Book Review: First Mail West

Book Review: First Mail West
by Morris F. Taylor, UNM Press, 2000

For many Americans, the stagecoach symbolizes the 1800s in the West. And yet, stage mail and passenger service to Santa Fe lasted just thirty years, from 1850 to 1880. In that time, the route grew shorter and shorter, as the railroad crept toward New Mexico and finally ended the stagecoach era completely.

Morris F. Taylor’s book First Mail West: Stagecoach Lines on the Santa Fe Trail tells that story and much more.  It begins with equine transport of military dispatches and goes on to describe when and how the first Post Office Department contracts were put in place and the many details connected with the mail stage system.

But this is not a dry fact-and-figures kind of book. It’s filled with the names of people associated with New Mexico history—the Bent brothers, David Waldo, Ceran St. Vrain, William W.H. Davis, Kit Carson, Governors Lane and Meriwether, and many more. It also identifies lesser-known individuals, including the stage conductors and drivers, and provides fascinating glimpses into life along the route to Santa Fe—descriptions of the stage stops, how they were operated, the people who ran them, and the dangers they encountered. In addition, because the stage had connections into Denver, there’s a good overview of the early Colorado mine fields and the towns that sprang up around them.

First Mail West is a pleasure to read and full of information you never realized you wanted to know. I recommend it to anyone researching New Mexico and Colorado history in the 1846-1880 time frame and also to those who’d simply like another approach to Old West history.

Book Review: The Mesilla

Book Review: The Mesilla

If you recognize the name Albert Fountain, you’ll almost certainly associate him with his disappearance in the New Mexico desert in 1896 along with his eight-year-old son. And that’s probably almost everything you know about the man.

But Fountain’s disappearance happened as the result of events that took place well before that early February day. In fact, he’d been a polarizing figure in southern New Mexico for a number of years. He’d defended Billy the Kid in court and made other decisions that brought attention to himself—and not necessarily in a good way.

Mary Armstrong’s novel The Mesilla provides a fictional account of some of the events in Fountain’s career prior to his disappearance. This story, the first in Armstrong’s Two Valleys Saga series, centers around Fountain’s defense of Bronco Sue, a woman who was accused of killing her husband, one of a series of men she’d cohabitated with. The courtroom scenes alone are worth the price of this book.

Armstrong has clearly done her homework. The novel is packed with information and anecdotes about New Mexico’s Mesilla and Tularosa Valleys in the late 1800s, which she feeds seamlessly into the story line. If you’re interested in the history of these areas or are just looking for a well-written historical novel, I recommend The Mesilla.  

Book Review: Los Capitalistas

Book Review: Los Capitalistas
UNM Press, 1997, ISBN: 0-8263-2235-2


What picture comes to your mind when you hear the words “Santa Fe Trail”? American merchants with wagons full of merchandise heading west and returning with money in their pockets, right? Well, there’s more to that story, and Susan Calafate Boyle’s book Los Capitalistas helps to provide that additional information.

So they did. By 1840, Hispanos were major participants in the trade along the Santa Fe Trail, with extensive trade and financing relationships as far east as New York, London, and Paris. Los Capitalistas explains those relationships and the types of merchandise New Mexican merchants conveyed back and forth and, in the process, expands our understanding of New Mexico. 

The ricos of New Mexico saw pretty early on that hauling merchandising over the Trail could work both ways. After all, they were already taking wool, woven goods, and other items to Chihuahua, Sonora, and other points south. Extending their freighting operations east was the next logical step.

Los Capitalistas is written in a clear, matter-of-face style that conveys a great deal of information and provides a glimpse of New Mexico that most of us haven’t seen before, and is an important book for understanding the history of the Southwest as well as an enjoyable read. I recommend it!

BOOK REVIEW: Old Bill Williams, Mountain Man

ISBN978-08061-1698-3, University of Oklahoma Press, 1962

Those of you who’ve read more than one of my Old New Mexico books may have noticed that I have a special fondness for William Sherley Williams, better known as “Old Bill”.

My initial introduction to Old Bill was through Old Bill Williams, Mountain Man by Alpheus H. Favour. Although written in the 1930s and somewhat infected with the era’s attitudes towards America’s First Peoples, this book still manages to provide a glimpse into Old Bill’s more progressive attitudes.

The red-headed gawky Williams left his Missouri home in his teens to live with the Osage Indians. There he married, found work with the Baptist missionaries to the Osage, then broke with his employers when he decided that Osage spirituality was more meaningful and insightful than the missionaries’.

A skilled linguist, he developed the first Osage-English dictionary and is said to have spoken at least five different languages. After his wife’s death, Williams moved west, guiding the Santa Fe Trail Survey, trapping, hunting buffalo, and scouting. Querulous and opinionated, Old Bill preferred trapping alone in places he refused to divulge to anyone else. He would eventually die as the result of John C. Fremont’s ill-fated fourth expedition through the southern Rockies in the middle of winter.

