Modern history

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Chapter 17

THE FIRE OF MONTEZUMA

By mid-August, Gen. Stephen Watts Kearny’s forces were only a few days’ march away from Santa Fe. Passing through the tiny towns of Tecolote and San Miguel and then following the bends of the Pecos River, Kearny heard so many rumors about Armijo that he resolved to ignore them all. Apache Canyon might be the Scylla and Charybdis of the Southwest, but he was pressing on—averaging 20 miles a day, a frenetic pace for an army that had already logged 800. Two-thirds of the horses had died along the way, a fact that Kearny, the equine sentimentalist, found hard to bear. Most of his cavalry had become infantry, joining the larger body of Missouri volunteers who had slogged it on foot all the way from Fort Leavenworth.

Kearny’s blistered men were now practically starving; they had been on one-third rations since Bent’s Fort, and they grumbled about the smiting heat. “Our guns become so hot we cannot handle them,” Pvt. Jacob Robinson wrote, “and the sand burns our feet. The dreaded Sirocco blows as from a heated oven, burning us even through our clothes. The discontented men say, ‘Let us be anywhere rather than in this desert.’” The land was so parched, wrote another soldier, that “it appeared as though it had not been refreshed by a shower since the day of Noah’s flood.”

To make matters worse, water on the trail was hardly potable. Marcellus Edwards of Missouri’s Company D described a pool of rancid water his thirsty comrades dived into one early August morning: “It was so bad that one who drank it would have to shut both eyes and hold his breath until the nauseating dose was swallowed. Notwithstanding its scarcity, some men allowed their horses to tramp through it, which soon stirred it up to a thick mud. And to give it still greater flavor, we found a dead snake with the flesh dropping from his bones.”

Kearny dismissed all such whining and pushed on without a break. He understood the salient fact of invasion, that delays almost always favor a defense. He kept receiving strange letters from Armijo, letters maundering on in elegant phrases that said everything and nothing. Army of the West lieutenant John Hughes described one such letter as “very politely dictated, and so ambiguous in its expressions that it was impossible to know whether it was the Governor’s intention to meet Gen. Kearny in council, or in conflict.”

Still, Kearny was worried about Apache Canyon. The Santa Fe traders traveling with him knew all about the narrow pass and had been warning him since they were at Bent’s Fort that this was the most likely place where the New Mexicans would put up a fight. He sent spies ahead and kept moving as fast as he could.

Another advantage of maintaining a high rate of speed, Kearny believed, was that it kept his forces out of trouble: The pace of their march gave the men focus, it harnessed them to the task at hand, it kept their appetites from wandering. With such a large and unruly army of green volunteers spread out over a hundred miles of trail, there was every opportunity for a devolution of military order. As the war progressed in other provinces of northern Mexico, Gen. Zachary Taylor’s volunteers were acquiring a reputation for “sexual terrorism,” as one historian put it. But the Army of the West simply had no time or energy for rape or pillage.

Riding up and down the ranks, the stern Episcopalian general set a tone of probity. John Hughes saw Kearny as a “sagacious officer well-fitted for command of veteran troops,” but he believed the general unfairly expected the same high standards of “rigid austerity” from the Missourians as he did from his seasoned dragoons. The volunteers, Hughes thought, “are bred to freedom and fired by feeling, principle, and honor” rather than “the study of arms.” These young bucks feared and respected Kearny, but they did not much care for his discipline. The punishments Kearny meted out could be severe, even Sisyphean. One Army of the West diarist reported a case in which a group of five soldiers, having committed some minor infraction, were “court-martialed for insubordination” and then each sentenced to lug forty pounds of sand for a week.

After trekking all this way across the scorched continent, most of the Missourians were itching for a fight. One volunteer wrote that he and his comrades were “full of ardor, burning for the battlefield, and panting for the reward of honorable victory.” As rumors of the coming engagement at Apache Canyon spread, a palpable excitement gathered in their ranks. The pace of their march quickened, and they erupted in war songs—Oh, what a joy to fight the dons and wallop fat Armij-O! So clear the way to Santa Fe, with that we all agree-O!

