On Monday, April 18, 1887, the U.S. Supreme Court finally confirmed the Maxwell Land Grant and Railway Company’s right to almost two million acres in northeast New Mexico.
The controversy over the grant’s size had been going on since the early 1870s. A survey when the Company bought the grant identified around 2 million acres, land that that included much of what is now New Mexico’s Colfax County and stretched north into Colorado.
But there was a problem. Not everyone agreed that the grant was that large. In fact, U.S. General Land Office surveys insisted that grants issued by Mexico were limited to only 22 square leagues—a far cry from the 2 million acres claimed. Based on this judgment, the Land Office declared much of the acreage open to settlement. When its agents began issuing deeds to eager homesteaders and ranchers, trouble ensued. But the Maxwell Grant Company intended that land for its own uses and this was the American West—might made right. People died.
At the same time it was using guns and intimidation to keep people off its wide-open spaces, the Company also sought legal recourse. It turned to Washington with a request for an official government survey of the grant based on the geographical descriptions in the original 1840s documents. The request was refused.
Then in 1876, the U.S. Supreme Court allowed another New Mexico land grant to encompass more than 22 square leagues. The Maxwell Land Grant and Railway Company swung into action. Three weeks after the decision, the Maxwell grant was being resurveyed. It took another eleven years, four days of oral argument, and 900 pages of testimony, but the Company finally got its land.
With that ruling, the Colfax County War, which had begun in earnest in September 1875, finally wound down, making it a longer feud than New Mexico’s more famous Lincoln County War, which had lasted a mere three years (1878-1881).
And proving that if you hang in there long enough—and have enough money—you might just get what you want, after all.
Sources: Howard R. Lamar, Reader’s Encyclopedia of the American West, New York: Harper & Row, 1977; Lawrence R. Murphy, Philmont: A history of New Mexico’s Cimarron Country, Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1972; Stephen Zimmer, For Good or Bad, The People of the Cimarron Country, Santa Fe: Sunstone Press, 1999; Maria E. Montoya, “Maxwell Land Grant”, Encyclopedia of the Great Plains, plainshumanities.unl.edu/encyclopedia/doc/egp.ha.026, accessed 1/20/22.
Howard Bryan’s Wildest of the Wild Westis one of the first books I read when I began to explore the possibility of turning pieces of New Mexico’s history into fiction. While Bryan’s book about the town of Las Vegas is nonfiction, it reads like a story. Certainly, some of the events he retells could be lifted straight from a traditional Western novel.
We find an Italian hermit living in a cave above the Spanish-speaking town and revered as a holy man and miracle worker, Jesse James and Billy the Kid soaking in the nearby hot springs, Doc Holliday opening his final dental practice only to abandon it for a saloon and gambling hall, and Hoodoo Brown, formal justice of the peace and informal protection racketeer. Then there’s the actress/singer/poet/faro dealer known as Monte Verde who was actually the famous Confederate spy Belle Siddons. And the enigmatic “Mysterious Dave” Mather, who seems to have robbed a train while serving as Las Vegas Town Marshal.
The stories of these various characters is woven into a coherent narrative of Las Vegas’s history which Bryan tells with humor and verve. If you like nonfiction that reads like a novel, I highly recommend Wildest of the Wild West.
W. Michael Farmer’s The Odyssey of Geronimois one of those rare books, a true biographical fiction that doesn’t sugar-coat the less comfortable characteristics of its protagonist.
I find the title of this book, with its homage to the Odyssey of Homer, especially appealing. Like Homer’s hero, Farmer’s is also a wily man whose actions do not always seem admirable to us today. And yet he lingers in our consciousness. Even though we don’t quite know how to think about it, his story endures. Geronimo, an Apache warrior whose deeds of war made him feared across the American Southwest, continued in captivity and beyond to exert a powerful influence on the American psyche, as Odysseus’s has on the European imagination.
The Odyssey of Geronimo provides context for the old warrior’s actions before, during, and after his capture, and draws an illuminating portrait of a man who spent twenty-three years bridging the gap between his culture and the one he was thrust into by circumstances beyond his control.
