The fall of 1837 was a tense time for the people of Santa Fe. Not only was the capitol invaded by rebels in August, but there was another threat in late September. Then after former Governor Manuel Armijo fended that off, a different kind of incursion began. Refugees started arriving in town.
Most of the newcomers came from down river, following the militia, men who were ordinarily tasked with keeping the settlements there safe. With the militia now in Santa Fe, these villages were susceptible to raids from the First Nation groups New Mexicans called the “wild tribes”—primarily Apache in the south and Navajo in the west.
While the Apache seem to have contented themselves with raiding Chihuahua-bound merchant caravans, the Navajo went after the settlements, venturing as close to Albuquerque as Bernalillo and as far northeast as the Taos Valley. New Mexico’s unrest was a great opportunity for the Navajo warriors to supplement their sheep herds and perhaps pick up a few captives to replace people taken by New Mexicans in earlier raids. In response to the danger, New Mexican families who could afford to do so headed to Santa Fe.
Almost 75 years later, one of those refugees, a boy who turned eight that winter, left behind a record of what the capitol was like during that time. Jose Francisco Perea’s family arrived in early October from Bernalillo. “We found the place full of soldiers, citizens, and a miscellaneous gathering of humanity,” he recalled. The plaza was “crowded with all kinds of vehicles, beginning with the cart that was made entirely of wood . . . to the well-constructed wagon that had brought a consignment of merchandise over the Santa Fe Trail; together with teamsters, camp-cooks, roustabouts, horses, mules, burros, pigs and goats. Some were about their camp-fires, preparing their food, while others were feeding and caring for their animals. Near the northeast corner of the plaza, which was then surrounded on its four sides with flat-roofed one-story buildings, with portals (porches) in front of them, were three cottonwood trees of the mountain variety, and opposite the Palace (the capital) stood a flagstaff (pirome), from the top of which was displayed the Mexican flag in all its glory: and the four entrances at the corners of the square were guarded, each with a single cannon of small caliber.”
What seems to have fascinated him even more was the entertainment available. “Dancing was much indulged in,” he reported. “Particularly during Sunday nights and evenings following marriages, baptisms, and feast days. Theatricals, principally rudely constructed after the writings of Cervantes (Don Quixote de la Mancha) and Gil Blas, were occasionally played. . . Some of these were played with figures and images hung on strings, to be moved about when required.”
He also apparently peaked into establishments “where wine and other liquors were sold by the drink” and gambling occurred. These games of chance included Spanish monte, three-card monte, roulette, and dice. For boys Francisco’s age, there were outside games such as pitarria, played on smooth ground inside a marked square with short sticks of two colors, and quoit pitching at pegs driven into the ground. When he tired of games, he could watch dancers from the nearby pueblos perform on the plaza.
It was all quite an education for the young Perea, one supplemented by three months of classroom experience. Some time in January 1838, he and his younger brother began attending a school run by a Captain Sena and his wife. This ended when the Perea family returned to Bernalillo in late April, but his Santa Fe adventures were only the beginning of Jose Francisco Perea’s experience of the world beyond his family’s hacienda. As an adult, he would return to Santa Fe to sit on the New Mexico Territorial Council. During the Civil War, he would fight for the Union as a Lieutenant Colonel and would later serve as New Mexico’s Congressional representative in Washington, D.C.
He would also leave behind an evocative glimpse of Santa Fe in the winter of 1837/38, one for which we storytellers are quite thankful.
Sources: W.H.H. Allison as narrated by Col. Francisco Perea, “Santa Fe During the Winter of 1837/38.” Old Santa Fe Magazine, Vol. II, Santa Fe: Old Santa Fe Press, 1914-1915; James F. Brooks, Captives and Cousins: Slavery, Kinship and Community in the Southwest Borderlands, Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina Press, 2002; Janet Lecompte, Rebellion in Rio Arriba, 1837, Albuquerque: UNM Press, 1985; F. Stanley, Giant in Lilliput, The Story of Donaciano Vigil, Pampa, TX: Pampa Print Shop, 1963.