Is This Historical Record Racist?

Is This Historical Record Racist?

While writing my forthcoming biographical novel, There Will Be Consequences,I struggled with the historical record regarding José Angel Gonzales, rebel leader and governor of New Mexico from August 10 to September 10, 1837. The accounts are unanimous that Gonzales was the son of María Dominga Martín Liston of Taos Pueblo and a mestizo man named José Santos Gonzales. However, they also insist on identifying José Angel as genízaro.

In New Mexico at that time, a genízaro was a person from one of the unchristianized Native groups, or los indios bárbaros—typically the Ute, Apache, Comanche, or Navajo—who had been baptized and now lived among the “civilized” Christians. The term was used both for people who’d been captured directly from these tribes and for their descendants.

What’s odd about the identification of José Angel Gonzales as genízaro is that he almost certainly wasn’t. His father was mestizo, not genízaro. The term mestizo designated someone of mixed heritage, usually Indian and Spanish. It was a different classification from genízaro, which specified the person’s Native ancestry as “barbarous”. José Santos may very well have been the child of a Spanish mother and Pueblo father, or vice versa.

It’s interesting to me that the historical accounts of New Mexico’s 1837 revolt don’t reflect an awareness that José Angel’s forebears may have included Spanish men or women. Instead, he’s labeled genízaro and thus placed firmly in the “barbarous Indian” category. This labeling provides a useful lens for reading the historical record and assisting us in understanding how Gonzales was viewed by his biographers. A “barbarous Indian” was someone a civilized person might do business with, but they weren’t necessarily to be trusted. They wore clothing that was different from the norm and not entirely respectable. They had different customs. Because of this differentness, someone with this heritage might be less than trustworthy and not as cultivated and respectable as people with Spanish ancestors. Gonzales, as genízaro, could be expected to exhibit these traits.

However, that’s not what the historians report. Instead, we’re told Gonzales was a good, brave man but ignorant of politics, that he had a respectable appearance and a reputation as a good buffalo hunter, or cibolero. In fact, according to one early source, Gonzales was named governor because of his hunting skill. Yet, even as the accounts speak of Gonzales’ honesty and bravery, they insist on his ignorance. The fact that he was functionally illiterate—meaning he could sign his name, but little else—is put forth as proof of this “fact.”

These dichotomies of genízaro/respectable, honest/ignorant indicate to me that the historians didn’t know what to make of Gonzales. He was supposedly the descendant of “wild Indians” and yet he had a respectable appearance. He was the leader of rebels who took supplies without paying for them, and yet was honest. He was ignorant and still managed to impress his fellows enough for them to place him in the Governor’s office (there’s no record that he sought the position).

The fact is, Gonzales was far from ignorant. He was a renowned buffalo hunter, an occupation that required deep knowledge of the animals’ habits as well as skill in killing them and getting the resulting meat and hides back home from the plains. Gonzales was also a clever military tactician, leading the rebels to victory in early August 1837 and engineering their successful withdrawal at the Battle of Pojoaque Pass the following January. The insistence on his ignorance is based solely on the fact that he didn’t display the characteristics of Spanish learning, a learning he almost certainly never had access to. Padre Martinez’s school at Don Fernando de Taos didn’t open until Gonzales was an adult and even then wasn’t large enough to provide for every child in the area.

Gonzales was in office barely a month before the ricos from the lower Rio Grande met to plot his ouster. Some of the men at this meeting (including Manuel Armijo) had been in Santa Fe two weeks earlier and watched Gonzales in action as he presided over the Assembly to organize the new government. What had they seen? A man who was honest, who had experience leading men, who was from Taos Pueblo, and who may have had darker skin than they did. And they wanted him out of office. My guess is that it wasn’t Gonzales’s experience on the battlefield that was in question. Clearly, these men had a problem with some aspects of the governor’s person.

