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   Chapter 14 SANTA FE

The War With Mexico, Volume I (of 2) By Justin H. Smith Characters: 28683

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:03

June-September, 1846


Not only Tamaulipas and Chihuahua but New Mexico lay within the scope of the government's war policy, and certain features of the situation made the outlook in that quarter peculiarly inviting.

The province was cut into an eastern and a western section by the Rio Grande, which ran approximately north and south; and usage divided the best settled part of it into the Río Arriba (Upstream) district near Santa Fe, the capital, which lay some twenty miles east of the great river, and the Río Abajo (Downstream) district, which had for its metropolis Albuquerque, a small town on the Rio Grande about seventy-five miles to the southwest. According to a recent census the population was 100,000, of which the greater part belonged in the lower district; and more than half the wealth also was attributed to that section. The caravan trade, which made its way from Independence,[1] Missouri, to Santa Fe, Chihuahua, Lagos and even Mexico City, gilded the name of the province, for it had advanced rapidly from the humble beginnings of 1821, and now employed 1200 men, involved a capital of some two millions, and usually paid a net profit of thirty or forty per cent on the goods transported. The favorable climate believed to prevail in New Mexico was an additional source of interest.[2]

The political situation appeared singularly promising. In March, 1845, the war department of Mexico admitted publicly that the northern sections of the country were "abandoned and more than abandoned" by the general government. Sensible Mexicans held that the connection of the province with their miserable system involved injury instead of benefit. The people received no protection against the ravages of the Indians. The national troops were a constant menace to the citizens. If a man desired to give his note for $3000, he was compelled to pay eight dollars for stamped paper. The duties and extortions levied upon the caravan merchants increased the price of their goods; and of late the central government had been trying to deprive the provincial authorities of money and the people of comforts by stopping that business entirely.[2]

The citizens appeared weary of oppression. They would not pay the taxes. It was found necessary in 1845 to excuse them from one of the most profitable but most annoying imposts. Indifference toward the general government-a natural return for its neglect and its vexations-prevailed, and the continual changes in that government aggravated the lack of patriotism. Indeed, there was more than indifference. A move to follow the example of Texas had been made in 1837, and the idea of joining the United States, which had existed in that year, became so strong by the early months of 1846 that representatives of the province in the national Congress openly avowed it. Finally, a revolution against misgovernment, that had recently occurred in the neighboring state of Sonora, appeared to offer a strong hint.[2]

All power, civil and military, lay in the hands of Manuel Armijo, governor and comandante general; and that of itself was an ample ground for insurrection. Born of disreputable parents, this precious adventurer had achieved a career still more disreputable. A man of unusual energy, though now a mountain of flesh, he could assume at will an air of ingenuous affability; could threaten, bluster, brag, intrigue or coax; and when dressed up in his blue frock coat, with blue striped pantaloons, shoulder straps, a red sash, and plenty of gold lace, could look-although at heart only a cunning and cowardly robber-quite impressive. His personal habits were said to be grossly immoral; his only principle was to succeed; and his type of mind, shrewd though low, was indicated by one of his favorite sayings, "It is better to be thought brave than to be so." Such force, cleverness and lack of scruple had naturally made him rich. His family now owned Albuquerque and the neighboring estates. His position and close relations with the priests gave him a firm hold on the ecclesiastical arm; it was believed that an understanding with the savages enabled him to use them against his enemies; and he engaged rather deeply in the American trade. Yet his ambition was not yet satisfied; and he entertained the idea, it would seem, of making the province an independent country.[2]

At St. Louis, Missouri, the New Mexican situation was doubtless fairly well understood, and a deep interest in the caravan business existed. The merchants, it was felt when the war became probable, deserved to be protected, and many urged the prompt despatch of an expedition for that purpose. Other arguments for such a step were, that it would forestall Indian troubles on the border, would incline the enemy-by laying open their weak side-to make terms, would encourage the people of New Mexico to rise in our favor, and would secure the key to Chihuahua and California; and in all probability influential men brought these ideas to the President's notice.[4]

The occupation of Santa Fe was in fact decided upon as one of the very earliest war measures-primarily for the sake of the traders, but also with a view to the permanent retention of the province. The move was intended to be pacific, however. Polk doubtless expected that no serious opposition, if any at all, would be offered by the people; and there seem to have been hopes that Chihuahua and her sister states could be persuaded by arguments backed with force to let the caravan trade go on despite the war. In that case the burdensome duties imposed at Santa Fe would no longer have had to be paid, and the discrimination in favor of Mexican competitors, that had prevailed there, would have ceased. On May 13, therefore, the governor of Missouri was directed to raise eight companies of mounted troops and two of light artillery for an expedition to New Mexico, and Colonel S. W. Kearny of the First Dragoons was directed to command them.[4]

