PRODUCTIVE REVENGE

Placido Sandoval slammed the pick mattock into the rocks at his feet in a blind fury. “This Prussian, this not truly Americano, how dare he speak to me in such a way? As if I were dirt, less than nothing?” he fumed. “Mi familia has lived in this country for generations. I am of the conquistadors, the flower of España, while he is of the peasants in his country. I heard him bragging of it, how he has raised himself above his ascendientes.” He smashed the wide edge of his mattock against the largest of the rocks. A chip flew off, ricocheting into the face of the man working beside him.

“¡A redo vaya!” the other laborer said. “The devil! Be careful!”

Placido Sandoval swung the pick again, just as sharply, and his companion stopped his own work to turn away. “It does no good to be angry,” he said over his shoulder.

Placido glared at him. “It is good for my soul,” he growled. He slammed the pick against the nearest rock. Three large pieces broke free and tumbled farther down the stone-filled gully. “I will not be beaten by such as he. I will not be cowed.”

“You there!” Edward Bergmann, the mining supervisor, called from the bank above them. “You Mexicans!”

The two men paused and looked up. The Prussian’s finger pointed accusingly at Sandoval, his fierce black eyes indignant. “Did I not tell you to go slowly, to be more methodical in your approach? I’ll fine you again if you don’t stop flailing around!”

“I’ll flail you!” Placido muttered as he and his companion returned to their work. But his mattock chopped more sullenly now, reflecting the pattern Bergmann had set for it. Suddenly, gold glinted from the ground. Placido glanced up at the bank. Bergmann had disappeared. Placido bent swiftly and pocketed the chip of rock and ore.

Placido’s companion chuckled as he continued to swing his own tool. “That’s a more productive approach,” he said approvingly. He glanced toward the bank. “Though more dangerous if you are caught.”

Placido Sandoval grunted an unwilling acknowledgement as he continued on with his work, chopping at stones.

from Valley of the Eagles

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The Wind Leaves No Shadow: Book Review

The Wind Leaves No Shadow cover
by Ruth Laughlin
Caxton Printers, 1951
ISBN-13: 978-0870040832

Doña Tules Barceló was one of New Mexico’s most colorful 19th century characters, and The Wind Leaves No Shadow is, as far as I know, the only fictional or non-fictional treatment of her life.

From humble origins, which Ruth Laughlin imagines effectively, Doña Tules became owner of a Santa Fe gambling establishment where political opponents could meet to arrange accommodations that worked for everyone involved. She also acted as a kind of informal bank, lending money to key actors at critical junctures in New Mexico’s history. Because her gambling house gave her access to information not available everywhere, she was a valuable resource for both the Mexican and the American officials. She is said to have provided information in late 1846 to Governor Bent’s administration about the incipient rebellion against the U.S. occupation, the one that would result in his death a couple months later.

Not much is known about Doña Tules’ life, and Laughlin uses this fact to her advantage, weaving a story that places her in Santa Fe by the mid-1820’s and keeps her there until her death in 1852. The result is a story that not only imagines Doña Tules’ life but also provides the opportunity for an inside look at events (the 1837 Tax Revolt, the 1846 U.S. invasion, the 1847 death of Charles Bent) and people (the fur trappers, the ricos, the Santa Fe merchants, the priests) in Santa Fe during this period.

The Wind Leaves No Shadow was originally published in 1951 and reflects the historical information available to the author at the time as well as the prejudices that period. Although I didn’t always agree with Laughlin’s interpretation of historical events, she does a really great job of incorporating them into an effective story line. I was also uncomfortable with her insistence on Doña Tules’ white skin, red hair, and green eyes. In Laughlin’s interpretation, her coloring sounds more Irish than Spanish. In spite of these caveats, I believe this is still a useful book. If you’d like to get some idea of the life and trials of New Mexico’s famous lady gambler might have been like, or you’d like a fictional interpretation of New Mexico’s history in the 1820-1850 time frame, I recommend this book.

The Quickest Fort in the West

In late July 1851 Fort Union, New Mexico came into being very quickly. There had been nothing at the location at the beginning of the month, but after Colonel Edwin Vose Sumner reached Santa Fe on July 19, it was only a matter of time, and not very much of that.

The search for a new U.S. Army quartermaster depot site east of Santa Fe had already been. The Army needed a convenient point for receiving supplies in bulk from Fort Leavenworth and then distributing them to posts throughout New Mexico.

When Colonel Sumner saw the location chosen for the depot, he realized it was also an excellent spot for a new military post and Department headquarters. Known as Los Pozos (“the pits” or “the potholes”) the site had several spring-fed pools of water, something of a rarity on the plains east of the Sangre de Cristo mountains.

July 29 illustration.Fort Union Plan.1853.Oliva 72

Not only would the new Fort be supplied with water in an otherwise arid land, but the location was near the junction of the Santa Fe Trail Cimarron and Mountain routes, near the trail through Mora to the Rio Grande valley, and also near settlements such as Rayado and Las Vegas, which were being threatened by the Jicarilla Apaches.

