By early Summer 1837, tales were spreading across New Mexico about the taxes the Mexican Congress had recently imposed, and getting taller as they went. Rumor had it that collectors would be confiscating one-third of the fruits of individual families’ labor—crops and chickens alike—and also levying charges on community-held water, wood, and pastures. There were even stories that men would have to pay a fee every time they lay with their wives.
Although New Mexicans paid municipal tariffs, they’d hadn’t paid the alcabala, or Federal sales tax, for most of the time since 1795. They’d been exempted in exchange for their role on Mexico’s northern frontier, providing a buffer for the interior against the United States as well as uncolonized Native tribes.
This tax exemption was due to expire in mid-1837. In addition, Congress had added a 12.5 cent per vara tariff on U.S. goods like plain-weave cotton (white or printed), and banned the import of shirting, calico, and other cloth. While the law seems to have been intended to protect Mexican production of these items, it was also likely to raise their cost.
So prices were going to go up. This in itself was upsetting. In addition, Mexico City had given Governor Pérez the authority to supervise tax collections. This was perhaps more worrisome. While New Mexico didn’t send tax revenues to Mexico City, it didn’t receive assistance from it, either. The Santa Fe administration was funded via levies on goods imported from the U.S. over the Santa Fe Trail. With imports being curtailed, government funds were going to have to come from somewhere else.
Since he’d arrived in Santa Fe two years before, the governor had demonstrated a talent for finding new sources of revenue, including enforced loans from rico families and, in 1836, a sweeping set of new fees that affected everyone else. While some taxes, such as the two dollars per vehicle carrying foreign merchandise and additional charges for the animals pulling them, were directed at American traders, those costs were still going to be passed on to consumers.
On top of this, Santa Fe residents now had to pay five dollars a month for the right to cut timber for lumber, twenty-five cents a head for cattle or sheep driven through the city, two dollars per performance for “entertainments” (presumably plays), and fifty cents for a dance license.
So people were already hurting. With the governor’s new authority to supervise collections, there was little chance to get around the coming taxes. There’d be no appeals to friendship, cousinship, or any other kind of interpersonal relation to ease the financial burden that was about to descend.
And then rumors about even more taxes began moving up and down the Río Grande Valley. Governor Pérez apparently made no effort to squash the more exaggerated claims or to let people know he’d asked Mexico City to renew the alcabala exemption. As the stories grew wilder and spread further, they ignited a fire that would cost Perez his life in early August 1837.
For more about what happened in New Mexico before, during, and after August 1837, check out my novel There Will Be Consequences. It’s available from your favorite brick-and-mortar store, Bookshop.org, ebook retailer, Amazon, and Barnes and Noble.
Sources: Paul Horgan, Great River: The Rio Grande in North American History, Middleton: Wesleyan University Press, 1984; Janet Lecompte, Rebellion in Río Arriba 1837, Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1985; Benjamin M. Read, Illustrated History of New Mexico, Santa Fe: New Mexican Printing Company, 1912; Joseph P. Sanchez, “It happened in Old Santa Fe, The Death of Governor Albino Pérez, 1835-1837,” All Trails Lead to Santa Fe, Santa Fe: Sunstone Press, 2010; Marc Simmons, Spanish Government in New Mexico, Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1968; Ralph E. Twitchell, The Leading Facts of New Mexico History, Vol. 2, Cedar Rapids: Torch Press, 1912.