So fine an opportunity for adventure appealed instantly to the bold, hardy and energetic young fellows of Missouri, and as early as June 6 volunteers were hurrying into the service at Fort Leavenworth-a square of wooden buildings, with a blockhouse at each corner and a plot of grass in the middle-which crowned a high bluff on the Missouri River about 312 miles from St. Louis; and about 1660 troops were soon assembled at that point. Of Kearny's dragoons there were some 300. The First Regiment of Missouri Mounted Volunteers-which chose Alexander W. Doniphan as colonel-numbered about 860. The artillery, including nearly 250 men, consisted of "Battery A" of St. Louis under Captain Weightman and a company under Captain Fischer, a graduate of the Prussian artillery service, and formed a battalion commanded by Major M. L. Clark, a West Pointer.[3] There were also two small companies of volunteer infantry, a St. Louis mounted body of about one hundred called the Laclede Rangers, which Kearny attached to his regulars, about fifty Delaware and Shawnee Indians, and finally, though by no means last in importance, a Roman Catholic priest familiar with the Spanish language.[4]



Without lingering to complete the outfit, Kearny sent the command off by sections. June 5 a detachment of the dragoons advanced. By the twenty-eighth all of Doniphan's regiment were on the march for Santa Fe and-none of them cared how much farther; and two days later Weightman's fine brass cannon, gleaming radiantly in the bright sunshine, wheeled into the trail. For several days the troops had to break their way through a rough country, but about fifteen miles south of the Kansas River they struck the Santa Fe road, a broad, well marked, natural highway running toward the southwest.[6]

Council Grove, the famous rendezvous of Indians and frontiersmen, was the last place from which a single person could safely return; and now for nearly four weeks not one "stick of timber" was to cheer the eye. After pressing on in the same direction to the Arkansas, the troops left the main trail, marched wearily along the northern bank of the river-ascending about seven feet in each mile-till they were beyond the great bend, and finally, crossing the shallow stream, turned their faces toward Bent's Fort, a protected trading post, which stood near the present site of Las Animas, Colorado, about 650 miles from Fort Leavenworth. Belts had been tightened over and over again by this time. Drinking water that no horse would touch had sickened many a tough rider. Mosquitos and buffalo gnats had tormented the flesh day and night. Faces had been scorched by siroccos, and tongues had swollen with thirst. Many had become so tired that a rattlesnake in the blanket seemed hardly worth minding, and so utterly wretched that in blind fury they sometimes raved and cursed like maniacs. Out of one hundred fine horses belonging to Battery A sixty had perished. Yet in places there had been cool breezes, carpets of brilliant and spicy flowers, great herds of buffalo, curious mirages, and inspiring glimpses of Pike's Peak, the towering outpost of the Rockies.[6]

At length on July 29 Kearny escorted by Doniphan's regiment gained the rendezvous, a grassy meadow on the Arkansas about nine miles below the Fort. There within a few days the Army of the West assembled,[5] and two additional companies of the dragoons, which had made an average of twenty-eight miles a day from Fort Leavenworth, joined their regiment. Nor were the troops alone. Several merchants had left Independence about the first of May. Notified by order of the government that war had begun, they had stopped here; and the Colonel found under his protection more than four hundred wagons and merchandise worth upwards of a million.[6]

Armijo, for his part, had received ample warnings. In March the central government informed him that war might be expected, and authorized him to make preparations for defence. By June 17 news of the coming invasion reached Santa Fe, and nine days later the first caravan of the season confirmed it. Manuel Alvarez, the American consul, endeavored now to persuade Armijo that it would "be better for himself and the people under his government to capitulate, and far preferable" to become Americans than to be citizens of a country so disordered and so impotent as Mexico; but while his advisers and subordinates fancied they could obtain offices under an elective system, and "were rather easily won over," the governor himself probably could not believe that people so long robbed and oppressed would choose the wolf as their shepherd. Besides, he doubtless had some national spirit and some desire to justify his gratuitous title of general. After confirming the news further by a spy, he sent south on July 1 an appeal for aid-representing the Americans as 6000 in number-and began to prepare for defence. A letter from Ugarte, the comandante general of Chihuahua, stating that he could set out on a moment's notice with five hundred cavalry and as many infantry, seemed encouraging, and no doubt Armijo was aware that Durango, too, had been ordered by the authorities at Mexico to aid him.[7]

