Almost as soon as he woke that morning, he decided to go fishing. There were chores to do, sure, but the sky was slightly overcast and the breeze was light and cool on his skin when he stepped onto the cabin’s porch. Good fishing weather.
He let the chickens out of their pen and gathered the eggs, then cut himself some bread. The cow hadn’t calved yet, so there was no butter, but that was all right.
He collected his pole and headed to the river. As he settled onto his heels just below the beaver ponds, he heard the swoosh of wings overhead. He looked up. A bald eagle was settling itself onto a snag at the head of the pool. A heron stood in the water below, apparently ignoring both eagle and man.
“Why in tarnation would any man want to live in a town?” the man wondered.
On Tuesday, July 5, 1825 Irish-born Taos resident James Kirker became a Mexican citizen. Given Kirker’s history up to this point, this was probably not the most optimum citizenship decision the Mexican government ever made.
Kirker had left Ireland at sixteen in order to avoid being drafted by the British during the Napoleonic wars. Ironically, shortly after he arrived in New York City Kirker signed on with the Black Joke, a privateer whose mission was to raid and harass the British fleet.
This didn’t work out too well. The Black Joke was captured by the British. Fortunately for Kirker, the crew was rescued by the USS Hornet and the USS Constitution (later renamed Old Ironsides), and Kirker was returned to New York. When he got there, Kirker headed to the grocery store where he’d been working before he became a privateer, married the young widow who owned the store, and settled down and had a son.
However, Kirker was still in his late teens at this point and he wasn’t really ready to settle down. In 1817 he abandoned his family and headed to St. Louis with some Irish cousins. There, he started another grocery.
But Kirker soon got wanderlust again and in 1823, signed on with Major Andrew Henry to go up the Missouri River. This didn’t last long. Kirker quit in a dispute over terms of employment and headed to Santa Fe.
Mexico seems to have been more to Kirker’s liking. He got involved with managing the Santa Rita copper mines near what is today Silver City, New Mexico and trapped with George Yount and James Ohio Pattie and his father.
But he still wasn’t ready to settle into a routine. In 1835, Kirker obtained a license from New Mexico Governor Albino Perez to trade with the Apaches. But he couldn’t stick to the rules for trading, either. He began illegally providing weapons and ammunition to the Apaches and participating in their raids into Texas and central Mexico.
When the Mexican officials got wind of Kirker’s activities, Governor Perez rescinded his license, ordered him arrested, and placed a $800 bounty on his head. Kirker fled north across the Mexican/American boundary to Bent’s Fort.
This was shortly before Perez’s death during the tax revolt of 1837 (which some people believe Kirker machinated) and by early 1838, newly appointed New Mexican governor Manuel Armijo had invited Kirker back into the country. Kirker went. And immediately returned to his old ways, only this time (at least theoretically) on the side of the establishment.
In early 1838, he was invited to help the Santa Rita mine operators combat the Apache activities that had forced the mines to close. Kirker gathered a couple dozen men and struck an Apache village headed by Mangus Colorado near what is today Cook’s Peak. The attack was brutal but effective, and Chihuahuan officials asked Kirker to lead a full-scale follow-up campaign against the Apaches.
Kirker agreed to their proposal but his first battle was, oddly enough, at Rancho de Taos, not Chihuahua. He lured a band of Apaches into Ranchos with some unguarded horses, then ambushed them after they’d captured the animals and were heading back into the mountains.
This is where the story turns sour. Instead of attacking the Apaches and retrieving the horses, Kirker and his men forced them back into Ranchos, into the walled square around the church there, and picked them off one by one, killing them at leisure. After this ‘success,’ Kirker’s band ranged across New Mexico, Chihuahua, Sonora, and West Texas, killing Apaches and organizing local militia against them.
A change in governance in Chihuahua put a stop to his activities, but unfortunately also brought an increase in Apache attacks. Kirker was eventually redrafted. His attacks on the Apaches would result in the undying hatred of Cochise and probably actually increased the intensity of the Apache attacks until the last bands were finally subdued in the 1880s.
But Kirker wasn’t satisfied with killing Apaches. Just as he’d turned traitor to them, he also turned traitor to his adopted country. When Colonel Alexander Donovan marched his Missouri Volunteers into northern Mexico in 1846, Kirker provided Donovan with valuable information about the location, strength, and best strategies for capturing the Mexican gun emplacements at Chihuahua. He was familiar with the fortifications there because of his work for Chihuahua officials against the Apaches.
After the war, Kirker returned to Santa Fe after the war, where he participated in at least one campaign against the Utes. Eventually he headed to California, where he settled and died in early 1853. He seems to have been a model citizen there. Maybe by that time (he was in his mid-50s), he’d decided that there was more to life than adventure.