This is a book about survival, with all its complexities. I highly recommend it.
On Friday, February 21, 1862, the Army of the Confederate States of America once again won a battle in New Mexico, their third in a row.
The conflict took place at the Valverde Ford of the Río Grande, and was a decisive victory for the Texan Confederates. Under former Fort Union commander Henry Hopkins Sibley, they moved north, occupying Socorro, Albuquerque, then Santa Fe, en route to their ultimate destination, Colorado’s gold and silver mines. They were on track to replenish the Confederacy’s coffers, then swing west to California and its unblockaded coast.
They never made it. In late March, the Confederates were stopped at Glorieta Pass by Union troops and the scouting skills of New Mexico’s Manuel Antonio Chavez y Garcia de Noriega.
But at Valverde, the Confederates reigned. When Union soldiers attempted to cross the river, the Texans opened fire, killing New Mexico volunteers who were armed with outdated single-shot muskets. The victory was decisive.
However, the New Mexicans did capture over 200 of the enemy’s horses and mules. This loss forced the Confederates to discard some of their wagons and supplies. When additional animals and goods were destroyed during the conflict at Glorieta Pass, all hope of reaching Colorado collapsed. The Confederates were forced to turn south for home.
During that retreat, even more supplies would be left behind as the remaining horses and mules died in the harsh conditions. Men perished as well, some of them only half-buried in the rocky soil of New Mexico’s Magdalena Mountains. The Texans would lose a full third of their men to capture or death before they reached home.
Which only goes to show that even a series of initial victories does not guarantee a successful campaign. And that even small losses can lead to catastrophe.
For a fictional telling of the Confederate story in New Mexico, I recommend Jennifer Bohnhoff’s excellent middle-grade Rebels of the Rio Grande novels. The first of the series, which deals with the events at Valverde, is available here. This book, with a map similar to the one above, will be re-released as When Duty Calls this June by Kinkajou Press.
Sources: Jacqueline Dorgan Meketa, Louis Felsenthal, University of New Mexico Press, Albuquerque, 1982; Francois-Marie Patorni, The French in New Mexico, French in America Press, Santa Fe, 2020; Jerry D. Thompson, A Civil War History of the New Mexico Volunteers and Militia, University of New Mexico Press, Albuquerque, 2015.
The San Augustin: The Two Valleys Saga, Book Two by Mary Armstrong continues the journey of Jesús Messi, fictional nephew of real-life Colonel Albert J. Fountain, attorney in late 1800s Mesilla, New Mexico and nemesis of cattle rustlers throughout the region.
Jesús’s story began in The Mesilla, when he joined the Fountain family to read law with the Colonel. It continues in The San Augustin as Jesús learns about love and politics as well as law. He plays a growing role in Fountain’s burgeoning practice, meets the young but already ambitious Albert Bacon Fall, and experiences a growing sense of danger as Fall and other men who’ll be blamed for the 1896 disappearance of the Colonel and his young son become active in New Mexico’s Mesilla and Tularosa valleys.
The second of a projected five-book series, The San Augustinmoves the Fountain saga along while also allowing the reader to get to know Jesús and the Fountain family more thoroughly. If you’re interested in the history of southern New Mexico and/or the Fountain disappearances, I recommend this book!
The illustration for this post is a picture of New Mexico monte dealer, power broker, and business woman María Gertrudis Barceló. It accompanied an April 1854 Harper’s Weekly Magazine article by Lt. G. Douglas Brewerton about New Mexico. The evidence suggests it was created by a Harper’s artist who never actually met Barceló.
The picture appeared alongside a lengthy quote about Barceló from Josiah Gregg’s 1844 Commerce of the Prairies:
“Some twelve or fifteen years ago, there lived, or rather, roamed in Taos a certain female of very loose habits, known as La Tules. Finding it difficult to obtain the means of subsistence in that district, she finally extended her wanderings to the capital. She there became a constant attendant upon one of those pandemoniums where the favorite game of monte was dealt … for some years she spent her days in lowliness and misery. At last her luck turned … [and she was able] to open a [monte] bank of her own, and being favored with a continuous run of good fortune, she gradually rose higher and higher in the scale of affluence … [and is] now known as Señora Doña Gertrudes Barceló… ”
While Gregg’s book seems to contain solid data about the goods that moved between Missouri and New Mexico in the 1830s, I’ve found him less than accurate in his reports about the people he met in Santa Fe. This is certainly true in the case of Gertrudis Barceló.
