Two American Governors for New Mexico

On Tuesday, Sept. 22, 1846, just over a month after Brigadier General Stephen Watts Kearny seized New Mexico for the United States, he appointed Virginia-born Taos businessman Charles Bent as New Mexico’s first American civil governor. When Kearny and the majority of his 1700-man force headed on to California to participate in acquiring it as well, Colonel Sterling Price, as senior U.S. Army officer in New Mexico, became its military governor.

Sept 22 illustration.Bent

Bent had been in Nuevomexico since 1829, first as a fur trapper, then as a Santa Fe trail trader based in Taos. He occupied his post as Governor less than four months. In mid-January 1847, he died at the hands of a New Mexican mob protesting the American occupation.

Two-and-a-half weeks later, Colonel Price, supported heavily by American businessmen and trappers in New Mexico, crushed that rebellion and assured that New Mexico would remain part of the United States.

Sept 22 illustration.Price

Ironically, Price’s own career would include participation in an even larger rebellion against the nation he had helped to force on New Mexico. Following a term as Governor of Missouri, he joined the Confederate Army, rising to the level of General. He died on September 29, 1867, almost exactly 21 years after he took over as military governor of New Mexico.

Sources: Leroy R. Hafen, Ed., Fur Trappers and Traders of the Far Southwest,  Logan: Utah State UP, 1977; Marc Simmons, New Mexico, an interpretive history, Albuquerque, UNM Press, 1988

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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.”

Copyright © 2016 Loretta Miles Tollefson

No Rain In Taos

On Sunday, July 31, 1825, Taos-based physician Rowland Willard had been in Taos since July 2 and the village had received no rain in the past month. The doctor was disappointed.

The New York born Willard had apparently expected to find not only rain but a prosperous community that could afford American fees and make him rich. He was destined to be disappointed on both counts.

July 31 illustration
Source: Over the Santa Fe Trail to Mexico, Julie L. Poole, ed.

Although Doctor Willard had a number of clients in Taos and as far south as Santa Cruz de la Canada, payment for services in the 1820s tended to be in goods rather than in cash. By September, it was clear that Taos was not the land of opportunity he had sought. On September 15, he headed south, to try his luck in Chihuahua.

The move paid off. Willard developed a successful practice in Chihuahua and remained there for the next two years, where he invested in the Santa Rita copper mines as well as his medical practice.

In 1828 Willard decided to return to the United States. To be eligible to leave the country, Mexican law required a 2% duty payment. The good Doctor paid $80 on the $4000 he declared, but actually left Mexico with $7000 in cash and his “outfit.”

Clearly, trappers were not the only Americans who believed they didn’t need to comply with Mexico’s duty laws.

Source: Julie L. Poole ed., Over The Santa Fe Trail To Mexico, The Travel Diaries And Autobiography Of Dr. Rowland Willard, University of Oklahoma Press, Norman 2015

A MAN’S DREAM, 1 of 2

They climbed a small hill near the headwaters of the Cimarron River to get a better view. The long narrow valley spread out below them. It was a couple miles wide and probably twelve long. The land slanting toward them was mostly grass. Small creeks meandered across it, creating dark indentations. Pine and fir hugged the banks, spreading out occasionally to absorb moisture from a sloughy spot. The streams met in a marshy area just below where Gerald and Suzanna stood, then drained into the small river that flowed eastward through the rocky canyon.

Suzanna studied the valley warily as Gerald plucked a piece of grass from the hillside. He examined it, then bit into the fleshy end and chewed carefully.

He spit it out. “Sweet,” he said approvingly. He gestured at the view below. “It has everything we could want,” he told his wife. “Water, feed, game, timber.”

from Moreno Valley Sketches

 

Navajo Exile Finally Ends

In late June 1868, after five years of exile, the Navajo people began their return to their homeland.

Five years earlier, also in June, U.S. Army General James Henry Carleton had ordered Colonel  Christopher “Kit” Carson to march west to starve out the Navajos and move them 450 miles east to Bosque Redondo. Although Carson argued that his health was poor and that he’d joined the Army to fight Confederate Texans, not Indians, Carleton ordered him to go him anyway.

Carson did as he was told. The majority of the Navajos residing in the Southwest were gathered up and marched east to Bosque Redondo, and old meeting ground for Indians of the southern Plains along the Pecos River.

The experience was a disaster.

The Navajos were incarcerated alongside their long-time enemies, the Mescalero Apache, so that was difficult enough.

Then the crops failed, not only at Bosque Redondo, but also in the Taos and Mora Valleys, which reduced the food supplies that could be purchased to feed the captives. In fact, there were so few supplies that General Carleton suspended operations against the Navajos still at large. He didn’t have enough to feed those he had, much less more.

June 23 illustration.Carleton.nuevomexicano homeland

And Kit Carson, who went with the Navajo to Bosque Redondo, proved an inadequate administrator. Not only was he hampered by his illiteracy, but he found that he had no real power or control. Between Carleton’s micromanagement and Army bureaucracy and corruption, he was as overwhelmed with his Bosque Redondo tasks as the captive Navajos were with the miserable conditions there. Carson left in mid September 1864. The Navajo would remain until June 1868.