Richard Batman, James Pattie’s West, the dream and the reality. Norman: University of Oklahoma press, 1986; 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
In New Mexico, the words “Santa Fe Ring” convey the same concept as the words “Tammany Hall” in New York. The Ring is synonymous with collusion by a few to suppress the many, the use of political power for private ends, and the accumulation of wealth by unsavory means.
InChasing the Santa Fe Ring, David L. Caffey describes the beginnings, height, and end of the Ring and the people involved in it. The major figures he discusses include, of course, Thomas Catron, Governor Samuel Beach Axtell, Stephen Benton Elkins, and William Breeden. But there were a number of less well-known figures that had links to the ring—Colfax County men like physician Robert Longwill and attorney Melvin W. Mills and Santa Fe merchants like Lehman Spiegelberg and Abraham Staab. Caffey places the activities of these men in context and also provides a helpful summary of their activities in the back matter.
One of the pleasures of reading this book is learning about the connections between the Ring and the various events in New Mexico Territory that tend to be treated as stand-alone eruptions—for example, the Lincoln County War and the Colfax County War. Chasing the Santa Fe Ring is actually a great way to obtain a comprehensive history of the Territory from the lens of the Ring and its particular chronology of events.
Catron and his allies seem to have had their hands in any and every opportunity that appeared to promise a monetary return. This included something as large as using their legislative power to “open up” the land grants to acquisition by outsiders and as small as arranging for jury members to be paid in script with little or no monetary worth, buying that script up, and then forcing a law through the legislature which increased its value.
But this book isn’t just a record of the wrongs perpetuated by the Santa Fe Ring. It’s also the story of how a few people took action and brought an end to its power. One of those people was Mary Tibble McPherson, a woman who didn’t actually live in New Mexico. But her daughter did. By the time McPherson was finished raising hell, even Washington D.C. was taking notice.
Mary McPherson wasn’t the only person involved in the fight against the Ring. But to find out more, you’ll have to read the book. If you’re interested in New Mexico history in the Territorial period, Chasing the Santa Fe Ringis a great resource. I recommend it!
The Mexican Frontieris 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.
“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.
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.
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.
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 Killappears to be the end of the road for Nando’s work for Anza, because the Governor’s term of office has ended.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
Billy Dupre pulled his ivory-handled Colt pistol from its holster and laid it beside him on the granite boulder. He looked at the revolver thoughtfully, then twisted away to gaze at the valley below. The morning light was just beginning to turn the tops of the western mountains a pinkish-orange. He sighed and shook his head.
“You backin’ and fillin’ again?” a sleepy voice asked from the other side of the burnt-out fire.
Billy glanced around. “I can’t help it, Johnny,” he said. “I just can’t get to makin’ up my mind to killin’ a man just cuz I’m paid to do it. A man who never did nothin’ to me or mine. Someone I don’t even know.”
“You were in the army, same as me,” Johnny Kemp said. “You did it then, didn’t ya?”
“That was war. This is different.”
“And you’re from Missouri, same as me,” Kemp persisted. “Weren’t there no bushwhackers where you come from?”
“Yep, and I shot my share. But that was defendin’ my family and my home, same as when I joined up.” Billy looked toward the sunlit mountain peaks. “Not that it did me much good. By the time I got back, my ma was dead, my pa was half-crazy, and that Sally Ann–” He stood abruptly and nudged at the ashes in the fire ring with his booted toe. “There’s no embers left. You got a match?”
“That girl done and gone, didn’t she?” Johnny sat up and reached for his knapsack. “That Sally Ann?”
“It’s all done and gone.” Billy turned and began moving around the edge of the campsite, collecting small pieces of downed aspen branches. “All of it’s right done and gone.”
“So you should be wrathful enough to shoot just about any varmint that crosses your path.” Kemp stood, stretched, and began buckling his pants. “Cuz there’s no one left back there and no one here neither.” He grinned. “No one ’sides me.” He crossed to the boulder and hefted the Colt, then flipped it expertly, feeling the balance of the thing. “Nice gun,” he said.
“No, you can’t have it,” Billy said. He dropped an armload of wood beside the fire ring.
Kemp grinned, put the pistol back on the rock, and crossed to the firewood. “So what’re you gonna do if you don’t go to shootin’ for pay?” He crouched down, took out his knife, and began shaving bark into a small pile. “You gonna go back to laborin’ at one of those Etown sawmills? Become a mine flunky?”
“I might.” Billy went back to the big rock. He stared down at the valley as he reholstered the pistol. “We had us a farm in Missouri,” he said thoughtfully.
Johnny Kemp rocked back on his heels. An incredulous grin split his face. “You gonna be a farmer? A bug-ridden land-rich cash-poor dirt grubber?”
Billy Dupre stared at the sunlight touching the grasses below and glinting off the small streams that meandered across the valley toward the canyon of the Cimarron. “I might,” he said. “I just might.”