For example, Barceló was not from Taos. She was born in Sonora circa 1800 and in 1815 moved with her parents and siblings to the hamlet of Valencia, New Mexico, about 100 miles south of Santa Fe. They were well-off—her parents are identified as Don and Doña in extant baptism records.
In addition to these rico beginnings, Gertrudis became wealthy in her own right as a result of her skill with numbers and cards. As a monte dealer in the mid to late 1820s, she spent time in the mining camps of what is now Cerrillos, New Mexico where she accumulated a large enough stake to set up a gambling salon in Santa Fe. There, she entertained officials, dealt cards, loaned money at interest, purchased property, and provided a home for her mother, an adopted daughter, and more than one foster child.
Barceló had married Manuel Antonio Sisneros on June 20, 1823. She was about 4 months pregnant at the time. That baby boy, and a subsequent son two years later, died in infancy. Her relationship with Sisneros may not have been ideal. They seem to have lived in separate houses on the same Santa Fe street from 1836 to at least 1841. He may have died or it’s possible they simply went their separate ways. The records don’t indicate that he participated in her business activities.
Barceló made ends meet not only as a money lender and monte dealer, but also by taking in boarders. This led to an 1835 accusation that she was illegally cohabiting with americano Lucius Thruston. She refuted the charge and it was withdrawn. She was still renting rooms out in the early 1850s, when she provided space to Governor John Munroe.
Around 1846, Gertrudis did become romantically involved with a foreigner, a highly-educated Prussian lieutenant in the U.S. Army named Augustus de Marle, who provided security for her monte dealings and represented her in court during at least one debt collection process. They remained close until her death in 1852, when he served as an executor of her will.
Other anglos were not so friendly. In addition to quoting Josiah Gregg’s inaccuracies about Barceló’s background, Brewerton described her face as “scarred and seamed, and rendered unwomanly by those painful lines which unbridled passions … never fail to stamp upon the countenance.”
Susan Shelby Magoffin also encountered Barceló and found her wanting, reporting that the “stately dame of a certain age” wore false hair (probably the curls then fashionable) and teeth, smoked, and exhibited “that shrewd sense and fascinating manner necessary to allure the wayward, inexperienced youth to the hall of final ruin.”
These statements contradict other reports, which tell us Barceló had a neat figure and intelligent, shrewd eyes, and was an elegant dancer. However, she did like fashionable clothes and heavy jewelry, often wearing a gold chain with a large crucifix. The jewelry is included in the Harper’s Weekly image. The artist also uses the fashionable curls and cigarette, wielding them to portray someone who’s everything he believes a woman shouldn’t be—haggard from “fast living,” with long straggly hair, and smoke billowing around her head from a dangling cigarette. In the eastern part of the United States at the time, smoking by women had long been associated with loose morals and dubious sexual behavior. So a picture showing Barceló with a lit cigarette effectively placed her in the lowest possible social category, that of a sexually promiscuous woman.
I can find no evidence she was, in fact, promiscuous or involved romantically with anyone other than her husband and, later, Augustus de Marle. To the contrary, in some ways, Barceló could be held up as a model of how to behave toward others. She seems to have made a habit of taking in children who needed a home.
In March, 1826, she and Sisneros adopted at least one little girl, Maria del Refugio. In 1832, Gertrudis adopted another child, named María Guadalupé de Altagracia. She also fostered Petra Gutierrez, daughter of Diego Gutierrez and Dolores Sisneros. When Petra became pregnant at 14, Barceló raised the baby herself, freeing Petra to marry James Giddings four years later. When Barceló died, her will included provisions for the unmarried girls still in her care.