There are various summaries of Williams’ life. I have yet to find anything as detailed and extensive as Favour’s Old Bill Williams, Mountain Man. I recommend it.

Book Review: Home Ground, Language for an American Landscape

Trinity University Press, 2006
ISBN: 978-1595340573

Do you know what an hourglass valley is? Or a long-lot field? These are just two of the many terms defined in one of my favorite books, Home Ground, Language for an American Landscape. Edited by Barry Lopez and Debra Gwartney, this book is a treasure trove of words that describe the outdoor spaces around us.

One of the things that makes Home Ground different from other dictionaries is that its definitions were provided by writers who live in or are deeply knowledgeable about the areas where the terms are used. For example, William deBuys writes about forms characteristic of New Mexico’s Sangre de Cristo mountains, while Robert Hass contributes definitions connected with the San Francisco area, and Luis Alberto Urrea focuses on the Rocky Mountain Front Range. As a result, the material in this book is a high step above the dry and impersonal explanations you might expect in this type of endeavor.

I bought Home Ground as a research tool. But I find myself dipping into it for the sheer pleasure of the writing and of discovering new terms. For example, just today I learned that the Navajo word for “slot canyon” is tseghiizi. And confirmed that the Moreno Valley, where so many of my Old New Mexico books are set, is an hourglass valley like Mosaic Canyon in Death Valley.

I also discovered a term for the long narrow fields that line up, short-end to the water, along so many of New Mexico’s streams and acequias. They’re long-lot fields. That certainly reduces the number of words I need to use to describe that particular geographical feature!

If you’re looking for a resource to describe and understand the landscape of the U.S., I recommend this book. If you’d simply like an enjoyable and very readable way to learn something new, I also recommend this book. Home Ground is a real treasure! 

Book Review: Following The Royal Road

I already had a book about the Camino Real de Tierra Adentro—the highway from New Mexico to Mexico City that came into being in the late 1500s. I had no business buying Following the Royal Road by Hal Jackson.

But I’m certainly glad I did.

The book I already owned is a good overview of the road’s history, but Following the Royal Road gets into the details that make a historical researcher salivate. It answered questions I ran into while gathering information for No Secret Too Small and also provided details I didn’t know I needed. For example, both battles of New Mexico’s 1837/38 revolt happened on the Camino Real. And El Alamo—where Governor Perez and his officials spent the night of August 8, 1837, is on the route, south of Santa Fe and just north of Los Golondrinos.

One of the things I really like about Following the Royal Road is the detailed maps it provides for each section of the Camino. Also, it traces the road all the way to Taos, a connection most books don’t make. In fact, it lays out the alternate routes people took to get to Taos, depending on the weather, material I used in No Secret Too Small.

But Following the Royal Road isn’t just a map with words. Jackson sprinkles a liberal amount of historical and cultural information throughout the book, so you’ll learn about everything from hornos to the founding of El Paso del Norte and the silver mines of Zacatecas.

And you can actually follow Following the Royal Road. It provides driving instructions from Taos to Mexico City. Whether you want to explore pieces of the Camino Real de Tierra Adentro from your armchair or on the road, I heartily recommend this book as your guide.

BOOK REVIEW: Rebellion in Rio Arriba, 1837

Lecompte.Rebellion.cover
University of Mexico press, 1985
ISBN: 978-0826308016

In Spring 1835, the citizens of New Mexico met their new Governor, sent from Mexico City this time instead of being appointed from the men of the province.

Governor Albino Perez and the new laws he’d been ordered to enforce didn’t sit well with his constituents, especially those living in Rio Arriba, along the upper Rio Grande.  After years of essentially self-rule, New Mexico’s elected town councils would now be appointed by the Governor. He would also be collecting taxes that had never been required before.

The governor also simply rubbed people the wrong way. He had an autocratic manner, he dressed flamboyantly, and he wasn’t from New Mexico. Perhaps most importantly, when people began to complain about the new laws, he didn’t listen.

The result was a rebellion that exploded in early August 1837. Janet Lecompte’s book Rebellion in Rio Arriba provides a clear narrative of what happened before, during, and after August 1837 and also includes translations of key documents. Lecompte does an excellent job of evaluating and sorting out the various accounts of the revolt. Although it’s concise, this book is a treasure trove of valuable material. I’ve used it extensively as a resource for my forthcoming novel, No Secret Too Small.

The 1837 revolt is an important episode in New Mexico’s history that I believe has lessons for us today. A little less heavy-handedness and a little more communication could very well have resulted in a workable solution for everyone, instead of death for so many. I highly recommend Rebellion in Rio Arriba.

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.

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.

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.