Meanwhile reinforcements for Kearny were gathering in his rear. On the third of June Marcy informed the governor of Missouri that if Sterling Price, then a member of the Missouri legislature, and certain other citizens of the state would raise and organize a thousand mounted men-that is to say, a regiment and a battalion-to follow Kearny promptly, they would be appointed to the chief commands. This method of getting troops aroused considerable opposition among the people, for it ignored the militia system and the aspirations of the militia officers, and many felt that a politician like Price was unfit for the command; but young men were ready to volunteer under any sort of conditions that promised a chance to reach the front, and about the time Kearny left Fort Bent this new force, including artillery under regular officers, was mustered into the service at Fort Leavenworth.[8]

At the same time steps were taken to obtain reinforcements of a totally different character. A large number of Mormons, recently driven from Nauvoo, Illinois, had gathered at Council Bluffs, and were planning to settle in California. It was important that feelings of hostility toward this country should not prevail among them, and apparently their assistance, not only on the coast but in New Mexico, might be valuable. Kearny was therefore authorized to accept a body of these emigrants not larger than a quarter of his entire force, and about five hundred of them were enlisted in June and taken to Fort Leavenworth by Captain Allen of the First Dragoons. Allen soon died, but under Lieutenant Smith of the same regiment this party marched for Santa Fe.[8]

On July 31 Kearny issued a proclamation, which declared that he was going to New Mexico "for the purpose of seeking union with, and ameliorating the condition of its inhabitants," urged them to follow their usual vocations, and promised that all who should pursue this course would be protected in their civil and religious rights; and the next day he addressed Armijo in the same strain, telling him that resistance would not only be in vain, but would cause the people to suffer, and adding that submission would be greatly for his interest and for theirs.[9] Captain Cooke of the dragoons was made the bearer of this communication, and with an escort of twelve picked men he went forward under a white flag.[16]

August 1 the "long-legged infantry," who were almost able to outmarch the cavalry, left the rendezvous, and on the following day the so-called army was all in motion. After crossing the Arkansas a little way above the Fort, it soon turned off to the southwest, and followed in general the line of the present Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad. Before long the troops found on the right a high range of mountains, thrusting up twin peaks into the region of perpetual snow, while the gleaming wall of the far Rockies came every day nearer; and on the left gazed over wide plains-broken with ridge, plateau or butte-which stretched away toward the east, until one could not say where earth and sky met. Near the present

boundary of New Mexico began the ascent of Raton Pass; and the men, winding up the rugged valley, discovered most beautiful flowers. But they were hardly in a condition to enjoy them, for the rations-cut down one half or more-consisted of flour stirred up in water, fried, and eaten with a little pork; and the implacable Kearny, an embodiment of energy and resolution, hurried them along by marches that were almost incredibly hard. What lay ahead nobody knew. It was not even certain that the present scanty rations would hold out. But the watchword was always, Forward; and even the magnificent views at the summit of the Pass, where Raton Mountain upreared a series of castellated pinnacles somewhat like those of the Ichang gorge on the upper Yangtse River, attracted but little attention.[16]


August 15, at the new and unimportant village of Las Vegas began Kearny's political work. From the flat roof of a house the General-for his commission as brigadier general had now overtaken him-said to the people substantially this: "For some time the United States has considered your country a part of our territory, and we have come to take possession of it. We are among you as friends-not as enemies; as protectors-not as conquerors; for your benefit-not your injury. I absolve you from all allegiance to the Mexican government and to Armijo.[10] They have not defended you against the Indians, but the United States will. All who remain peaceably at home shall be safeguarded in person and in property. Their religion also shall be protected. A third of my army are Roman Catholics. I was not brought up in that faith myself, yet I respect your creed, and so does my government. But listen! If any one promises to be quiet and is found in arms against me, I will hang him. Resistance would be useless. There are my soldiers, and many more are coming. You, then, who are in office will now take the oath of allegiance to the United States, and I will support your authority."[16]

Tecolote also, at the bottom of the valley, witnessed a scene of this kind; and the next day, crossing the swift Pecos, Kearny followed a similar course at the red adobe town of San Miguel. Here the alcalde said he would rather wait until after the capture of Santa Fe. "It is enough for you to know, Sir, that I have captured your town," was the stern reply. Doubtless, in their muddled way, the people wondered at this first illustration of liberty; but with characteristic politeness, timidity and guile they wrinkled their faces as if pleased. In spite of orders and sentinels the fields of waving corn, full of ears just prime for roasting, suffered a little; but Kearny paid for the damage, and that at least was appreciated.[16]

