Why Events in 1837 New Mexico Matter Today

Sometimes I wonder why I’m so obsessed with past events, why the historical record calls to me, demanding to be examined, reimagined, turned into story. Am I just seeking an escape from today’s reality?

But then I remember something that happened just over a year ago.

It was early January 2021. A mob of U.S. citizens invaded the Capitol building in Washington D.C. while Congress was in session. Some of them were on the hunt for the Vice President and the Speaker of the House. They carried firearms and nooses. Across the country, people were glued to their screens, waiting to see what would happen.

What those viewers hoped would occur varied widely. If you saw my Facebook posts at the time, you had a pretty good idea of where I stood. I didn’t vote for Donald J. Trump in November 2020 and my comments made that clear. Some of them weren’t very kind.

Then a dear friend called me out on my attitude. On Facebook. She pointed out that my posts reflected only one side of the story, that those who didn’t agree with me politically had deep-seated concerns and fears and a right to be heard. She didn’t approve of what had happened on January 6, but she understood the frustration and anxiety. She expanded my perspective.

Her post got me thinking about my then work-in-progress, There Will Be Consequences (released February 1), which deals with a similar situation in 1837 New Mexico: a deeply frustrated and angry group of people who staged a bloody revolt against the appointed authorities. There are certain parallels to the events of January 2020. First, the precipitating events (in 1837, new taxes and a non-New Mexican governor) were only the tip of the iceberg of the rebels’ frustrations. Second, if the authorities had been willing to listen more deeply to the rebels’ concerns instead of treating them with disdain, the revolt might never have occurred. Third, the insurrectos got a little ahead of themselves. At least one of their issues—taxation—was actually in the process of being addressed when they revolted.

Which brings me to the present-day United States of America. Congress is busily trying to bring people to account for what happened on January 6, 2021. While this may be necessary to maintain law and order, I’m not sure it’s going to resolve the deeper issues which prompted the events of that day. A longer term strategy might be to start truly listening to each other, adjust our expectations (on both sides), and agree to meet somewhere in the middle. Because, if we don’t, we could very well face a scenario similar to what happened in New Mexico in 1837. People died, some of them pretty horrifically. Because they wouldn’t listen. Others lived with the scars of those events for the rest of their lives. Because they wouldn’t listen. I’m not saying either side was one hundred percent right or wrong, either in 1837 or 2021. We humans rarely are, as much as we’d like to believe otherwise.

So this is why the past calls me to explore, discover, mull it over, turn it into story. Because I am convinced that it can be easier to see the past more clearly than it is to see the present and that, perhaps—just maybe—it can teach us lessons that can help us move into the future with a little more understanding of why we humans do what we do and what we might learn from each other. 

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

Cover Reveal, There Will Be Consequences

Cover Reveal, There Will Be Consequences

Here it is, the cover of my forthcoming biographical novel There Will Be Consequences! Thank you to everyone on my author Facebook page who provided feedback about the image and color options!

I’m very pleased with the end result and want to give a huge shout out to D.K. Marley at TheHistoricalFictionCompany.com for her design work on this.

You can find information about There Will Be Consequences at Amazon and Books2Read. Ebook preorders are now open!

The Dragoons Arrive in Santa Fe!!!

On Friday, January 12, 1838, New Mexico’s Governor Manuel Armijo must have breathed a huge sigh of relief. The dragoons from the south had finally arrived in Santa Fe.

Armijo had been waiting for them since the previous September, when he’d sent a call for help to Mexico City. He’d quelled the Santa Cruz de la Cañada rebellion in northern New Mexico as best he could, but he knew he was sitting on the proverbial powder keg. Armijo was a big man, but even he couldn’t hold that lid down forever.

And he’d had reason to be nervous. The insurgents stayed in the north that winter, but they weren’t peaceful. Even Armijo’s threats to execute the rebel leaders incarcerated in the Santa Fe jail hadn’t kept the men in Taos from threatening physical harm to Padre Antonio José Martínez and his brother if the priest didn’t stop preaching against the revolution.

But now it was January 12, and Lt. Colonel Cayetano Justiniani had arrived in Santa Fe with 94 dragoons of the Veracruz squadron, 12 artillery men from Chihuahua, 22 men of the San Buenaventura squadron, 26 from San Eleazario, and 23 from El Paso del Norte. More followed. Three or four hundred troops entered Santa Fe that week.

Mexican cavalry trooper, ca. 1832-1836. Source: Santa Anna’s Mexican Army, Rene Chartrand

Justiniani also brought Armijo’s official appointment as New Mexico’s constitutional governor, principal commandant, and colonel of the militia. The governor celebrated by issuing a proclamation that announced both his titles and the presence of the soldiers. He also took the opportunity to remind the rebels that their leaders were still in jail—a not so subtle hint of what would happen if the insurgents didn’t disperse. The four had almost lost their heads in October. They might still do so if the rebels didn’t go home.

