Book Review: Youth on the Santa Fe Trail

 

Kattell.Youth On The Santa Fe Trail cover
Youth on the Santa Fe Trail
by Camilla Kattell
Light Horse Publishing, November 2015
ISBN-13: 978-0996675406

We tend to forget just how young many of the travelers on the Santa Fe Trail were. I suppose this is because we associate the Trail with merchant caravans more than we do with family settler groups.

In Youth On The Santa Fe Trail, Camilla Kattell reminds us that some of the most famous voices from that famous road were not yet twenty when they travelled it. In addition to Christopher “Kit” Carson, these young people included the soon-to-be mountain man Richens Lacey Wootton, future authors Francis Parkman, Jr. and Hector Lewis Garrard, diarist Susan Shelby Magoffin, and—youngest of them all at age seven—Marian Sloan Russell.

One of the things I especially appreciate about this book is that Kattell includes information about travelers I was unfamiliar with, including James Ross Larkin, an early health seeker on the Trail, sportsman William B. Napton, and New Mexico native José Librado Gurulé.

But Youth on the Santa Fe Trail does more than provide a concise biography of these travelers. It also provides context for their particular story and, in doing so, helps us to understand their world. For example, Kattell’s portrayal of Susan Shelby Magoffin helped me to see this young woman in a way I hadn’t before.

When I read the Magoffin diary a number of years ago, I was frustrated by what I saw as her very narrow view of the world. Youth on the Santa Fe Trail reminded me that Magoffin’s strict, rather puritanical, upbringing would naturally make her look askance at women smoking cigarettes and church hymns set to apparent dance tunes. What I saw as a narrow mindedness can also be viewed as a difference in cultures which Magoffin was doing her best to assimilate. Kattell expanded my view of this young woman’s perspective.

While Youth On The Santa Fe Trail is about the youth who traversed the Santa Fe Trail, it is certainly not only for young readers. It will give you a new appreciation for the Trail’s travelers, the impact they had on both their destination, and the way their experiences on the trail shaped that impact. I recommend it for anyone interested in the history of the Trail and of New Mexico.

 

Santa Fe Trail Mail Contractor Changes!

Throughout the month of September, 1855, the Santa Fe Weekly Gazette informed its readers that the U.S. mail contract had recently been transferred to Hockaday and Hall and was providing mail and passenger transport to and from Independence, Missouri for a mere $125 per passenger.

Packages and extra baggage could also be sent via the Hockaday and Hall coaches, at a cost of 25 cents per pound, although there was a minimum charge of $1.00 and the contractors could not be held responsible for anything worth more than $50.

These rates remained the same two years later, even when service increased to twice monthly. This may have been because, no matter how often the mail left Santa Fe, it took about the same length of time to travel  to or from its destination. Round trip to St. Louis was still about three months and delivery from the Atlantic seaboard to Santa Fe remained around six weeks. Letters and packages continuing from Santa Fe on to El Paso were transferred to George H. Gidding’s service south and could take an additional week to ten days.

Sept 22 illustration

Interestingly, the front page items about the new contractors and their service are not set off in a box or with any other markings to indicate that they’re advertisements. They’re treated like news items. Repeating news items—the same language shows up in every September 1855 issue of the Gazette.

While news of the mail was critical to the functioning of business and politics in New Mexico Territory, the decision to promote its service and fees in this way may have been the result of other factors. The Hockaday and Hall agent in Santa Fe just happened to be W. W. H. Davis, the newspaper’s editor.

Sources:  Santa Fe Weekly Gazette, September 1, 8, 15, 22, 29, 1855; Morris F. Taylor, First Mail West, stagecoach lines on the santa fe trail, Albuquerque: UNM Press, 1971.

The Excitement of Politics—Some Things Never Change

On Saturday, September 15, 1855, the political atmosphere of New Mexico was so tense that a group of political operatives took it upon themselves to steal the Rio Arriba County poll books at gunpoint. The poll books in question contained the county records of the recent election for New Mexico’s territorial delegate to Congress. The two candidates for the post were Jose Manuel Gallegos and Miguel Antonio Otero.

In Rio Arriba County, a Gallegos stronghold, Probate Court Clerk Ellis T. Clark was responsible for getting the vote results to Santa Fe. He stashed the records in his saddlebags and, accompanied by Territorial Attorney General Theodore Wheaton, headed south.

About 25 miles north of Santa Fe, near Pojoaque Creek, Wheaton and Clark happened to meet five men from Otero’s party. The meeting seemed innocent enough. According to the Santa Fe Weekly Gazette account of the incident, the two groups  “halted and passed the usual compliments, the former not suspecting the object of the latter.” During the ensuing conversation, one of Otero’s partisans asked Clark if he had the poll books and he said he did. The men continued to chat.

Then suddenly the mood changed. As their companions pulled out six shooters, two of Otero’s friends grabbed Clark’s and Wheaton’s arms and demanded the voting records. Then one of them pilfered  Clark’s saddle-bags and grabbed the books.