But nothing she did would be enough for the americanos. Even after Barceló died and was buried in the Santa Fe parish church, they couldn’t leave her alone. Almost immediately, the Missouri Daily Republican reported that “she took early to two professions [gambling and prostitution] common in this country of easy morals,” a dig at both Barceló and New Mexico.
This attitude continued through the next century. In his 1912 discussion of the 1847 revolt, Ralph Emerson Twitchell called Barceló “a woman of shady reputation” even while he credited her (in a footnote) with warning the Americans of the planned uprising and providing the names of its leaders. In 1984, Paul Horgan described Barceló “with her wig and false teeth” whispering this same warning to Governor Bent, as if her appearance was somehow relevant to the service she provided.
Even in the 21st century, the defamation hasn’t stopped. An essay in the 2009 Telling New Mexico identifies Barceló as an unmarried woman with a dubious reputation. The first statement is flat out wrong and the second depends on who your source is. Certainly, she had a dubious reputation with some Americans.
As far as I can tell, the primary reason they disliked her so much was that she had the audacity to be a successful businesswoman. No other New Mexico monte dealer is singled out in the historical record with the abuse and accusations that are levied against Barceló. This is doubly annoying considering that the U.S. would have had a much more difficult time occupying New Mexico in 1846/47 without her assistance. She not only provided valuable information during a precarious time, she also gave them a loan to cover Army salaries until funds arrived from the East.
The fact that this loan was from a woman must have galled them. A woman who’d acquired her riches via gambling and loaning money at interest. These were provinces of male endeavor, not female. And then (gasp!) she took a lover! So they tried to erase her with ugly words and grotesque drawings.
But María Gertrudis Barceló lives on, the very symbol of the independent New Mexican woman who could love and care for children she didn’t bear while using her brains and skills to amass enough wealth to provide for them after she died. The americanos tried to cancel her with jeering words and an ugly picture. These representations are what should be cancelled. I’ve tried to do so in my forthcoming novel There Will Be Consequences, by showing Barceló’s positive interactions with the women of Santa Fe during the revolt of 1836 and also with her employees and the children in her life. It’s only a small part of what I believe should be done to mitigate the nonsense that has been written about her.
 “Incidents of Travel in New Mexico,” G. Douglas Brewerton, Harper’s Weekly Magazine, Vol. XLVII, April 1854, p. 588.
A man named Manuel Armijo repeatedly plays a critical role in my forthcoming biographical novel There Will Be Consequences, which is set during the 1837/38 New Mexico tax rebellion. This isn’t the only time Armijo appeared in New Mexico’s history. In fact, you could say he played a repeating role throughout the Mexican period (1821 to 1846).
One of 15 children from a rico Albuquerque-area family, Armijo was around 30 years old when Mexico gained independence in 1821. A tall, good looking man with family connections throughout New Mexico, he became civil governor in May 1827. His term was short, ending in 1828, and marked by conflicts with the American trappers and traders who had arrived with independence.
Over the next decade, Armijo remained active in politics, serving as Albuquerque alcalde and militia lieutenant and using his influence to get the Santa Fe postmaster reinstated after being removed for mismanagement. In Spring 1836, Armijo was made New Mexico’s interim treasurer while the appointee, Francisco Sarracino, was under investigation for embezzlement.
Shortly after Sarracino was reinstated in July 1837, rebellion broke out in northern New Mexico. The insurrectionists were initially successful in taking over the capitol at Santa Fe, but the rico landowners further south quickly rallied and named Armijo commander of the loyalist forces.
Through what appears to have been a combination of lucky breaks (a rebel governor who allowed himself to be jailed instead of fleeing) and persuasion (prominent rebels who later agreed to take the man’s place in said jail). Armijo managed to get the insurrectos out of Santa Fe. But they didn’t disperse, they merely withdrew. Now interim governor, Armijo spent the winter of 1837/38 alternately threatening to kill his rebel prisoners and cajoling the insurrectionists into behaving by asking them to clarify their grievances so he could address them.
