Glimpses of Santa Fe’s History
(Selections from Lynn Michelsohn’s book, Billy the Kid in Santa Fe)
The Origins of Santa Fe
First settled by Spanish Conquistadors around 1598—if you ignore the Native American population, which historians usually have—New Mexico entered history as the northernmost territory of Spain in the New World, the most isolated and backward of all its holdings.
The colony’s capital of Santa Fe, a meager cluster of adobe—that is, dried mud—buildings, populated mainly by failed adventurers and refugees from the Inquisition, stood surrounded by scattered but peaceful Pueblo villages. Attackers, in the form of nomadic Navajos, Apaches, and Utes, always posed a threat, however. The fledgling settlement maintained its only contact with other Europeans by mule-back or ox-cart over the Camino Real to Mexico City, 1200 miles to the south.
When Mexico won its independence from Spain in 1821, Nuevo Mexico became the most isolated and backward province of this new country. The year 1821 also marked the opening of the Santa Fe Trail. Now, regular contact with the growing United States could begin, as Franklin, Missouri, waited a mere 900 miles to the east.
Finally, following our 1848 war with Mexico, New Mexico Territory—still accessible mainly over the by-now-well-traveled Santa Fe Trail—took its place as an isolated and backward part of the United States. In this new American Territory, public education was unknown, English was a foreign language, and telegraph wires had yet to make an appearance.
Change came slowly. Billy the Kid himself witnessed the beginnings of New Mexico’s first real emergence from isolation when the railroad arrived in 1878. Still, most Americans continued to consider this part of the United States to be primitive and otherwise undesirable for years to come. Susan Wallace, wife of New Mexico Governor Lew Wallace, and clearly not a fan of the place, wrote in 1879, “We should have another war with Old Mexico to make her take back New Mexico.”
Santa Fe Plaza’s Bloody History
Colorful—often blood-red—stories of events on the Plaza dot Santa Fe history. A multi-beheading here of eight Spanish colonists for conspiring to murder an ex-governor in 1643 stands out as one of the bloodiest. According to Hispanic folklore, one of the severed heads completed reciting the Credo (“I believe in God the Father Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth, and in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord … ”) as it rolled along, before closing its lips forever.
Later, in 1675, Nuevo Mexico’s Spanish governor arrested forty-seven Pueblo religious leaders for practicing witchcraft. He hanged four of them, then brought the rest here to the Plaza for brutal whippings. Some said he should have hanged at least one more of them. That one, Po’pay from Ohkay Owingeh Pueblo thirty miles north of Santa Fe, went on to lead the Pueblo Revolt that killed at least four hundred Spanish colonists and twenty-one of their priests, successfully taking back New Mexico from the Spanish for twelve years.
Still later, in 1712, peg-legged colonist Diego de Valasco murdered Miguel Herrera on the Plaza during a heated argument. Herrera had started the argument by complaining about de Valasco’s livestock encroaching on his land. De Valasco ended it when Herrera moved on to impugning the sexual conduct of de Valasco’s wife. De Valasco fled to the nearby Parroquia where he remained for one full year, claiming sanctuary. When he finally emerged, the governor gave him a light sentence, reportedly because the colony desperately needed his master carpentry skills.
The Civil War in New Mexico
In late January of 1862, nearly a year into the fighting, Confederate soldiers from the state of Texas marched into New Mexico, a slave-holding Territory of somewhat divided sympathies. The invading forces of General Henry Hopkins Sibley, a magnificently mustachioed gentleman looking a lot like Mark Twain when photographed by Matthew Brady—but not to be confused with his more successful cousin, Union General Henry Hastings Sibley—quickly took over the town of Mesilla near New Mexico’s southern border.
The Texans then followed the old Camino Real up the Rio Grande toward Albuquerque. Along the way, they defeated Union troops at the Battle of Valverde on February 21st.
