We’ve all heard stories of people discovering an unknown Picasso or Monet in an attic. That’s what happened when a member of the recording and filing staff in the Doña Ana county clerk’s office opened a box of long-stored documents.
According to Jess Williams, Doña Ana County public information officer, “When we moved from the old courthouse to this building (government office on Motel Boulevard), we brought boxes and boxes of documents that hadn’t been touched probably in decades.”
Among the thousands of documents the staff was sorting last November was a coroner’s jury report from February 29, 1908. Signed by seven jurors, it reads, “We the undersigned Justices of the Peace and Coroner’s Jury have attended the investigation of the body of Pat Garrett who was reported dead within the limits of Precinct No. 26, County of Doña Ana, territory of New Mexico on about five miles northeast of the town of Las Cruces and find the deceased came to his death by gunshot wounds inflicted by one Wayne Brazel.”
The importance of the document cannot be stressed enough. “Through the years, the clerk’s office has received public records requests from historians seeking this document,” Williams said. “We always told them we didn’t have it, because we didn’t know that we did.” He added, “This particular document, based on the quality of it, hasn’t been touched in decades.”
“Finding the Pat Garrett document is exciting for our community because it enriches New Mexican history,” said Doña Ana County Clerk Scott Krahling. “Historians note we are sitting on a gold mine of rich historical information.”
Among historians who were asked not only to evaluate the find but also support grant funding to catalogue and archive the documents is Dr. Robert Stahl, professor emeritus at Arizona State University at Tempe. He immediately cautioned county officials to take extreme security precautions. The Pat Garrett document, he said, could be worth tens, and perhaps hundreds, of thousands of dollars if it were sold on the open market. To protect it, the County Clerk’s Office locked it in a safe deposit box.
No one, as yet, knows if there are other historically significant documents among the thousands now being catalogued and archived. “Most of them are the kinds of things routinely recorded in the clerk’s office — quit claims deeds, titles, marriage licenses,” Williams said. “We just don’t know yet if we may come across more that are of equal to or more significant than the Garrett document.”
As a first order of business, Krahling said, “The Garrett document will be unveiled to the public at a special ceremony on June 16 in the Commission Chambers of the Doña Ana County Government Center.”
The process of cataloguing and archiving documents could take up to three years. Once that is complete, Williams said they will most likely be sent to the records center and archives in Santa Fe for longterm maintenance and preservation.
“I don’t know how long the clerk is going to keep the originals here,” he continued. “It’s premature to speculate about how long it will be before the documents will go to the state or even whether. The clerk could change his mind. He is the custodian of the documents and will make the final decision.” He added Krahling could wait until the entire cache had been catalogued. “This is still a project in motion.”
Still the county clerk wanted people to know what his staff had found. He said his office needed to make plans for the expected deluge of interest once the knowledge of the document’s existence became widely known. And, once it had, Williams said, “It made international news.”
Williams said the county clerk believes the documents are of sufficient import they will attract people from across the nation and around the world. “They’ll stay overnight, dine in our restaurants, and partake of our community — go to Mesilla, to the Organ Mountain-Desert Peaks National Monument, do the tour of Doña Ana county as part of their mission to see these documents.” The county plans to maintain high-quality copies that will “rival the originals.” A digital archive will also be available for the public to search and study.
The clerk’s office had not previously examined the documents, principally because there was no funding to support the work. The county has managed to gain funding through a Historical Preservation Grant.
Said historian Stahl, “I too have wanted access to particular documents to fill in and correct particular stories that happened in your county only to be told your office had no record of the existence of the documents requested, and then I was told there were boxes and file drawers full of them, many well over 100 years old, that your staff simply did not have the time or resources to look through. It’s high time you got the funding to do the work.”
County Clerk Krahling added, “We know some of what we have, and it’s pretty exciting. What we’re certain of is we will find more documents that rival the Garrett document in their value and importance.”