By this time officers sent forward to learn the state of public sentiment at the city of Taos, an important seat of the Pueblo Indians, and at Santa Fe had returned with unwelcome reports, and several American residents had brought warnings of danger. The activity of Mexican spies-kindly treated when captured, and in some cases released at once with friendly messages-proved that Armijo was alert; and on August 14 his reply to the note sent by Cooke, while proposing that Kearny halt and that negotiations be opened, informed the General that the people were rising en masse to defend the province, and that Armijo would place himself at their head.[11] Fifteen hundred dragoons had reached or were near Santa Fe, it was reported; and at a natural gateway, cutting a ridge about four hundred feet high, a hostile force was said to be waiting. On hearing this news all the weary men and their drooping steeds came to life. The banners and guidons were unfurled. "To horse!" blared the trumpets; "Trot! Gallop! Charge!" And with sabres glittering under a brilliant sun the troopers dashed round a sharp turn into the pass, while the artillery thundered after them, and the infantry scrambled over the ridge. Not an enemy was found; but the reports agreed that Apache Canyon, some distance farther on, would be stiffly and strongly defended.[16]

This was extremely serious news. To march nearly 2000 soldiers eight or nine hundred miles through a wilderness involved fearful risks, and the expedition was now at the breaking point. The men had become travel-worn and half-starved; many, if not all, were suffering from the effects of the water, loaded with acrid salts, which they had been drinking; the horses generally were on their last legs; and hundreds of horses and mules actually could not march another day. It had already been necessary to attach cattle to the ammunition wagons, and the cannon were now dragged along with extreme difficulty. The provisions had practically been exhausted. And here lay a defile seven or eight miles long, guarded by several thousand militia, a force of regulars and considerable artillery.[16]


As these facts indicate, the New Mexicans did not seem willing to justify Polk's expectations. Whatever Armijo's own opinions, public sentiment appeared to demand action. There existed a good deal of warlike spirit in the province, and naturally the prospect of an armed invasion excited resentment. The ignorant and suspicious people were easily persuaded, after their hard experience under Mexican rule, that the Americans were coming to take their property; and the priests added, that besides abusing the women these ruffians would brand them on the cheek as mules were branded. August 8 the governor therefore issued a proclamation, summoning the people to take up arms in the cause of "sacred independence"; the prefect of Taos and presumably other local authorities followed his example; and several thousand of the people,[12] Mexicans or Indians, many of them armed only with bows and arrows, clubs or lariats, but all apparently eager to fight, were placed at Apache Canyon under Colonel Manuel Pino.[16]

At this juncture, however, Cooke, a Chihuahua merchant named González and one James Magoffin, a jovial and rich Kentucky Irishman, prominent in the caravan trade and long a resident of Chihuahua, arrived at Santa Fe. Magoffin had been introduced by Senator Benton to Polk, and after some talk had consented to act as a sort of informal commissioner to Armijo in the interest of peaceful relations. He now argued, according to the very reasonable statement of the governor, that American rule would enhance the price of real estate and make New Mexico prosperous.[13] Undoubtedly he dwelt upon the impossibility of successful resistance; and probably he suggested-though Armijo's avarice required no hint on this point-that should cordial feelings prevail, the duties on the approaching merchandise, a fortune in themselves, would be paid at the Santa Fe customhouse, where the governor could handle them.[16]

On the other hand, no aid was coming from the south. The 1500 dragoons were not even phantasmal. Ugarte's cheering statement that he could bring 1000 men to New Mexico had no doubt been intended, and no doubt was understood, as mere stimulation. According to the latest returns, New Mexico, Chihuahua, Durango and Zacatecas together had less than 2000 poorly equipped and poorly subsisted troops, the greater part of whom were the scattered and almost worthless Presidials. The general government, when officially notified of the coming invasion, merely issued a few nugatory orders and expressed "profound regret." The people's loyalty to the government and especially to the governor appeared uncertain. Armijo understood that he was not a general, and no doubt understood also that he was a coward; and for all these reasons he decided-though wavering to the end-that hostilities were to be avoided, should that be possible. Diego Archuleta also, one of the chief military officers, was approached by Magoffin, and under genial manipulation proved to be much less bloodthirsty than had been supposed. Consul Alvarez, it will be recalled, had previously found the subordinate officials tractable, and it may safely be supposed in general that very little desire to fight the Americans existed in the governor's entourage.[16]