Once Sumner made the decision, things moved quickly. By the end of July, the number of civilians employed by the quartermaster department in Santa Fe was reduced to three clerks and one carpenter and moved to the new site along with the soldiers who had been stationed in Santa Fe and in Las Vegas. New Mexico’s Fort Union was born.

Sources: Ruben Cobos, A Dictionary of New Mexico and Southern Colorado Spanish, Santa Fe: Museum of New Mexico Press, 2003; Lawrence R. Murphy, Philmont: a history of New Mexico’s Cimarron country, Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1972; Leo Olivas, Fort Union and the Frontier Army in the Southwest, Division of History, National Park Service, Southwest Cultural Resources Center, 1993; Marc Simmons, Kit Carson and His Three Wives, Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2003.

Two Robidoux Brothers Become Mexican Citizens

On Friday, July 17, 1829, Antoine and Louis Robidoux of Missouri became naturalized citizens of Mexico, thus beginning a long and somewhat fruitful association.

Antoine and Louis were two of six brothers, all of them involved in one aspect or another of the Rocky Mountain fur trade. Becoming Mexican citizens made good business sense, because trapping licenses for non-citizens were at times non-existent.

Antoine, who was 35 years old in 1829, had been in New Mexico since 1822. He’d spent the previous two years trapping and trading with the Sioux and his application for citizenship may have been prompted by the fact that he’d married a New Mexican woman in 1828 and it was time to settle down. Or he may have wanted to get involved in local politics. Antoine’s citizenship made him eligible to be elected 1st alcalde and regidor (councilman) of Santa Fe in late 1830 and three years later to serve as 3rd alcalde of Santa Fe and a member of the Santa Fe Commission for forming election districts.

 

He was also busy making money. During the 1830s, Antoine purchased a mine in the Santa Fe area. He also built Fort Uinta (aka Fort Robidoux) and Fort Uncompahgre in what is now Colorado and used them as a base for trade with the Indians and the trappers in the area.

July 17 illustration.Antoine-Robidoux inscription

However, in 1844, both forts were attacked by Utes and a number of men were killed and women captured. These events seem to have curbed Antoine’s enthusiasm for the frontier life. He left for Missouri shortly thereafter.

But he came back. Eschewing his Mexican citizenship, Antoine served with Col. Stephen Watts Kearny as an interpreter during the 1846 U.S. advance on New Mexico and remained with him during the California campaign which followed. After the war, Antoine returned to Missouri, where he died in 1860.

Louis Robidoux, on the other hand, seems to have remained loyal to his Mexican citizenship. Much of his early career mirrored Antoine’s. He arrived in New Mexico about the same time (probably 1823), married a New Mexican woman (Guadalupe Garcia in 1834), and participated in Santa Fe politics, where he served as first alcalde in 1839. He also participated in various moneymaking schemes, including operating a grist mill and iron works in Santa Fe.

July 17 illustration.Louis Robidoux

And he also left New Mexico. But instead of heading back to Missouri, Louis went to California, a move reportedly bankrolled by a $30,000 win in a Santa Fe card game. He arrived in California with a group of Mexican traders in 1843 and remained there until his death in 1868.

He settled in what would become San Bernardino County, where he set up a large livestock operation and planted orchards, wine vineyards, and a grist mill. He was also involved in politics, becoming the first San Bernardino County Supervisor. The City of Rubidoux, the Louis Robidoux Library, various streets, and Mount Rubidoux are all named after him.

Leroy R. Hafen, Fur Traders and Trappers of the Far Southwest, Logan: Utah State University Press, 1997; David J. Weber, The Taos trappers, the fur trade in the far Southwest, 1540-1846, Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1971.

The Mexican Frontier: Book Review

The Mexican Frontier cover
The Mexican Frontier 1821-1846, the American Southwest under Mexico, David J. Weber, ISBN 0826306039, University of New Mexico Press, 1982

The Mexican Frontier is the book for those of us who think the American West was “unsettled” before the United States expanded into and past the Rocky Mountains in the mid-1800s. Its author, noted historian David J. Weber, reminds us that Spain had claimed what is now  Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and California, in the 1500s, long before the various British attempts to colonize the East Coast.

When Mexico declared its independence from Spain in 1821, what is now known as the American Southwest came under its jurisdiction. The Mexican Frontier 1821-1846 is a comprehensive look at the  the region between 1821 and 1846, when it was acquired by the United States as a result of the Mexican War.

This book fills an important gap in our knowledge of North American history. Weber not only provides a good overview of Mexican policy and how it affected the country’s Northern Frontier, he also points out the similarities and differences between Texas, New Mexico, and California, both in terms of how government policies were interpreted and enforced and how the different regions reacted to them. This discussion was particularly helpful to me in clarifying the connections between events in Texas and in New Mexico in the 1830s and 40s. It’s been foundational to my research for upcoming novels, especially as I dive into the complexities of the New Mexico Tax Revolt in the 1830s.

