The Excitement of Politics—Some Things Never Change

On Saturday, September 15, 1855, the political atmosphere of New Mexico was so tense that a group of political operatives took it upon themselves to steal the Rio Arriba County poll books at gunpoint. The poll books in question contained the county records of the recent election for New Mexico’s territorial delegate to Congress. The two candidates for the post were Jose Manuel Gallegos and Miguel Antonio Otero.

In Rio Arriba County, a Gallegos stronghold, Probate Court Clerk Ellis T. Clark was responsible for getting the vote results to Santa Fe. He stashed the records in his saddlebags and, accompanied by Territorial Attorney General Theodore Wheaton, headed south.

About 25 miles north of Santa Fe, near Pojoaque Creek, Wheaton and Clark happened to meet five men from Otero’s party. The meeting seemed innocent enough. According to the Santa Fe Weekly Gazette account of the incident, the two groups  “halted and passed the usual compliments, the former not suspecting the object of the latter.” During the ensuing conversation, one of Otero’s partisans asked Clark if he had the poll books and he said he did. The men continued to chat.

Then suddenly the mood changed. As their companions pulled out six shooters, two of Otero’s friends grabbed Clark’s and Wheaton’s arms and demanded the voting records. Then one of them pilfered  Clark’s saddle-bags and grabbed the books.

The thieves didn’t take off immediately. They paused long enough to explain that they planned to hold the records hostage until the votes for Otero’s home county, Valencia, were tallied. They’d heard that there were plans afoot to “disappear” the Valencia poll books and hand Gallegos the election. If Valencia’s votes were “lost”, the records for Rio Arriba would also disappear.

Then the five rode off, heading north. Clark and Wheaton continued south. They arrived in Santa Fe around 10 o’clock that night and told the Sheriff what had happened. He, Clark, and a posse immediately headed north after the thieves. A duplicate set of the Rio Arriba poll books were in Clark’s house. They figured the Otero partisans would want to acquire those as well.

Sept 15 illustration

They were right. In fact, when the posse arrived at Clark’s house the next day, they learned that three of the thieves had already been there. They’d tried to bully Clark’s wife into giving them the records and, when she refused, went in search of a lawman who’d force her to do what they wanted. There’s no record of who they found to play that role. When the Otero men returned to the house, the posse was waiting and the thieves were arrested.

They’d actually had good reason to be concerned about the election results. When all the votes were counted,  Gallegos had won by 99 votes. However, Otero contested the results, alleging illegal activities related to the vote, and was ultimately awarded the Delegate seat. He served in that position until 1861, when he lost a re-election bid to John S. Watts.

As for the theft, the Gazette expressed its editorial sorrow “that men, in the excitement of politics, should commit acts their judgment will condemn in their sober moments,” and called for more stringent laws related to election fraud.

Ironically, we’re still expressing the same kind of sorrow and calling for the same kind of laws today. Some things never change.

Sources: Don Bullis, New Mexico, A Biographical Dictionary, 1540-1980, Vol. 1. Los Ranchos de Albuquerque: Rio Grande books, 2007; Santa Fe Weekly Gazette, September 22, 1855, page 2.

First Hispanic Named New Mexico Governor!

On Wednesday, June 2, 1897 President William McKinley appointed 37-year-old Miguel Antonio Otero II as Territorial Governor of New Mexico.

Otero’s appointment was the beginning of a new approach to politics in New Mexico, one not dominated by the Santa Fe Ring. Although “Gilly,” as he was known to his friends, had been close to Thomas Catron, the Ring’s head, he now began cultivating a younger generation of men, Democrats and Republicans alike. Together, they formed what would become known as the Otero wing of New Mexico’s Republican Party and would align themselves with progressives such as Theodore Roosevelt of New York.

Perhaps because of his progressive views and his past work recruiting New Mexicans for Roosevelt’s Rough Rider regiment, Otero was reappointed Governor in 1902. He served until January 22, 1906, a total of eight years and seven months in office. This made him the longest-serving New Mexico territorial governor and a one of only nine men who, between 1787 and 1912, served as a U.S. territorial governor for eight or more years. Just five served longer than Otero.

June 2 illustration.Miguel Otero

More importantly for New Mexico, Otero was the first Hispanic Governor during the Territorial period. While Juan Bautista Vigil y Alarid acted as governor at the beginning of the 1846 U.S. occupation, New Mexico was still under military rule at that time. It would not be organized as a United States Territory until 1851.