In reality, Armijo was biding his time. One of his first actions as commander had been to send a request south to Chihuahua for troops to reinforce New Mexico’s militia and small garrison of presidio soldiers. When the requested dragoons arrived in January 1838, the governor’s gloves came off. He ordered his rebel prisoners beheaded and marched north.
This time, with adequate troops behind him, Armijo was able to deal a decisive blow that effectively ended the rebellion. His reward for suppressing the insurrection was to remain in office as both civil and military governor, positions that were usually split between two people. His administration lasted through 1844, when he was suspended for a short time.
Armijo was reinstated for a third term in 1845, but the third time was not the charm. The following year, the Americans invaded in what is now known as the Mexican-American War. After much rhetoric and possibly a payoff, Armijo fled south ahead of the U.S. Army. He would be much castigated for this, even by later American historians, although his flight may well have saved New Mexican lives.
The pundits saw him as weak, cowardly, and greedy, a view that may have influenced their perspective on events nine years earlier. They reported that Armijo balked at the January 1838 battle until a dragoon captain forced his hand and some accused him of fomenting the rebellion in order to regain his position as governor. They even claimed that he had the prisoners executed in January 1838 in order to suppress what they knew about his involvement in the rebel coup. I have found no evidence to support either assertion. However, the very fact they were made seems to say a great deal about the complexity and power of Armijo’s character and his hold on the imagination of subsequent historians.
While I was writing There Will Be Consequences, I spent a good deal of time ruminating on the motivations of a man who seemed to have a knack for persuading people to do things contrary to their own interests and who was also quick to put people to death if it suited his needs. Was Armijo simply a selfish, cowardly scoundrel? Or was there more to him than met the historians’ eyes? Why would he hesitate to face the rebels at Pojoaque Pass when the odds were in his favor? Perhaps he really cared about the people and peace of New Mexico and worried about the impact of yet more deaths. Maybe he believed the executions two days before would be enough to bring the insurrectionists to heel.
We know a good deal about what Armijo did—or is said to have done—in the Fall and Winter of 1837/38. However, we don’t know what he was thinking. His actions and hesitation together give me the sense of a complex man with varied motivations. This makes him a fascinating character to write.
Which is a good thing, because he’s bound to show up in future Old New Mexico novels, following There Will Be Consequences. After all, he didn’t fade from public view until after 1846. I can hardly wait.
“After what you been through these last couple weeks, I’d of thought you’d be right tickled to get inside four solid walls,” the old man said. He pulled off his boots and lay back on the thin pallet with its mangy once-green wool blanket. His socks were black with grime. The stench of them in the windowless room turned Timothy’s stomach.
“I’ll sleep out,” Timothy repeated. “I suppose I’ve become used to having stars over my head at night.”
The teamster shrugged and stretched his arms luxuriously. “Me, I seen too many downpours,” he said. “Give me a dry bed under a solid roof and I’m in heaven, for sure. All I want to finish it off is a woman.” He propped himself up on one elbow, eyes bright. “You think you could do somethin’ about that third item while you’re out there?”
Timothy laughed. “I don’t speak Indian.”
“Ah, all you need is whiskey and a kiss. And you’re a good lookin’ cub. You probably wouldn’t even need whiskey.” The old man grinned toothlessly. “But you wouldn’t likely bring me that kind of gift, would you now? I know I sure wouldn’t if I was you. Guess I’ll just hafta see what I can rustle up for myself.” He sat up and reached for his boots.
Timothy chuckled and moved to the door. “Good luck with getting all three of your heavenly requirements,” he said.
“Huh?” The teamster was spitting on his hands, then using the moisture to slick back his grimy hair. He stopped his grooming process and frowned. “What requirements?”
“Bed, roof, and woman,” Timothy explained. “Me, I think I’ll just settle for a nice quiet bed.”
“Good luck.” The old man chuckled. “What with those two mule trains that followed us in here this afternoon, I doubt you’re gonna find a quiet spot anywhere near this old fort.”
This Fall marks the 200th anniversary of the opening of the Santa Fe Trail between Missouri and New Mexico. The article in the link below provides an overview of what happened and why the Trail is important in the history of the United States and New Mexico.