Pino seems to have felt differently, however, and when Armijo was on the road to the canyon, August 16, with two or three hundred soldiers and about eight guns, he received a message from that officer threatening to come and fetch him, if he did not join the militia. This augured ill, and the augury proved correct. The people demanded to be led against the enemy, but Armijo said the Americans were too strong. Pino offered to attack if he could have a part of the regulars, but the governor was determined to keep them all for his own protection. Then he was called a traitor, and retaliated by calling the people disloyal and cowardly. They threatened him; and he, more afraid of his own army than of Kearny's, urged the militia to go home and let the regulars do the fighting. Threatened again, he forbade the people to come near his camp; and finally he turned his cannon in their direction.[16]

In reality the people themselves had no great hunger for battle. Besides detesting Armijo, they were doubtless influenced by much lurking anti-Mexican or pro-American sentiment; had probably learned to question the diabolical intentions attributed to Kearny's troops; were fully aware in a general way of American superiority; and felt deeply impressed by tales about the great number of the invaders, their long train, their many guns, their enormous horses and the terrible men themselves-an army, in short, such as they had never dreamed of before. The quarrels of their leaders both disgusted and disheartened them; and they began to think, too, of their lives, families and property. August 17, therefore, they broke up, and went every man his own way. A council of the regular officers favored retreat. The Presidials deserted or were dismissed; the cannon were spiked and left in the woods; and in about two weeks Armijo-though offered personal security and freedom at Santa Fe-turned up at Chihuahua with ninety dragoons. He had proved not exactly a traitor, perhaps;[14] but certainly not a patriot, and still more certainly, if that was possible, not a hero.[16]


The result was that on August 17 a fat alcalde rode up to Kearny on his mule at full speed, and with a roar of laughter cried, "Armijo and his troops have gone to hell and the Canyon is all clear." The news was confirmed; and early the next day, instead of turning the pass by a difficult and circuitous route, of which the General had learned, the Americans advanced boldly, though still with caution, on their last hard march-twenty-eight miles to Santa Fe. Just beyond the defile, at a position that might easily have been made impregnable, were found light breastworks, a sort of abatis, a spiked cannon, and tracks which guided some of Clark's men to the rest of Armijo's ordnance. At three o'clock, after receiving a note of welcome from Vigil, the acting governor, General Kearny, riding at the head of the troops, came in sight of the town. Neither man nor beast had been allowed to stop for food that day, and the column dragged heavily; but the rear was up three hours later, and then, leaving the artillery on a commanding hill, the rest of the troops eagerly entered Santa Fe.[16]

Alas, the Mecca of so many dreams and hopes was promptly rechristened "Mud Town," for it proved to be only a straggling collection of adobe hovels lying in the flat sandy valley of a mountain stream, where a main line of the Rockies came to an end amidst a gray-brown, dry and barren country.[15] Even the palace, a long one-story adobe building, had no floor; and after partaking of refreshments, addressing the people in his usual tone of mingled courtesy and firmness, and listening to the salute of thirteen guns which greeted the raising of the Stars and Stripes, Kearny had to sleep on its carpeted ground, while most of the troops, too exhausted to eat, camped on the hill.[16]


The next day Kearny delivered a more formal address, but the style of his remarks was the same as before; and his kindly, simple, determined manner produced an excellent impression. Thundering vivas answered him; and then Vigil, basing his remarks on the conviction that "no one in the world has resisted successfully the power of the stronger," expressed a joyless yet hopeful acceptance of the situation. We now belong to a great and powerful nation, he said, and we are assured that a prosperous future awaits us. Such of the officials as desired to retain their places then took an oath of allegiance to the United States. The following day chiefs of the Pueblo Indians came in and submitted, and on the twenty-second Kearny issued a proclamation. This embodied the same assurances and warnings as the addresses, but it added that western as well as eastern New Mexico was to be occupied, that all the inhabitants were claimed as American citizens, and that a free government would be established as soon as possible.[17]

By this time a fort, named after Marcy, had begun to be visible on the hill. The site was not well adapted for a regular work; but as it commanded the town perfectly at a distance of about six hundred yards from the palace, and was not commanded by any eminence, it served the purpose admirably. One point, however, still caused anxiety. There seemed to be danger that the Río Abajo district, supported by troops from the south, might rise against the invaders; and reports came that pointed toward precisely such an event. Kearny went down the river, therefore, on September 2 with seven hundred men. But he found no enemy. The Americans were everywhere well received and entertained. Ugarte had indeed left El Paso del Norte for New Mexico on August 10, but his troops numbered only four hundred; they had little ammunition and no artillery; Armijo discouraged him by saying that 6000 Americans were on their way south; the prospect of marching eighteen days-a part of the time in a desert-was not inviting; and so the expedition went home. Kearny returned to Santa Fe on September 11, and about noon on the twenty-fifth he set out with his effective dragoons for California, dreaming of a new conquest.[17]

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