RATTLED

“I don’ keer if you don’ believe me,” the old trapper said as he pushed his matted brown hair away from his eyes. He shifted the Harpers Ferry 1803 rifle impatiently. “If’n yer too smart for yer own good, it ain’t none o’ my doin’.” He stroked the maple half-stock with its short barrel, looked balefully at the younger man, and turned to place the rifle next to his pack. The metal rib brazed to the underside of the barrel glinted in the firelight. “Thinks he’s smarter’n the rest o’ us,” the trapper muttered to the wagon master, who was sitting on his heels on the other side of the fire, smoking a carved cottonwood pipe.

“I didn’t say that I disbelieved you,” the young man in the black broadcloth coat said evenly. He brushed a piece of ash from his sleeve. “I simply stated that I was unaware of any unique characteristic of the 1803 issued to Lewis and Clark’s Corps of Discovery, other than the half-stock and its excellent balance.” He shrugged a shoulder. “My father was issued an 1803 during the 1812 conflict. He recollected it quite fondly and frequently. However, he never mentioned an unusually short barrel.”

“Jest cuz yer Daddy didn’ say it, don’ mean it weren’ so,” the old trapper grumbled.

“That may be the case,” the young man said stiffly. “I was unaware that I was contradicting you. I understood that we were merely exchanging some particularly intriguing information.”

“Ten dollar words.” The old man rubbed his matted hair, unfolded himself upward without looking at the others, and stalked off into the night.

The young man in the black coat looked across the firelight at the wagon master. “I didn’t intend to offend him,” he said uneasily.

The wagon master took his pipe from his mouth. “Oh, I wouldn’t worry ’bout it,” he said. “Ol’ Matt gets himself worked up like that sometimes. But he’s like a garden snake, all fizz an’ no real fury.” He glanced into the darkness. “But don’t say I said so. Not where he can hear. He wants ya t’ think he’s a rattler.”

from Valley of the Eagles

Book Review: Louis Felsenthal, Citizen-Soldier of Territorial New Mexico

Meketa.Louis Felsenthal.Cover
UNM Press, 1982
ISBN-13: 978-0826306043

Most of the people prominent in New Mexico history have had at least one book written about them (Kit Carson, Padre Martinez, Bishop Lamy, and Thomas Catron, to name a few). However, there aren’t many books about people who played minor roles in New Mexico’s history. That’s why Jacqueline Dorgan Meketa’s biography of Louis Felsenthal is so valuable.

Louis Felsenthal, Citizen-Soldier of Territorial New Mexico tells the story of a young Prussian Jew who arrived in Santa Fe in 1858 with high hopes. He had a gift for language and law, and was extremely interested in New Mexico’s history. When the Civil War broke out, he joined the Army and saw action at Valverde. He stayed in the military after the war and led patrols along the Santa Fe Trail that ensured the safety of the mail as well as stage passengers.

But Louis Felsenthal did not become famous. His passion for preserving New Mexico’s archives led him into conflict with the politicians of the day, and the effects of a stroke caused some of his fellow Anglos to believe he had an alcohol problem. As a result, he was denied the Veterans assistance to which he was entitled. He died in poverty and obscurity.

In some ways, this is a sad tale of a talented young man who didn’t achieve fame and fortune. But in other ways, Louis Felsenthal’s story is a heartening one. He’s one of many Anglos who came to New Mexico looking for adventure and fortune and instead fell in love with the land and its history, and did his best to protect it and to preserve its historical record. He may not be famous now, but he contributed to the society of his day and to posterity to the best of his abilities.

For this reason, and for its discussion of New Mexico in the second half of the 1800s, I recommend Louis Felsenthal, Citizen-Soldier of Territorial New Mexico.

MAXWELL BEFORE THE BAR

Lucien Bonaparte Maxwell sits on one of the mismatched chairs in Elizabethtown’s makeshift Colfax County courtroom and studies the man behind the judge’s table. He’s sat at such tables himself, though he doubts he ever looked so uncomfortable. Joseph Palen looks out of place here in this rough mining town and angry that it has the audacity to call itself a county seat. He apparently disapproves of nuevomexico, too, for that matter.

