The Fearless Sheepherder on the New Mexico Frontier

Southwest Jewish History
Volume 2, Number 2, p. 3-7
The Fearless Sheepherder on the New Mexico Frontier

(Editor's Note: Sol Floersheim was one of the Southwest's most intrepid Jewish pioneers. The following article is excerpted from a memoir written by his son Carl in 1953.)

My father arrived in New York the latter part of 1878. After a day or so getting located, he obtained work in a matzoh factory at $5 per week; not being able to subsist on such a wage he drifted West and what money he had from home took him as far as Trinidad, Colorado where he arrived in the early part of 1879. He worked there a few months for a pioneer firm of Rosenwald Brothers. His wages there as a clerk were $12.50 per month. He found a cheap eating place and slept in the store and so managed to get by.

While working for the Rosenwalds, he contracted typhoid fever and was committed to a hospital. It seems that while there his bosses brought him lemons and other items which they thought would soon make him well but on getting back to work my father found they had charged him for all of that and he got mad and quit. He left one night, bumming his way to Las Vegas, New Mexico where he arrived in the latter part of 1879.

[Sol Floersheim's first job in Las Vegas was as a liquor salesman and after a harrying experience where he saw a man shot to death, he began carrying a pistol.]

My father started to work for Mr. Charles Ilfeld, a real pioneer of those days sometime in 1880. He worked for him about seven years as clerk and as collector in the outlying districts that were adjacent to Las Vegas which was then a very important trading point. Collections from ranchers consisted mainly of receiving wool and sheep twice each year, wool in June, sheep in October. It was on one of these collecting trips that my father had occasion to encounter the Southwest's famous outlaw, Billy the Kid. It seems that on July 12, 1881 my father's destination was a sheep ranch about 15 miles southwest of Fort Sumner, New Mexico which was the home area of Billy the Kid. [Looking for a place to stay overnight, Sol Floersheim stopped at a small saloon where he noticed a young man sitting. He asked the man where he could find a place to stay.] My father was told of two places and turned to go out when the young man asked him to take a drink of whiskey. My father told him he did not carry for any. The young man drew a pistol and pointed at my father and said, "you drink," and he did.

The young man then inquired where he was from, his name, what he was doing, and what his possessions were. While they were talking, he asked my father to take another drink. Of course, until then my father did not know that he was facing Billy the Kid. My father had on his a very fine Winchester .45 Colt pistol and he started kidding the outlaw and even offered to trade guns with him. Billy preferred his own pistol that had killed at that time 21 men and had a notch on the wood handle for everyone killed. My father even had the nerve to ask Billy to come and see him when he came to Las Vegas, but the true fact was that he ever wanted to see him again.

My father did not remain in Fort Sumner that night. He was afraid Billy might change his mind and kill him so he traveled all night and arrived at a ranch house and was pleased to find it was occupied by the famous Sheriff Pat Garrett. After a good breakfast Garrett said to my father, "Sol, let us go back to Fort Sumner and get Billy." My father told him, "I saw all I wanted of that fellow. If you want him, you go and get him."

[Garrett killed Billy the Kid on July 14, 1881.]

Some time in 1882 my mother (nee Emma Blumenthal) came over from Germany with Mrs. Charles Ilfeld who had gone to Frankfurt am Main on a visit, that was my mother's birth-place as well as that of the Ilfeld family. My mother went to work in Las Vegas for Mr. Ilfeld as buyer and clerk in the drygoods department and also served as bookkeeper. It was there that my parents met and fell in love and were married December 25, 1884.

[For Sol Floersheim, a man small in stature but steeled in strength, there were more confrontations on the frontier. He was caught up in the robbery of a store in Springer, New Mexico with the bandit taking off with the $27 Sol had just collected from the store owner.]

My father told the store-keeper, "I shall go out and see if I can find the guy that held me up and see if I cannot recover your money." The store-keeper feared my father would be killed, but my father said, "I will take a chance." So he went out and across the street from the store he found the cowboy in a bar drinking. My father sneaked up behind him, swung the cowboy around and said, "Now it is my turn. Get your hands up and don't you dare make a move or I will kill you." My father took the man's gun and while his hands were up, rifled the man's pockets, took all the money he could find and told him to leave town that very minute and not come back for at least four days. On returning to the store he found out that he had made a good profit as they counted out $10 more than what was stolen.

