First Hispanic Named New Mexico Governor!

On Wednesday, June 2, 1897 President William McKinley appointed 37-year-old Miguel Antonio Otero II as Territorial Governor of New Mexico.

Otero’s appointment was the beginning of a new approach to politics in New Mexico, one not dominated by the Santa Fe Ring. Although “Gilly,” as he was known to his friends, had been close to Thomas Catron, the Ring’s head, he now began cultivating a younger generation of men, Democrats and Republicans alike. Together, they formed what would become known as the Otero wing of New Mexico’s Republican Party and would align themselves with progressives such as Theodore Roosevelt of New York.

Perhaps because of his progressive views and his past work recruiting New Mexicans for Roosevelt’s Rough Rider regiment, Otero was reappointed Governor in 1902. He served until January 22, 1906, a total of eight years and seven months in office. This made him the longest-serving New Mexico territorial governor and a one of only nine men who, between 1787 and 1912, served as a U.S. territorial governor for eight or more years. Just five served longer than Otero.

June 2 illustration.Miguel Otero

More importantly for New Mexico, Otero was the first Hispanic Governor during the Territorial period. While Juan Bautista Vigil y Alarid acted as governor at the beginning of the 1846 U.S. occupation, New Mexico was still under military rule at that time. It would not be organized as a United States Territory until 1851.

During the Territorial Period (1851-1912), Miguel Otero II was New Mexico’s only Hispanic Governor. To this day, he is the only New Mexico governor—appointed or elected—with more than eight consecutive years of service. Although Bruce King (1971-1974, 1979-1982, 1991-1994) served more years than any other Governor, those terms were not consecutive.

Ironically, Otero, with his New Mexico roots, was not, however, the first New Mexican governor to be born here. That honor goes to Ezequiel Cabaza de Baca, the first Hispanic elected Governor after statehood. Although Otero’s father was born in Valencia County, Gillie Otero himself was born in St. Louis, Missouri.

Sources: Don Bullis, New Mexico, A Biographical Dictionary, 1540-1980, Volume 1. Rio Grande Books: Los Ranchos, 2007; David L. Caffey, Chasing the Santa Fe Ring. University of New Mexico press: Albuquerque, 2014; Thomas C. Donnelly, The Government of New Mexico. UNM Press: Albuquerque, 1953; David V. Holtby, Forty-Seventh Star, New Mexico’s struggle for statehood. University of Oklahoma press: Norman, 2012; Ralph E. Twitchell, The Leading Facts of New Mexican History, Vol. II. The Torch Press: Cedar Rapids. 1912

Taos’ Lake Influences National Legislation

On Tuesday, December 15, 1970, United States President Richard Nixon signed the bill that effectively returned Taos Pueblo’s sacred Blue Lake and the surrounding 48,000 acres of National Forest to the people of Taos Pueblo.

The pristine lake, which lies at the bottom of a glacier-carved depression in the Sangre de Cristo mountains east of Taos pueblo, is the Pueblo’s most sacred shrine and the site of some of its most important yearly rituals. Blue Lake and its watershed had been confiscated by President Theodore Roosevelt’s administration in June 1906 as part of the U.S. Forest Service process of creating Carson National Park.

Pueblo leaders took action almost immediately following Roosevelt’s actions, but met with resistance from Washington. Various attempts were made to accommodate the multiple potential uses for the lake and its watershed, but, because the area was national forest, it was subject to non-recreational uses like logging. In the early 1960’s, increased interest in logging the area created a renewed sense of urgency. The resulting pressure on Washington culminated in the legislation Nixon signed in late 1970, sixty-four years after Roosevelt’s signature.

While the return of Blue Lake was of major significance to the Taos Pueblo people, it also had a wider value, because the legislation set a legal precedent for the idea of Native American land ownership based on religious significance. The law also inspired the Indian Religious Freedoms Act of 1978. This act required the U.S. government to preserve and protect  American Indians’ inherent right to believe, express, and exercise their traditional religions. It also enabled access to religious sites and the use and possession of sacred objects. So, while the loss of Blue Lake for so many years was tragic, its return was a blessing that extended far beyond Taos Pueblo itself and is an event worth celebrating.
Sources:  William deBuys, Enchantment and Exploitation, UNM Press, Albuquerque, 1985; Rubén Sálaz Márquez, New Mexico: a brief multi-history, Cosmic House, Albuquerque, 1999; Corina A. Santisteven and Julia Moore, eds., Taos, a topical history, Museum of NM Press, Santa Fe, 2013; Marc Simmons, New Mexico, UNM Press, Albuquerque, 1993.