Photos of Frenchys cabin, Indian wells nearby and the 7 mile round trip hike up Dog Canyon…
One of the early settlers of the Dog Canyon area near Alamogordo and White Sands National Monument was a pioneer named Francois-Jean Rochas, known by everyone who knew him as Frenchy.
Rocha, or Frenchy, was born in France in 1843 and emigrated to New Mexico in the 1880s. Frenchy was a sort of recluse/mountain man who was very interesting, brave and a hard-working character.
French was a stubborn little Frenchman who lived like a hermit up in the wild hill country of the Sacramentos. He was perhaps the bravest man who ever lived in the Tularosa country and possibly even all of the Southwest.
He spoke broken English, was never very well-dressed, and seldom went to town. When he did, hardly anyone showed him kindness or even attempted to be friendly.
In the early 1880s, Frenchy had moved to Dog Canyon.
Advised not to move to the area Frenchy did anyhow. He packed his supplies in his old buggy and moved up through the San Augustin Pass and on across the desolate Tularosa sands toward the place in the canyon, some 65 miles west. He probably felt no anxiety or fear about what he was doing. In fact, his whole philosophy of living and dying showed that he wasn’t afraid of whatever fate had to offer.
He built mortarless stone walls to corral his livestock, portions of which snaked along the slopes at the mouth of Little Dog Canyon. Frenchy raised cattle and tended an orchard and vineyard.
The closest neighbor, Oliver Milton Lee, settled in Dog Canyon about the same time as Frenchy.
Lee was born in Buffalo Gap, near Abilene, Texas, on Nov. 8, 1865 and came to New Mexico Territory in the fall of 1884 with his half brother, Perry Altman. They were attracted to New Mexico by the open range, free land and a ready market for horses. Lee, already an established horseman and adept with the revolver, insisted on coming. He was only 18. Later, Lee brought his mother and servants and started the Dog Canyon Ranch.
Oliver and Frenchy jointly developed an irrigation system at Dog Canyon. Ditches carried the precious water to the ranch house and pastures. Ruins of the irrigation conduits still remain along the trail leading into the canyon. This was one of several irrigation systems Oliver established along the western escarpment of the Sacramento Mountains.
As competition for open range, land, and water increased during the late 1800s, violent rivalries sometimes ensued. Soon after Christmas 1884, Frenchy was found dead in his cabin at Dog Canyon. A coroner’s jury concluded it was suicide, but evidence and hearsay suggest it was murder. He was only 51 years old when he died. Some suggest Lee and Frenchy were disagreeing over the water ownership at this time. Other accounts suggest field hands did Frenchy in. No one was ever charged with the murder, and the mystery of his death has never been solved.
The Lincoln County War is an example of those violent times. Lee often became involved in these disputes and was accused by some of cattle rustling and stealing land. In 1896, A.J. Fountain, a prominent judge, local rancher and rival of Lee, was murdered along with his young son Henry in the Tularosa Valley. Sheriff Pat Garrett charged Lee with the murders. Lee evaded capture and refused to surrender, believing that he would not remain alive or receive a fair trial in Dona Anna County. This became known as the fountain murders.
No one knows for sure why Frenchy had left his father, mother, brother, two sisters and the peace of the mountains of France. However, more than likely it was his health that brought him to the arid mountains of the American Southwest, as he often talked about his “catarrh in the head” and “pains in the stomach.”
Frenchy always signed his letters as just plain “Frank.”
Frenchy’s life was not to remain so peaceful, however. His first trouble started on July 1, 1886, when he became involved in a little shoot out. He had suspected that a young man named Morrison, who had been working for him, was stealing from him. Frenchy went to La Luz in Otero County, swore out a warrant and had Morrison arrested.
In any event Morrison was soon free and on his way back to Dog Canyon. Long before daybreak he was behind a rock with his gun, waiting for Frenchy to come outside.
A trail of smoke was soon coming from Frenchy’s stove-pipe chimney as he cooked his breakfast. Later, he went outside and began his work as usual. Morrison waited until he had an opportune time then sent a slug from a Winchester into Frenchy’s body.
The Frenchman knew instantly what had happened and covered his wound with his hands, as he staggered toward his cabin. A second shot echoed among the canyon walls, the bullet hitting Frenchy in the arm, but the settler somehow made it to his hut where he crawled into his bed.
About 10 o’clock that night Morrison acted again, evidently deciding to finish his murderous task. He broke open the door and dashed inside, quickly finding his man. Frenchy, calm and steady, was ready and waiting. His gun was lined up on the intruder, and moments later, Morrison, carrying a bullet, took off for parts unknown.
Frenchy, in poor condition, eventually made it to the nearest ranch where he told his story. Soon a posse set out to get the would-be killer, and in good time he was in the Las Cruces jail.
In a short time, Frenchy’s wounds had healed and he was back on his place. With 500 head of cattle carrying his Scoop R brand, he was becoming quite prosperous. He did not put up with any nonsense. When neighboring ranchers cattle drifted up the canyon, he chased them off, and during each round up he carefully watched to see if anyone was stealing from him.
One of Frenchy’s neighbors didn’t like the squatter’s ranching methods, and told him how he felt. The Frenchman answered him in his crude English: “You are stealing my cows, if I catch you, I have you arrested!”
Frenchy knew what to expect from brave talk like that, but he was not afraid. The neighbor, a Texan, along with those who rode with him, were baffled by the coolness of the man. They rode off mumbling, “Somebody will get that fool Frenchman if he don’t look out!”
Frenchy stayed, but he began to worry about something else. He hadn’t staked out a claim on his land and he had no legal right to the place.
Frenchy ultimately died on his land. It was declared a suicide but all believe he was murdered and inquiry was inconclusive.
You can hike to see Frenchys cabin it’s a rugged 3100 elevation gain hike and is about 7 miles round trip via Oliver Lee State Park and into Federal Lands of the Lincoln National Forest:
M. Chris Edwards
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