Maxwell feels the impulse to laugh, but instead lifts his right foot to his left knee and watches the crowd gather. Most of the men nod to him politely, touching their foreheads in a kind of salute, and he nods back. They’re good people. Know what they want, have no pretense about them. He grins at Old Pete, who’s still wearing his hat, even inside the courtroom.

Beside him, the old attorney Theodore Wheaton mutters, “Here we go,” and Judge Palen gavels the room to attention.

“Apparently, Mr. Maxwell has deigned to honor us with his presence this morning,” Palen says, glaring at Lucien.

Maxwell resists the impulse to straighten his spine and put both feet on the floor. “I believe you wanted to see me,” he says coolly.

Judge Palen’s lips tighten. “You have an interest in a number of cases before this court.”

Maxwell nods and tilts his head toward the old lawyer beside him. “Mr. Wheaton is my designated attorney,” he says. “I believe that releases me from the need to be present.” He adjusts his right foot higher on his left knee.

“You have also been indicted on a serious charge.” Palen leans forward. “That indictment requires your attendance.”

“The probate court issue?” Maxwell lifts a shoulder. “We have an excellent probate court clerk. As you’ll see from his records, there was no need to hold formal court.”

Palen’s lips thin. “You committed to appearing on the first day of this session in regard to the indictment against you. It is now the fourth day.”

“I was unexpectedly detained.”

Palen stares at him for a long moment, then turns to the court clerk. “Let the record show that Mr. Maxwell has appeared and apologized for his failure to appear, and that we are satisfied no contempt was intended.”

Maxwell’s jaw tightens, then he nods slightly and pulls his right foot more firmly onto his knee. If that’s the way the man wants to play it, he can adjust.

~ ~ ~ ~

“Things are changing, Mr. Maxwell.” Judge Joseph Palen sets his whisky glass on the saloon table and looks around the room. “In another year or so, these ragged placer miners will be replaced by businessmen with laborers to do the rough work.”

Maxwell nods, following his gaze. “And many of these men will be laborers, instead of independent men with claims of their own,” he says ruefully.

“Claims so poorly worked they bring in barely enough to keep body and soul together.” Palen flicks a speck of dust from the sleeve of his dark broadcloth suit.

“That’s all that matters, I suppose.” Maxwell grimaces. “Efficiency.”

“It’s a large territory, and its resources are going to waste.”

“So they tell me,” Maxwell says. He shakes his head, puts his glass on the table, and reaches for his battered black hat. “I’ve been here a long time, Mr. Palen, and I happen to like nuevomexico’s lack of efficiency. So do most of the men in this room, I expect. Though none of us are averse to making a penny or two.” He stands, towering over the table. “Good day to you, Judge.” A mischievous smile flashes across his face. “And good luck.”[1]

from Old One Eye Pete

[1] This story is based on events that occurred during the Spring 1870 First Judicial District Court session in Elizabethtown, the Colfax County seat. Lucien Maxwell, as Colfax County Probate Judge, was indicted for not holding court, but the charges were dismissed. At the time, Maxwell and his wife were in the final stages of selling the Beaubien/Miranda Land Grant (aka the Maxwell Land Grant) to a consortium of English investors. Judge Joseph Palen was newly appointed to his position as Justice for the First District Court of New Mexico. He would go on to become an important member of the notorious Santa Fe Ring, which sought to monetize the agricultural and other assets of New Mexico Territory.

MINERS GOTTA EAT

“Me and Joe didn’ come alla way out here jus’ to cook for no white men,” Frank Edwards grumbled as he slammed dirty dishes into the hotel sink. “You’d think we was still slaves in Kentucky.”

“You be only eighteen,” Louis the cook said. He positioned a pan of potatoes on the wooden table and picked up the pealing knife. “And what’s Joe, twenty three? You all have plenty o’ time.”

Joe Williams came in the door with an armload of firewood. “I here tell there’s a gold claim for sale in Humbug Gulch,” he told Frank as he dumped the wood into the bin next to the stove. “They askin’ seventy-five dollars.”

