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.

 

President Keeps His Word!

On Thursday, June 16, 1910, the United States Congress finally agreed to allow New Mexico to become a State, ending a quest that had begun 62 years before.

The delay was partly New Mexico’s fault. In their first bid for statehood in 1848, New Mexico’s citizens had stipulated that they enter the Union as a free (non-slave) state. That requirement guaranteed that the slave-holding states would oppose New Mexico’s entry.

But a little opposition never has kept New Mexico from trying again. There were at least three other attempts to gain Congressional approval—in 1850, 1875, and 1902.

When Congress approved a process in 1906 for a combined state of New Mexico/Arizona, it looked like success was in sight. New Mexico voted for the proposal. However, Arizona voters rejected the plan.

Then in 1908, William Howard Taft became President. During the campaign, he’d pledged to make New Mexico a state. He kept his word. His Republican-controlled House and Senate approved legislation that initiated the formal process for Statehood and Taft signed it into law on Saturday, June 18, 1910.

A year and a half later, those formalities were completed and, on Saturday, January 6, 1912, President William H. Taft signed the formal proclamation that approved New Mexico’s entry into the Union. New Mexico was finally a state.

So the next time someone tells you that Presidents never keep their campaign promises, remember President Taft and the case of New Mexico statehood.

Sources: 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; Marc Simmons, New Mexico, an interpretive history, UNM Press, Albuquerque, 1988

 

Over The Trail to Mexico: Book Review

 

Over The Santa Fe Trail to Mexico cover
Joy L. Poole, editor
ISBN: 9780806157511
University of Oklahoma press, 2017

Early in the summer 1825, yet another young man joined a wagon train headed over the Santa Fe Trail to New Mexico.

This particular traveler’s name was Doctor Rowland Willard. Dr. Willard’s diary during his time on the Trail and afterwards in New Mexico, Chihuahua, and Durango has now been published with detailed notes and provides a fascinating look at life in Mexico in the second half of the 1820s.

As a medical doctor, Doctor Willard’s perspective was slightly different from other Americans on the Trail and in Mexico. However, in some ways it was very much the same — he was there to make money.

He spent less than six months in New Mexico and did not find there the financial success he was looking for. However, he did find it in Chihuahua. He returned to the States in 1828 with $7000 in cash.

Willard’s diary has actually been published before. Excerpts were included in the Western Travel Review in 1829 and two years later the entire diary was added as an appendix to The Personal Narrative of James Ohio Pattie. The physical diary disappeared into Willard family archives and didn’t resurface until  2005, when it began its journey to publication as Over The Santa Fe Trail To Mexico, the travel diaries and autobiography of Doctor Rowland Willard

This edition provides not only the diary but also Joy L. Poole’s extensive notes and Willard’s autobiography, published here for the first time. This book is worth its price for Poole’s notes alone, which provide the context for fully appreciating Willard’s experiences and observations.

If you’re a student of the Santa Fe trail or of New Mexico history in the late 1820s, Over the Santa Fe Trail to Mexico  will be a valuable addition to your library. If you’re simply looking for a good read about old New Mexico— or old Mexico— I would definitely recommend it.

West of Penance: Book Review

West of Penance cover
by Thomas D. Clagett
ISBN: 9781432831417
Five Star/Cengage, 2016

There were a lot of pieces to the conflict that engulfed New Mexico’s Colfax County in the 1870s–the conflict we know today as the Colfax County War. As far as I know, no one has ever provided a good fictional account of how some of those pieces fit together and just who did what to whom. Until now.

The hero of Thomas D. Clagett’s West of Penance doesn’t get to Colfax County until a little over one-third of the way into the book. But once he does, he’s in the middle of events that actually happened. Events that Clagett lines up nicely and for which he provides explanations that not only make sense, but make for a great story.