The thieves didn’t take off immediately. They paused long enough to explain that they planned to hold the records hostage until the votes for Otero’s home county, Valencia, were tallied. They’d heard that there were plans afoot to “disappear” the Valencia poll books and hand Gallegos the election. If Valencia’s votes were “lost”, the records for Rio Arriba would also disappear.

Then the five rode off, heading north. Clark and Wheaton continued south. They arrived in Santa Fe around 10 o’clock that night and told the Sheriff what had happened. He, Clark, and a posse immediately headed north after the thieves. A duplicate set of the Rio Arriba poll books were in Clark’s house. They figured the Otero partisans would want to acquire those as well.

Sept 15 illustration

They were right. In fact, when the posse arrived at Clark’s house the next day, they learned that three of the thieves had already been there. They’d tried to bully Clark’s wife into giving them the records and, when she refused, went in search of a lawman who’d force her to do what they wanted. There’s no record of who they found to play that role. When the Otero men returned to the house, the posse was waiting and the thieves were arrested.

They’d actually had good reason to be concerned about the election results. When all the votes were counted,  Gallegos had won by 99 votes. However, Otero contested the results, alleging illegal activities related to the vote, and was ultimately awarded the Delegate seat. He served in that position until 1861, when he lost a re-election bid to John S. Watts.

As for the theft, the Gazette expressed its editorial sorrow “that men, in the excitement of politics, should commit acts their judgment will condemn in their sober moments,” and called for more stringent laws related to election fraud.

Ironically, we’re still expressing the same kind of sorrow and calling for the same kind of laws today. Some things never change.

Sources: Don Bullis, New Mexico, A Biographical Dictionary, 1540-1980, Vol. 1. Los Ranchos de Albuquerque: Rio Grande books, 2007; Santa Fe Weekly Gazette, September 22, 1855, page 2.

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

The Wind Leaves No Shadow: Book Review

The Wind Leaves No Shadow cover
by Ruth Laughlin
Caxton Printers, 1951
ISBN-13: 978-0870040832

Doña Tules Barceló was one of New Mexico’s most colorful 19th century characters, and The 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.

Two Robidoux Brothers Become Mexican Citizens

On Friday, July 17, 1829, Antoine and Louis Robidoux of Missouri became naturalized citizens of Mexico, thus beginning a long and somewhat fruitful association.

Antoine and Louis were two of six brothers, all of them involved in one aspect or another of the Rocky Mountain fur trade. Becoming Mexican citizens made good business sense, because trapping licenses for non-citizens were at times non-existent.

Antoine, who was 35 years old in 1829, had been in New Mexico since 1822. He’d spent the previous two years trapping and trading with the Sioux and his application for citizenship may have been prompted by the fact that he’d married a New Mexican woman in 1828 and it was time to settle down. Or he may have wanted to get involved in local politics. Antoine’s citizenship made him eligible to be elected 1st alcalde and regidor (councilman) of Santa Fe in late 1830 and three years later to serve as 3rd alcalde of Santa Fe and a member of the Santa Fe Commission for forming election districts.

 

He was also busy making money. During the 1830s, Antoine purchased a mine in the Santa Fe area. He also built Fort Uinta (aka Fort Robidoux) and Fort Uncompahgre in what is now Colorado and used them as a base for trade with the Indians and the trappers in the area.

July 17 illustration.Antoine-Robidoux inscription

However, in 1844, both forts were attacked by Utes and a number of men were killed and women captured. These events seem to have curbed Antoine’s enthusiasm for the frontier life. He left for Missouri shortly thereafter.

But he came back. Eschewing his Mexican citizenship, Antoine served with Col. Stephen Watts Kearny as an interpreter during the 1846 U.S. advance on New Mexico and remained with him during the California campaign which followed. After the war, Antoine returned to Missouri, where he died in 1860.

Louis Robidoux, on the other hand, seems to have remained loyal to his Mexican citizenship. Much of his early career mirrored Antoine’s. He arrived in New Mexico about the same time (probably 1823), married a New Mexican woman (Guadalupe Garcia in 1834), and participated in Santa Fe politics, where he served as first alcalde in 1839. He also participated in various moneymaking schemes, including operating a grist mill and iron works in Santa Fe.

July 17 illustration.Louis Robidoux

And he also left New Mexico. But instead of heading back to Missouri, Louis went to California, a move reportedly bankrolled by a $30,000 win in a Santa Fe card game. He arrived in California with a group of Mexican traders in 1843 and remained there until his death in 1868.

He settled in what would become San Bernardino County, where he set up a large livestock operation and planted orchards, wine vineyards, and a grist mill. He was also involved in politics, becoming the first San Bernardino County Supervisor. The City of Rubidoux, the Louis Robidoux Library, various streets, and Mount Rubidoux are all named after him.

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.

The Lizard as Hero: Book Review

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.

Kings Lizard cover

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.

Dead Lizards Dance cover

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 Kill appears to be the end of the road for Nando’s work for Anza, because the Governor’s term of office has ended.

Lizards Kill cover

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 christiepr@gmail.com.