To the casual observer, New Mexico in early October 1837 may have looked like a peaceful place. The August 1837 rebellion had been quelled, four of its leaders were in jail in Santa Fe, and former Governor Manuel Armijo was firmly in control.
However, Armijo was convinced the insurgency would erupt again. Before he left the capitol for Albuquerque in mid-October, he gave Captain Jose Caballero explicit instructions about what to do if this happened—the imprisoned rebels were to be executed at once.
Early the morning of Wednesday, October 18, it appeared that Armijo’s orders would need to be carried out. Word reached the capitol that the rebels were rallying in the mountains east of Santa Cruz, where the August insurgency had been headquartered. Armijo got the news in Albuquerque about the same time Caballero did in Santa Fe. The next day, he sent a letter north, ordering that the four hostages be executed.
But on Friday, the Captain staged a small rebellion of his own. When he received Armijo’s instructions, he didn’t follow them. Instead, he called a meeting of Presidio officers to consider how to respond. He had several concerns with Armijo’s directive. For one thing, the prisoners had still not been formally tried for their crimes. Also, there was a good chance that following Armijo’s orders would inflame revolutionary sentiment in Santa Fe instead of quelling it. And the garrison wasn’t at full strength. Successfully putting down a full-scale revolt would required reinforcements.
Given all this, Caballero and his officers decided they would obey Armijo’s orders only if and when there was an imminent threat to the city and they had the forces necessary to repel it. The prisoners would be executed only if the rebels attacked. On Sunday, Captain Caballero sent a formal letter south to Armijo, explaining what he was doing and why. Although the missive was in his name, the other men signed it.
The governor was not happy when he received this news. Early the next week, he responded with a letter criticizing Caballero’s decision. But he didn’t overturn it. And he sent a troop of active Albuquerque militia north to help in case of attack.
It was all a moot point anyway. The rebel threat dissipated. The men in the Santa Fe jail would live several more months, though Governor Armijo’s orders were eventually implemented. When rebellion burst out again in early 1838, the four prisoners were publicly garroted.
There are still historians who wonder if this action was really necessary. The threat of the executions didn’t stop the rebels from rising or keep the subsequent battle from being any less bloody. But Armijo did get the last word.
Sources: Lansing B. Bloom, “New Mexico Under Mexican Administration,” Old Santa Fe Magazine, Vol. II, Santa Fe: Old Santa Fe Press, 1914-1915; Paul Horgan, Great River: The Rio Grande in North American History, Middleton: Wesleyan University Press, 1984; Janet Lecompte, Rebellion in Rio Arriba, 1837, Albuquerque: UNM Press, 1985; F. Stanley, Giant in Lilliput, The Story of Donaciano Vigil, Pampa, TX: Pampa Print Shop, 1963.