By Ruth White Burns: Freedom New Mexico Correspondent
One of the most fascinating characters associated with the early history of Roosevelt and Curry Counties was cowman, gunfighter, and raconteur, James “Jim” Cook.
Dr. Caleb Winfrey and his brother Hadley of Cass County, Missouri, had established the H-Bar Ranch near Portales in 1885. With them came their sister, Mary Josie Easley and her daughter, Leta.
The giant XIT Ranch of Texas owned the land just across the New Mexico border. The XIT was divided into seven divisions with a foreman in each division who answered to a general manager.
James “Jim” Cook, a reputed gunman, was hired as foreman of the Escarbada Division with its headquarters close to the little village of La Plata, near where the present town of Hereford is now located.
Jim Cook was born in Arkansas, but came to Texas with his family at the end of the Civil War. When he was orphaned at a young age, he went to live with an uncle who was a ranchman.
For many years, he traveled with different herds and on one drive was nicknamed “Jim Lane,” or “Kid Boss” by his companions for his arrogant manner.
The huge XIT had many rustlers to contend with, and according to Historian J. Evetts Haley, “Jim Cook, wearing his two six-shooters and his ill-boding reputation with equal grace, rode in to do battle with the cow thieves to the west. Aggressive and overbearing, it is said he was eternally at odds with the riders across the line (in New Mexico).”
Col. Jack Potter, who was trail boss for the New England Cattle Company with headquarters in Ft. Sumner, had frequent dealings with Cook and confirms the irascibility of the range foreman.
Potter reports that, “Once he wouldn’t let me go through the XIT pasture when I was taking a trail herd to Amarillo and I went through at night, twenty-eight miles,” a real hardship on the cattle.
The village of La Plata was right on the stage route from Portales Springs to Amarillo and on north to Kansas. Young Leta Easley somehow became acquainted with Jim Cook, presumably as she traveled back and forth to Kansas City from the H-Bar Ranch.
Cook became smitten with the young Miss Easley and in order to avoid having to ride in from ranch headquarters to the neighboring village of La Plata to receive her letters, he finagled to get the Escarbada location designated as a U. S. Post Office. Thus, says Haley, “the young lady’s letters would be delivered slap-dab at the ranch house door.”
Cook and 16 year-old Leta were soon married. They became the parents of two children who were born at the H-Bar Ranch where her uncles, the Drs. Winfrey, could care for her.
These two children, Theodore born in 1891 and Minnie born in 1893, were probably the first babies born in what is now Roosevelt County.
When Deaf Smith County, Texas, was formed in 1890, La Plata became the County Seat, and Cook left the XIT to become its first sheriff. But a year later he was kicked out for the unnecessary killing of a cowboy.
He bragged that “since La Plata had no cemetery, he had to kill someone to start one.” He was eventually acquitted of the murder.
Cook and his wife Leta and their children wandered from one location to another for several years.
In 1908 they were in Albuquerque when as Cook told Haley, “My poor wife fell by the wayside.”
What actually happened was that son Theodore came down with a case of appendicitis, and Cook left with daughter Minnie, leaving his son and wife in Albuquerque, never seeing them again.
For many years Cook engaged in various enterprises from prospecting to trail guiding as he and daughter Minnie wandered the U.S. and Canada. He wrote several books and was always ready to entertain anyone who would listen with his tales of adventure.
With the help of Dr. T. M. Pearce of the University of New Mexico, Cook wrote a book, calling himself “Lane of the Llano.”
In this book, he describes a wild life, being captured by the Comanches as a youth, marrying White Swan, an Indian princess, watching her die from a rattlesnake bite, scouting with Ranald S. McKenzie and Quanah Parker, and being involved with John Chisum and Billy the Kid.
He describes many exciting adventures on the trail and on buffalo hunts that
Southwestern author J. Evetts Haley says that, “An accurate biography of Cook could never be written as long as the man failed to distinguish between truth and fiction.”
However, the book is a fascinating and accurate description of life on the trail and on the Llano Estacado before the coming of civilization.
Returning to the story of the H-Bar Ranch, in 1897 the Winfreys sold their interest in the H-Bar to Jim Newman and Tom Trammell and returned to Missouri with their family. As far as we know, they never returned to New Mexico.