Although Father Graintaire and the woman who takes him in are fictional characters, everyone else in this section of the book actually existed. Based on my own Colfax County research, Clagett’s conceptions of them and their actions are right on target. The portraits of Clay Allison and Sheriff Chittenden, and the explanation of why Cruz Vega was in William Lowe’s cornfield the night he was lynched are especially well done. And Clagett’s portrait of Santa Fe Ring attorney Melvin W. Mills gave me new insight into Mills’ character. I wish I’d read West of Penance before I wrote his scenes in The Pain and The Sorrow!

Given how well Clagett handles the Colfax County material in this book, I think it’s safe to assume that the first part of West of Penance  is just as authentic. I certainly feel like I know more now about the French Foreign Legion than I did before I read this book.

So, if you’re interested in the French Foreign Legion at the battle of Camerone and the role they played in acquiring Mexico for France, or in New Mexico’s Colfax County war, I recommend that you read West of Penance!

 

Fateful Trapping Party Is Last Of Its Kind

In August 1827, trapper Sylvester S. Pratte led 36 men north from Abiquiu on the last large-scale trapping expedition out of New Mexico. It would also be Pratte’s last expedition: he would die on it.

Pratte’s death at 28 from an infected dog bite was not the only disaster that befell the group of trappers. A week and a half later, Indians attacked. During the fight, Thomas L. Smith was hit by an arrow which shattered the bones a few inches above his ankle. Smith dealt with the issue immediately, slicing through the mangled tendons with his own hands. Fellow trapper Milton Sublette helped him finish the job by applying a tourniquet of buckskin thongs and covering the wound with an old dirty shirt. Amazingly, although the wound was never cauterized, it did eventually heal.

Aug 8 illustration.Pixabay
The sure sign of beaver in the vicinity. Source: Pixabay

Pratte had asked his boyhood friend Ceran St. Vrain to act as the expedition’s clerk. After Pratte’s death, the men requested St. Vrain to take his place as its leader. However, this also turned out to be problematic, not on the hunt itself, but when they returned. The venture ended up losing money. Even after Pratte’s personal belongings were sold off to cover expenses, there was still a deficit of over $500.

All in all, this final large-scale trapping expedition out of New Mexico was a disaster on a good many levels, and the negative aspects may have been why the experiment was never repeated.

 

 

Sources: Leroy R. Hafen, ed. Fur Trappers And Traders Of The Far Southwest, Utah State University press, Logan. 1997; David J Weber, The Taos Trappers, University of Oklahoma press, Norman. 1971.

 

No Rain In Taos

On Sunday, July 31, 1825, Taos-based physician Rowland Willard had been in Taos since July 2 and the village had received no rain in the past month. The doctor was disappointed.

The New York born Willard had apparently expected to find not only rain but a prosperous community that could afford American fees and make him rich. He was destined to be disappointed on both counts.

July 31 illustration
Source: Over the Santa Fe Trail to Mexico, Julie L. Poole, ed.

Although Doctor Willard had a number of clients in Taos and as far south as Santa Cruz de la Canada, payment for services in the 1820s tended to be in goods rather than in cash. By September, it was clear that Taos was not the land of opportunity he had sought. On September 15, he headed south, to try his luck in Chihuahua.

The move paid off. Willard developed a successful practice in Chihuahua and remained there for the next two years, where he invested in the Santa Rita copper mines as well as his medical practice.

In 1828 Willard decided to return to the United States. To be eligible to leave the country, Mexican law required a 2% duty payment. The good Doctor paid $80 on the $4000 he declared, but actually left Mexico with $7000 in cash and his “outfit.”

Clearly, trappers were not the only Americans who believed they didn’t need to comply with Mexico’s duty laws.

Source: Julie L. Poole ed., Over The Santa Fe Trail To Mexico, The Travel Diaries And Autobiography Of Dr. Rowland Willard, University of Oklahoma Press, Norman 2015

Navajo Exile Finally Ends

In late June 1868, after five years of exile, the Navajo people began their return to their homeland.

