The man on the ridge grunts in satisfaction and tucks the spyglass into his pocket. It’s her, all right. With some greaser. Word in Arroyo Hondo was she married that bastard Locke, but that ain’t him. Must be that Mex named Chavez that used to work for her pa. The big man snorts and shoves his dirty-blond hair away from his face. The greaser and Locke, too, probably. Take two men to keep her the way she thinks she needs.
He steps backward down the slope, no longer sky lit on the grassy ridge. Don’t want her gettin’ too good a look. Just enough to make the little bitch wonder. ’Cuz he’s dead. Killed by that interferin’ bastard Locke. Left to be tore apart by the Gila Apaches and the wolves after them. He’s just a pile of bleached bones, somewhere west of the Zuni villages.
The big man chuckles sardonically. Ain’t he?
You’ve just read the second chapter of the forthcoming novel Not My Father’s House by Loretta Miles Tollefson. You can order it now from your favorite bookstore or online retailer, including Amazon, Barnes and Noble, or Books2Read.
Technically, In The Shadow of Vargas, is more frontier fiction than western. That is, it’s not set in the American west after the U.S. took over the area that is now New Mexico, Arizona, Utah, Nevada, and California. In fact, the story takes place just before the point at which U.S. citizens were even welcome into what was then Mexico.
Even so, I would classify this book as a western because it fits the criteria in every other way: a protagonist on his own, fighting the bad guys and the elements; a woman at risk who manages to survive until her man rescues her; a story set on the North American continent west of the Mississippi before 1900.
Those are my criteria for a western and sometimes a reader just needs to put up her feet up and read a good one. As far as I’m concerned, westerns are always better if they’re set in New Mexico. So when I learned about E. Paul Bergeron’s In The Shadow of Vargas, I was eager to read it.
It didn’t disappoint. The larger-than-life fur trapper protagonist William MacLeod has a strong sense of justice and knows a good woman when he sees her. His impulse to aid the helpless gets him in trouble and then saves him in the end. And the woman he falls in love with is a strong character in her own right.
There’s a nice twist at the end of this novel which left me surprised. The hero doesn’t—well, I won’t spoil it for you. Let’s just say that Bergeron does a good job of ending this novel while making you wonder what’s going to happen in the sequel, The Search for Diego.
If you’re looking for a traditional western set in New Mexico before the American invasion, I recommend In The Shadow of Vargas.
On Monday, August 27, 1827 American traders Henry Connelly, Alphonso Wetmore, and James Erwin Glenn received written permission to travel El Camino Real de Tierra Adentro from Santa Fe to Chihuahua on a trading venture. Although Wetmore was an established Santa Fe trader at the time, then 27-year-old Henry Connelly would become the most well-known of the three men on this expedition, with the most influence on New Mexico.
A medical doctor, Connelly settled in Chihuahua at the end of his 1827 trip, and engaged in the mercantile trade there. However, he didn’t abandon his Santa Fe connections or his links to the United States. When General Stephen Watts Kearny’s army invaded New Mexico in 1846, Connelly had been in Mexico almost 20 years and had influential friends in Santa Fe.
In fact, Connelly’s connections may have been critical to the success of Kearny’s mission. He is believed to have been Governor Manuel Armijo’s agent during the negotiations that resulted in the bloodless handoff of New Mexico to the U.S.
By 1849, Connelly’s heart was definitely in New Mexico as opposed to Chihuahua. That year, he married Dolores Perea de Chavez of Peralta and subsequently became officially involved in New Mexico Territorial politics. In 1851, he became a member of the Territorial Council. Ten years later, President Abraham Lincoln named him Governor of New Mexico Territory.
Connelly was ill during much of his tenure as governor and actually left the Territory in Fall 1862 to try to recover. He returned in May 1863 and finally retired in mid-July 1866. He died less than a month later, in mid-August 1866, almost exactly 39 years after he first ventured south on the Camino Real.
Sources: Don Bullis, New Mexico, a Biographical Dictionary, 1540-1980, Los Ranchos de Albuquerque: Rio Grande Books, 2007; Julie L. Pool, editor, Over the Santa Fe Trail to Mexico, the travel diaries and autobiography of Doctor Rowland Willard. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2015; Jerry D. Thompson, A Civil War History of the New Mexico Volunteers and Militia, Albuqerque: UNM Press, 2015; Ralph Emerson Twitchell, The Leading Facts of New Mexico History, Vol. II, The Torch Press: Cedar Rapids, 1912; web.archive.org/web/20120406161610/http://www.newmexicohistory.org/filedetails.php?fileID=23527
On Sunday, August 14, 1720 Santa Fe Presidio Garrison Lieutenant Pedro de Villasur died on the Platte River during an altercation with Pawnee Indians. Villasur was the leader of a force of Spanish soldiers, Pueblo Indian militia, and several citizens who’d set out that spring on an expedition to the Platte River in what is today’s Nebraska. The expedition was following up on reports that large numbers of Frenchmen were trading with the Pawnee, a tribe which dominated the central plains. This made Mexican officials nervous. Not only did Spanish mercantile policy forbid foreigners from trading within her empire, but the traders from French Louisiana could be providing the Plains Indians with arms and ammunition that could then be used against New Mexico’s settlements.