So, to answer the question in the title: Yes, I believe the historical record is racist. I realize the historians of the 19th and early 20th century were ensconsed within their world view and couldn’t see past their prejudices, but I have trouble absolving them of their attitude. No matter what Gonzales did, it was going to be wrong, because he was genízaro. I believe the way I’ve portrayed Gonzales in There Will Be Consequences moves beyond what has been written of him in the past to demostrate what even the racist recounting of the 1837/38 events can’t hide: the man’s honesty, ability to think strategically, and deep desire to aid his fellow humans. I hope you’ll agree with me.

Manuel Armijo, The Ultimate Politician?

Manuel Armijo, The Ultimate Politician?

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.

But Why Did It Happen?

But Why Did It Happen?

One of the most frustrating moments in researching historical fiction is when you realize  the historical record doesn’t provide any clues about why a particular event occurred. While I was researching my forthcoming novel There Will Be Consequences, the incident I struggled most with in this way was the August 10, 1837 death of former New Mexico governor Santiago Abreú and his aide Diego Saenz.

The historical sources focus in rather gruesome detail on the men’s capture by indigenous rebel warriors, Abreú’s overnight confinement in the stocks at Santo Domingo Pueblo and subsequent dismemberment, and both men’s death. However, these sources provide no explanation for these killings other than one obscure reference to Abreú’s support for a New Mexico militia ten years before. The clear subtext of the reports is that the people of Santo Domingo were irrational, barbarous, and treacherous savages who had no real reason to treat Abreú and Saenz the way they did.

The thread of Santo Domingo treachery runs through all the published accounts of the 1837 New Mexico revolt, beginning with the battle of La Mesilla on August 8, when the Pueblo’s warriors are said to have switched sides, thus ensuring the defeat of the government forces. The theme continues in the accounts of Governor Pérez’s August 9 death—Santo Domingo men are said to have used his severed head as a football—and culminates in Santiago Abreú’s death the next day.

My initial reaction to this trope of treacherous savagery was to suspect that the initial Spanish historians and later American chroniclers had, at the very least, greatly exaggerated the Pueblo’s actions because they wanted to transfer the blame for the bloodier outcomes of the revolt away from the Spanish and mixed race participants.

However, given the unanimity of the accounts about where and how Santiago Abreú died, I thought it possible there could be some truth in them. At the very least, I felt I should explore why he and Diego Saenz were killed. The implication that their deaths were a natural result of the Santo Domingo character and not the consequence of any action of Abreú or Saenz felt racist and lacking in nuance, to say the least.

I began to look further, moving back in time and broadening my scope. In that process, I learned that, aside from long-simmering tensions between the Spanish/Mexican conquerors and New Mexico’s First Peoples, an incident during Abreú’s 1832-33 term as governor could shed light on what happened in 1837.

Abreú’s administration had granted a man named José Francisco Ortiz, or “El Sonoreño,” the right to mine in what is now known as the Ortiz Mountains, east of the pueblo of Santo Domingo. This cluster of peaks includes Mount Chalchihuitl, a location important to the region’s First Nations people as a source of turquoise, the opaque blue-green stone revered for its healing and protective properties.

I imagine this handover to Ortiz as deeply disturbing to the land’s traditional users, especially those who lived as close to it as the residents of Santo Domingo. Ortiz was from Sonora (hence the nickname). Since he hadn’t been born and raised in New Mexico, it’s unlikely he would have understood or felt any empathy with the Pueblos or their concerns.

Also, the historical record indicates Ortiz may not have been the most savory of persons. His first appearance in the archives is as the defendant on a September 1805 charge of vagrancy, theft, and sedition. In June 1820, he was in court again, this time in response to a lawsuit for 11,000 pesos he’d neglected to pay for merchandise received in Chihuahua. And then there’s the report that after Ortiz and two associates were given the mining grant, he convinced New Mexico officials to invoke a seldom-enforced law that forced one of his partners out of the country, leaving more of the operation for himself.

