Mexican-American War - 1846

New Mexico and the Mexican American War

By Robert J. Torrez
New Mexico State Historian

1996 marked the 150th anniversary of one of the most significant events in New Mexico history - the Mexican American War. In less than two years, this conflict redrew the map of North America, cost Mexico millions of square miles of its territory, and changed the destinies of all who lived in this vast region which today constitutes the American West.

War between the United States and Mexico was officially declared on May 13, 1846, but the seeds of this conflict had been sown a decade earlier, when Texas declared its independence from the Republic of Mexico. Almost immediately, it became clear that it was only a matter of time before the Texas would become part of an expanding United States. However, Mexico viewed the upstart nation simply as a Mexican province in revolt, and legally, still part of the Mexican Republic. Most Americans failed to recognize Mexico's determination to resist foreign annexation of its sovereign territory.

In 1844, James K. Polk was elected President of the United States on an expansionist platform which sought to extend the boundaries of the United States to the Pacific coast. After Congress voted to annex Texas in July 1845, John Slidell was sent to Mexico with instructions to offer thirty five million dollars in exchange for nearly half of Mexico's territory. The Mexicans declined Slidell's offer, but the rebuff only temporarily stymied the advance of Manifest Destiny. Polk ordered the American army to march to Texas and "defend the Rio Grande." In early 1846, the Americans built a fort north of the Rio Grande crossing at Matamoros, and waited for the Mexicans to respond.

They did not wait long. In late April, 1846, elements of the American and Mexican armies engaged in several skirmishes, and some American soldiers were killed. When news of the clashes reached Washington, President Polk could now claim American blood had been spilled on American soil by a foreign aggressor. On May 13, 1846, Congress declared that "by the act of the Republic of Mexico, a state of war exists with that government and the United States."

For New Mexico, the first few weeks of the Mexican American War were uneventful. But in June 1846, General Stephen Watts Kearny and his American Army of the West marched towards the undefended northern Mexican frontier. On August 15, 1846, Kearny and his troops marched unopposed into Las Vegas, and from the roof of one of the buildings which lined the plaza, Kearny announced to the assembled crowd, "I have come amongst you by orders of my government, to take possession of your country and extend over it the laws of the United States..."

That same day, Kearny marched his army towards the New Mexican capital in Santa Fe. They expected to be met by a strong force of Mexican troops and militia which had reportedly assembled at the strategic Apache Canyon east of Santa Fe, but the expected battle did not materialize. For reasons which are not yet fully clear, New Mexican Governor Manuel Armijo decided not to defend New Mexico. Instead, he unceremoniously retreated to Mexico and left New Mexico in the hands of the American army.

On August 18, 1846, General Kearny entered Santa Fe and brought nearly two and a half centuries of Spanish and Mexican rule to an end without firing a shot. The following day, Kearny addressed a large crowd of Mexican officials and Santa Fe residents gathered on the historic plaza, and proceeded to inform them he had taken possession of New Mexico in the name of the United States of America. "We come as friends," he assured the assembly,

"to better your condition and make you part of the Republic of the United States. We mean not to murder you or rob you of your property. Your families shall be free from molestation; your women secure from violence. My soldiers shall take nothing from you but what they pay for...we do not mean to take away...your religion...I do hereby proclaim are no longer Mexican subjects; you are now become American citizens..."

Except for the December 25, 1846, battle at Brazitos, south of Mesilla, there were no encounters between regular Mexican forces and American troops in New Mexico. For all practical purposes, Kearny's occupation of Santa Fe ended New Mexico's official involvement in the war.

One of Kearny's first actions was to establish a civil government for the newly acquired territory. On September 22, he introduced and published a set of American laws which have since became known as "The Kearny Code," and Kearny appointed civil officers for the territory, with Charles Bent as Governor and Donaciano Vigil as Secretary. The other officials appointed were Richard Dillon, Sheriff; Francis Blair, United States District Attorney; Charles Blummer, Treasurer; Eugene Leitensdorfer, Auditor; and Joab Houghton, Antonio Jose Lucero, and Charles Beaubien, District Court judges.

For several months following the occupation, Santa Fe was at the center of a whirlwind of military activity. But the hustle and bustle of troop movements and the lack of overt opposition to the new government hid rumblings of discontent. By the time Colonel Sterling Price assumed command from General Kearny in December, rumors were circulating about secret meetings and of plans being laid to overthrow the American government. The seeds of the northern New Mexico uprising, which history has come to describe as "The Revolt of 1847," were being sown.

In mid December, 1846, civil governor Charles Bent reported that a group of influential men, led by Tomas Ortiz and Diego Archuleta, were trying to "excite" the citizens of New Mexico against the Americans. Seven men described as "secondary conspirators," were arrested, although Ortiz and Archuleta, whom Governor Bent called the "leaders and prime movers," apparently escaped capture at this time.

Planning for an uprising continued despite the arrests. Then suddenly, on January 19, 1847, Governor Bent was attacked and killed at his home in Taos. Within two days, several Americanos and civil officials appointed by the new government lay dead, and the uprising had spread through much of northern New Mexico. The "Revolt of 1847" had begun.

On January 23, Colonel Price led nearly four hundred troops north from Santa Fe to meet the New Mexican forces which were advancing on the capital. Price also had with him several pieces of artillery which proved crucial in the ensuing battles. The following day, Price's troops engaged the New Mexicans at Santa Cruz de la Canada, twenty five miles north of Santa Fe. After a sharp battle, the New Mexicans dispersed and reorganized at a strategic gorge along the Rio Grande near Embudo. Four days later, Price assaulted the New Mexican positions, and when the smoke cleared, the American troops were in control of the pass and the insurgents forced to retreat north towards Taos, where they prepared a last defense at the ancient pueblo.

