Book Review: Louis Felsenthal, Citizen-Soldier of Territorial New Mexico

Meketa.Louis Felsenthal.Cover
UNM Press, 1982
ISBN-13: 978-0826306043

Most of the people prominent in New Mexico history have had at least one book written about them (Kit Carson, Padre Martinez, Bishop Lamy, and Thomas Catron, to name a few). However, there aren’t many books about people who played minor roles in New Mexico’s history. That’s why Jacqueline Dorgan Meketa’s biography of Louis Felsenthal is so valuable.

Louis Felsenthal, Citizen-Soldier of Territorial New Mexico tells the story of a young Prussian Jew who arrived in Santa Fe in 1858 with high hopes. He had a gift for language and law, and was extremely interested in New Mexico’s history. When the Civil War broke out, he joined the Army and saw action at Valverde. He stayed in the military after the war and led patrols along the Santa Fe Trail that ensured the safety of the mail as well as stage passengers.

But Louis Felsenthal did not become famous. His passion for preserving New Mexico’s archives led him into conflict with the politicians of the day, and the effects of a stroke caused some of his fellow Anglos to believe he had an alcohol problem. As a result, he was denied the Veterans assistance to which he was entitled. He died in poverty and obscurity.

In some ways, this is a sad tale of a talented young man who didn’t achieve fame and fortune. But in other ways, Louis Felsenthal’s story is a heartening one. He’s one of many Anglos who came to New Mexico looking for adventure and fortune and instead fell in love with the land and its history, and did his best to protect it and to preserve its historical record. He may not be famous now, but he contributed to the society of his day and to posterity to the best of his abilities.

For this reason, and for its discussion of New Mexico in the second half of the 1800s, I recommend Louis Felsenthal, Citizen-Soldier of Territorial New Mexico.

Mail Escort Survives October Snow

Captain Louis Felsenthal and the men of New Mexico’s Fort Union’s Company C were out in the field in September and October 1864, escorting mail-and-passenger stagecoaches between Fort Lyon and Fort Union. This should have been pleasant enough duty on the Plains in the fall of the year—the heat reduced, plenty of grass for the mules pulling the supply wagons, golden trees lining the rivers that crossed the open prairie.

But the duty wasn’t pleasant. The weather that fall was unusually cold. By October 20, Felsenthal and his men were experiencing snowstorms every few days. They hadn’t expected these kinds of conditions and didn’t have winter clothing with them. They must have been glad when their two-month rotation ended and they could head back to Fort Union.

They were en route to the Fort, on the north side of Raton Pass, when they were caught in the worst snowstorm they’d seen to date. The company and its animals struggled up and over the Pass, then down to Red River Station, where they sheltered as snow continued to fall all that night and through the next morning.

At that point, the snow on level ground was over a foot and a half deep. And still coming down. It fell steadily snow for two more days until Felsenthal, worried about the lack of forage for the mules, decided to break for Fort Union.

Oct 29 post illustration.Felsenthal

Four days later, after marching through snow that reached to their waists, men, wagons, and mules arrived at Lucien B. Maxwell’s ranch in what is today’s Cimarron). By the time they got there, many of the men had frostbitten feet and most of them were snow blind from the glare of the sun on the snow. But they’d all made it.

One reason Felsenthal and his men survived their trek is that a herd of cattle destined for Fort Union was also marooned by the storm at Red River Station. As a result, the Captain was able to buy 378 pounds of beef to feed his men, giving them the fuel they needed for their coming journey.

They were also fortunate to reach Red River Station when they did. The storm that closed in after Company C arrived there extended north and east across the Colorado plains, creating deep drifts on the stage route between Bent’s Old Fort and Denver and making the divide between the Arkansas and the Platte Rivers particularly treacherous.

You can just never tell what the weather’s going to do on the Western Plains.

Sources: Jacqueline Dorgan McKenna, Louis Felsenthal, Citizen Soldier of Territorial New Mexico, Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1982; Morris F. Taylor, First Mail West, stagecoach lines on the santa fe trail, Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1971.