On March 2nd, General Sibley’s forces moved into Albuquerque without opposition. Continuing along the Camino Real, they reached Santa Fe on March 13th. The “Stars and Bars” soon flew over the Palace of the Governors while triumphant Texans rested and regained their strength—and enjoyed some of the lively diversions available in the “morally degrading” city.
General Sibley’s next objective was the major prize of Fort Union, to be followed by occupation of Colorado gold fields, and then control of those in California, valuable resources for the financially strapped young Confederacy.
Near the end of March 1862, the Confederate general sent his troops out of Santa Fe, north along the Santa Fe Trail toward Fort Union. About the same time, former Colorado lawyer, now United States Army Colonel John Slough, led his recently arrived Colorado Volunteers south out of Fort Union, headed for Santa Fe. The two forces met near Glorieta Pass.
General Sibley’s Confederate troops, actually led by Colonel William Scurry and Major Charles Pyrons—General Sibley was back in Santa Fe, “‘overcome’ by too generous a supply of wine and brandy from the Fonda bar”—defeated Colonel Slough’s Union forces on the battlefield. However, a small group of Union soldiers was able to destroy the Confederates’ supply train, depriving them of horses, mules, ammunition, and food. This forced their retreat, first to Santa Fe, then to Albuquerque, then on down the Rio Grande and back to Texas, where most New Mexicans thought—as some still think—that Texans belonged.
Colonel Slough’s defeat of General Sibley’s troops at the Battle of Glorieta Pass permanently wrested New Mexico—and potentially, the more important Colorado and California gold fields—from Confederate control. Some even rather grandly call this battle “The Gettysburg of the West” because of its significance as the turning point of the war in the Southwest.
Santa Fe in 1873
By 1873, Santa Fe was already an old city—if a municipality of 5,000 residents can be called a city, and as the largest settlement in the American Southwest at the time, it was. Flat-roofed adobe houses had stood on the site since at least the 1200s. Conquistadors, colonists, and traders had been making the several-month-long trek up the 1,500-mile Camino Real from Mexico City to the southwest corner of Santa Fe’s Plaza for more than 250 years.
“Latecomers” traveling ten weeks over the 900-mile Santa Fe Trail from Missouri had been arriving at the southeast corner of the same Plaza for the last fifty-two years. That trail had opened New Mexico and the Southwest to contact with “the States” and to settlement by the new immigrants flooding the East Coast. Wagon trains arrived in Santa Fe several times a week, sometimes several times a day in warmer seasons.
Still, even after centuries of settlement, Santa Fe remained a distant frontier. In 1873, those two routes converging on the Plaza, the Santa Fe Trail from the east and the Camino Real from the south, still constituted Santa Fe’s only physical connections with the far-off outside world. Anything residents couldn’t grow or manufacture themselves, they had to freight in by ox-cart, mule train, or stagecoach at great expense and effort.
In 1873, Santa Fe looked much the same as it had for most of its two and a half centuries. The newcomers found themselves in a place more like the original Villa Real de la Santa Fe than like the Santa Fe of today.
Americans often reacted negatively to New Mexico’s Territorial capital. Low adobe buildings surrounded the new arrivals in all directions as conversations and shouts in Spanish filled their ears. Eye-watering dust swirled along burro- and mule-crowded streets. How alien their new home must have seemed to the newcomers.
Santa Fe’s Plaza, just north of the Santa Fe River, stood at the city’s heart in 1873, as it had since the Villa’s founding in 1610. A settlement built almost entirely of sun-dried mud surrounded it. One- and two-story adobe buildings housed businesses and government operations around Santa Fe’s Plaza and a block or two in each direction along its feeder streets. Residential neighborhoods clustered tightly around this central area. One could reach the outer limits of this compact city by a fifteen-minute walk along any route leading out of the center of town.
Commerce thrived around Santa Fe’s Plaza in 1873. Here, at the end of the Santa Fe Trail, freighters unloaded huge piles of merchandise from gigantic wagons and carried their well-traveled goods into surrounding warehouses and mercantile stores. Drivers unhitched exhausted teams, leading them to stables down San Francisco Street along the end of the Camino Real, off the Plaza’s southwest corner.