Frank’s hands stopped moving in the dishwater. “You reckon we got enough?”

Louis looked up from his potatoes. “You two listen to me and you listen good,” he said sharply. “You go to minin’ and you’re gonna lose every penny you have. Miners gotta eat, even when they so broke they sellin’ their claims. Stick to feedin’ ’em and you’ll do better in th’ long run.”

Frank and Joe looked at each other and shrugged. “We don’t got enough anyway,” Joe said. He jerked his head sideways, toward Louis. “An’ the old man has a point.”

“You better watch who you callin’ an old man,” Louis said gruffly. “And that wood box ain’t full enough yet, neither. Not by a long shot.”

from Valley of the Eagles

Estancia’s Press

Watch this video for information about the town of Estancia and the press that published Jack Thorpe’s seminal 1908 book Songs of the Cowboys. It also shows how a platen press worked! I really enjoyed this one.

 

Watch this video for information about the town of Estancia and the press that published Jack Thorpe’s seminal 1908 book Songs of the Cowboys. It also shows how a platen press worked! I really enjoyed this one.

Book Review: The French in New Mexico

Patorni.The French in NM.Cover
French In America Press, 2020
ISBN: 9780578631158

While it’s fairly common knowledge that people with French surnames trapped and traded in New Mexico during the mountain man era, The French In New Mexico identifies many other French connections in the American Southwest. In fact, Francois-Marie Patorni points out that Franciscan priest Marco de Nice—the man whose report of cities of gold prompted the Spanish incursion into what is today the American Southwest—was French. He may have been in New Spain and subject to the Spanish church there, but he was born in Nice.

This is where The French in New Mexico begins. But it doesn’t end there. Patorni walks his reader through four centuries of New Mexico history, establishing links to France every step of the way.  Patorni covers major figures as well as minor ones and groups his material in easily-accessible headings, by topic (wine growing, the church, merchants, etc.) as well as location (Santa Fe, Mora, the lower Pecos, etc.). This makes the book great for both a comprehensive overview of events in New Mexico from a French perspective as well as for locating material about a particular topic or location.

This book is a fascinating read with a new approach to the history of New Mexico. The information it provides reflects both Patorni’s scholarship and his enthusiasm. This is a well-written, well documented, and unique take on New Mexican history. If you’re interested in New Mexico’s history and/or the contribution of the French people to the American Southwest, I recommend The French In New Mexico.

BEAVER TALE

The yearling beaver is hungry, but when he tries to filch a piece of tender green shoot from his baby siblings, his mother hisses sharply. He moves toward the lodge’s diving hole, but his father blocks the way and chitters at him. The yearling slinks to one side of the den and begins grooming his fur with his right hind foot. The divided nail on his second toe makes for a kind of comb that simplifies this process considerably.

There are three new kits this spring, which keep his parents busy. His father moves to help with the feeding, and the yearling sees his chance. He slides into the diving hole and out into the pond.

The sky is bright overhead. The beaver dives, but not before the old trapper on the bank nudges the young girl beside him. “See, I tol’ you that ole lodge was still occupied!” he says gleefully.

* * *

“Old Pete ain’t gonna trap it, is he?” Andrew whispers. The two children are crouched on the edge of the beaver pond, peering at the yearling beaver feeding on the opposite bank.

“He says he needs a new hat, and beaver tail is mighty tasty,” Alma answers.

“He don’t need a new hat!” Andrew says loudly. There’s a slapping sound on the water to their left, and the yearling turns and slides into the pond.

“I didn’t even see the other one,” Andrew says sorrowfully.

“Should of kept your voice down.” Alma stands up.

“How can you watch ’em like you do and not worry about Old Pete trapping ’em?”

She shrugs. “Everything dies. Mama says it’s all part of God’s plan.” She moves away, toward the rocky path that leads up the Cimarron River toward home.

“Old Pete don’t need a new hat,” Andrew insists as he follows.

* * *

“Beaver tail is almighty tasty,” Old Pete observes as he sits on the front porch whittling a stick.

Andrew scowls. “Papa says it’s all fat and grease. Not good at all.”

