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Twitchell, Ralph Emerson


By Richard Flint and Shirley Cushing Flint

Ralph Emerson Twitchell was born in 1859, less than a year before the outbreak of the Civil War, in Ann Arbor, Michigan, to Daniel Sawin and Delia Scott Twitchell. He was named for the great American philosopher and abolitionist, Ralph Waldo Emerson. In 1882 at the age of 23, Twitchell received a law degree from the University of Michigan and moved immediately to Santa Fe, New Mexico. There he joined the office of Henry L. Waldo, an attorney for the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railway. For the remainder of his life, Twitchell was connected with the AT&SF legal department.

The year 1885 was a very busy one for Twitchell. In that year, at the age of 26, he was elected president of the New Mexico Bar Association, married Margaret Olivia Collins, and was among the organizers of the New Mexico Territorial Militia. Later, he served as the militia's judge advocate, with the rank of colonel and was commonly referred to as Col. Twitchell, thereafter. His marriage to Margaret lasted until 1899, when she died. He then married Estelle Burton, who over the years collaborated in research and writing with her husband.

Twitchell was very active in local Santa Fe politics and government. From 1889 to 1892 he was district attorney for New Mexico's First Judicial District. In 1893 he served as mayor of the city of Santa Fe and afterwards was district attorney for Santa Fe County. He was special assistant to the U.S. Attorney General for Pueblo land titles. A prominent Republican, Twitchell held the office of chair of the party's territorial central committee during the years 1902 and 1903.

Twitchell's interest in the history of New Mexico occupied much of his attention and time, often-overshadowing political duties and his work as a railroad attorney. That interest was first piqued by his acquaintance with Adolph Bandelier. In the early 1880s Bandelier was doing historical research in the Spanish and Mexican period records held by the territorial government.

Twitchell saw an affinity between the legal profession and the study of history, particularly research in documentary sources. He would later state that: "The writer of history, in his presentation of events occurring during a given period, may be compared to the lawyer in the preparation and presentation of a case...So the historical writer should not be merely a narrator, chronicler. He should not be the witness giving testimony. He should be the lawyer, the advocate, the painter, the artist evolving an historical picture for the mind and creating impressions which result in conclusions."

He was not alone in his opinion that an essential connection existed between the pursuits of law and history. Concerns over the establishment of legal precedents led many other lawyers to similar conclusions. In Santa Fe, a number of Twitchell's legal colleagues, including L. Bradford Prince and Thomas B. Catron, were also aficionados of the study of history and maintained large personal libraries that included both published works on historical subjects and manuscript records of historical value. Twitchell was a regular user of his friends' libraries and patron of the "Santa Fe Archives." In May 1892, he was one of several people who helped rescue the documents in that archive from a fire that destroyed the territorial capitol building.

Convinced that there was a need for a comprehensive history of New Mexico that would be "available to the person of moderate means," he published in 1911 and 1912 Leading Facts in New Mexico History. The information contained in that two-volume narrative history, and its subsequent three volumes, derived from documents and books from the territorial, Prince, and Catron collections, as well as his own. Leading Facts proved to be Twitchell's best-known publication. It was considered authoritative for generations. Its contents were largely paraphrases of its source materials. Or as Twitchell wrote: "a great deal of the work found in the pages [of the book] may best be termed editing." Leading Facts included maps prepared under Twitchell's direction by his son Waldo.

Twitchell was intensely patriotic when it came to the United States and in the 1890s was a member of the Knights of Liberty, a secret society often identified with the Santa Fe Ring. He was also an advocate for the English-only movement, which earned him the animosity of many of New Mexico's Hispano citizens. He was, nevertheless, an enthusiastic booster of New Mexico. He hoped that his lectures and publications would "impress upon the reader's mind the fortitude, the courage, the suffering, and the martyrdom of those who first brought to New Mexico the banner of Christianity and civilization." He often disparaged the Native American past, as "primitive" and "pagan," if not exotic and romantic.

