Sabino’s Map: Book Review

Sabinos Map cover
Sabino’s Map, Life in Chimayó’s Old Plaza
by Don J. Usner
Museum of New Mexico Press, Santa Fe, 1995
ISBN 0-89013-289-5

Sabino’s Map is, I suspect, something of a rarity. It combines interviews with aging locals with an anthropologist’s research skills and fine eye for detail. That’s a difficult balance to achieve, but Don J. Usner does an excellent job arriving at and maintaining the necessary equilibrium.

This book is clearly the result of a labor of love, but it is also a very useful book for anyone who wants to know more about the history of the northern New Mexico village of Chimayo, its people, and its landscape.

Usner, who is related by birth to a good number of the people interviewed for this book, provides an extensive history of Chimayo which begins long prior to the first Spanish settlements.

The book is titled Sabino’s Map because in the 1950s a man named Sabino Trujillo hand-drew a detailed map of Chimayó’s Plaza del Cerro as it existed during his boyhood in the early 20th century. Sabino’s map identified each house on the plaza, who owned it at the time, the location of the acequias, where horses were pastured, where trees were located (or not), and a host of other detail. This detail forms the basis for and triggered the oral histories that provide much of the detail in the book.

This much detail, along with extensive interviews with people with plenty of stories to tell, could easily overwhelm a community narrative, but Usner does an excellent job of sifting through a wealth of knowledge and story to give us the nuggets that help the reader see what it might have been like to live in the Plaza del Cerro or its surrounding homes and farms in the late 1800’s and early 20th century.

Sabino’s Map is a beautifully researched and written produced book.

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The Wind Leaves No Shadow: Book Review

The Wind Leaves No Shadow cover
by Ruth Laughlin
Caxton Printers, 1951
ISBN-13: 978-0870040832

Doña Tules Barceló was one of New Mexico’s most colorful 19th century characters, and The Wind Leaves No Shadow is, as far as I know, the only fictional or non-fictional treatment of her life.

From humble origins, which Ruth Laughlin imagines effectively, Doña Tules became owner of a Santa Fe gambling establishment where political opponents could meet to arrange accommodations that worked for everyone involved. She also acted as a kind of informal bank, lending money to key actors at critical junctures in New Mexico’s history. Because her gambling house gave her access to information not available everywhere, she was a valuable resource for both the Mexican and the American officials. She is said to have provided information in late 1846 to Governor Bent’s administration about the incipient rebellion against the U.S. occupation, the one that would result in his death a couple months later.

Not much is known about Doña Tules’ life, and Laughlin uses this fact to her advantage, weaving a story that places her in Santa Fe by the mid-1820’s and keeps her there until her death in 1852. The result is a story that not only imagines Doña Tules’ life but also provides the opportunity for an inside look at events (the 1837 Tax Revolt, the 1846 U.S. invasion, the 1847 death of Charles Bent) and people (the fur trappers, the ricos, the Santa Fe merchants, the priests) in Santa Fe during this period.

The Wind Leaves No Shadow was originally published in 1951 and reflects the historical information available to the author at the time as well as the prejudices that period. Although I didn’t always agree with Laughlin’s interpretation of historical events, she does a really great job of incorporating them into an effective story line. I was also uncomfortable with her insistence on Doña Tules’ white skin, red hair, and green eyes. In Laughlin’s interpretation, her coloring sounds more Irish than Spanish. In spite of these caveats, I believe this is still a useful book. If you’d like to get some idea of the life and trials of New Mexico’s famous lady gambler might have been like, or you’d like a fictional interpretation of New Mexico’s history in the 1820-1850 time frame, I recommend this book.

The Lights of Cimarron: Book Review

The Lights of Cimarron cover
Five Star Publishing, April 2019
ISBN-13: 978-1432851187

It’s always a treat to discover that a book I’m reading and enjoying is part of a series, so I was delighted to discover that the characters in Jim Jones’ The Lights of Cimarron are featured in other books as well.

Set in Cimarron, New Mexico in the 1870s, The Lights of Cimarron features Tommy Stallings, a very young sheriff who has the makings of a great man. He’s fallible, a little insecure, and he has a great mentor who’s a legend among sheriffs and a wife who doesn’t take him too seriously.

