Those of you who’ve read more than one of my Old New Mexico books may have noticed that I have a special fondness for William Sherley Williams, better known as “Old Bill”.
My initial introduction to Old Bill was through Old Bill Williams, Mountain Man by Alpheus H. Favour. Although written in the 1930s and somewhat infected with the era’s attitudes towards America’s First Peoples, this book still manages to provide a glimpse into Old Bill’s more progressive attitudes.
The red-headed gawky Williams left his Missouri home in his teens to live with the Osage Indians. There he married, found work with the Baptist missionaries to the Osage, then broke with his employers when he decided that Osage spirituality was more meaningful and insightful than the missionaries’.
A skilled linguist, he developed the first Osage-English dictionary and is said to have spoken at least five different languages. After his wife’s death, Williams moved west, guiding the Santa Fe Trail Survey, trapping, hunting buffalo, and scouting. Querulous and opinionated, Old Bill preferred trapping alone in places he refused to divulge to anyone else. He would eventually die as the result of John C. Fremont’s ill-fated fourth expedition through the southern Rockies in the middle of winter.
There are various summaries of Williams’ life. I have yet to find anything as detailed and extensive as Favour’s Old Bill Williams, Mountain Man. I recommend it.
I already had a book about the Camino Real de Tierra Adentro—the highway from New Mexico to Mexico City that came into being in the late 1500s. I had no business buying Following the Royal Road by Hal Jackson.
But I’m certainly glad I did.
The book I already owned is a good overview of the road’s history, but Following the Royal Road gets into the details that make a historical researcher salivate. It answered questions I ran into while gathering information for No Secret Too Small and also provided details I didn’t know I needed. For example, both battles of New Mexico’s 1837/38 revolt happened on the Camino Real. And El Alamo—where Governor Perez and his officials spent the night of August 8, 1837, is on the route, south of Santa Fe and just north of Los Golondrinos.
One of the things I really like about Following the Royal Road is the detailed maps it provides for each section of the Camino. Also, it traces the road all the way to Taos, a connection most books don’t make. In fact, it lays out the alternate routes people took to get to Taos, depending on the weather, material I used in No Secret Too Small.
But Following the Royal Road isn’t just a map with words. Jackson sprinkles a liberal amount of historical and cultural information throughout the book, so you’ll learn about everything from hornos to the founding of El Paso del Norte and the silver mines of Zacatecas.
And you can actually follow Following the Royal Road. It provides driving instructions from Taos to Mexico City. Whether you want to explore pieces of the Camino Real de Tierra Adentro from your armchair or on the road, I heartily recommend this book as your guide.
Among the battles of the Civil War, the one at New Mexico’s Glorieta Pass doesn’t get much attention. In the broader scheme of the war, it was a minor conflict. But Glorieta was important for the Confederacy. Although they won the battle, they lost their supply train and were forced to return south, away from Colorado and its gold and silver fields.
Glorieta, Jennifer Bohnhoff’s fictional treatment of the battle, is the second in her trilogy about the Civil War in New Mexico. In Glorieta, we are re-introduced to rebel Jemmy Martin, a character in Valverde, the first book, and meet a new one, the Irish teenager Cian Lochlann from Colorado. Between the two of them, we see the conflict from both the Confederate and Union perspectives.
Bohnhoff also introduces us to some historical characters. One of these, Major John F. Chivington, I expected to dislike. I knew about his actions years later at Sand Creek. For that reason, I didn’t understand why anyone would follow the man anywhere for any reason whatsoever. Bohnhoff’s Glorieta helped me see Chivington’s charisma while she also acknowledges the negative aspects of his character.
The Rebels Along The Rio Grande series is written for Middle Graders. That being said, I found this second volume to be an enjoyable and informative read. I recommend Glorieta to anyone who’s interested in the Civil War in New Mexico, young and old alike.
Valverde is a novel about the Civil War in New Mexico that begins in Texas. This location may seem odd to you unless you’re familiar with the relationship of Texas and New Mexico. You see, the Texas Republic tried to invade New Mexico twenty years before the Civil War, and it didn’t go well.
His father’s involvement in that earlier invasion plays a role in teenage Texan Jemmy’s decision to join the Confederate Texan forces. It also affects New Mexico teenager Raul’s attitude toward the invading forces.
Valverde follows each boy as he experiences the beginnings of the Civil War in New Mexico and as their paths cross at the battle of Valverde in February 1862.
The characters are well drawn, the situations are believable, and the battle scenes are handled nicely—there’s enough detail to make the reader feel the characters’ pain but not more than is strictly necessary.
This book is the first in the trilogy Rebels Along the Rio Grande, a series of Middle-Grade novels about the Civil War in New Mexico. The next in the series is Glorieta and I’m looking forward to reading it, too!
You don’t have to be a Middle-Grader to enjoy and learn a little something from this book. I recommend Valverde to young and old!
Technically, In The Shadow of Vargas, is more frontier fiction than western. That is, it’s not set in the American west after the U.S. took over the area that is now New Mexico, Arizona, Utah, Nevada, and California. In fact, the story takes place just before the point at which U.S. citizens were even welcome into what was then Mexico.
Even so, I would classify this book as a western because it fits the criteria in every other way: a protagonist on his own, fighting the bad guys and the elements; a woman at risk who manages to survive until her man rescues her; a story set on the North American continent west of the Mississippi before 1900.
Those are my criteria for a western and sometimes a reader just needs to put up her feet up and read a good one. As far as I’m concerned, westerns are always better if they’re set in New Mexico. So when I learned about E. Paul Bergeron’s In The Shadow of Vargas, I was eager to read it.
It didn’t disappoint. The larger-than-life fur trapper protagonist William MacLeod has a strong sense of justice and knows a good woman when he sees her. His impulse to aid the helpless gets him in trouble and then saves him in the end. And the woman he falls in love with is a strong character in her own right.
There’s a nice twist at the end of this novel which left me surprised. The hero doesn’t—well, I won’t spoil it for you. Let’s just say that Bergeron does a good job of ending this novel while making you wonder what’s going to happen in the sequel, The Search for Diego.
If you’re looking for a traditional western set in New Mexico before the American invasion, I recommend In The Shadow of Vargas.
Doña Tules Barceló was one of New Mexico’s most colorful 19th century characters, andThe 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.
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.
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.