Twitchell was the most prolific New Mexico historian of his period, although his works were often seen as biased. One such example is The History of the Military Occupation of the Territory of New Mexico from 1846 to 1851 by the Government of the United States published in 1909. While he was very young Twitchell had lived in Jackson County, Missouri, where he knew Alexander Doniphan and John W. Reid, both of whom had been officers during the American invasion of Nuevo México in 1846. They recounted to him their version of the events of the U.S.- Mexico War. Twitchell portrayed the invasion as an important part of the glorious "winning of the West." He called the invasion "the greatest military achievement of modern times" and insisted that "such deeds should appeal to every loyal American." Naturally, many Nuevo Mexicanos saw the actions of the U.S. military very differently.

Twitchell was a longtime member of the Historical Society of New Mexico and its president in 1924. He was a staunch friend of Edgar Lee Hewett, director of the School of American Research and the Museum of New Mexico. Hewett and Twitchell worked together on numerous occasions. Twitchell chaired the committee in charge of the New Mexico building at the Panama-California Exposition held in 1915 in San Diego, while Hewett oversaw the preparation of exhibits for the exposition. Twitchell served on the board of regents of the Museum of New Mexico and of the managing committee of the School of American Research for several years during Hewett's long tenure as director. And from 1913 to 1916 Twitchell was the founding editor of Old Santa Fe--A Magazine of History, Archaeology, Genealogy, and Biography, for which Hewett's protege Lansing Bloom was assistant editor.

In 1914 Twitchell published "The Spanish Archives of New Mexico," the first calendar and guide to the manuscript documents from the Spanish colonial period that he had previously helped save from destruction by fire. It served as the basis for the Calendar of the Microfilm Edition of the Spanish Archives of New Mexico, 1621-1821 and the Calendar to the Microfilm Edition of the Land Records of New Mexico, which were prepared through the New Mexico State Records Center and Archives in the 1980s. Those two guides still serve as the principal aids for navigating through the most important collection of Spanish manuscript sources pertaining to New Mexico.

Twitchell held the office of president of the Santa Fe Chamber of Commerce and, from 1919 through 1922 was director of the Santa Fe Fiesta. This once again brought him into partnership with Hewett, since it was during this time that the School of American Research had responsibility for organizing and planning most fiesta activities. Twitchell was a moving force behind publicity for New Mexico done by AT&SF, was a key advocate for New Mexico statehood, and he designed the state's first flag in 1915.

As he angered many Hispanos with his English-only stance and his history of the Mexican War, he also ignited complaints from Pueblos by screening a film he had produced of the Taos Corn Dance. He added insult to injury by screening the film again after one copy of it mysteriously disappeared. Further antagonism between Twitchell and Native Americans came in 1922, when he was one of the principal authors of what came to be known as the Bursum Bill: "An Act To Quiet Title to Lands within Pueblo Indian Land Grants." Twitchell testified in favor of the bill before a U.S. Senate committee. Under questioning by senators, it became obvious that the bill masked a land grab by certain New Mexicans. It would have recognized titles to all non-Indian holdings on Pueblo lands that had been held for at least 10 years and would have placed authority over Indian land and water rights in state courts. In opposition to the bill, the Pueblos formed an All-Pueblos Council in November 1922. Aided by lobbying by the General Federation of Women's Clubs, the Council was able to defeat the Bursum Bill, which would have resulted in the loss of thousands of acres of Pueblo land.

Twitchell died at the Clara Barton Hospital, Los Angeles, on August 26, 1925, from complications following surgery he had had in Santa Fe. He asked to be buried below the Cross of the Martyrs on Fort Marcy hill in Santa Fe. There were many objections to that proposal, and he was buried in Fairview Cemetery, along with many other prominent Santa Feans of the day.

Sources Used:

Chauvenet, Beatrice. Hewett and Friends: A Biography of Santa Fe's Vibrant Era. Santa Fe: Museum of New Mexico Press, 1983.

Melzer, Richard. "Foreword." In The Leading Facts of New Mexican History. Facsimile of the original 1912 edition. Santa Fe: Sunstone Press, in preparation.

"Ralph Emerson Twitchell." The Reno Evening Gazette, Wednesday, August 26, 1925.

Twitchell, Ralph Emerson. The History of the Military Occupation of the territory of New Mexico from 1846 to 1851 by the Government of the United States. Danville, Illinois: Interstate Printers and Publishers, 1909; reprinted, Chicago: Rio Grande Press, 1963.

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