Library presentation enlightens audience with women’s history

Mike Linn

She spoke of adobe homes and branding cattle. Crooked sheriffs and the Lincoln County War. Billy the Kid and his regulators.
Nisha Hoffman, sporting a long dress and black-laced gloves, told about 40 Portales residents on Thursday the story of Susan McSween Barber, also known as the former cattle queen of New Mexico.
The presentation was part of an annual program the Portales Public Library hosts each March, Women’s History Month, in an effort to enlighten residents about women who have made a substantial impact on society.
Hoffman portrayed Barber was one of those women, a feisty redhead who was outspoken and independent — a woman who was before her time, a “firecracker,” as Portales resident Nan Greaves described her.
Greaves said she’s a big supporter of the Portales library and enjoyed the program.
Barber “deserves a prominent place in the world of women of genius,” A New York newspaper reported in the early 1900s.
Barber’s first husband was Alexander McSween, a lawyer/businessman who was friends with Billy the Kid. The friendship and his decision to co-operate a competing cattle company proved deadly for McSween.
As the story goes: Barber, McSween, the Kid and several others were trapped in a burning home in Lincoln County and surrounded by soldiers and law enforcement officers. The soldiers let the women and children out of the house, but not before hearing an earful from Barber.
Billy the Kid planned a successful escape, but McSween died in the mayhem, leaving his widowed wife.
“In the end the McSween forces lost the final confrontation of that war, but most historians agree that if Alexander’s and Susan’s roles would have be reversed, with Alex staying at home and doing the cooking and Susan leading the ‘troops’ in the field, the outcome of the war would have been quite different,” wrote Lincoln County Historian Drew Gomber in his book The Old West.
In the end Barber was best known for being one of the premier ranchers in New Mexico, where she earned the title “cattle queen of New Mexico.” Typically a profession relegated to men, Barber operated a successful ranch in the Tres Rios area. The ranch had more than 8,000 cattle, and Barber was not above branding her own livestock.
Unlike most women of her time, Barber didn’t ride her horse sidesaddle. How could she when she was carrying a shotgun, Hoffman asked.
She was fond of miners and respected by Indian women, who labeled her the “little chief.”
Barber lived her final days in White Oaks, where she owned a chivalrous home and escaped a near-deadly fire by jumping out of a two-story window. She was in her late 70s then, and lived to tell the story.
“When I found out she would be presenting her self as (Susan) McSween I couldn’t wait,” said assistant librarian Danielle Swopes. “I knew it would be interesting. I noticed the group fell silent when she started talking about the fighting and the Lincoln County War.”