Tommy has challenges, though. For one thing, Colfax County officials want him to relocate to the new county seat in Springer, away from Cimarron where his wife is a teacher. So there are marital issues.

More ominously, there’s a gang of rustlers at work in the County and they’re doing more than stealing stock. They’re killing people, women and children as well as men, and leaving mutilated bodies in their wake.

But Tommy’s been charged with taking a bribe, a charge a local mayor seems more concerned with than murder. The accusation is keeping Tommy from finding and dealing with the rustlers. In fact, the mayor seems to be using it to block the rusting investigation. Can Tommy clear his name and get the rustlers too?

In my opinion, the test of a good series is whether the books in that series can stand alone as separate stories. This one does. It’s a pleasure to read and left me wanting to know more about the characters and what will become of them in the future. I’m looking forward to locating and reading the Jared Delaney series, of which The Lights of Cimarron is a spin-off.

If you’re looking for a light-hearted Western with interesting characters and which is part of a series, I definitely recommend The Lights of Cimarron!

Chasing the Santa Fe Ring: Book Review

Chasing the Santa Fe Ring cover
by David L. Caffey
University of New Mexico Press, 2014
ISBN: 978-0-8263-1947-0

In New Mexico, the words “Santa Fe Ring” convey the same concept as the words “Tammany Hall” in New York. The Ring is synonymous with collusion by a few to suppress the many, the use of political power for private ends, and the accumulation of wealth by unsavory means.

In Chasing the Santa Fe Ring, David L. Caffey describes the beginnings, height, and end of the Ring and the people involved in it. The major figures he discusses include, of course, Thomas Catron, Governor Samuel Beach Axtell, Stephen Benton Elkins, and William Breeden. But there were a number of less well-known figures that had links to the ring—Colfax County men like physician Robert Longwill and attorney Melvin W. Mills and Santa Fe merchants like Lehman Spiegelberg and Abraham Staab. Caffey places the activities of these men in context and also provides a helpful summary of their activities in the back matter.

One of the pleasures of reading this book is learning about the connections between the Ring and the various events in New Mexico Territory that tend to be treated as stand-alone eruptions—for example, the Lincoln County War and the Colfax County War. Chasing the Santa Fe Ring is actually a great way to obtain a comprehensive history of the Territory from the lens of the Ring and its particular chronology of events.

Catron and his allies seem to have had their hands in any and every opportunity that appeared to promise a monetary return. This included something as large as using their legislative power to “open up” the land grants to acquisition by outsiders and as small as arranging for jury members to be paid in script with little or no monetary worth, buying that script up, and then forcing a law through the legislature which increased its value.

But this book isn’t just a record of the wrongs perpetuated by the Santa Fe Ring. It’s also the story of how a few people took action and brought an end to its power. One of those people was Mary Tibble McPherson, a woman who didn’t actually live in New Mexico. But her daughter did. By the time McPherson was finished raising hell, even Washington D.C. was taking notice.

Mary McPherson wasn’t the only person involved in the fight against the Ring. But to find out more, you’ll have to read the book. If you’re interested in New Mexico history in the Territorial period, Chasing the Santa Fe Ring is a great resource. I recommend it!

 

The Mexican Frontier: Book Review

The Mexican Frontier cover
The Mexican Frontier 1821-1846, the American Southwest under Mexico, David J. Weber, ISBN 0826306039, University of New Mexico Press, 1982

The Mexican Frontier is the book for those of us who think the American West was “unsettled” before the United States expanded into and past the Rocky Mountains in the mid-1800s. Its author, noted historian David J. Weber, reminds us that Spain had claimed what is now  Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and California, in the 1500s, long before the various British attempts to colonize the East Coast.

When Mexico declared its independence from Spain in 1821, what is now known as the American Southwest came under its jurisdiction. The Mexican Frontier 1821-1846 is a comprehensive look at the  the region between 1821 and 1846, when it was acquired by the United States as a result of the Mexican War.

This book fills an important gap in our knowledge of North American history. Weber not only provides a good overview of Mexican policy and how it affected the country’s Northern Frontier, he also points out the similarities and differences between Texas, New Mexico, and California, both in terms of how government policies were interpreted and enforced and how the different regions reacted to them. This discussion was particularly helpful to me in clarifying the connections between events in Texas and in New Mexico in the 1830s and 40s. It’s been foundational to my research for upcoming novels, especially as I dive into the complexities of the New Mexico Tax Revolt in the 1830s.

