The Second Amendment and John Albert Prather

By Mike Appleton, Guest Blogger

I first heard of John Prather sometime in 1957.  We were living outside of La Luz, New Mexico, a village near Alamogordo.  My father was working on a guided missile project at Holloman Air Force Base at the time.  Prather was a cattle rancher and I followed his story over the next few years with a mixture of boyish awe and admiration.

Prather was born in east Texas in 1873, and moved with his family by covered wagon to New Mexico ten years later.  He took up ranching in the 1890s, raising both cattle and mules, supplying the latter to the army during both world wars and acquiring the nickname “Mule King.”  By the 1950s, Prather had accumulated 4,000 acres stretching from the foothills and fertile mesas of the Sacramento Mountains into the arid desert of the Tularosa Basin, and held grazing leases from the government on another 20,000 acres.  Rough-edged, but gentle, he built his ranch house by hand and grew pecan trees.  Prather was one of the last pioneer settlers in New Mexico Territory and looked forward to passing on what he had created to his children.  But the government had different ideas.

The Tularosa Basin lies between the San Andres Mountains on the west and the Sacramentos on the east.  White Sands runs down the middle of the basin, just south of the prehistoric lava pits known as the Malpais.  It is stark, arid, rugged and beautiful.  Only a few miles away from the Malpais is the Trinity Site, where the first atomic bomb was detonated on July 16, 1945.  In the years following World War II, the White Sands Proving Ground, as it was then known, was gradually expanded.  By the early 1950s, America had embarked on the Cold War and the earnest development of guided missile systems.  The proving ground was transformed into the White Sands Missile Range, necessitating even further expansion.  The nearby McGregor Missile Range was also expanding and by 1956, hundreds of thousands of additional acres of the Tularosa Basin had been set aside for the development and testing of missile systems.

A number of ranchers were affected by the expansion.  Most of them negotiated purchase prices with the government and moved on.  A few battled condemnation proceedings and eventually settled.  And then there was John Prather.  He had no desire to sell under any circumstances and made his views clear.  When asked about his plans, he replied, “I am going to die at home.” Although he was unwilling to give up his land, he did offer to lease it to the army for $2.00 per year, so that he “could go on raising beef for the army to eat and paying taxes for them generals’ salaries.” But a sale was out of the question. “If they come after me,” he said, “they better bring a box.”

With negotiations going nowhere, the army began formal condemnation proceedings.  The U.S. attorney’s office deposited $341,425.00 as compensation for the Prather ranch and the federal court in Albuquerque issued an order of taking requiring him to move his livestock and vacate his ranch by March 30, 1957.  When that deadline passed, federal district judge Waldo Rogers issued a writ of assistance on August 6, 1957.  Three U.S. marshals were dispatched the next day to serve the writ. Prather still refused to budge and reportedly said, “I will kill the first man that steps into the door of my house.” The army posted the land and sent armed soldiers to convince him to leave, but by this time the affair had attracted widespread media interest.  This was, after all, an 82 year-old man standing firmly against the might of the military.  The soldiers were withdrawn.

During the course of the next three years, John Prather became an unwilling folk hero.  He received a personal visit from the commander of Fort Bliss.  The State of New Mexico intervened.  Sen. Clinton Anderson publicly denounced the army’s efforts.  Congressional hearings were held on the federal “land grab.” And through it all Prather remained, unfazed and adamant.  “I never did take to killing, even of animals,” he said. “I figure each time you kill a thing, you take a little joy out of the world.  But a man does what he has to, and if he has to kill to protect his ranch and his home …well, that’s his God-given right.”

In the end, John Prather didn’t move.  The army agreed to allow him to remain on his ranch and retain fifteen surrounding acres for as long as he lived.  When he died in 1965, at the age of 91, his body was buried next to his ranch house.  And true to his word, he never accepted the money set aside for his land.

When the controversy erupted over gun control recently, and I listened to the dire predictions of the NRA and the alarmist condemnations from the right, I thought about John Prather for the first time in many years.  Throughout his battle with the army, not a single shot was fired.  He didn’t barricade himself and amass stores of ammunition.  He didn’t attend armed rallies discussing Second Amendment “remedies.”  He didn’t hate his government or the soldiers he confronted.  He served them coffee and explained his position in simple and direct language.  He prevailed because his humility and integrity commanded respect.  He understood what “stand your ground” ought to mean.  He won by moral force rather than force of arms.

