One of the most frustrating moments in researching historical fiction is when you realize the historical record doesn’t provide any clues about why a particular event occurred. While I was researching my forthcoming novel There Will Be Consequences, the incident I struggled most with in this way was the August 10, 1837 death of former New Mexico governor Santiago Abreú and his aide Diego Saenz.
The historical sources focus in rather gruesome detail on the men’s capture by indigenous rebel warriors, Abreú’s overnight confinement in the stocks at Santo Domingo Pueblo and subsequent dismemberment, and both men’s death. However, these sources provide no explanation for these killings other than one obscure reference to Abreú’s support for a New Mexico militia ten years before. The clear subtext of the reports is that the people of Santo Domingo were irrational, barbarous, and treacherous savages who had no real reason to treat Abreú and Saenz the way they did.
The thread of Santo Domingo treachery runs through all the published accounts of the 1837 New Mexico revolt, beginning with the battle of La Mesilla on August 8, when the Pueblo’s warriors are said to have switched sides, thus ensuring the defeat of the government forces. The theme continues in the accounts of Governor Pérez’s August 9 death—Santo Domingo men are said to have used his severed head as a football—and culminates in Santiago Abreú’s death the next day.
My initial reaction to this trope of treacherous savagery was to suspect that the initial Spanish historians and later American chroniclers had, at the very least, greatly exaggerated the Pueblo’s actions because they wanted to transfer the blame for the bloodier outcomes of the revolt away from the Spanish and mixed race participants.
However, given the unanimity of the accounts about where and how Santiago Abreú died, I thought it possible there could be some truth in them. At the very least, I felt I should explore why he and Diego Saenz were killed. The implication that their deaths were a natural result of the Santo Domingo character and not the consequence of any action of Abreú or Saenz felt racist and lacking in nuance, to say the least.
I began to look further, moving back in time and broadening my scope. In that process, I learned that, aside from long-simmering tensions between the Spanish/Mexican conquerors and New Mexico’s First Peoples, an incident during Abreú’s 1832-33 term as governor could shed light on what happened in 1837.
Abreú’s administration had granted a man named José Francisco Ortiz, or “El Sonoreño,” the right to mine in what is now known as the Ortiz Mountains, east of the pueblo of Santo Domingo. This cluster of peaks includes Mount Chalchihuitl, a location important to the region’s First Nations people as a source of turquoise, the opaque blue-green stone revered for its healing and protective properties.
I imagine this handover to Ortiz as deeply disturbing to the land’s traditional users, especially those who lived as close to it as the residents of Santo Domingo. Ortiz was from Sonora (hence the nickname). Since he hadn’t been born and raised in New Mexico, it’s unlikely he would have understood or felt any empathy with the Pueblos or their concerns.
Also, the historical record indicates Ortiz may not have been the most savory of persons. His first appearance in the archives is as the defendant on a September 1805 charge of vagrancy, theft, and sedition. In June 1820, he was in court again, this time in response to a lawsuit for 11,000 pesos he’d neglected to pay for merchandise received in Chihuahua. And then there’s the report that after Ortiz and two associates were given the mining grant, he convinced New Mexico officials to invoke a seldom-enforced law that forced one of his partners out of the country, leaving more of the operation for himself.
These incidents led me to suspect that Ortiz’s relationship with the traditional users of the mountains he was mining wouldn’t have been a pleasant one. The long-standing conflict between New Mexico’s Spanish and Pueblo peoples, as well as the fact that Ortiz gained the right to mine during Santiago Abreú’s term seemed to provide a plausible rationale for the August 1837 events at Santo Domingo.
Will I ever know for sure? I doubt it. In this case, plausibility is all I have to go on. And it makes for some intense scenes in There Will Be Consequences, as the Pueblo warriors demonstrate to the former governor the inevitable consequences of assuming that one can control and divide up a resource that, in truth, belongs to no one.
Image by propix-at from Pixabay