While this was going on, a furious battle was developing on the east side of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. Following the attack on Governor Bent at Taos, a number of American traders had been killed in the Mora Valley, and on January 24, a company of American troops from Las Vegas attacked the town of Mora. The assault was repulsed, but a week later, the Americans returned with artillery, and commenced a barrage which forced Mora's valiant defenders to abandon the town. The American troops then proceeded to raze Mora to the ground.

Back in Taos, Colonel Price commenced an artillery barrage on the Pueblo of Taos on February 3. By the following afternoon, Price's troops had penetrated the pueblo's outer defenses, but were unable to dislodge the New Mexicans from the church, whose massive adobe walls provided excellent protection from the artillery. They then wheeled their largest cannon to within a few dozen yards of the church, and began to batter the wall which had been weakened with axes. When the wall was breached, several rounds of grape shot were poured into the church at point blank range. The deadly onslaught was too much for the out gunned defenders. A general retreat ensued as several hundred New Mexicans fled into the surrounding hills, although fifty-one reportedly were killed while trying to escape. The actual number of New Mexican casualties will never be known, but several sources estimate that between 150 and 200 defenders died during the two day battle at Taos.

This crushing defeat ended the brief episode of New Mexico history which we call "The Revolt of 1847." The capture of several dozen insurgents, however, initiated another series of regrettable events which our history books call "The Treason Trials."

A military court was convened almost as soon as the battle ended at Taos. Pablo Montoya and Tomas Romero, who were identified as leaders in the insurrection, were to be tried on February 6, but that day, Montoya stood alone before the military court to hear the charges lodged against him. Tomas Romero had been shot and killed the previous morning by a nervous guard who claimed Romero had tried to escape. Montoya was tried, convicted and sentenced to hang on charges related to the "rebellious conduct" which led to the death of Governor Bent. His execution took place the following day, February 7, 1847, on the plaza of Don Fernando.

That accomplished, attention was turned to Santa Fe, where a grand jury indicted four men, Antonio Maria Trujillo, Pantaleon Archuleta, Trinidad Barcelo, and Pedro Vigil, who were believed to be the principal organizers and leaders of the short lived revolt, on charges of high treason. On March 12, Trujillo was convicted of treason and sentenced to hang, but in the days that followed, the trials of Archuleta, Barcelo and Vigil all ended in hung juries, and the charges against these three were dropped.

But Trujillo's death sentence stood, and his execution was set for April 16. However, many prominent citizens petitioned the United States government for a commutation of his sentence. Sometime later, Secretary of War W. L. Marcy acknowledged it was not "proper use of the legal term" to convict Mexican citizens of treason against the United States, and authorized Colonel Price to pardon Trujillo. No pardon papers have surfaced, but every indication is Trujillo was subsequently released.

Then the court turned its attention once again to Taos, where more than forty men captured that past February, were still being held prisoner. When court reconvened at Don Fernando on April 5, two of these men, Polio Salazar and Francisco Ulibarri, were singled out and charged with treason for their leadership role in the uprising. Sixteen others were indicted for murder in the January 19, 1847 killing of Governor Bent.

Ulibarri was acquitted, but on April 7, Polio Salazar was convicted and sentenced to suffer the penalty of death. That same day, five others, Jose Manuel Garcia, Pedro Lucero, Juan Ramon Trujillo, Manuel Romero, and Isidro Romero, were convicted of murder, and also sentenced to hang. On April 7, the six condemned men were marched to the crude gallows which had been prepared for them on a field north of the Don Fernando plaza. The six were positioned shoulder to shoulder on a plank which had been placed across the back of a wagon. Before the wagon was driven out from under them, each was allowed to say a few words, and a witness tells us Polio Salazar made a defiant speech and died with "a spirit of martyrdom" worthy of a patriot. Before this April term of court adjourned, at least eleven additional hangings had taken place in Taos.

When these executions were over, it seemed that New Mexico's harsh introduction to American jurisprudence was over. But the summer of 1847 brought tragedy to another northern New Mexico community. In early July, a Lieutenant Brown and two enlisted men disappeared. When their bodies were discovered near the village of El Valle, about thirty miles east of Santa Fe, suspicion immediately fell on the residents of this isolated community, and warranted or not, reprisals by the Americans were quick and furious.

On or about July 6, 1847, a detachment of United States troops descended on El Valle. Within hours, several residents lay dead, and the community had been literally erased from the face of the earth. More than forty men were taken prisoner and marched off to Santa Fe to face charges of killing Lt. Brown and his men.

On July 31, a "drumhead court martial" convicted six of the El Valle men of murder, and sentenced them to hang. When these executions were carried out on August 3, 1847, a witness noted that all the church bells in Santa Fe "went into motion with the solemn knell." The tolling of these church bells finally sounded the end of events associated with the Mexican American War in New Mexico.

There is no documentation which tells us why those who participated in the events we call "The Revolt of 1847," chose to take up arms against the United States. We only know that many paid with their lives for having made that choice, and no doubt, their families must have also suffered terribly. As we look back on this 150th anniversary of the Mexican American War, we who devote so much time and effort to study the past and try to evaluate the role our ancestors played in New Mexico's history, may need to consider whether it is time to examine the labels our history books have placed on these men, and probably even a few women. The past century and a half has demonstrated that New Mexicans have remained steadfast in their loyalty to the United States, yet, our history books still label those of our ancestors who participated in these tragic events of 1847 as rebels and traitors. It may be time, instead, that we dare to consider recognizing them for what they were, New Mexican patriots who died in defense of their country.

Copyright 1996, Robert J. Torrez
State Historian

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