Serape-clad firewood vendors urged scraggy burros piled high with pinion along narrow surrounding streets. One could see men and women lounging in front of their houses. There, in the shade of adobe walls or under covered portales, they escaped the intense heat and light of summer or the biting winds of winter as they visited and gossiped while enjoying their cigarritos made of dried cornhusks rolled around fine-cut tobacco.
Back on the Plaza, dark-haired Mexican women in colorful dresses and black shawls or lace mantillas strolled under the protective portales, admiring merchandise on display in large “show windows.” Businessmen, traders, ranchers, and frontiersmen gathered on corners to discuss politics or the weather.
Visitors couldn’t help but notice the somber tolling … bong … bong … bong and high-pitched clang-clanging of church bells that reverberated around the square. One early visitor complained that these bells, including five in La Parroquia alone, rang “all day long and half the night.”
The pervasive fragrance of pinion smoke always floated on Santa Fe’s breeze. At times, it even managed to mask the pungent odor of manure produced by all those burros, mules, horses, and oxen—not to mention the pigs and chickens roaming the streets. (Flora Spiegelberg certainly mentioned them a few years later in her vociferous complaints about filth created by free-ranging livestock.)
Although bright and lively in the daytime, the Plaza usually remained dark at night, like the rest of Santa Fe. If Billy or a family member passed through after sunset, the only light to guide their steps, other than the moon, came from open doors or windows or from the occasional lantern. To illuminate special celebrations, revelers lit small, square bonfires, the luminarias, on street corners and on flat roofs of its surrounding buildings.
The “Americanization” of Santa Fe
During the last third of the Nineteenth Century, immigrants to Santa Fe from “the States,” or places farther east, clamored to turn the old Hispanic capital into an“American” town,
Catholic Bishop Lamy and the editor of the Daily New Mexican spoke out regularly about their dislike of Santa Fe’s “primitive” architecture and the “primitive” ways of its native Hispanic people. They didn’t stand alone in their dislike. Other Anglo civic leaders and new American settlers had all started to express displeasure with the crude and “foreign” ways of their new home. All clamored for progress. Together, they set about remaking Santa Fe into a typical American town.
Efforts of soldiers stationed at Santa Fe’s Fort Marcy during the Civil War had transformed the center of the Plaza to look like a “proper” town square back in the States.
By the 1870s, “Americans” (newcomers from “back East,” as opposed to the native Hispanic population) already owned most of the property fronting on the Plaza. They had added fancy white balustrades to several buildings and replaced primitive round posts—really just skinned tree trunks—supporting the portales with colonnades of whitewashed, square-cut timbers. The Plaza had begun taking on a Victorian appearance, much like today’s balconied restaurant near the Plaza’s southwest corner.
Merchants had also built plank sidewalks under the portales in front of their stores, allowing pedestrians to avoid the dirt—and worse—of the filthy streets. Additionally, just the previous year, most had installed those large “bazaar” or “show” windows to attract more customers.
Both to modernize the look of the city and to eliminate some of adobe’s practical disadvantages, Americans started modifying Santa Fe’s traditional architecture to reflect a simple version of Greek Revival Style then popular “back East.” Constructing entire houses out of expensive sawed lumber and kiln-fired bricks freighted in over the Santa Fe Trail cost too much but builders combined a few of these materials with older techniques to create what came to be known as Territorial Style.
By the 1880s, local brickyards began turning our kiln-fired brick. Red brick buildings rapidly replaced traditional adobe structures around the Plaza. New homes built of brick, often with pitched tin roofs, became the rage.
Decades would pass before town fathers recognized the tourist appeal of “picturesque” and started slapping adobe-colored stucco on anything that didn’t move—an adobe Burger King, anyone?
To learn more about the City at the End of the Santa Fe Trail, read Lynn Michelsohn’s book:
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