A man named Manuel Armijo repeatedly plays a critical role in my forthcoming biographical novel There Will Be Consequences, which is set during the 1837/38 New Mexico tax rebellion. This isn’t the only time Armijo appeared in New Mexico’s history. In fact, you could say he played a repeating role throughout the Mexican period (1821 to 1846).
One of 15 children from a rico Albuquerque-area family, Armijo was around 30 years old when Mexico gained independence in 1821. A tall, good looking man with family connections throughout New Mexico, he became civil governor in May 1827. His term was short, ending in 1828, and marked by conflicts with the American trappers and traders who had arrived with independence.
Over the next decade, Armijo remained active in politics, serving as Albuquerque alcalde and militia lieutenant and using his influence to get the Santa Fe postmaster reinstated after being removed for mismanagement. In Spring 1836, Armijo was made New Mexico’s interim treasurer while the appointee, Francisco Sarracino, was under investigation for embezzlement.
Shortly after Sarracino was reinstated in July 1837, rebellion broke out in northern New Mexico. The insurrectionists were initially successful in taking over the capitol at Santa Fe, but the rico landowners further south quickly rallied and named Armijo commander of the loyalist forces.
Through what appears to have been a combination of lucky breaks (a rebel governor who allowed himself to be jailed instead of fleeing) and persuasion (prominent rebels who later agreed to take the man’s place in said jail). Armijo managed to get the insurrectos out of Santa Fe. But they didn’t disperse, they merely withdrew. Now interim governor, Armijo spent the winter of 1837/38 alternately threatening to kill his rebel prisoners and cajoling the insurrectionists into behaving by asking them to clarify their grievances so he could address them.
In reality, Armijo was biding his time. One of his first actions as commander had been to send a request south to Chihuahua for troops to reinforce New Mexico’s militia and small garrison of presidio soldiers. When the requested dragoons arrived in January 1838, the governor’s gloves came off. He ordered his rebel prisoners beheaded and marched north.
This time, with adequate troops behind him, Armijo was able to deal a decisive blow that effectively ended the rebellion. His reward for suppressing the insurrection was to remain in office as both civil and military governor, positions that were usually split between two people. His administration lasted through 1844, when he was suspended for a short time.
Armijo was reinstated for a third term in 1845, but the third time was not the charm. The following year, the Americans invaded in what is now known as the Mexican-American War. After much rhetoric and possibly a payoff, Armijo fled south ahead of the U.S. Army. He would be much castigated for this, even by later American historians, although his flight may well have saved New Mexican lives.
The pundits saw him as weak, cowardly, and greedy, a view that may have influenced their perspective on events nine years earlier. They reported that Armijo balked at the January 1838 battle until a dragoon captain forced his hand and some accused him of fomenting the rebellion in order to regain his position as governor. They even claimed that he had the prisoners executed in January 1838 in order to suppress what they knew about his involvement in the rebel coup. I have found no evidence to support either assertion. However, the very fact they were made seems to say a great deal about the complexity and power of Armijo’s character and his hold on the imagination of subsequent historians.
While I was writing There Will Be Consequences, I spent a good deal of time ruminating on the motivations of a man who seemed to have a knack for persuading people to do things contrary to their own interests and who was also quick to put people to death if it suited his needs. Was Armijo simply a selfish, cowardly scoundrel? Or was there more to him than met the historians’ eyes? Why would he hesitate to face the rebels at Pojoaque Pass when the odds were in his favor? Perhaps he really cared about the people and peace of New Mexico and worried about the impact of yet more deaths. Maybe he believed the executions two days before would be enough to bring the insurrectionists to heel.
We know a good deal about what Armijo did—or is said to have done—in the Fall and Winter of 1837/38. However, we don’t know what he was thinking. His actions and hesitation together give me the sense of a complex man with varied motivations. This makes him a fascinating character to write.
Which is a good thing, because he’s bound to show up in future Old New Mexico novels, following There Will Be Consequences. After all, he didn’t fade from public view until after 1846. I can hardly wait.