In contrast to his hot-blooded volunteers, however, General Kearny did not want to engage the enemy unless he absolutely must. In fact, he preferred not to view the New Mexicans as enemies at all. Kearny hoped to take New Mexico without firing a shot—it would be a “bloodless conquest,” he vowed. He understood that if the United States intended to occupy this province and eventually absorb it into the Union, he would have to win the people over.

And so in every settlement he passed, he met with the local leaders and gave some variation of the speech he had delivered from the rooftop in Las Vegas. His men would harm no one, he said. The United States was not hostile to Catholicism. The American army would protect them against the savage tribes. Their women were safe. No one would be branded like a steer. With his interpreters, Kearny wrote up a proclamation in Spanish that conveyed all these points and then sent riders ahead to tack up copies in every town square. In several instances Kearny’s troops captured Mexican spies who had been dispatched by Armijo. But rather than hold them as prisoners, the general decided the better course was to show mercy and release them. By doing so, he hoped they might return to Santa Fe and spread stories of American beneficence. More cynically, he trusted that they would report back to Armijo and exaggerate the might of the American forces; Kearny knew from experience that an enemy’s size had a way of growing in the excitement of retelling.

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On the night of August 17, Kearny camped near the ruins of the ancient pueblo of Pecos, in a grassy valley where the Pecos River came spilling from a cleft in the mountains. Pecos had been occupied for five hundred years, and until recently it was the largest of all the Pueblo Indian villages. At one time as many as three thousand people had lived there. The pueblo had a legend that concerned the “fire of Montezuma.” The Indians believed they were related to the great Aztec leader, and that one day long ago Montezuma instructed them to build a permanent fire in a subterranean chamber. Under no circumstances was the fire to be extinguished until a certain people arrived from the east to liberate them from the tyrannies of Spanish rule.

And so for hundreds of years, as they languished under conquistadors and friars, the Pecos people secretly fed the fire in a special kiva, a round ceremonial room with a smokehole, built underground. Over the patient centuries, tending the fire remained a kind of druidic ritual for them, a symbol of their longing for the prophesied deliverers. The rites were dutifully maintained until the year 1838, when some rash of diseases, doubtless borne on the wagon trains that passed the pueblo on the nearby Santa Fe Trail, decimated the Pecos population. Then a series of Comanche raids nearly finished them off. Facing extinction, the last seventeen Pecos Indians vacated their once-great pueblo and took up residence in the safety of the Jemez Mountains sixty miles to the west, joining a kindred tribe that spoke the same language. The fire was left to die at Pecos, but it was said that a dedicated group of the exiles transported the last embers to their new home in the Jemez and continued the tradition there.

Kearny’s soldiers were amazed by the Pecos ruins and liked the sound of the legend—particularly the part about a certain people coming from the east to liberate the long-suffering Indians. Pecos had been a thriving village when the first conqueror, Coronado, passed through these parts in 1540, claiming this kingdom for the Spanish, who were sure that somewhere nearby there existed seven cities of gold, which could be dismantled, melted into ingots, and shipped home to feed the great empire. The golden cities never materialized, however, and the Spaniards turned their attentions to the considerably more prosaic task of winning the souls of Pueblo Indians—while simultaneously enslaving them.

The Americans had their own ideas about New Mexico’s worth. If metals could not be teased from the alkaline dirt, then at least wagon roads could be sunk into its barren ribs, connecting the Eastern cities to California, which Kearny was scheduled to conquer next. Perhaps the Americans were not as metal-obsessed as Coronado had been, but they were just as determined to find their own kind of gold.

Though exhausted, many of Kearny’s soldiers tramped over the listing walls of the Pecos ruins, blinking at the grandeur of history, and their own place in it. One of the soldiers who kept a journal, Pvt. Frank Edwards from Illinois, was told that the Pecos ruins had been built by a master race of white giants who stood fifteen feet tall. The idea did not seem completely preposterous to Edwards. “The bones which have been dug from the floor of the church are, certainly, of gigantic size,” he wrote. “A thigh bone that I saw could never have belonged to a man less than ten feet.”

As he was examining the giant’s femur, a mule that Edwards had tied up outside broke loose from its picket and clopped into the ruined mission church. “Apparently as anxious to satisfy his curiosity as I was,” the mule climbed up to the place where the altar had once stood. “It gravely turned around,” Edwards wrote, “and gave vent to his pious feelings in a long EEE-haw.”

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