History in Focus: ‘Mexican Joe’ was a man of his times
In the annals of the rough history of Brown’s Park, Juan Jose Herrera (aka “Mexican Joe”) is remembered as one of the area’s original criminal badasses.
However, his reputation was distorted by the skewed memories and writings of others who lived in that era. Today, Herrera’s place in local history has taken on a more balanced and, dare I say it, nuanced interpretation.
Joe Herrera and his brother, Pablo, came to Brown’s Hole from Wyoming around 1870 and quickly settled into cattle ranching, trading with the Utes for tanned hides and setting up their homestead on the banks of Vermillion Creek near its confluence with the Green River.
John Rolfe Burroughs, In his 1962 book, “Where The Old West Stayed Young,” established the view of Herrera as a lawbreaker. While intelligent, courageous and strong, Burroughs defines Mexican Joe as a cattle rustler, heavy drinker, quick tempered and willing to violently intimidate and dominate by wielding his knife with a 10 inch blade.
In league with his massive but dim-witted brother Pablo, Burroughs creates the image of Joe as the ringleader of a derelict gang of Mexican criminals. Burroughs’ interpretation was informed by his reliance on the memoirs of Jesse Hoy, who, along with his brother Valentine, entered the park two years after the Herrera brothers. The Hoys dreamt of building a ranching fiefdom, and the two groups invariably fell into an intense competition for dominance of the park.
The climax of the conflict between Herrera’s crew and the Hoy ranch took place when Valentine got the best of Joe in a knife fight by punching him to the ground and then slashing him through the buttocks, immobilizing Herrera mentally and physically for several months. By 1881 the Herreras returned to New Mexico and exited the history of Moffat County.
By the 1980s Grace McClure, author of “The Bassett Women,” questioned the image of Joe as laid out by Burroughs. In a 1993 letter to the Museum of Northwest Colorado, McClure argued that Jesse Hoy was a “bigot and a red nec” (sic) who was an enemy of not only Herrera but the Bassetts, Matt Rash, and Judge Ausbury Conway, Herrera’s confidant and lawyer.
In the 2019 biography of Ann Bassett, “Nighthawk Rising,” author Diane Allen Kouris discusses Herrera’s life in New Mexico before he came north to Wyoming and Brown’s Park. During the Civil War, he rose to the rank of captain while serving the Union in the Third Regiment of the New Mexico Mounted Infantry. After the war, he also served a term in the territorial legislature.
After Herrera’s infamous years in Brown’s Park, he returned to Las Vegas, New Mexico and, according to McClure, worked to organize the Knights of Labor, the first nationwide labor movement that championed such progressive ideas as the eight-hour workday, equal pay for women, an end to child labor and a graduated income tax.
At the same time, big cattle barons were moving into New Mexico, grabbing water rights, taking control of rangeland and displacing small ranchers and farmers, primarily native hispanics. Furious, Joe and Pablo formed a vigilante group, “Las Gorras Blancas“ (The White Caps), which rode at night cutting fences and destroying property of the large ranches.
Indeed, Herrera was no saint. He was violent, killed several men and was a cattle rustler. But he also fought for the Union, served in government, tried to organize workers and stood up for the poor.
In Brown’s Park history, he had previously been reduced to a stock criminal character. In reality, “Mexican Joe” was a man of his times, an era riddled with conflict and contradictions.
James Neton teaches history at Moffat County High School. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Sources for this article were “Where The Old West Stayed Young” by J.R. Burroughs, “The Bassett Women” by Grace McClure, “Nighthawk Rising” by Diane Allenn Kouris and the archives of the Museum of Northwest Colorado.
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