Finally, two years after Carleton had been relieved of his military command, General Tecumseh Sherman arrived. He agreed with the Navajo leaders’ rejection of the idea of moving to a new reservation in Oklahoma and negotiated a peace with them that would send them home. Three weeks after the treaty was signed on June 1, the People began the 450 miles or more journey home.

You can find more information about the Navajo Long Walk at http://newmexicohistory.org/people/navajo-long-walk-to-bosque-redondo-1864

Sources: Hampton Sides, Blood And Thunder, an epic the American West, Doubleday, New York, 2006; Jerry D Thompson, A Civil War History Of The New Mexico Volunteers And Militia, U of New Mexico P, Albuquerque, 2015

Jim Bridger Keeps His Job

On June 15, 1866 Colonel Henry B. Carrington defied orders from the U.S. War Department to fire mountain man Jim Bridger from his position as Carrington’s  expedition guide. Instead, he gave Bridger a raise, to $10 a day.

Carrington’s expedition was tasked with opening a wagon road around the Big Horn mountains to Montana, across Sioux and Cheyenne treaty lands. The road was needed to enable miners to get to the gold fields in the West. The gold from the mines was needed to pay Civil War debts.

It isn’t clear why the War Department wanted to fire Bridger, but Carrington’s response to the order is clearing up. He reported that it was “impossible of execution.” Then he doubled Bridger’s pay from $5 a day to $10 a day. Bridger stayed on, and assisted Carrington not only with opening the road but also “subduing” the Sioux and Cheyenne and building Fort Phil Kearney.

June 15 illustration.Jim Bridger.vestal
Source: Jim Bridger, Stanley Vestal

 

This was the last of Jim Bridger’s big adventures. He would return to Missouri, where by 1875 he was completely blind. He died in mid 1881.

Bridger had been active in the West since the early 1820s. He is said to be the first American to discover the Great Salt Lake and crossed South Pass, an important link in the United States’ westward expansion, in 1827. After he founded Fort Bridger in 1843, it became an important stopping place along the Oregon Trail.

Although Bridger spent little if any time in New Mexico, he and trappers and guides like him were instrumental in breaking down the barriers, for good or ill, between New Mexico and the United States. If the story of the War Department’s decision and Carrington’s response has anything to tell us, it’s that even in their own time, the activities of these men met with a mixed reception, even in the United States.

Source: Stanley Vestal, Jim Bridger, mountain man, U of Nebraska P, Lincoln, 1946.

Old Bill Williams Begins His Adventurous Life

On this day June 3, 1787, one of the West’s most memorable mountain men, William Sherley Williams, was born in North Carolina. The fourth of nine children, he was called “Will” by family members, although before he was 40, his fellow mountain men were calling him “Old Bill.”

The Williams family moved to Missouri when Bill was 9 years old. Seven years later, at 16, Bill left home to live among the Osage Indians. Twenty-one years later, after the death of his ostrich wife and the dissolution of the reservation, Bill headed west. He would become a legendary mountain man, known as much for his eccentricities as his prowess in the wilderness.

The lean, 6’1”, red-headed Williams was based in Taos and had a propensity for hunting beaver on his own, or with only a camp-follower as a companion. Where he went was anyone’s guess–he also had a propensity for keeping his hunting grounds secret.

Before he left home, Williams had received an education that included training in Greek and Latin. This, along with excellent hunting and tracking skills and a gift for languages, gave him a self-confidence that didn’t suffer fools gladly. Especially people who doubted his geographic knowledge of the West.

This strong personality was bound to get Williams in trouble when he encountered someone with a similar character. In Williams’ case, this was former Army Colonel John C. Fremont.

June 3 illustration.Bill Williams signature.favour
Bill Williams signature. Source: Old Bill Williams, A. H. Favour

In late 1848, Fremont hired Williams as guide for an expedition into the Rocky Mountains to identify an all-season railroad route to California. When Williams insisted that the expedition should veer from the route Fremont had already identified, Fremont relieved Williams of his guide duties and gave them to others.

Unfortunately, Williams was right. Fremont’s route was a mistake. Winter set in with a vengeance and Fremont’s men were trapped in the Rockies. Only 21 men of Fremont’s original 32 made it out alive. Although this would include Williams, he would die a couple months later, trying to retrieve valuable records and medical equipment that had been left behind.

So, while Williams’ vivid personality and self-confidence made him a legend in his own time, it also cut his time short. But the stories of his exploits would live on, and some of us still wonder just where those secret beaver hunting grounds actually were.

Sources: Robert Glass Cleland, This Reckless Breed of Men, UNM Press, Albuquerque, 1976; Leroy R. Hafen, Ed., Fur Trappers and Traders of the Far Southwest, Utah State UP, Logan, 1997; Alpheus H. Favour, Old Bill Williams, Mountain Man, U of Oklahoma P, Norman, 1962