Joseph Calloway Lea was born November 8, 1841 in Cleveland, Tennessee to Dr. Pleasant Lea and Lucinda Francis Calloway Lea who had married three years earlier in Monroe County, Tennessee. Joseph was the second son born to the couple after Thomas C. Lea (1839) and was followed by brothers Franklin Houston Lea (1843), Alfred Erskine Lea (1845), three sisters named Mary Lea (1847), Elvina C. Lea (1847) Rebecca Caroline Lea (1852) and finally a brother John Graves Lea (1854). Along the way, in 1849 the family packed all their belongings and moved to Missouri in an area that eventually took the name Lee’s Summit. Though it was misspelled, it is believed to have been named for Dr. Lea. Lucinda Calloway Lea died in 1857 and about two years later, Dr. Lea married Francis Mahalia Clark.
The brothers Thomas, Joe and Frank left the area before the outset of the Civil War for Colorado where they remained for a while. On September 12, 1862, Dr. Lea was killed by irregular Union troops in Missouri. The brothers returned to Missouri to enlist in the Confederate army. It is unknown whether Thomas served nor in what regiment it may have been, but both Joe and Frank are thought to have initially joined either Upton Hays’ group or the group known as Quantrill’s Raiders. They generally are known to have been known to serve with the latter, Quantrill’s Raiders. Joe and Frank served in this group until near the end of the Civil War. Joe was described as exceptionally tall for the time (6’4″), a smart and capable leader and a good planner and strategist. Joe was serving in Louisiana when the war ended, after which he returned to Missouri. During the Civil War, he reached a higher rank, but he preferred to be known by the title of Captain.
In 1867, he married the former Ellen Douglas, widow of Douglas Burbridge. For the next several years, he was engaged in rebuilding a railroad and later in cotton planting in the southeast (Georgia and Louisiana), but returned to Missouri. Ellen died in 1871 and was buried there. Joe then moved around a bit more including living in Colorado again before returning to the southeast. In Mississippi he married Sallie E. Wildy. After first settling in Colfax County, New Mexico around 1875, Joe and his father in law William Wildy came to the area west of the Pecos River that eventually became Roswell and settled there a couple of years later. Though Joe had tried raising sheep and is said to have had a small herd of cattle, they ran a hotel for travelers and took in boarders. William Wildy, a widower, died in Roswell in 1881, leaving his property to his children. His daughter Sallie followed him in death about three years later.
Joe and Sallie Lea had two children, Henry Harry Wildy Lea, born in 1877 in Colfax County and Eleanor Laureana “Ella” Lea, believed to be the first Anglo child born in Roswell in 1881. Around 1881, Joe organized the Lea Cattle Company, acquiring land along the Pecos River and elsewhere to the west. According to estimates, his Lea Cattle Company was one of the largest cattle operations in the history of the state, somewhat below that of John Chisum’s at its peak. After Sallie’s death in 1884, Joe continued to develop Roswell. He was joined by brothers Frank and Alfred. In 1889, Joe married the former Mabel Doss Day, widow of Col. W. H. Day of Coleman County, Texas.
In his later years, Lea encouraged Col. Robert S. Goss to come from Fort Worth, Texas to Chaves County to establish a military school in Roswell. It operated from around 1891 to 1895 before closing for a few years. It reopened in 1898 as New Mexico Military Institute. Lea served on the board of regents until his death in 1904. An early building was named for him. That building is no longer in existence, but currently there is still a building named for him that dates back to around 1940 and 1941.
Many “firsts” took place in Roswell during his life, including the arrival of the first physician, the first minister, the opening of the first drug store, and numerous others. Joseph Lea is known as the founder of Roswell, the founder of New Mexico Military Institute and the namesake of Lea County, created in 1917 out of the eastern portions of Eddy and Chaves counties. He died on February 4, 1904 and is buried in South Park Cemetery, Roswell, New Mexico.
[Sources: Elvis E. Fleming, Captain Joseph C. Lea, From Confederate Guerrilla to New Mexico Patriarch, 2002; William E. Gibbs and Eugene T. Jackman, New Mexico Military Institute, A Centennial History, NMMI Centennial Commission, 1991.]