Following Prather’s death, of course, the army took possession of the remainder of his land.  And a year later, deciding that not all of the land was immediately needed, it began leasing portions of the Prather ranch-for cattle grazing.

Sources: C.L. Sonnichsen, “Tularosa, Last of the Frontier West,” (University of New Mexico press, 2002); Calvin A. Roberts, “Our New Mexico: A Twentieth Century History,” (University of New Mexico Press, 2005); Marc Simmons, “New Mexico: An Interpretive History,” (W.W. Norton & Company, 1977); John A. Hamilton, “Blazing Skies: Air Defense Artillery on Fort Bliss, Texas, 1940-2009,”(GPO, 2009).

97 thoughts on “The Second Amendment and John Albert Prather”

  1. Well Mike, that was a great story. I am John’s great grandson and I can attest that what you wrote is true to the point of information available to the public. After reading many of the comments, I decided to post. If it weren’t for the Second Amendment, Uncle John, as he was known to everyone who met him, he would have been forced from his land. Yes, he was an old man and the publicity would have been terrible for the government, but the fact that he had a gun made all the difference, albeit for show. Had hands been laid on him, rest assured a marshall and a deputy or two would have gone with him. The family was armed in the house and while out working. The neighbors were prepared to fight. Owen, John’s brother was also not a man to be trifled with. Owen’s family still ranches in the canyons to the north and the government still plays their games, often stopping vehicles on their way home through the canyon.
    That ranch was my father’s and eventually my birthright. Your story does encompass the Second Amendment and Eminent Domain. It briefly foretells the future and shows what happens when a G Man shows up with an offer.
    Thanks for writing the story. Old cowboys never die, they just turn into old gray mules. He is one of my heroes and was one of the last true pioneers.


    Shock claim: Obama only wants military leaders who ‘will fire on U.S. citizens’

    On Monday, renowned author and humanitarian Dr. Jim Garrow made a shocking claim about what we can expect to see in Obama’s second term.

    Garrow made the following Facebook post:

    I have just been informed by a former senior military leader that Obama is using a new “litmus test” in determining who will stay and who must go in his military leaders. Get ready to explode folks. “The new litmus test of leadership in the military is if they will fire on US citizens or not.” Those who will not are being removed.

    So, who is the source?

    Garrow replied: “The man who told me this is one of America’s foremost military heroes.”

    Understand, this is not coming from Alex Jones or Jesse Ventura, or from anyone else the left often dismisses with great ease.

    Garrow is a well-respected activist and has spent much of his life rescuing infant girls from China, babies who would be killed under that country’s one-child policy. He was also nominated for Nobel Peace Prize for his work.

    His bio on reads:

    Dr. James Garrow is the author of The Pink Pagoda: One Man’s Quest to End Gendercide in China. He has spent over $25 million over the past sixteen years rescuing an estimated 40,000 baby Chinese girls from near-certain death under China’s one-child-per-couple policy by facilitating international adoptions. He is the founder and executive director of the Bethune Institute’s Pink Pagoda schools, private English-immersion schools for Chinese children. Today he runs 168 schools with nearly 6,300 employees.

    This comes on the heels of Sunday’s report in the Washington Free Beacon (WFB) that the head of Central Command, Marine Corps Gen. James Mattis is being dismissed by Obama and will leave his post in March.

    The WFB article states:

    “Word on the national security street is that General James Mattis is being given the bum’s rush out of his job as commander of Central Command, and is being told to vacate his office several months earlier than planned.”

    Did Gen. Mattis refuse to “fire on U.S. citizens?”

  3. 5-Year-Old Shoots 7-Year-Old Brother In Texas
    Igor Bobic
    Wednesday May 8, 2013

    A 5-year-old boy shot his 7-year-old brother with a .22 rifle in Houston, Texas on Tuesday night.

    According to KTRK, the two boys were in a bathtub when the 5-year-old got out, found the rifle, and then shot his brother. The 7-year-old boy was wounded and is recovering at an area hospital. Police said that at least one adult, the mother, was inside the residence at the time.

    “They were non-life threatening,” said Sgt. Ryan Gardiner. “It was one bullet hole that went through his lower back.”

