James Kirker’s Lust for Adventure

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When the Mexican officials got wind of Kirker’s activities, Governor Perez rescinded his license, ordered him arrested, and placed a $800 bounty on his head.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.

July 5 illustration.JamesKirker1847.mohistory.org
James Kirker. Source: Missouri History Society

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

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Governor Bent Misreads New Mexico

On Thursday, January 14, 1847, Charles Bent, New Mexico’s first American governor, left Santa Fe for his home in Taos. A few weeks earlier, Bent had nipped an uprising against his new administration in the bud. He was confident that the U.S. occupation of New Mexico was now secure enough to allow him a visit with his family in Taos. He took with him Narciso Beaubien, the 14-year-old son of newly-appointed American judge Carlos Beaubien, who had recently returned from school in Missouri.

By Sunday, January 17, Charles Bent, Narciso Beaubien, and at least ten others would be dead as the result of an uprising Bent had failed to foresee. In December, he’d thrown men of wealth and position into prison. He believed this was all he needed to do to stamp out any real opposition to the U.S. takeover of New Mexico.

He would discover how wrong he was as he lay dying at the hands of the unimportant people he had discounted, people who may have been striking out at New Mexico’s class system as much as the American occupiers. Bent and the other men killed that week in January were all linked in some way to the U.S. occupation or were believed to have taken advantage of their status as Americans, even if they were originally from another country. And they were all ricos—men of wealth and connections.

Jan 14 illustration.Charles Bent

While the fourteen-year-old Narciso Beaubien was the son of a rico, as a schoolboy, he hadn’t played a role in the American invasion, or even been in New Mexico when the takeover occurred. Why he was slain in mid-January 1847 remains a mystery. Did he die simply because he was Charles Beaubien’s son?

Sources: Marc Simmons, Kit Carson, And His Three Wives, University of New Mexico Press, Albuquerque, 2003; David J. Weber, The Taos Trappers, University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, 1971; Lewis H. Garrard, Wah-to-yah and the Taos Trail, University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, 1955.

Ewing Young, On The Move Again

On Sunday, January 1, 1832, Tennessee-born Ewing Young was once again on the move. Young had arrived in New Mexico in 1822. In the following ten years, he’d trapped the San Juan, Gila, and Salt Rivers, as well as the Colorado as far as the Grand Canyon. That was during the trapping season. The rest of the year, he kept busy hauling goods from Missouri over the Santa Fe Trail and selling them in Taos and Santa Fe.

Apparently all this activity wasn’t enough for Young. In 1831, he was looking for further adventure and profit. He recruited thirty-six other trappers** and headed farther afield. Young had a Mexican passport that allowed his party to travel to Chihuahua. But he and his men made no attempt to even look like they were headed south from Taos. Instead, they moved almost straight west to the Zuni villages.

There they traded for supplies, then moved across country to the headwaters of the Black River, in what is now eastern Arizona, and down it to the Salt. From the upper Salt, they crossed to the Gila River, then trapped the Gila to its junction with the Colorado. This is where they landed on the first day of 1832.

Jan 1 illustration.Young, Ewing.young man
Ewing Young as a young man

The group’s beaver catch hadn’t been very good. They were apparently all using the same traps, ones with a defect that allowed the beaver to escape from the sprung device. Young must have thought he’d solved the problem with the traps, because he made one last effort to gather plews by trapping down the Colorado to tidewater. When that didn’t work either, the larger group split up and Young and twelve men headed to California.

California had been Young’s destination all along. His business partner David Jackson was already there, trying to gather enough horses and mules to make it worthwhile to drive them east to the New Orleans markets. But by the time Young arrived in California, Jackson had only been able to collect about a quarter of the animals they needed.

The men with Young scattered at this point, some of them remaining in California and others returning to New Mexico and points East. Young himself stayed to hunt sea otter, and eventually settled on the West Coast. He’d wandered over a decade before he landed there.

Sometimes it takes a while for a man to settle down.

 

**Young’s band of trappers included Job F. Dye, Sidney Cooper, Moses Carson, Benjamin Day, Isaac Sparks, Joseph Gale, Joseph Dofit, John Higans, Isaac Williams, James Green, Cambridge Green, James Anderson, Thomas Low, Julian Bargas, Jose Teforia, John Price, J.J. Warner, and William Day.

Sources: Robert Glass Cleland This Reckless Breed of Men, Knopf, 1950; Leroy R. Hafen, editor, Fur Trappers and Traders of the Far Southwest, Utah State University Press, 1997;  Leroy R. Hafen, editor, Mountain Men and the Fur Trade of the Far West, Vol. I, Arthur  H. Clark, Spokane, 2000.

 

Soldier Arrested for Enlisting

On Saturday, December 21, 1861, a worker from Red River (aka the Rio Colorado) named George Montoya, enlisted in the New Mexico militia to fight the Confederate Texas invaders.

However, Montoya had a problem. He had a financial obligation to a rico in the Rio Colorado area. His master didn’t want Montoya to leave the area, so he persuaded the County judge to arrest him for enlisting. As a result, Montoya traded his military quarters for the county jail, in spite of the fact that Colonel Edward R. S. Canby, commander of New Mexico’s Union troops, had recently issued an order that required the masters of peóns who’d enlisted to file a writ of habeas corpus and petition the Territorial Court to have their workers returned. An order from a local judge wasn’t enough to recover their loss.