Five years earlier, also in June, U.S. Army General James Henry Carleton had ordered Colonel  Christopher “Kit” Carson to march west to starve out the Navajos and move them 450 miles east to Bosque Redondo. Although Carson argued that his health was poor and that he’d joined the Army to fight Confederate Texans, not Indians, Carleton ordered him to go him anyway.

Carson did as he was told. The majority of the Navajos residing in the Southwest were gathered up and marched east to Bosque Redondo, and old meeting ground for Indians of the southern Plains along the Pecos River.

The experience was a disaster.

The Navajos were incarcerated alongside their long-time enemies, the Mescalero Apache, so that was difficult enough.

Then the crops failed, not only at Bosque Redondo, but also in the Taos and Mora Valleys, which reduced the food supplies that could be purchased to feed the captives. In fact, there were so few supplies that General Carleton suspended operations against the Navajos still at large. He didn’t have enough to feed those he had, much less more.

June 23 illustration.Carleton.nuevomexicano homeland

And Kit Carson, who went with the Navajo to Bosque Redondo, proved an inadequate administrator. Not only was he hampered by his illiteracy, but he found that he had no real power or control. Between Carleton’s micromanagement and Army bureaucracy and corruption, he was as overwhelmed with his Bosque Redondo tasks as the captive Navajos were with the miserable conditions there. Carson left in mid September 1864. The Navajo would remain until June 1868.

Finally, two years after Carleton had been relieved of his military command, General Tecumseh Sherman arrived. He agreed with the Navajo leaders’ rejection of the idea of moving to a new reservation in Oklahoma and negotiated a peace with them that would send them home. Three weeks after the treaty was signed on June 1, the People began the 450 miles or more journey home.

You can find more information about the Navajo Long Walk at http://newmexicohistory.org/people/navajo-long-walk-to-bosque-redondo-1864

Sources: Hampton Sides, Blood And Thunder, an epic the American West, Doubleday, New York, 2006; Jerry D Thompson, A Civil War History Of The New Mexico Volunteers And Militia, U of New Mexico P, Albuquerque, 2015

John Fremont Stumbles Into Taos

On this day in 1849, Saturday, January 13, celebrated explorer John C. Fremont stumbled into the Taos plaza so battered by exposure and starvation that no one recognized him.

Fremont had left what is now Pueblo, Colorado, 52 days earlier on a mission to identify a practicable railroad route across the Rockies to California. He had 32 men and 120 supply-laden mules with him.

Even before he’d left Pueblo, there was trouble. He’d already lost a guide. When former mountain man “Uncle Bill” Wootton took a look at the signs and realized just how bad the coming winter was likely to be, he backed out. But former Army Colonel Fremont refused to give up. He’d been forced to resign from the military in a cloud of disgrace two years earlier and was determined to redeem himself. Come hell or high water, he was determined to prove that a year-round transcontinental railroad operation across the mountains was feasible. If men and mules could cross the path he had in mind under winter conditions, then surely trains could, too.

Fremont hired “Old Bill” Williams to take Wootton’s place. While Williams was a brilliant tracker, he  wasn’t exactly known for his tact. Since Fremont was known for his stubbornness, the partnership seemed destined for trouble. And trouble happened pretty quickly. When Williams announced that the expedition should veer from the route Fremont had laid out, trouble ensued. Fremont relieved Williams of his guide duties and gave them to men who Fremont had worked with before but who didn’t know the region.

As Wootton had predicted, the weather turned treacherously nasty and grew increasingly difficult as Fremont’s men tried to force their way through snow-bound canyons and across icy mountainsides. All of the mules either died of starvation or froze to death. Frostbite and snow blindness plagued both the animals and the men. Not only was the expedition’s goal doomed, but the conditions were so bad that the men feared for their lives. In a desperate attempt to make it to safety, Fremont divided his company into small groups and sent them south to try to reach Taos.