  4. In other words, saying the person with the most money usually wins is very much like saying the person most popular with voters usually wins. It borders on tautology; if you believe there is a strong correlation between individual contributions to a candidate’s campaign and then later voting for that same candidate.

    That may not be true for the extremely wealthy currying favor with politicians, but the 99% do not contribute with any hope or expectation of personal attention or private audience.

  5. Elaine: I didn’t say there wasn’t a correlation, I said the correlation is misinterpreted, that people like Bob Biersack mistakenly reverse cause and effect.

    If the most popular candidate receives the most contributions, and spends those contributions on his campaign, then of course the person that spent the most wins. Not because of their spending, but because they were the most popular, and therefore received both the most money to spend and the most votes.

    This also explains the anomalies. When the underdog spender wins, they were (by definition) the most popular with voters, but had less money to spend. Why would that be? Usually because the person with the most money to spend did not get most of that money from individual voters, but from their own fortune, or the fortunes of a few billionaire individuals or corporations trying to buy the election.

    The most popular candidate wins the election. That usually means they get the most money in campaign contributions from voters that want them to win, and therefore have the most money to spend on their campaign. It doesn’t mean that money buys the election; the failures of self-financed campaigns is evidence of that.

  6. The Big Spender Always Wins?
    By Bob Biersack
    on January 11, 2012

    It’s a bedrock truth of money and politics: The biggest spender almost always wins.

    Here at the Center for Responsive Politics we’ve watched the trends in political money for a long time, and this is one of the most consistent findings we can identify.

    Even during the most competitive cycles, when control of Congress is up for grabs, at the end of the day the candidates who spend the most usually win eight of 10 Senate contests and nine of 10 House races.

  7. Gene: Both are true.

    On (2), Candidates have to be limited sooner or later. As in the Highlander, there can be only one (elected).

    Currently, money raised is a proxy for a measure of public interest. I guess what I would like to see instead is a more direct measure of public interest.

    Such as a petition with a minimum support level; or something similar.

    As a practical matter, I think we have to limit the candidates on voting day to five to seven candidates, one way or another.

    Here is a cool idea; let the candidates hand out tokens, paper slips with a barcode that identifies them and can be photocopied at will. It is up to them to print these and get them to voters as they see fit. Then let those voters that care enough to bother bring up to (say) five tokens to the polling place, as “ballot votes.” The five candidates with the most ballot votes get on the ballot in the general election.

    The advantage is the voter doesn’t have to wade through a hundred ballot candidates and remember names; they can just carry the ballot tokens of those they like enough to want to hear more from them. Then we (as the government) also do not have to decide who should be eligible or not, and we don’t have to verify petition signatures. The machine can scan the tokens and show the corresponding name, the voter can confirm or delete on screen, and the tokens themselves can be kept for any recount. The machine can reject duplicates; i.e. you cannot use five ballot votes for the same candidate (the point is to measure breadth of interest, not a level of enthusiasm; no matter how enthusiastic or ambivalent a voter may be, their vote in the general will equal exactly one vote.)

    In the event of two or more people tying for last place, just put all tying entries on the ballot, and the voters will have to sort through them.

    It’s kind of like primary voting, but you don’t have to pick just one at this level, and we do not require any government set guidelines or qualifications for who is and is not a viable or “serious” candidate. And it is not based on fees or money, so you cannot just purchase a slot on the ballot, and the money required to get slips of paper printed is negligible; the local government can provide the candidate 20 master sheets off a laser printer for the cost of printing (about a dollar).

  8. nick spinelli:

    “Freakonomics dispels the myth of money being the decider in elections.”

    how so?

    Candidates are usually chosen by a primary or a convention and many times the candidates are the choice of a small group of party regulars. Who give no consideration to the rank and file. Here in Virginia, at least in the republican party, candidates seem to be shoved down our throats which is what is going on now with the Cucci Monster and a few years ago we had Jerry Kilgore. What a disaster he was and the brain child of Kate Openshame, a high ranking republican politial master [or so she thinks of herself].

    It seems to me most people’s minds are made up for them prior to elections by the party elite.

  9. Elaine: As I said, and now repeat, I think that is because Obama was the already the more popular candidate, and therefore received more contributions (both personal and corporate), and therefore had more money to spend, and spent it.