If you want to understand the history of Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and California prior to the American takeover, I recommend that you read this very readable book.

 

BUZZARD BRAINS

“He ain’t got the brains God gave a buzzard,” the old man grumbled. He picked up his mattock and glared at the black-hatted figure retreating down the bottom of Humbug Gulch toward Elizabethtown. Then he looked uphill, toward Baldy Peak. “Idiot can’t even figure out there’s a storm up there and this gully likely t’wash out in another half hour.” He sniffed disdainfully and went back to work, breaking rock on the gully’s southern lip, searching for the gold that was bound to be there if a man worked the stones long enough.

The young man in the black bowler hat chewed thoughtfully on his lower lip as he trudged down the center of the gulch through the gravel and broken rock. He’d offered every dollar he had for the claim, but the miner clearly wasn’t interested in selling. He shook his head. There must be other options.

Halfway down the gulch, he paused to catch his breath and gaze at the mountain above. That dark cloud spoke rain. Given the southeast position of the cloud and the angle of the gulch, it was unlikely that particular cloudburst would wet this particular gully. However, just to be on the safe side, he moved halfway up the gully’s north slope before he continued his downward trek.

The sun was glaringly bright on the dry rocks. The young man sat down on a large sandstone boulder and took off his hat. He brushed at the dust on the black felt and shook his head. He needed to find something lighter weight and less apt to show dust. He’d keep wearing this in the meantime, though. If nothing else, it protected him from sunstroke. He glanced down at the shadowed side of his rocky seat and grinned. Like this boulder was protecting that bit of grass, growing here among the pitiless rocks where no plant had a right to be.

The young man’s eyes narrowed and he leaned forward. He shaded the clump of grass with his hat and peered down at it and the rocks around it. Then he straightened abruptly, glanced up the gully where the miner had gone back to work, and slid off the boulder. He crouched beside the big rock and gently pried a piece of broken quartz from the ground. He turned it slowly back and forth, examining every facet and seam.

Five minutes later, the young man sat back on his heels and turned the rock again, just to be certain. Then he picked up a stick and poked around a bit in the ground beside the boulder. He nodded thoughtfully, then stood and looked carefully at the gulch’s rocky slopes for any sign of possession. But this piece of land clearly hadn’t been claimed. Apparently, no one had thought there was gold this far down Humbug Gulch.

The young man chuckled, tucked the piece of quartz into his pocket, clapped his dusty black hat on his head, and headed into Elizabethtown to file the necessary paperwork for his claim.

from Old One Eye Pete

The Lizard as Hero: Book Review

The almost-invisible lizard sunning himself on a rock or a log is a common occurrence  in New Mexico. I almost stepped on one in the garden this morning. However, I would never have thought to use a lizard as a metaphor for a detective and “fixer.” But Pamela Christie did, and the resulting books are a fascinating look at New Mexico in the 1780s.

Kings Lizard cover

In The King’s Lizard, Christie introduces us to the Old New Mexico version of the invisible person—the half-Ute, half-Spanish Fernando “Nando” Aguilar who lives in a kind of limbo between his Spanish and Native origins. This liminal status makes Nando easy to overlook. But it also gives him access to both the Native and Spanish worlds, an access which makes him a valuable tool for Governor Juan Bautista de Anza.

Governor Anza has been tasked with creating a lasting peace with the Comanche. But there are men in New Mexico who don’t want peace. Unsettled conditions give them access to human contraband. And contraband sales fund a more-than-comfortable lifestyle. Nando becomes part of these men’s merchandise and then, after he escapes their clutches, the key to destroying the slave network as well as providing the Governor with a path to peace.

Dead Lizards Dance cover

In Dead Lizard’s Dance, Nando once again saves the day, sorting out a plot that not only threatens the Governor, but also his own family’s security. Rumors of witchcraft go hand in hand with the struggle to control the caravan of goods to and from Mexico that is the colony’s lifeline.

This particular novel also highlights the status of women in the colony, and it isn’t a particularly pretty picture. But Nando protects the women he can, including those who’ve exacted revenge on a man who’s made a life’s work of abuse and betrayal.

Lizard’s Kill appears to be the end of the road for Nando’s work for Anza, because the Governor’s term of office has ended.

Lizards Kill cover

He’s on his way back to Mexico and retirement. But Anza has one more service he hopes to perform for New Mexico and only Nando Aguilar has the skills to achieve the impossible.

Christie brings a deep knowledge of a complex bygone world  to these three books, a knowledge that seems to expand with each story. Her writing and her observations about New Mexico life and politics in the 1780s grows more deft with each novel. If you’d like to know more about this period and are looking for a good mystery series to dive into I recommend these books.

Long live lizards!

P.S. All of these books are also available directly from Pamela Christie, who says she prefers direct contact with her readers. And she’ll also cut deals! You can contact her at christiepr@gmail.com.