While he was waiting to see how the rebels would respond, Armijo took care of some housekeeping items: he issued yet another proclamation, this one to the citizens of Santa Fe. He ordered them not to take advantage of the newly-arrived troops by raising prices or taking their guns, horses, or ammunition in exchange for goods. Also, they were to stay away from wine shops or gambling houses frequented by the soldiers.

It’s not clear if these admonitions were really necessary or simply Armijo demonstrating his willingness to keep his citizens from disturbing or taking advantage of Justiniani’s troops. At any rate, there’s no record of conflict between the populace and the newly-arrived men.

Once he’d issued his proclamations, all Armijo could do was wait and see how the rebels responded to the news. Hopefully, they would simply break camp and head home. But the insurgents had been organizing all winter. And they had over 1300 men to throw against Justiniani’s forces. The revolt wasn’t over.

Sources: Lansing B. Bloom, “New Mexico Under Mexican Administration,” Old Santa Fe Magazine, Vol. II, Santa Fe: Old Santa Fe Press, 1914-1915; Janet Lecompte, Rebellion in Rio Arriba, 1837, Albuquerque: UNM Press, 1985; Rubén Sálaz Márquez, New Mexico, A Brief Multi-History, Albuquerque: Cosmic House, 1999.

A Piece of No Secret Too Small

Here’s another piece of my new novel No Secret Too Small. This section is set at the plaza del Chimayo in northern New Mexico during the feast of Santiago, the village’s saint.

CHAPTER 18

Finally, the fields are all blessed and the procession has returned to the plaza. The little carved saint is placed back in its chapel, the horses are released into the corrals outside the plaza, and everyone’s voice is louder and more cheerful.

The children and their mother follow Señora Ortega into her cousin’s house, where they’re given a seat at the table. The stew is thick with meat and fresh corn, and hot with green chile. When the señora passes the platter of bread, she says, “And here is some the americano child helped to bake,” and everyone laughs kindly.

As Alma dips a piece into her bowl, Prefect Abreú enters the house. Donaciano Vigil stoops through the door after him.

“Ah, Don Ramón!” the host says. “You are most welcome! And Señor Vigil as well!”

The prefect gives the sergeant a quizzical look. “Señor Vigil? You’ve come up in the world, Donaciano. Or else he’s angry at you. I thought you were his cousin.”

The host flushes. “I was just being polite. In honor of his companion.”

The big soldier puts a hand on the man’s arm. “It’s only me, primo. There’s no need to stand on ceremony.” He looks at Ramón Abreú. “I believe you know everyone here, Excellency?”

The prefect looks around the room, smiling and nodding to those at the table as well as the women who are serving. Then his eyes reach the children and their mother. “I don’t believe I’ve had the honor of meeting this young woman and her siblings,” he says gallantly.

Donaciano Vigil and Alma’s mother exchange a wry grin. “Suzanna Peabody Locke, may I introduce our prefect, Don Ramón Abreú,” he says formally.

“I’m pleased to meet you.” She touches the children’s shoulders. “These are my children, Alma and Andrew.”

The prefect’s face tightens slightly. “You are of the family which squats in the mountains east of Don Fernando de Taos.”

Her hand is still on Alma’s shoulder. Her fingers tighten into Alma’s cotton dress, but her voice remains calm. “We reside on the border there, guarding the Passes,” she says evenly. “And maintaining friendship with the Utes.”

The prefect breaks into a smile. “Ah, well put! Keeping an eye on things for us, are you?” He spreads his hands. “But you are here, not there watching!”

“My husband and father-in-law are there.”

“They are business partners with Juan Ramón Chavez,” Donaciano Vigil interjects. “Juan Ramón is my cousin on my mother’s uncle’s side.”

Prefect Abreú laughs and slaps his thigh. “You people! I have lived here all my life and still I cannot grasp the way you are all so connected!”

“Live here long enough and you will find it is the same for yourself,” his host says. “But please, be seated and take a bite and talk with us. Perhaps you will find that you’re related to someone here after all.”

“I’m sure the Sergeant will be!” Ramón Abreú says. “But I’m afraid my duties demand that we continue on our way. However, I thank you for the kind invitation.”

As the host walks the two visitors to the door, Señor Vigil turns and grins at Alma’s mother, then gives Alma a wink. She smiles back at him shyly. He’s almost as nice as Gregorio.

“I wonder where Alcalde Esquibel is eating,” someone at the other end of the table says in a low voice.

“Down by the river, I hope,” a man answers. “Where he can escape.”

Alma’s mother sends them a sharp look, then leans toward the woman sitting opposite her. “Can you explain this corrida del gallo to me?”

Andrew stops eating to listen.

The woman glances at him, then says reluctantly, “It is a horse race, but they do not race to see who finishes first. Instead, they chase each other to capture the prize.”

“And the prize is a rooster?”

