On August 14, 1846, two days after the Navajo raid on Las Vegas, General Kearny marched with his Army of the West into the town’s central plaza, dismounted from his bay charger, and demanded that the mayor, or alcalde, join him in addressing a milling crowd of several hundred shocked villagers.
This was the first village of any size that Kearny’s army had encountered, and he wanted to set a certain tone. The people of Las Vegas were fascinated by the Americans, but also afraid. The women cowered in the shadowy edges of the square, drawn up in their shawls and rebozos, some of them nervously smoking cornhusk cigarettes, while the men in their brightly colored serapes and glazed sombreros pushed forward into the open light of the plaza. (Susan Magoffin, who passed through town a few days later, described the Las Vegans as “wild looking strangers” who “constantly stared” and “swarmed around me like bees…some of the little ones in a perfect state of nudity.”) The village dogs barked incessantly, and pigs could be heard snuffling in their sties, but otherwise the town was silent, the people waiting to hear what the American general had to say.
Kearny and the alcalde climbed a rickety ladder to the flat mud roof of one of the adobe buildings facing the plaza. From there, Kearny, wearing a blue flannel frock coat with gold buttons and epaulets and a saber swinging at his side, peered down at the villagers. With the alcalde standing awkwardly at his side, Kearny began to speak the will of the United States of America. He did not mince words.
“I have come amongst you by the orders of my government to take possession of your country,” Kearny said through an interpreter, his voice even and calm. He pointed to the many hundreds of American troops who were steadily filing past the town on the way to occupy the capital of Santa Fe. “There goes my army. You see but a small portion of it.” And yet, the general said, “we come amongst you as friends, not as enemies; as protectors, not as conquerors. Henceforth, I absolve you of all allegiance to the Mexican government.”
At this the crowd erupted in a “great sensation,” as an American lieutenant put it, a confusion of shouting, cheers, and gasps. Kearny waited for the hubbub to die down, and then continued. “From the Mexican government,” he said, “you have never received protection. The Navajos come down from the mountains and carry off your sheep, and even your women, whenever they please.”
The people of Las Vegas eyed each other with quickened interest and vigorously nodded. “Si, si—it is true,” they said.
Kearny sensed that he’d struck a nerve. He had heard about the recent Navajo raid. He realized that he was conquering a people who were already cowed and exhausted by a savage war of the frontier—a war that the United States was now, for better or worse, inheriting. “My government,” he said with perfect confidence, “will correct all this. It will protect you in your persons and property. Your enemies will become our enemies. We will keep off the Indians.”
The villagers were skeptical of this tall promise. The Mexican army, it is true, had never protected them from the Navajo menace, nor had it given the people weapons with which they might defend themselves. All the villagers had to beat back the Indians were lances, bows and arrows, and a few antique muskets dating back to the 1700s. The Spanish had been equally impotent to stop the raids. Navajo predation, it seemed, was part of the order of things in this harsh extremity of the faded Spanish empire, where the echoed idioms of Cervantes were still spoken.
But now the villagers of Las Vegas must have wondered what stout strain of ambition had marched into their midst, this conqueror who called himself a friend. What kind of army was this that presumed to vanquish in an effortless sprint not only their nation but also their nation’s sworn enemy? Even if he wanted to, what made this man in the fancy blue uniform think he could “correct all this,” reversing the hard pattern of centuries?
Kearny went further. “Not a pepper, not an onion, shall be taken by my troops without pay,” he promised. “I will protect you in your persons and property and in your religion. Some of your priests have told you that we would ill-treat your women and brand them on the cheek, as you do your mules on the hip. It is all false.”
General Kearny then insisted that the alcalde pledge an oath of allegiance to the United States, on the rooftop for all to see. “Look at me in the face,” Kearny demanded as the townsfolk watched. The alcalde had a hollow expression, but, reluctantly at first, he did as he was told. The short oath ended with a solemnity that was not trivial for a Catholic man swearing before a crowd of staunch Catholics and the glaring village priest. After proclaiming his fealty to the United States of America, he was made to say—In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost.
Then Kearny and his men bounded off for Santa Fe, which lay beyond the mountains, some seventy miles to the west. Thus far the conquest of New Mexico had been uneventful. But Kearny’s runners learned that the governor of New Mexico was planning to put up a major fight in a canyon fifteen miles outside the city. If Kearny’s intelligence was accurate, Armijo had three thousand men already dug into the canyon, waiting to repulse the American invaders.