These incidents led me to suspect that Ortiz’s relationship with the traditional users of the mountains he was mining wouldn’t have been a pleasant one. The long-standing conflict between New Mexico’s Spanish and Pueblo peoples, as well as the fact that Ortiz gained the right to mine during Santiago Abreú’s term seemed to provide a plausible rationale for the August 1837 events at Santo Domingo.

Will I ever know for sure? I doubt it. In this case, plausibility is all I have to go on. And it makes for some intense scenes in There Will Be Consequences, as the Pueblo warriors demonstrate to the former governor the inevitable consequences of assuming that one can control and divide up a resource that, in truth, belongs to no one.

Image by propix-at from Pixabay

Padre Martínez, Not Just a Priest 

Padre Martínez, Not Just a Priest 

As the priest at Taos in the 1830s, Padre Antonio José Martínez  played a pivotal role in the New Mexico government’s attempt to keep discontent at bay. He was especially active in 1837/38, working against the revolt that is the subject of my forthcoming biographical novel, There Will Be Consequences.

The rebellion centered in Santa Cruz de la Cañada, about fifty miles south of Taos, but after its initial suppression in September 1837, many of the revolutionaries seem to have headed north to Taos.

Antonio José had grown up in the Taos area, the oldest of six children from the wealthy Martín-Santistéban family. The fortress-like home his parents built outside town still stands as a monument to their status. Although he was well educated, his family had apparently not planned for Antonio José to enter the priesthood. He married María de la Luz Martín of Abiquiu in May 1812, in a joint ceremony with her brother José Manuel and Antonio José’s sister Juana María.

However, life didn’t go as planned. María de la Luz died the following year after giving birth to a little girl, also named María de la Luz. This seems to have begun a turning point for Antonio José. Four years later, at age 25, he entered the Tridentine Seminary in Durango, Mexico and began studying for the priesthood.  

Padre Antonio José Martínez

When he returned to New Mexico in 1823, Antonio José was not only ordained, but he’d also adopted the use of the less-common last name Martínez. After an introductory period serving in temporary positions, he was assigned to the communities in the Taos area.    

By 1837, the padre was responsible for more than the religious lives of his parishioners. He was also running a school for local children and a preparatory seminary. At the same time, he served as consul for Americans in New Mexico, operated a printing press that produced literary publications as well as church forms, and was the Taos representative to New Mexico’s Departmental Assembly.

So Antonio José Martínez was a man to be reckoned with, both in his religious and secular roles. From what we know of his later interactions with Bishop Jean Baptiste Lamy, I think it’s safe to say he was also not someone who bowed easily to the opinions of others. As a rico and a priest, he seems to have been firmly on the side of what he might have called “law and order.” While I was writing There Will Be Consequences, I had great fun imagining his reaction in late 1837 when the rebels at Taos demanded that he quit preaching against the revolt. They also wanted him to stop asking for the customary church burial, baptism, and marriage fees. The evidence indicates that this conversation did not go well.

However, the rebels’ pushback does seem to have slowed Antonio José’s remarks down a little. After all, they were also threatening his younger brother, Subprefect Santiago Martínez.

But Martínez the brother was still padre at Taos. Although the exact sequence of events isn’t clear, we know his actions and language precipitated at least one other confrontation, one so intense that it required the appearance of the local magistrate and other loyalists to keep violence from erupting.

Tensions remained high. By early January 1838, Antonio José sent a letter to interim governor Manuel Armijo warning of the likelihood of another rebel outbreak. In the middle of the month he followed his missive to the capitol.

And stayed there. When Armijo began to prepare to meet the rebels one last time, Martínez volunteered to act as his chaplain. But he didn’t hover in the background. The padre was at the governor’s side during the final battle at Pojoaque Pass on Saturday, January 27. In fact, he reportedly went “heroically about attending to the wounded and consoling the dying with the last rites.”[1]

Antonio José Martínez may have been a man of the cloth, but he was clearly also a man of action. Will we ever know exactly what he was thinking that cold January day? Probably not, but it’s certainly interesting to consider the possibilities.


[1] Fray Angelico Chavez, But Time and Chance, pp. 56-57.