“Fat tastes plenty good when you’ve been eatin’ venison and elk a long spell. Wild game’s almighty lean.”

“You been eatin’ here,” Andrew insists. “We’ve got plenty o’ fat from the hogs.”

Andrew’s mother comes out of the house. “The kindling box is empty,” she tells him.

He rises obediently and heads toward the woodpile.

“Are you still teasing him about trapping that beaver?” she asks Old Pete.

The old man grins. “He’s a right risible youngster, ain’t he?”

“Who admires you, although I can’t think why,” she says tartly. “He’s beginning to believe that men kill for the sheer pleasure of it.”

Old Pete grunts and tosses his stick to the ground. “Think I’ll help with that kindling,” he says.

* * *

“I ain’t gonna place a trap for that beaver, son.” Old Pete and the boy are resetting a garden fence post. Andrew holds it steady as Old Pete shovels dirt into the hole.

“Alma said you need a new hat.”

The old man chuckles. “Hat’s good fer another season or two.”

“But what then?”

“Somethin’ll turn up.”

“You said beaver tail was tasty.”

Old Pete leans on his shovel. “Funny thing ’bout that. Only really tasted good when there was plenty to trap an’ the peltries were sellin’ high.” He begins tamping down the dirt around the post with his foot. “You think this’ll be strong enough t’ keep those elk out?”

“I hope so. Mama got pretty mad at them last spring. She was out here with the shot gun, but Papa says all she did was scare ’em. They’ll be back when they’re hungry enough.”

from Old One Eye Pete

 

 

INEVITABLE AS CLOUDS

“Disaster seems as inevitable as clouds piling over those mountains and more rain with them,” she said drily. She jerked her chin toward the western horizon, where gray-lined white clouds towered above the rocky peaks.

“Rain isn’t necessarily a disaster,” he said mildly. “It’s water for the crops and cattle, recharge for the well.”

“I haven’t been out of this cabin for the last ten days,” she complained. “By the time I’m done with the morning chores, it’s raining again. You’re out and about, tending the cattle, seeing to the crops. I’m in the house getting the children decent and cleaning up after them.”

“The rain means you don’t have to haul water to the garden,” he pointed out. “The clouds are bringing it to you.”

She took a deep breath, as if gearing up for an argument, then let it out, letting the anger go with it. “I’m just feeling so cooped up,” she said. “I feel like a winter-bound chicken in the hen house.”

“Well, we could eat you and take you out of your misery,” he teased.

She laughed and shook her head. “I’ll certainly be glad when the monsoon season is over with.” She looked up at him, over her shoulder. “We will get a respite from this before winter sets in, won’t we?”

He chuckled, drew her to him, and silently watched the clouds moving his way.

from Valley of the Eagles

BOOK REVIEW: Captives and Cousins

 

Brooks.Captives and Cousins.cover
University of North Carolina press, 2002
ISBN: 0807853828

There are divergent explanations for the trade in captured Native Americans that occurred in New Mexico between the Spanish entrada and the late 1800’s: It was the result of justified retribution for Native American raids, deliberate expansion of a system of slavery, or any other number of reasons.

James F. Brooks’ Captives and Cousins moves beyond these explanations to explore the way the culture of capture and servitude throughout the Southwest borderlands affected all the communities involved, both for good and ill.

While Brooks does not condone the slave trade, he does point out that both Native and Spanish-speaking communities took part in it. More importantly, he proposes that the resulting mingling of cultures enabled a cultural flexibility that may not have otherwise occurred.

Because of its subject matter, Captives and Cousins isn’t an easy read. However, I believe it is an important one. The book’s value lies not only in its nuanced exploration of an aspect of New Mexico’s history most of us would rather not think about, but also its demonstration of a way to think about other uncomfortable aspects of our history.

We tend to want simple solutions to complex issues. Brooks demonstrates that life is complex, that what appears horrendous can sometimes be of benefit, and that there are no simple answers. If you’re interested in reading and thinking about a difficult topic explored by an author who’s not interested in descending into either outrage or cultural self-congratulation, I recommend Captives and Cousins.