Some time later my father told Mr. Ilfeld that he was quitting to go into business for himself. Mr. Ilfeld ridiculed him, told him he would not be able to make a living for himself. When my father left Mr. Ilfeld he started a small store in a small hamlet 20 miles north of Las Vegas, N.M. and in that small store he also had a small bar. It seems there was a blacksmith in this town that liked his whiskey and at times imbibed a little too freely. One day the blacksmith came for a drink, then another and when he came for the third one my father turned him down. That infuriated the 200-odd-pound 6-foot blacksmith so he came back with a loaded rifle and pointed it at my father and said, "You give me all the whiskey I want, or I will kill you." My father asked him what kind he wanted and he said blackberry brandy. My father grabbed the bottle by the neck and smashed the bottle in the blacksmith's face and then proceeded to use his fists until he had the man begging for mercy. He then took the blacksmith to his home, turned him over to the man's wife.

About twenty-five years later the man and his family came back through Springer and he called on my father. The blacksmith told my father, "What happened in your bar was the grandest thing that happened to me. You stopped my desire for liquor. You made a Christian out of me, you saved me for my family and I am pretty well-fixed now, have $50,000 in the bank."

I might mention that my father was five-feet tall and weighed 110-pounds, but he was packed full of dynamite, fearless and his hobby was licking big men. He was unusually strong, very agile, a veritable tiger and when he hit, a man went down.

To give you an idea of my father's stamina and fearlessness, at age seventy he gave a young Spanish fellow about thirty years old a sound thrashing even though outweighed fully by fifty pounds. He came into my father's store in Roy, New Mexico and said, "Here is a relief order you dirty little Jew and I don't want you to rob me." My father threw off his coat and lit into this fellow, gave him such a hard licking that they had to call the doctor afterward to sew him up.

At the age of seventy-five he had an encounter with a District Judge in the lower part of New Mexico. My father was talking to some prospective seller of wool in the lobby of a Roswell N.M. hotel when this so-called Judge walked through the lobby, greeted my father. The judge came back afterward and told the man to whom my father was talking to, "Why are you wasting your time with this little Jew?" My father looked at the Judge and said to him, "I believe they call you Judge down here. I have another name that fits you better." The Judge said, "What do you mean?" My father said, "you big overgrown SOB, you know what I mean. Let me tell you something. I am proud of my religion. I am proud of my religion, but I am damned sight prouder that I never killed anyone in cold blood [as you did]." The Judge walked out of the lobby entirely bewildered.

There was more, much more to Floersheim than defending himself or his religion. Somehow he had developed a great knowledge of medicine and helped doctors on the frontier. His son said that his father had told him that he probably had helped bring three hundred babies into the world, had performed "all kinds of minor surgery, amputations and helped doctors in Caesarian operations."

He also assisted in the founding and development of Congregation Montefiore in Las Vegas, N.M., a daughter explained, "Mother kept the High Holidays--fasted and read prayers--but she always said she couldn't get Father to stop his work or to close his stores long enough to do likewise. To me he seemed deeply religious, too, in his quiet way. His whole life was his religion. He supported his Temple [Montefiore] and charities, gave to the needy, but was broad enough to help the struggling churches of other faiths in other communities. He and the nuns and the priests of the Catholic Church were always close friends. He'd give generously to aid them, too."

The late historian, Floyd S. Fierman, wrote of Floersheim: "He possessed many outstanding characteristics, but his most redeeming one, in an era of blind exploitation of the worker, was his integrity. The Spanish system of raising sheep was, in effect, economic enslavement [of the sheepherder]. Sol Floersheim, in his sheep operations, employed people on wages with decent housing. In this way he maintained a fair, humane relationship with his employees."

The vast Jaritas Ranch that Sol Floersheim founded is still held and operated by the family today. In a telephone conversation with Donald Floersheim, Sol's grandson, he said, "We are still running sheep and cattle on the ranch. My grandfather at one time had 100,000 head of sheep on the Jaritas. Today we have mostly cattle, but still a few sheep. The Floersheim ranch is in eastern New Mexico near the town of Springer, population 1,300.