To find out what was going on, Villasur and his men were dispatched on a fact-finding mission. the reached the plains east of what is today Colorado’s Front Range in mid-August. When they found a large village of Pawnee, Villasur sent a note in to ask for a parlay.
It’s unclear whether there were any Frenchmen in the village to translate the note, which was in French, but the Pawnee didn’t waste any time responding to it. They attacked the next morning.
Villasur was among the first to fall and among the forty-five who died. The few expedition members who survived the battle carried the news back to Santa Fe and seem to have provided the details subsequently recorded in a unique artwork, one of two painted hides that eventually came into the hands of Jesuit priest Philipp von Segesser von Brunegg.
In 1758 Segesser von Brunegg sent these artifacts to family members in Switzerland. They were eventually sold to the Palace of the Governors Museum in Santa Fe, New Mexico and returned to thecity that Villasur and his men departed from over 300 years ago. They are officially known as the Segesser hides.
There’s documentary evidence of other reposteros, or artwork painted on tanned hides, created in Santa Fe during the 1700s and some scholars believe the Segesser pieces were also produced there. Because of the details in the Segesser II hide, the painting that reflects contemporary accounts of the Villasur debacle, it seems clear that the painting was done by people who were familiar with the events.
The other fascinating thing about this artwork is the way it combines pictorial elements characteristic of indigenous or folk-art paintings while also reflecting influences from European battle tapestries of the late 1600s and early 1700s. The wide borders on the hide painting contain flower and leaf designs similar to of those works.
If you’d like to know more about these unique historical artifacts and the Villasur expedition, the Segesser hides are on display in Albuquerque, New Mexico through October 20, 2019 as part of a larger exhibit titled A Past Rediscovered. If you can’t make it to Albuquerque, you can view portions of the hide paintings here.
Doña Tules Barceló was one of New Mexico’s most colorful 19th century characters, andThe 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.
On Friday, July 17, 1829, Antoine and Louis Robidoux of Missouri became naturalized citizens of Mexico, thus beginning a long and somewhat fruitful association.
Antoine and Louis were two of six brothers, all of them involved in one aspect or another of the Rocky Mountain fur trade. Becoming Mexican citizens made good business sense, because trapping licenses for non-citizens were at times non-existent.
Antoine, who was 35 years old in 1829, had been in New Mexico since 1822. He’d spent the previous two years trapping and trading with the Sioux and his application for citizenship may have been prompted by the fact that he’d married a New Mexican woman in 1828 and it was time to settle down. Or he may have wanted to get involved in local politics. Antoine’s citizenship made him eligible to be elected 1st alcalde and regidor (councilman) of Santa Fe in late 1830 and three years later to serve as 3rd alcalde of Santa Fe and a member of the Santa Fe Commission for forming election districts.
He was also busy making money. During the 1830s, Antoine purchased a mine in the Santa Fe area. He also built Fort Uinta (aka Fort Robidoux) and Fort Uncompahgre in what is now Colorado and used them as a base for trade with the Indians and the trappers in the area.
However, in 1844, both forts were attacked by Utes and a number of men were killed and women captured. These events seem to have curbed Antoine’s enthusiasm for the frontier life. He left for Missouri shortly thereafter.
But he came back. Eschewing his Mexican citizenship, Antoine served with Col. Stephen Watts Kearny as an interpreter during the 1846 U.S. advance on New Mexico and remained with him during the California campaign which followed. After the war, Antoine returned to Missouri, where he died in 1860.
Louis Robidoux, on the other hand, seems to have remained loyal to his Mexican citizenship. Much of his early career mirrored Antoine’s. He arrived in New Mexico about the same time (probably 1823), married a New Mexican woman (Guadalupe Garcia in 1834), and participated in Santa Fe politics, where he served as first alcalde in 1839. He also participated in various moneymaking schemes, including operating a grist mill and iron works in Santa Fe.
And he also left New Mexico. But instead of heading back to Missouri, Louis went to California, a move reportedly bankrolled by a $30,000 win in a Santa Fe card game. He arrived in California with a group of Mexican traders in 1843 and remained there until his death in 1868.
He settled in what would become San Bernardino County, where he set up a large livestock operation and planted orchards, wine vineyards, and a grist mill. He was also involved in politics, becoming the first San Bernardino County Supervisor. The City of Rubidoux, the Louis Robidoux Library, various streets, and Mount Rubidoux are all named after him.
