Spanish Soldiers Killed on the Plains!

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.

Augst 14 post ilustration.Segesser detail

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.

Sources: Marc Simmons, New Mexico, an Interpretive History, Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1988; Ruben Salaz Marquez, New Mexico, a brief multi-history, Albuquerque: Cosmic House, 1999; https://www.cabq.gov/culturalservices/albuquerque-museum/exhibitions/a-past-rediscovered

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The Quickest Fort in the West

In late July 1851 Fort Union, New Mexico came into being very quickly. There had been nothing at the location at the beginning of the month, but after Colonel Edwin Vose Sumner reached Santa Fe on July 19, it was only a matter of time, and not very much of that.

The search for a new U.S. Army quartermaster depot site east of Santa Fe had already been. The Army needed a convenient point for receiving supplies in bulk from Fort Leavenworth and then distributing them to posts throughout New Mexico.

When Colonel Sumner saw the location chosen for the depot, he realized it was also an excellent spot for a new military post and Department headquarters. Known as Los Pozos (“the pits” or “the potholes”) the site had several spring-fed pools of water, something of a rarity on the plains east of the Sangre de Cristo mountains.

July 29 illustration.Fort Union Plan.1853.Oliva 72

Not only would the new Fort be supplied with water in an otherwise arid land, but the location was near the junction of the Santa Fe Trail Cimarron and Mountain routes, near the trail through Mora to the Rio Grande valley, and also near settlements such as Rayado and Las Vegas, which were being threatened by the Jicarilla Apaches.

Once Sumner made the decision, things moved quickly. By the end of July, the number of civilians employed by the quartermaster department in Santa Fe was reduced to three clerks and one carpenter and moved to the new site along with the soldiers who had been stationed in Santa Fe and in Las Vegas. New Mexico’s Fort Union was born.

Sources: Ruben Cobos, A Dictionary of New Mexico and Southern Colorado Spanish, Santa Fe: Museum of New Mexico Press, 2003; Lawrence R. Murphy, Philmont: a history of New Mexico’s Cimarron country, Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1972; Leo Olivas, Fort Union and the Frontier Army in the Southwest, Division of History, National Park Service, Southwest Cultural Resources Center, 1993; Marc Simmons, Kit Carson and His Three Wives, Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2003.

Two Robidoux Brothers Become Mexican Citizens

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.

July 17 illustration.Antoine-Robidoux inscription

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.

July 17 illustration.Louis Robidoux

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.

James Kirker’s Lust for Adventure

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.

July 5 illustration.JamesKirker1847.mohistory.org
James Kirker. Source: Missouri History Society

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

President Keeps His Word!

On Thursday, June 16, 1910, the United States Congress finally agreed to allow New Mexico to become a State, ending a quest that had begun 62 years before.

The delay was partly New Mexico’s fault. In their first bid for statehood in 1848, New Mexico’s citizens had stipulated that they enter the Union as a free (non-slave) state. That requirement guaranteed that the slave-holding states would oppose New Mexico’s entry.

But a little opposition never has kept New Mexico from trying again. There were at least three other attempts to gain Congressional approval—in 1850, 1875, and 1902.

When Congress approved a process in 1906 for a combined state of New Mexico/Arizona, it looked like success was in sight. New Mexico voted for the proposal. However, Arizona voters rejected the plan.

Then in 1908, William Howard Taft became President. During the campaign, he’d pledged to make New Mexico a state. He kept his word. His Republican-controlled House and Senate approved legislation that initiated the formal process for Statehood and Taft signed it into law on Saturday, June 18, 1910.

A year and a half later, those formalities were completed and, on Saturday, January 6, 1912, President William H. Taft signed the formal proclamation that approved New Mexico’s entry into the Union. New Mexico was finally a state.

So the next time someone tells you that Presidents never keep their campaign promises, remember President Taft and the case of New Mexico statehood.

Sources: Thomas C. Donnelly, The Government of New Mexico. UNM Press: Albuquerque, 1953; David V. Holtby, Forty-Seventh Star, New Mexico’s struggle for statehood. University of Oklahoma press: Norman, 2012; Marc Simmons, New Mexico, an interpretive history, UNM Press, Albuquerque, 1988

 

First Hispanic Named New Mexico Governor!