During the Territorial Period (1851-1912), Miguel Otero II was New Mexico’s only Hispanic Governor. To this day, he is the only New Mexico governor—appointed or elected—with more than eight consecutive years of service. Although Bruce King (1971-1974, 1979-1982, 1991-1994) served more years than any other Governor, those terms were not consecutive.

Ironically, Otero, with his New Mexico roots, was not, however, the first New Mexican governor to be born here. That honor goes to Ezequiel Cabaza de Baca, the first Hispanic elected Governor after statehood. Although Otero’s father was born in Valencia County, Gillie Otero himself was born in St. Louis, Missouri.

Sources: Don Bullis, New Mexico, A Biographical Dictionary, 1540-1980, Volume 1. Rio Grande Books: Los Ranchos, 2007; David L. Caffey, Chasing the Santa Fe Ring. University of New Mexico press: Albuquerque, 2014; Thomas C. Donnelly, The Government of New Mexico. UNM Press: Albuquerque, 1953; David V. Holtby, Forty-Seventh Star, New Mexico’s struggle for statehood. University of Oklahoma press: Norman, 2012; Ralph E. Twitchell, The Leading Facts of New Mexican History, Vol. II. The Torch Press: Cedar Rapids. 1912

Outsiders Buy Maxwell Land Grant

May 9 illustration.Maxwell Land Grant 1870In May 1870, the newly-incorporated Maxwell Land Grant and Railway Corporation, with a capital stock of $5 million, began the process of taking possession of what had been the Beaubien/Miranda Land Grant, and what formed the majority of New Mexico’s Colfax County. A $1.35 million contract to purchase the grant from Lucien Bonaparte Maxwell and Maria de la Luz Beaubien Maxwell had been signed in late April. However, there’d been a small glitch in the process because the investors purchasing were English. Only Americans were allowed to hold property in New Mexico Territory. So a corporation board of Americans was assembled. Even then, most of the men on the board would have been considered “outsiders” by anyone who’d been born and raised in New Mexico. Only one of them was originally from New Mexico and only two of them would die here.

The most prominent member of the board was William A. Pile, New Mexico Territorial Governor. Pile hailed from Indiana and would go on to represent the U.S. in Venezuela—and Venezuela in the U.S.—before his death in California in 1889.

Dr. Thomas Rush Spencer, Territorial Surveyor General, was originally from Ontario County, New York. Besides his participation in the Maxwell Land Grant and Railway Corporation board, Spencer also owned a 20 percent interest in the Mora Land grant. He died in Santa Fe two years after the board incorporated.

John S. Watts, former New Mexico Chief Justice and Territorial delegate to Congress, had been in New Mexico almost twenty years. Originally from Indiana, he would return there within the next few years and be buried there in 1876.

General William Jackson Palmer, Pennsylvania-born Colorado real estate magnate and railroad builder, seems to have never actually lived in New Mexico, although he was prominent in Colorado Territory, co-founding the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad and founding Colorado Springs, where he passed away in 1909.

May 9 illustration.Miguel Antonio Otero I.from Twitchell Leading Facts
Source: Ralph Emerson Twitchell, The Leading Facts of New New Mexican History

The only “native” member of the Maxwell Land Grant and Railway Corporation board was Miguel Antonio Otero, the father of future Territorial Governor Miguel Otero (1897-1906). The elder Otero was born in Valencia County in 1829 and educated in the eastern United States as a lawyer. He returned home to serve as the Territorial Delegate to Congress from 1855 to 1861 and to participate in various mercantile, banking, and railroad ventures, including the Maxwell Land Grant & Railway Corporation. He died in Las Vegas, New Mexico in 1882.

Sources: The Government of New Mexico by Thomas C. Donnelly, UNM Press, 1953; Lucien Maxwell, Villain or Visionary, Harriet Freiberger, Sunstone Press, SF, 1999; Roadside History of Colorado, Candy Moulton, Mountain Press, Missoula, 2006; The Leading Facts of New Mexican History, Ralph Emerson Twitchell Vol. II, Sunstone Press, 2007; Telling New Mexico, Marta Weigle, Ed., Museum of NM Press, Santa Fe, 2009; The Public Domain in New Mexico, 1854-1891, Victor Westphall, U of NM Press, Albuquerque, 1965; Thomas Benton Catron and His Era, Victor Westphall, U of AZ Press, Tucson, AZ, 1973; accessed 3/27/17; rush spencer accessed 3/27/17;