving what he could from the wreck he placed his entire assets in the mill and when the last dollar of indebtedness was paid he had but little remaining. But for the rapid increase in values on his property that remained he would have been forced to start anew in his old age with everything gone save honor. His influence, more than that of any other man, has been felt in the up-building of Roswell and Chaves County. He was never too busy to give his time and experience, without price, to all those who came to see and no vale ever had a more loyal champion. Whether he was directly benefited or not it was all the same to him. He gave of his lands and money to every public enterprise that was instituted. He was one of the most loyal champions of the noble educational institution for boys now known as the New Mexico Military Institute. In his social relations he was an enthusiastic Mason. He was also captain and commander of the local camp of Confederate Veterans, which position he held until his death, and was its first delegate to the national encampment. Public office was always distasteful to him, but at length he was prevailed upon to accent the position of mayor, and after he had entered upon the duties of the office he said. "I would rather be the first mayor of Roswell than to be governor of the Territory of New Mexico." Such was his love for the town that he built.

The Roswell Record said of him: "Captain Lea was in almost every aspect a remarkable man. In stature he stood six feet and four inches and his nobility of nature was as far above that of the average man as he exceeded him in stature. For more than a quarter of a century he was a citizen in Roswell. He came here when this was simply a wayside post office on a star route. He saw the place bud into a village and blossom into a city, and to his aid more than to any one is the growth of his beloved town due. At one time he owned all the land upon which the town is built and had he been a selfish gain-seeker he could have been one of the wealthiest men in all the land, but such was the breadth of his charity that he died comparatively a poor man. No worthy person ever applied to him in vain. Even when most burdened with his own affairs he was constantly working for the general good of his town and county. Like all truly good men, he was exceedingly modest and could never hear himself praised without blushing. He was more active than any other in securing the creation of this county and when it was suggested that it be named in his honor he modestly demurred. He steadfastly declined all public honors until Roswell was incorporated as a city and then at the almost unanimous demand of the people he consented to become its first mayor.

"Captain Lea had a kind word and was always ready to do a good deed for everyone. No man ever had higher ideals of manhood and womanhood than he. To the young man he was a father and elder brother, and there are hundreds today who feel a personal obligation to him for his kindness and advice. It is given to but few men to have such a hold upon the affections of a people as he had. To those familiar with life here in the early days in the southwest there need not be recounted the many incidents in which Captain Lea in his stand for the supremacy of law displayed a courage and heroism as great as ever soldier displayed on the field of battle. So from the time that Roswell was but a trading post Captain Lea has been a central and foremost figure. Public spirited as he was, he liked to keep in close touch with the progress of local events and to talk of plans for the public good which he wished to see consummated. Believing firmly as he did that Roswell is destined to be the metropolis of New Mexico, all of his plans were made with this in view."

When death claimed Captain Lea resolutions of respect were passed by Valverde Camp No. 1419, N. C. V., of Roswell, by the Masonic fraternity and other organizations, including the city council, who ordered that all city offices and buildings be closed until after the funeral and the stores of the city also closed their doors and suspended business out of respect to the honored mayor and foremost citizen of the town. Most impressive funeral services were held, more than one thousand friends and neighbors of Captain Lea following in solemn procession the remains to their last resting place. The services were held in the Christian church, of which Captain Lea was a devoted member. The body had lain in state in the church from six o'clock on the previous evening and hundreds of friends had called to pay their last tribute of respect to one whom they had long known and honored. Interment was made by the Masonic lodge to which he belonged, the beautiful Masonic burial ceremony being observed, at the conclusion of which the veterans of Valverde Camp took position around the grave, holding over it the folds of the stars and bars, while a firing squad from the New Mexico Military Institute fired a salute of three volleys. Taps were then sounded. Long years, however, will have passed before Captain Lea will have been forgotten by those among whom he lived and labored, and as long as the history of Chaves County has a place in the records of the Territory his name will be honored for what he did for his locality, for public progress and for common humanity.

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Source: History of New Mexico, Its Resources and People, Volume II, Pacific States Publishing Co., 1907.

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Created 1996 by Charles Barnum & 2016 by Judy White

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