On Wednesday, June 2, 1897 President William McKinley appointed 37-year-old Miguel Antonio Otero II as Territorial Governor of New Mexico.

Otero’s appointment was the beginning of a new approach to politics in New Mexico, one not dominated by the Santa Fe Ring. Although “Gilly,” as he was known to his friends, had been close to Thomas Catron, the Ring’s head, he now began cultivating a younger generation of men, Democrats and Republicans alike. Together, they formed what would become known as the Otero wing of New Mexico’s Republican Party and would align themselves with progressives such as Theodore Roosevelt of New York.

Perhaps because of his progressive views and his past work recruiting New Mexicans for Roosevelt’s Rough Rider regiment, Otero was reappointed Governor in 1902. He served until January 22, 1906, a total of eight years and seven months in office. This made him the longest-serving New Mexico territorial governor and a one of only nine men who, between 1787 and 1912, served as a U.S. territorial governor for eight or more years. Just five served longer than Otero.

June 2 illustration.Miguel Otero

More importantly for New Mexico, Otero was the first Hispanic Governor during the Territorial period. While Juan Bautista Vigil y Alarid acted as governor at the beginning of the 1846 U.S. occupation, New Mexico was still under military rule at that time. It would not be organized as a United States Territory until 1851.

During the Territorial Period (1851-1912), Miguel Otero II was New Mexico’s only Hispanic Governor. To this day, he is the only New Mexico governor—appointed or elected—with more than eight consecutive years of service. Although Bruce King (1971-1974, 1979-1982, 1991-1994) served more years than any other Governor, those terms were not consecutive.

Ironically, Otero, with his New Mexico roots, was not, however, the first New Mexican governor to be born here. That honor goes to Ezequiel Cabaza de Baca, the first Hispanic elected Governor after statehood. Although Otero’s father was born in Valencia County, Gillie Otero himself was born in St. Louis, Missouri.

Sources: Don Bullis, New Mexico, A Biographical Dictionary, 1540-1980, Volume 1. Rio Grande Books: Los Ranchos, 2007; David L. Caffey, Chasing the Santa Fe Ring. University of New Mexico press: Albuquerque, 2014; Thomas C. Donnelly, The Government of New Mexico. UNM Press: Albuquerque, 1953; David V. Holtby, Forty-Seventh Star, New Mexico’s struggle for statehood. University of Oklahoma press: Norman, 2012; Ralph E. Twitchell, The Leading Facts of New Mexican History, Vol. II. The Torch Press: Cedar Rapids. 1912

New Mexico’s First Protestant Church

On Saturday, May 21, 1853, Baptist missionaries in Santa Fe began construction of the first Protestant church in New Mexico, located on the corner of what is now Grant and Griffin Street. The Reverend Henry W. Reed and the Reverend L. Smith officiated.

May 21 illustration

Henry Reed had arrived in Santa Fe in Summer 1846 and opened a school. Smith arrived several years later. They seem to have been focused on converting New Mexicans to Protestantism rather than serving the Anglo population. In 1851, Reade reported to his constituency back East that he’d been in Taos to share information about his Baptist school curriculum with Padre Martinez and had attended the Catholic services there. He disapprovingly described the mass as “not above a whisper and in Latin.”

The Baptist church services in Santa Fe were apparently in Spanish and English. At the cornerstone-laying ceremony on May 21, Reverend Smith spoke in Spanish and Reverend Read in English. This bilinqual approach doesn’t seem to have been enough to attract a large congregation. The adobe brick building was sold to the Presbyterians in 1866, at the end of the Civil War.

The Presbyterians eventually pulled the adobe building down and replaced it in 1882 with a brick structure. That building was replaced in 1939 with a Pueblo Revival building designed by John Gaw Meem, which is still in use today.

Sources: Thomas Harwood, The History of New Mexico Spanish and English Missions of the Methodist Episcopal Church, 1850 to 1910, Vol. I. Albuquerque: El Abogado Press, 1908; E. A. Mares, ed., Padre Martinez: New Perspectives From Taos, Taos: Millicent Rogers Museum, 1988; Ralph Emerson Twitchell, The Leading Facts of New Mexican History, Vol. II. Cedar Rapids: The Torch Press, 1912.