The other woman nods. She glances at Andrew again before she answers. “The rooster is pegged out on the ground and the initial contest is to see who can get to him first and grab him up while the rider is still on his horse. Then the second part is to try to grab the bird from the rider who has him.”

“How do they decide who wins?” Andrew asks.

The woman moves her spoon through her stew. “I’ve never known for sure.”

Andrew frowns. “There must be rules.”

The woman looks away. “I think it’s when the rooster gives up.”

“Gives up the ghost?” his mother asks quietly.

“Something like that.”

Andrew is looking at his mother, waiting for an explanation.

She grimaces. “When the rooster dies.”

“Oh.” He puts his spoon in his bowl. His hands drop to his lap. Then he pushes back from the table. “May I be excused?”

She nods and he maneuvers around the other diners and out the door.

“Lo siento,” the woman says apologetically.

Alma’s mother shakes her head. “You only spoke the truth, and that as gently as possible. He has an adventurous heart but a tender soul.”

“Pobrecito,” the other woman murmurs.

Andrew has disappeared by the time Alma and her mother return to the plaza. Men on horseback mill in groups up and down the road, Señor Beitia among them. Alma spies Alcalde Esquibel in the middle of a cluster at the eastern end, leaning forward from his saddle to shake someone’s hand.

Then she’s distracted by Gregorio, who appears at her mother’s elbow with Señorita Fajardo on his arm. The girl dimples at Alma, then her mother. Gregorio is opening his mouth to make introductions when silence falls over the plaza.

Prefect Abreú is back on his white horse, once again riding in from the western entrance at the head of his blue-jacketed soldiers. Donaciano Vigil brings up the rear. There’s something about the set of the men’s shoulders that says they’re not here for a rooster race. Gregorio’s breath hisses between his teeth as they pass.

The only sound is the clomp of horses’ hooves on the dirt road, then the prefect pulls up in front of the group that contains Juan José Esquibel. Words are exchanged, too low for Alma to hear. The alcalde’s chin lifts angrily and the prefect turns his head and barks a command at the blue-coated men behind him. The soldiers’ horses move nervously, but not forward.

The prefect scowls. “I said, take him into custody!”

Sergeant Vigil’s horse edges around the soldiers and draws alongside Alcalde Esquibel’s. “Perdóneme, primo,” he says courteously. His voice echoes across the plaza. “We have come to place you in safekeeping until the events of recent months can be investigated and addressed.”

The alcalde’s eyes narrow. He shakes his head. Alma stiffens. Will there be a fight?

But then he smiles. “Ah, amigo,” he says. “You have a rare gift for words. It’s too bad you insist on working for men who know so little of honor.”

The prefect’s head jerks. He scowls at Esquibel, then the sergeant. “I said, arrest him!”

Donaciano Vigil looks at the alcalde and shrugs eloquently. He turns his head, studying the men in the plaza, the women at the house doors, the children. When he turns back to Señor Esquibel, his face is grave. “I believe it would be best if you come with us quietly, amigo.”

The other man glances around the plaza, then nods. He reins his horse past Ramón Abreú without looking at him and heads toward the western exit. As he passes Alma’s little group, he spies Gregorio. He leans from his saddle. “Get word to the Montoyas.”

“Silence from the prisoner!” the prefect shouts. He spurs his horse into a trot and moves past the soldiers and the alcalde. The big white breaks into a canter as it passes the houses and heads down the hill.

In the plaza behind him, voices erupt. “What about the rooster?” someone calls.

“Oh, just let him go,” a man answers. “We have more important races to run now.”

Señor Beitia’s horse trots toward Alma’s mother.The man’s eyes flash with something between anger and excitement, but he speaks calmly enough. “I’m afraid there will be no more festivities today,” he tells her. “The prefect has used the feast for his own ends and spoiled it.” He turns to Gregorio. “But we know what to do in response, do we not?”

Gregorio’s eyes are hooded and his jaw tight. He looks at Alma’s mother, then Gertrudis Fajardo. “It may be best for you to return home. I fear events may take an ugly turn.”

“Or at least the discussion will be ugly.” Señor Beitia’s voice is grim and excited at the same time. “Decisions must be made.”

Gregorio frowns. “I must seek out the Montoyas. I believe they are in the eastern orchards arranging for the race and this evening’s dance.” He looks at the señorita. “Let me return you to your cousins and give them the message.” He turns to Alma’s mother. “Will you go back to Señora Ortega’s house?”

“I will escort las senoras y los chamacos,” Señor Beitia says officiously. He swings off his horse and bows to Alma’s mother.

She gives him a brief smile and nods to Gregorio. “We will be fine. Go safely.” She turns to Gertrudis Fajardo. “I hope we will meet another day.” Then she holds out her hands to Alma and Andrew. “Come along, children.” She glances at the senora. “That is, if you are ready to leave?” Senora Ortega’s face is grim and irritable at the same time. She nods and turns away abruptly to lead them down the hill.

from No Secret Too Small.