If you want to understand the history of Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and California prior to the American takeover, I recommend that you read this very readable book.

 

The Lizard as Hero: Book Review

The almost-invisible lizard sunning himself on a rock or a log is a common occurrence  in New Mexico. I almost stepped on one in the garden this morning. However, I would never have thought to use a lizard as a metaphor for a detective and “fixer.” But Pamela Christie did, and the resulting books are a fascinating look at New Mexico in the 1780s.

Kings Lizard cover

In The King’s Lizard, Christie introduces us to the Old New Mexico version of the invisible person—the half-Ute, half-Spanish Fernando “Nando” Aguilar who lives in a kind of limbo between his Spanish and Native origins. This liminal status makes Nando easy to overlook. But it also gives him access to both the Native and Spanish worlds, an access which makes him a valuable tool for Governor Juan Bautista de Anza.

Governor Anza has been tasked with creating a lasting peace with the Comanche. But there are men in New Mexico who don’t want peace. Unsettled conditions give them access to human contraband. And contraband sales fund a more-than-comfortable lifestyle. Nando becomes part of these men’s merchandise and then, after he escapes their clutches, the key to destroying the slave network as well as providing the Governor with a path to peace.

Dead Lizards Dance cover

In Dead Lizard’s Dance, Nando once again saves the day, sorting out a plot that not only threatens the Governor, but also his own family’s security. Rumors of witchcraft go hand in hand with the struggle to control the caravan of goods to and from Mexico that is the colony’s lifeline.

This particular novel also highlights the status of women in the colony, and it isn’t a particularly pretty picture. But Nando protects the women he can, including those who’ve exacted revenge on a man who’s made a life’s work of abuse and betrayal.

Lizard’s Kill appears to be the end of the road for Nando’s work for Anza, because the Governor’s term of office has ended.

Lizards Kill cover

He’s on his way back to Mexico and retirement. But Anza has one more service he hopes to perform for New Mexico and only Nando Aguilar has the skills to achieve the impossible.

Christie brings a deep knowledge of a complex bygone world  to these three books, a knowledge that seems to expand with each story. Her writing and her observations about New Mexico life and politics in the 1780s grows more deft with each novel. If you’d like to know more about this period and are looking for a good mystery series to dive into I recommend these books.

Long live lizards!

P.S. All of these books are also available directly from Pamela Christie, who says she prefers direct contact with her readers. And she’ll also cut deals! You can contact her at christiepr@gmail.com.

Over The Trail to Mexico: Book Review

 

Over The Santa Fe Trail to Mexico cover
Joy L. Poole, editor
ISBN: 9780806157511
University of Oklahoma press, 2017

Early in the summer 1825, yet another young man joined a wagon train headed over the Santa Fe Trail to New Mexico.

This particular traveler’s name was Doctor Rowland Willard. Dr. Willard’s diary during his time on the Trail and afterwards in New Mexico, Chihuahua, and Durango has now been published with detailed notes and provides a fascinating look at life in Mexico in the second half of the 1820s.

As a medical doctor, Doctor Willard’s perspective was slightly different from other Americans on the Trail and in Mexico. However, in some ways it was very much the same — he was there to make money.

He spent less than six months in New Mexico and did not find there the financial success he was looking for. However, he did find it in Chihuahua. He returned to the States in 1828 with $7000 in cash.

Willard’s diary has actually been published before. Excerpts were included in the Western Travel Review in 1829 and two years later the entire diary was added as an appendix to The Personal Narrative of James Ohio Pattie. The physical diary disappeared into Willard family archives and didn’t resurface until  2005, when it began its journey to publication as Over The Santa Fe Trail To Mexico, the travel diaries and autobiography of Doctor Rowland Willard

This edition provides not only the diary but also Joy L. Poole’s extensive notes and Willard’s autobiography, published here for the first time. This book is worth its price for Poole’s notes alone, which provide the context for fully appreciating Willard’s experiences and observations.

If you’re a student of the Santa Fe trail or of New Mexico history in the late 1820s, Over the Santa Fe Trail to Mexico  will be a valuable addition to your library. If you’re simply looking for a good read about old New Mexico— or old Mexico— I would definitely recommend it.