John C. Fremont.Simmons 3 wives

Only 21 men of the original 32 would make it out alive and Fremont himself would need weeks of nursing by Josefa Carson before he fully recovered from the ordeal. Even with the survivors in Taos and whole, the loss of life would continue. Williams would die trying to retrieve valuable records and medical equipment  that had been left behind in the rush to escape the winter conditions Uncle Bill Wootton had warned Fremont about.

Although a year-round transcontinental railroad was eventually built across the Rocky Mountains, it was not constructed on the route that Fremont tried to blaze that winter of 1848/49. The glory of that deed would go to other men.  Fremont’s exploring days were over .

Sources:  Alpheus H. Favour, Old Bill Williams, Mountain Man, U of Oklahoma Press,  Norman, 1962; Leroy R. Hafen, Ed., Fur Trappers and Traders of the Far Southwest, Utah State U Press, Logan, 1972; Marc Simmons, Kit Carson and His Three Wives, UNM Press, Albuquerque, 2003.

 

Courtroom Lynching in Taos

In 1867, the village of Don Fernando de Taos started its new year with a lynching. By Wednesday, January 2, the citizens of Taos had had enough of the antics of  Thomas Means. The man had been on yet another drunken binge. During this one, he’d bounced around the plaza threatening people with a knife and pistol. When he finally went home, he took out his frustrations on his wife, nearly killing her in the process. That was when the authorities stepped in and arrested him.

Means was incarcerated in the local jail but there was apparently some concern that he wouldn’t get the justice he deserved:  New Mexico juries were known for being reluctant to judge defendants guilty of death.  To solve this problem, a group of citizens mob stormed the jail and removed Means from his guards’ protection. But they didn’t take him very far. 1867 must have started out cold, because the impromptu extra-legal jury decided to hang Means in the room next door to the jail: the courtroom where he would have been tried if they’d been a little more patient. The vigilantes dragged him into the space reserved for justice and hanged him from one of the vigas there. Although a judge may not have thought so, the men who dealt with Means clearly thought that justice was a good use for the room in question.

Source:  Robert J. Torrez, Myth of the Hanging Tree, UNM Press, Albuquerque, 2008.

Padre Martinez’ Ministry Begins

On Saturday, December 22, 1821 Antonio José Martinez of Taos was ordained in Durango, Mexico as a deacon in the Catholic church. He was 28 years old. Martinez had arrived at Durango’s Tridentine Seminary four years earlier just after his 25th birthday. He came to the ministry late, following the death of his wife in childbirth. The ceremony on December 22, 1821 marked the beginning of the end of Martinez’ life at the Seminary. A year later, he would be an ordained priest  and on his way by to New Mexico, where he would eventually become pastor in exclusive charge at Taos.

Antonio_José_Martínez
Padre Antonio Jose Martinez

Besides his priestly duties, Padre Martinez would be a force to be reckoned with in New Mexico cultural and political affairs, both before and after the 1846 American takeover. Before the war, he was consul for expatriate Americans in New Mexico, he founded a school in Taos and also installed a printing press in Taos for literary publications as well as church forms , and he served as one of seven deputies to New Mexico’s Departmental Assembly. After the American invasion,  the Padre served as president of both New Mexico’s 1848 and 1849 state constitutional conventions and of the 1851 New Mexican Legislative Assembly.

To describe Antonio José Martinez as a busy man seems like an understatement.  One wonders whether he had any idea  on that long ago day in late 1821 just how much he would accomplish for New Mexico and for Taos before he died almost 50 years later at the age of 75.

Sources: Fray Angelico Chavez, But Time and Chance, the story of Padre Martinez of Taos, Sunstone Press, Santa Fe, 1981; Thomas C. Donnelly, The Government of New Mexico, UNM Press, Albuquerque, 1953; Richard W. Etulain, New Mexican Lives: Profiles and Historical Stories, UNM Press, Albuquerque, 2002; Dan Galbraith, Turbulent Taos, Sunstone Press, Santa Fe, 1983; Pedro Sanchez, Recollections of the Life of the Priest Don Antonio José Martínez, Sunstone Press, Santa Fe, 2006.