    Based on your figures, Obama got 54% of the money, and Romney got 46%. Spending more did not make Obama more likable. The contributions just reflect how people intended to vote all along. I believe that intent of individuals that causes the contributions, not the other way around.

    I do not think Obama’s ads (and I saw a lot of them) converted any Republicans to Democrats, I do not think Obama won because he ran 11 ads to Romney’s 9, I do not think Obama’s ads (or Romney’s ads) changed the minds of voters into switching parties.

    If there are these hypothetical gullible voters that can be switched to the opposing party by an ad, then they can also be switched back by another ad, then switched again, then switched again. That results in cognitive reversal fatigue within a few ads and the upshot will be a random vote or no vote at all, or a vote based on instinctual like or dislike. Not ads.

    Personally I have never met a voter that was so extremely undecided at the level of the Party. I have met voters that did not like their candidate, but they were not tempted to vote for the other major candidate they liked even less. I have met several that would abstain, or vote Green or Libertarian or something. I have met many people that just don’t care, but they also do not care enough to ever vote.

    In our extreme polarized political environment, I cannot imagine the mentality that processes messages from both poles and regards them as equally attractive; I do not think anybody lives precisely on the equator between those poles, and yet is still driven to choose between them.

    What I do believe is that a certain level of reminder is needed to get out the vote. To me, THAT is the role of money and communications, to remind the people that it isn’t enough to just like you, they have to come vote for you, if they want these X positives and want to avoid these Y negatives.

    There is also the function of credibility as a candidate: For better or worse, even people that would vote for a candidate won’t do it unless they think the candidate is a real contender, and they see “being on TV” fairly often as a badge of qualification.

    But both of those functions have finite limits; they are achieved nationally with a few hundred million, and after that the rest of the money is wasted.

    Obama spent more because he received more donations because he was more likable than Romney and more people intended to vote for Obama than intended to vote for Romney. An intent to vote translates into a desire to help, and the candidates always give one best way to help: Give us money.

  10. The issue with money is two-fold:

    1) It distorts the public debate and sets topics and agendas which are often misleading, irrelevant or not necessarily a priority in furtherance of the common good

    2) It limits the selection of candidates.

  11. Oky1,

    “Obama, google & others say don’t listen to this guy’s site.”

    Thanks, I’ll follow their wise advice.

  12. Freakonomics dispels the myth of money being the decider in elections.

  13. Tony C.,

    I said big money HELPS make it easier to get elected. That doesn’t mean that anyone who has tons of money in his campaign chest WILL get elected. Money couldn’t help Romney overcome his weakness as a candidate–which included his obvious disdain for the common people of this country.

  14. Elaine: I’m not so sure about that. Romney had virtually unlimited campaign funds; but apparently no amount of corporate funding could wash the stink of heartless turd off him.

    Personally I think that is a mistakenly interpreted correlation; a presumption that an effect is actually a cause.

    Namely, I think people contribute more to politicians they like and will vote for; and then corporations, to curry favor, will also contribute PAC money or whatever to the politicians they think are going to win.

    So winners end up with more money, and spend it, and it looks like money won the election, but really the money is a RESULT of the likelihood of winning in the first place. An effect, not a cause.

    I think the effectiveness of ads and money can be real, but has a hard limit, and doubling the money and ads would not increase the votes.

    There is evidence for that in the marketing discipline; btw. Once a company reaches about 7 or 8 “impressions” with their ads, making more can become counter-productive. Not just diminishing returns, but declining returns, as people get irritated. (“Yes, I KNOW you are having a sale, please SHUT UP about it!”)

    The same holds for politicians. At some point, everybody knows you are running, everybody knows your big points, and further talk without any new information is just irritating. (NEW information, like answering an attack by your opponent, is worthwhile.)

    So money can get the message out, but I don’t think big money can buy an election from the voters. We have several examples in California, New Jersey and elsewhere. Once the saturation level is reached and can be maintained (there is decay over time), more money doesn’t seem to make a difference. If the voters don’t like Romney, they aren’t voting for him, no matter how many ads, events, phone calls, fliers, or door knocks he can buy. I think in 2012, he probably wasted a quarter billion dollars trying to change that fact and failed miserably.

    I think Christie suspected 2012 was a lost cause for Republicans no matter who won, and let Romney take the arrows. With the lap-band news I now think he will almost certainly run in 2016. I am not looking forward to that at all; I think he might win.

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