Leroy R. Hafen, Fur Traders and Trappers of the Far Southwest, Logan: Utah State University Press, 1997; David J. Weber, The Taos trappers, the fur trade in the far Southwest, 1540-1846, Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1971.
On Tuesday, July 5, 1825 Irish-born Taos resident James Kirker became a Mexican citizen. Given Kirker’s history up to this point, this was probably not the most optimum citizenship decision the Mexican government ever made.
Kirker had left Ireland at sixteen in order to avoid being drafted by the British during the Napoleonic wars. Ironically, shortly after he arrived in New York City Kirker signed on with the Black Joke, a privateer whose mission was to raid and harass the British fleet.
This didn’t work out too well. The Black Joke was captured by the British. Fortunately for Kirker, the crew was rescued by the USS Hornet and the USS Constitution (later renamed Old Ironsides), and Kirker was returned to New York. When he got there, Kirker headed to the grocery store where he’d been working before he became a privateer, married the young widow who owned the store, and settled down and had a son.
However, Kirker was still in his late teens at this point and he wasn’t really ready to settle down. In 1817 he abandoned his family and headed to St. Louis with some Irish cousins. There, he started another grocery.
But Kirker soon got wanderlust again and in 1823, signed on with Major Andrew Henry to go up the Missouri River. This didn’t last long. Kirker quit in a dispute over terms of employment and headed to Santa Fe.
Mexico seems to have been more to Kirker’s liking. He got involved with managing the Santa Rita copper mines near what is today Silver City, New Mexico and trapped with George Yount and James Ohio Pattie and his father.
But he still wasn’t ready to settle into a routine. In 1835, Kirker obtained a license from New Mexico Governor Albino Perez to trade with the Apaches. But he couldn’t stick to the rules for trading, either. He began illegally providing weapons and ammunition to the Apaches and participating in their raids into Texas and central Mexico.
When the Mexican officials got wind of Kirker’s activities, Governor Perez rescinded his license, ordered him arrested, and placed a $800 bounty on his head. Kirker fled north across the Mexican/American boundary to Bent’s Fort.
This was shortly before Perez’s death during the tax revolt of 1837 (which some people believe Kirker machinated) and by early 1838, newly appointed New Mexican governor Manuel Armijo had invited Kirker back into the country. Kirker went. And immediately returned to his old ways, only this time (at least theoretically) on the side of the establishment.
In early 1838, he was invited to help the Santa Rita mine operators combat the Apache activities that had forced the mines to close. Kirker gathered a couple dozen men and struck an Apache village headed by Mangus Colorado near what is today Cook’s Peak. The attack was brutal but effective, and Chihuahuan officials asked Kirker to lead a full-scale follow-up campaign against the Apaches.
Kirker agreed to their proposal but his first battle was, oddly enough, at Rancho de Taos, not Chihuahua. He lured a band of Apaches into Ranchos with some unguarded horses, then ambushed them after they’d captured the animals and were heading back into the mountains.
This is where the story turns sour. Instead of attacking the Apaches and retrieving the horses, Kirker and his men forced them back into Ranchos, into the walled square around the church there, and picked them off one by one, killing them at leisure. After this ‘success,’ Kirker’s band ranged across New Mexico, Chihuahua, Sonora, and West Texas, killing Apaches and organizing local militia against them.
A change in governance in Chihuahua put a stop to his activities, but unfortunately also brought an increase in Apache attacks. Kirker was eventually redrafted. His attacks on the Apaches would result in the undying hatred of Cochise and probably actually increased the intensity of the Apache attacks until the last bands were finally subdued in the 1880s.
But Kirker wasn’t satisfied with killing Apaches. Just as he’d turned traitor to them, he also turned traitor to his adopted country. When Colonel Alexander Donovan marched his Missouri Volunteers into northern Mexico in 1846, Kirker provided Donovan with valuable information about the location, strength, and best strategies for capturing the Mexican gun emplacements at Chihuahua. He was familiar with the fortifications there because of his work for Chihuahua officials against the Apaches.
After the war, Kirker returned to Santa Fe after the war, where he participated in at least one campaign against the Utes. Eventually he headed to California, where he settled and died in early 1853. He seems to have been a model citizen there. Maybe by that time (he was in his mid-50s), he’d decided that there was more to life than adventure.
Richard Batman, James Pattie’s West, the dream and the reality. Norman: University of Oklahoma press, 1986; Leroy R. Hafen, Fur Traders and Trappers of the Far Southwest, Logan: Utah State University Press, 1997; David J. Weber, The Taos trappers, the fur trade in the far Southwest, 1540-1846, Norman: University of Oklahoma press, 1971