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. Elaine: Oh sure, still a bully, and still a liar. No doubt. But that comes with the territory, I think it is easier (not necessary, just easier) to be a politician in this country if one is a bully and a liar. I think the same of Hillary, btw, with both testimony of staffers and video proof of the lying.

    And I think the same of Bill Clinton, Bush Sr, Bush Jr, Cheney, Rahm, Palin, McCain, Reid, etc. I am a non-partisan cynic.

    I think it is just easier to get elected (and retain office) if one can get away with putting on a friendly facade for the public while being a ruthlessly self-interested, amoral, dirty tricks tyrant behind the scenes.

  2. Tony C.,

    “It also means that in about two years he will probably be a much healthier looking and less self-indulgent Republican politician with a national reputation and a record of giving honest credit to Obama when honest credit is due.”


    But do you think he will he still be a bully?

  3. Rafflaw: Only if Hillary has learned her campaign management lessons from Obama taking her to the woodshed.

    Like, for example, not having a campaign manager that demonstrably has no grasp of the caucus and election rules in different states. Or not alienating your base by spending campaign money on personal luxuries and pointless extravagance; like custom made cloth bunting and drapery instead of the paper Obama used; like $300 per plate lunches for her and her staff at Michelin restaurants (with $500 more for wine). Or like, when she finally had lost and was running out of money, stiffing the dozens of small businesses that set up her stages, sound systems, sanitation and other prep for her campaign stops, because she felt it was more important to pay the six and seven figure invoices from her incompetent campaign managers.

    Perhaps Obama will be kind enough to teach her how to hire and manage responsibly, in my view Hillary seemed think the money was infinite and it was her destiny to win, so careful management was not important. I think if the two campaign staffs (hers and Obama’s) had been swapped, and she had not run her campaign as a long stroll to her inevitable coronation, then she would be President. Since she chose her staff and her attitude, the fact that she is not the President is her fault. If she runs, I hope she can correct it.

    I read today that Chris Christie has had lap-band surgery to lose weight. That is a good move for his health, definitely, and I commend him for it. It also means that in about two years he will probably be a much healthier looking and less self-indulgent Republican politician with a national reputation and a record of giving honest credit to Obama when honest credit is due. I would not be surprised if a leaner Christie is the Republican nominee, and he may well find a moderate Latino as a running mate. If Hillary runs, she better know that a fight against that new Christie is a fight she can lose.

  4. I have heard only a little about Cruz so far; but from what I have heard, he will carry all the baggage of previous Republican Presidential losers, and would lose as badly as Romney. Carrying Texas would mean nothing; it may be leaning purple with 45% Democrats, but that pancake isn’t going to be ready to flip in 3 years, even with its growing Hispanic population.

    I think the Republican party just thinks too shallow. Whatever immigration reform Cruz might be in favor of, the Democratic candidate will have (or can plausibly claim) a more liberal plan that appeals to Hispanic voters (which are already citizens) more.

    Also, Hispanics lean Democratic because, on average, they believe in the social safety net, public schooling, public infrastructure, and government services to help those that need it, whether they are in that situation themselves or (like me) no longer in that situation, but close enough by heritage or family to value that more than they value a tax rate.

    The problem with immigration reform, from the Republican POV, is this: Hispanic voters are already US citizens; so if they care about immigration reform, it is because of empathy with immigrants (or perhaps familial relations), not out of direct concern for themselves. Yet the Republican proposals for immigration “reform” are brutal gauntlets that almost nobody will survive; and their constituents seem to think anything short of the death penalty followed by deportation is “amnesty.” (I am exaggerating for effect, of course).

    Cruz got 35% of the Latino vote in Texas; while Repubican House Representatives (as a baseline) got 31% of the Latino vote in Texas. Throughout the nation, Republican House Representatives got 23% of the Latino vote in 2012; so the Republican share is (perhaps due to Texas culture) naturally about 35% higher in Texas than in the nation. Projecting Cruz’s 35% vote to the nation, Cruz’s policies might get him 26% of the Latino vote in the nation as a whole. Compared to Romney’s share of 23%, I am not impressed.

    I will also note that for Latino voters specifically; nationally in 2012:
    77% favor raising taxes to deal with the deficit;
    61% favor Obamacare, and 66% favor a government insurance program,
    74% believe the Republican Party either doesn’t care about or is hostile to Latinos and Latino culture, and finally,
    60% personally know an undocumented immigrant.

    I do not think the name “Cruz” will alleviate that bias if it is attached to Tea Party zero-tax policies explicitly designed to cripple the government, and the most laughably harsh ideas on “immigration reform” that amount (in their eyes) to destroying the lives of people they know and with whom they sympathize.

    If the Republican party wants to appeal to Latino voters, they have to stop treating them, and their culture, like foreign invaders bent on destroying their Sarah Palinesque concept of a “real” America.

  5. if there were true justice yes, visiting george and dick. Sharing cells rather along with obama

  6. Sick of the Progressives,

    “All I know is we need to run the progressives out of town.”

    That’s not very much to know, is it? Sorry about that. I’m sorta surprised you were able to memorize that much.

    And, what’s this “we” crap? Do you have a turd in your pocket?

  7. Gary T:

    I think you have it right, I was willing to assume in the 50’s there were still people around who cared about individual rights and the rule of law.

  8. I might add, as a quick aside, although they took his land, and had allocated recompense for it, there is no mention of whether they paid that money to his estate in lieu of his refusal to take the money.
    Apparently the opposite happened – they kept the money, and made even more money by leasing out the land they stole and didn’t pay for.

  9. Oh what a nostalgic moral story of how the U.S. government will back down, if you only hold your ground and make a public stance of conviction.

    I am guessing the message here is that landgrabs by the govt do not have to end in bloodshed, and that you can keep your land despite a court order stripping you of it, if only you have enough public charisma – who needs guns when with only a little conversation the govt can be so reasonable about these things.

    Really. This is so much a watered down Aesop’s fairy tale that should only be told to little children. It is intellectually dishonest and somewhat insulting to anyone who knows anything about how our modern law enforcement deals with a recalcitrant citizen.

    So, they gave him a pass, as a special case, so as to avoid a public relations nightmare. The govt officials should not be lauded for their kindliness in letting him stay. They should be studied in public relations classes for their shrewd calculus in keeping the situation under control while still mollifying the public.

    The moral of this story that I take away, is not what author wants to inculcate.
    Rather I see the message of statist adulation, that the govt can do no wrong, and that although of course might makes right, sometimes our rulers will be kind enough to gift the use of our own property after they have taken it away in the first place.

  10. All I know is we need to run the progressives out of town. They are crazy. Most gun grabbers remind me of Hitler in so many ways.

  11. Elaine,

    In the spirit of your post can the FDA and Big Pharma be charged under the Sherman Antitrust Acts…. Price fixing….. Collusion…. Fraud…. Etc….. I am ghast at what you posted….. Omg….

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