Spanish Soldiers Killed on the Plains!

On Sunday, August 14, 1720 Santa Fe Presidio Garrison Lieutenant Pedro de Villasur died on the Platte River during an altercation with Pawnee Indians. Villasur was the leader of a force of Spanish soldiers, Pueblo Indian militia, and several citizens who’d set out that spring on an expedition to the Platte River in what is today’s Nebraska. The expedition was following up on reports that large numbers of Frenchmen were trading with the Pawnee, a tribe which dominated the central plains. This made Mexican officials nervous. Not only did Spanish mercantile policy forbid foreigners from trading within her empire, but the traders from French Louisiana could be providing the Plains Indians with arms and ammunition that could then be used against New Mexico’s settlements.

To find out what was going on, Villasur and his men were dispatched on a fact-finding mission. the reached the plains east of what is today Colorado’s Front Range in mid-August. When they found a large village of Pawnee, Villasur sent a note in to ask for a parlay.

It’s unclear whether there were any Frenchmen in the village to translate the note, which was in French, but the Pawnee didn’t waste any time responding to it. They attacked the next morning.

Villasur was among the first to fall and among the forty-five who died. The few expedition members who survived the battle carried the news back to Santa Fe and seem to have provided the details subsequently recorded in a unique artwork, one of two painted hides  that eventually came into the hands of Jesuit priest Philipp von Segesser von Brunegg.

In 1758 Segesser von Brunegg sent these artifacts to family members in Switzerland. They were eventually sold to the Palace of the Governors Museum in Santa Fe, New Mexico and returned to thecity that Villasur and his men departed from over 300 years ago. They are officially known as the Segesser hides.

There’s documentary evidence of other reposteros, or artwork painted on tanned hides, created in Santa Fe during the 1700s and some scholars believe the Segesser pieces were also produced there. Because of the details in the Segesser II hide, the painting that reflects contemporary accounts of the Villasur debacle, it seems clear that the painting was done by people who were familiar with the events.

Augst 14 post ilustration.Segesser detail

The other fascinating thing about this artwork is the way it combines pictorial elements characteristic of indigenous or folk-art paintings while also reflecting influences from European battle tapestries of the late 1600s and early 1700s. The wide borders on the hide painting contain flower and leaf designs similar to of those works.

If you’d like to know more about these unique historical artifacts and the Villasur expedition, the Segesser  hides are on display in Albuquerque, New Mexico through October 20, 2019 as part of a larger exhibit titled A Past Rediscovered. If you can’t make it to Albuquerque, you can view portions of the hide paintings here.

Sources: Marc Simmons, New Mexico, an Interpretive History, Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1988; Ruben Salaz Marquez, New Mexico, a brief multi-history, Albuquerque: Cosmic House, 1999; https://www.cabq.gov/culturalservices/albuquerque-museum/exhibitions/a-past-rediscovered

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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.

 

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

May Snow in New Mexico!

New Mexico’s weather so far this year has reflected the weather patterns across the nation—unpredictable, to put it kindly. To put the snow, rain, hail, and general nastiness into perspective, take a look at this May 9, 1907 article from the Cimarron News and Press.

May 9 illustration

The winter had been a dry one. The stockmen’s herds hadn’t been buffeted by much cold, so they were healthy, over all. But the dry conditions meant the summer was going to bring sparse summer grasses. Until early May. When it rained and snowed!

The Cimarron News and Press tended to be very upbeat, so I question just how positively the stockmen felt about the loss of their calves and lambs to the recent storms.

But we can take comforting in noting know that storms this late in the year are not a new phenomenon.

 

Spring Equals Trappers in Taos

It happened every spring in the early 1800s: Taos was invaded by trappers, either future or current. It made law enforcement rather complicated

In 1817, Jules DeMun didn’t even make it to Taos before he was headed off by a contingent of Spanish soldiers, who had been sent out in response to rumors in Taos that DeMun and his partner Pierre Chouteau had 20,000 Americans camped on the Purgatoire River, set to invade New Mexico. Even though the rumors weren’t true, DeMun and Chouteau were ordered to return to St. Louis. Somehow, they talked the soldiers into allowing them to travel north before heading east, ostensibly to avoid the Pawnee. Of course, they didn’t head directly to St. Louis. They trapped, supposedly outside of the boundaries of New Spain.

When news of Mexico’s independence from Spain reached the United States in 1821, things only got worse. Trappers and merchants could now enter New Mexico legally, but they still had trouble following Mexico’s rules. Up to this point, the Sangre de Cristo mountains had provided a protective barrier between Taos and incursions from the eastern plains. But they didn’t stop the Americans. In fact, the mountains were a great place to cache furs before smuggling them east to Missouri without paying export taxes. And Taos was still the favorite way to enter, especially if you were doing something slightly illegal. There were just so many ways to get there from the Santa Fe trail, which paralleled the mountains between it and Taos.

March 8 Illustration.Dick Wootton.Twitchell vol 2 source
“Uncle Dick” Wootton, Source: Leading Facts of New Mexico History, R.E. Twitchell

It got so bad that Mexico Customs Officer Juan Bautista Vigil y Alarid had to deputize Rafael Luna as Taos’ border guard. Even that wasn’t enough. Eventually, Alarid authorized Luna and Taos Alcalde Severino Martinez to use the militia to intercept the Americans.

Calling out the militia seems like overkill until you realize how valuable the furs in question were. In 1837, “Uncle Dick” Wootton brought furs worth $25,000 into Taos. And that’s just what he was willing to pay the tax on. The trappers had incentive to skirt the law. And the Mexican authorities had incentive to try to keep them from doing so.

And so each spring the dance began again….

Sources: Den Galbraith, Turbulent Taos, Sunstone Press, Santa Fe, 1983; Leroy R. Hafen, Fur Trappers and Traders of the Far Southwest, Utah State UP, Logan, 1997; Joy L. Poole, editor, Over the Santa Fe Trail to Mexico, U of Oklahoma Press, Norman, 2015; David J. Weber, The Taos Trappers, U of Oklahoma Press, Norman, 1971.

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.