It’s not clear what happened in this particular case. However, records for the First New Mexico infantry show that two years later, on November 29, 1863, a twenty-five-year-old man named George Montoya was enrolled at Taos as a private. Montoya served as part of a wagon train escort to Tucson, Arizona in 1864 and 1865 and was still in the military in December 1865. It seems likely that this is the same person who was imprisoned for volunteering in 1861.

One can only hope that if he returned to the Taos area, Montoya’s military service gave him the means to address any outstanding financial obligations and enabled him to get on with his life without the specter of jail hanging over him.

Source: Jerry D. Thompson, A Civil War History of the New Mexico Volunteers and Militia, UNM Press: Albuquerque, 2015.

Santa Fe Trail Survey Reaches Point of Rocks

On  Wednesday, October 19, 1825, George Champlin Sibley’s Santa Fe Trail Survey expedition arrived at Point of Rocks, New Mexico. But they didn’t head to Santa Fe.

Sibley was one of three Commissioners named to head up the United State’s survey of the road between Missouri and Santa Fe that had been inaugurated by William Becknell four years earlier. The survey had two purposes: 1. to facilitate trade with Mexico and 2. to negotiate with the Native American tribes along the Trail for safe passage for future travelers.

George Sibley was the only Commissioner to cross the international boundary into New Mexico. However, when he arrived at Point of Rocks, he didn’t continue south along the Trail to Santa Fe. Instead, arguing that it was too late in the year to travel safely to the capitol, Sibley headed west across the Sangre de Cristos to Taos, where his business associate Paul Baillio was located.

Oct 19 illustration.Sibley photo.Source Noble.272.cropped

Sibley spent the winter of 1825/26 in Taos, where he completed the map of the American portion of the Trail and waited for permission to complete the Mexican portion. Although there’s no evidence he ever travelled the portion between Point of Rocks and Santa Fe, he felt confident enough of that section to note that there was no need to make physical alterations it, since “the open nature of the country” enabled wagon to pass “without the least difficulty … with no other labor than removing a few logs, poles, etc.” (Gregg, 201).

In any event, in 1827, Sibley completed his work and returned to Missouri in 1827, where he and his wife established the Linden Wood School for Girls, which would later become the Linden Wood College, and is today Lindenwood University. In Missouri, he is probably best known for this school. In New Mexico, his name is still more closely associated with the survey of the Santa Fe Trail and the mystery of why he didn’t actually travel the full length of the Trail.

Sources: Kate L. Gregg, ed., The Road to Santa Fe, the journal and diaries of George Champlin Sibley, UNM Press, Albuquerque, 1995; Leroy R. Hafen, ed., Fur Traders and Trappers of the Far Southwest, Logan: Utah State UP, 1997; Daniel J. Weber, The Taos Trappers, Norman: U of Oklahoma P, 1971

Two American Governors for New Mexico

On Tuesday, Sept. 22, 1846, just over a month after Brigadier General Stephen Watts Kearny seized New Mexico for the United States, he appointed Virginia-born Taos businessman Charles Bent as New Mexico’s first American civil governor. When Kearny and the majority of his 1700-man force headed on to California to participate in acquiring it as well, Colonel Sterling Price, as senior U.S. Army officer in New Mexico, became its military governor.

Sept 22 illustration.Bent

Bent had been in Nuevomexico since 1829, first as a fur trapper, then as a Santa Fe trail trader based in Taos. He occupied his post as Governor less than four months. In mid-January 1847, he died at the hands of a New Mexican mob protesting the American occupation.

Two-and-a-half weeks later, Colonel Price, supported heavily by American businessmen and trappers in New Mexico, crushed that rebellion and assured that New Mexico would remain part of the United States.

Sept 22 illustration.Price

Ironically, Price’s own career would include participation in an even larger rebellion against the nation he had helped to force on New Mexico. Following a term as Governor of Missouri, he joined the Confederate Army, rising to the level of General. He died on September 29, 1867, almost exactly 21 years after he took over as military governor of New Mexico.

Sources: Leroy R. Hafen, Ed., Fur Trappers and Traders of the Far Southwest,  Logan: Utah State UP, 1977; Marc Simmons, New Mexico, an interpretive history, Albuquerque, UNM Press, 1988

No Rain In Taos

On Sunday, July 31, 1825, Taos-based physician Rowland Willard had been in Taos since July 2 and the village had received no rain in the past month. The doctor was disappointed.

The New York born Willard had apparently expected to find not only rain but a prosperous community that could afford American fees and make him rich. He was destined to be disappointed on both counts.

July 31 illustration
Source: Over the Santa Fe Trail to Mexico, Julie L. Poole, ed.

Although Doctor Willard had a number of clients in Taos and as far south as Santa Cruz de la Canada, payment for services in the 1820s tended to be in goods rather than in cash. By September, it was clear that Taos was not the land of opportunity he had sought. On September 15, he headed south, to try his luck in Chihuahua.

The move paid off. Willard developed a successful practice in Chihuahua and remained there for the next two years, where he invested in the Santa Rita copper mines as well as his medical practice.

In 1828 Willard decided to return to the United States. To be eligible to leave the country, Mexican law required a 2% duty payment. The good Doctor paid $80 on the $4000 he declared, but actually left Mexico with $7000 in cash and his “outfit.”

Clearly, trappers were not the only Americans who believed they didn’t need to comply with Mexico’s duty laws.

Source: Julie L. Poole ed., Over The Santa Fe Trail To Mexico, The Travel Diaries And Autobiography Of Dr. Rowland Willard, University of Oklahoma Press, Norman 2015