TOUGH MEN prospered on the Western frontier, but few men were as tough as Barbara Jones.
Eve Ball, author of Ma’am Jones of the Pecos, summarized Barbara, better known as Ma’am, by stating, “In an era when there were no doctors, Ma’am had cared for the ill and wounded, nursed the sick, and helped bury the dead. She fed all who came to her home. And, of course, like other pioneer women, she had done all this without the basic conveniences that women of today take for granted.”
Ma’am and her husband, Heiskell, arrived in New Mexico in 1866. After heading west from their home in Virginia, they first went to Iowa, a place “too cold for humans,” Heiskell recalled. The Joneses then tried to make a home in Denver, Colorado, but Ma’am did not take kindly to all the killings in town. They ultimately settled in Lincoln County, New Mexico, despite all the warnings about rustlers, fugitives and Apaches.
The industrious Ma’am seemed capable of handling everything that came her way—from skinning animals, to fixing an Apache boy’s broken leg—a procedure she had never attempted until then—to making sought-after garments worn by Pecos River residents, to risking her own health to save those inflicted with smallpox.
Her finest medical work may have come when her son Sammie came home with an eyelid dangling by merely a shred of skin. He had tripped while running through some mesquite and landed face-first on a broken bottle; he was in danger of going blind in that eye. Without hesitation, Ma’am went straight to work sewing up his eyelid. His eye may have come out of the ordeal a bit crooked, but that was a small price to pay for his mother having saved his vision.
After moving about the Southwest, the Joneses and their growing brood of children, which eventually became nine boys and one girl, settled into a large abandoned adobe in Seven Rivers in 1877, claiming the land per the Homestead Act. They established a prosperous trading post, where Ma’am’s legend continued to grow. Weary travelers looked forward to stopping for some of Ma’am’s hospitality, gracious welcome, hearty food, good whiskey and fair prices.
Some of Ma’am’s sons, Sam, Frank, Bill and Nib, told Ball that one such man who befriended Ma’am was Billy Bonney, better known as Billy the Kid. She had found Bonney outside her home when he was half-starved and wearing too-small boots that brought sores to his feet. Like others before him, Ma’am nursed the frail boy back to health. Bonney always had a soft spot for Ma’am and treated her kindly in his visits over the years. She never understood how such a nice boy could be responsible for all the violence attributed to him.
Though Ma’am was steadfastly strong and led a prosperous family, she did have her share of heartache. Her eldest son John was murdered with two shots to the back, while her only daughter, Minnie, died from appendicitis as a young woman. Ma’am buried them both in a cemetery by the Pecos River.
Ma’am is just one of the many flattering monikers she earned before her passing in 1905, but none was more deserving than the “Angel of the Pecos.”
Eve Ball interviewed Ma’am Jones’s family members for her 1969 book. Do you know about an unsung character of the Old West whose story we should share here? Send the details to firstname.lastname@example.org, and be sure to include high-resolution historical photos.