Modern history

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Chapter 21

THE HALL OF FINAL RUIN

On the night of September 24, 1846, bells rang over the city, incessantly, crazily, as they always did when something was afoot. From the six churches they clanked and clanged, filling the streets with a maddening metallic din. The Santa Feans loved their bells and used them to announce every occasion—weddings, masses, even races and fandangos. Their sound was far from dulcet, for most of the bells were decrepit and cracked, some having been forged centuries earlier in Castille and shipped by galleon across the wide ocean and then hauled nearly two thousand groaning miles north from Mexico on the desolate wagon road, the Camino Real, which long served as the town’s only umbilicus to the civilized world. Through their long sojourns, the bells had been splashed with brine, dropped in silty arroyos, and pecked by bullets. They had seen revolts and massacres, and had endured several centuries of a steady faith’s ringing in the extremes of a high desert clime. Even though the bells were tarnished and streaked with verdigris, they remained the pride of the town, enduring relics from a time when the crown of Spain reigned as the greatest power on earth.

The weather had turned cool and sharp—a storm had dusted the upper reaches of the mountains with the season’s first snow—and on this brisk evening the clanging of the bells was especially loud. On one side of town a large funeral was under way—an old man apparently related to half the citizenry had died. And on the other side of town, over by the plaza, the American merchants were throwing a formal ball at the Palace of the Governors. The event was a bon voyage party for General Kearny and his dragoons: The next morning they were leaving for California, to continue the conquest.

Kearny’s fete was the largest event of the year. The long, narrow ballroom was crammed with more than five hundred people, Mexican and American alike, dressed in their finest clothes. They drank aguardiente and El Paso brandy and performed old dances of the province as a fiddler and a guitarist scratched out their bittersweet melodies. The Palace of the Governors’ “ballroom” was festive but decidedly humble in its appointments, its ceiling leaky, its plaster walls in decay. The floor was made of hard-packed dirt, and the door panels were fashioned from cured buffalo hide that had been faux-painted with burls and knots to look like wood. On one wall was a sweeping mural, painted by a local artist, that depicted General Kearny unfurling a constitution for a grateful Mexican peasant. LIBERTAD, the scroll read, and around it was painted a cross, a plow, and a cannon festooned in a bunting of American flags. Hung all around the hall were American company flags and pennants hand-sewn by the women of Missouri.

The cream of Santa Fe society, such as it was, had turned out to say its good-byes to the conqueror: Government officials, prominent families, priests, American merchants, officers. Susan Magoffin was at the ball and described everything in cheerful detail in her journal. That night she was wearing a Chinese shawl of red crepe as she danced with several American officers. She noted in her diary that the “ladies were all dressed in silks, satins, ginghams—and decked with showy ornaments, huge necklaces, countless rings. They had large sleeves, short waists, ruffled skirts. All danced and smoked cigarettos.” In one corner she was somewhat distressed to see a “dark-eyed senora” from a well-to-do Spanish family who had brought along a “human foot-stool,” as Magoffin called it—an Indian servant crouched on the floor for her mistress to use, between dances, “as an article of furniture.”

Magoffin was shocked by the boldness of the local ladies, to say nothing of their plunging necklines. “They slap about with their arms and necks bare, their bosoms exposed,” she sniffed, wishing she had “a veil drawn closely over my face to protect my blushes.” Most of the women wore a bright red rouge on their cheeks that “shone like grease,” Magoffin noted, while others were “daubed over with a ghostly flour-paste—a custom they have among them when they wish to look fair and beautiful.” The Mexican men, on the other hand, “stand off with crossed arms, and look on with as much wonder as if they were not people themselves.”

Magoffin was especially intrigued by a certain redheaded woman who danced and carried herself with a haughty sense of freedom. Her name was Gertrudes Barcelo, but she was universally known around town as Madame La Tules. A Taos native, La Tules had long run a successful tavern in Santa Fe—its gambling rooms and accompanying brothel had been wildly popular among the Missourians. It was rumored that among her many illicit affairs, Barcelo had once been Governor Armijo’s mistress. She was a vivacious hostess and a cunning businesswoman; at her establishment the principal amusement was five-card monte—a game, it was said, whose mysteries could be learned only by losing at it. Through her brisk gaming tables, she handled astounding wads of cash for a specie-starved town, and sometimes floated loans to soldiers at usurious rates. Magoffin studied Barcelo as she moved about the ballroom, judging her to be a “stately” woman possessed of “that shrewd sense and fascinating manner necessary to allure the wayward, inexperienced youth to the hall of final ruin.”

Kearny’s soldiers were also intrigued by the women at the ball, although in a different way. Their diaries are full of prurient compliments. Hughes remarked on their “lustrous, beaming eyes that peer most captivatingly from the folds of their rebozos.” Capt. Philip St. George Cooke thought the Santa Fe ladies “remarkable for smallness of hands and feet,” but noted that “nowhere is chastity less valued or expected.” Private Edwards: “The women are the boldest walkers I know, their step being always free and good, and their bodies have a graceful oscillation. They do not seem to know what modesty is, and are very fond of the attentions of strangers.” George Gibson: “As a general thing their forms are much better than the women in the States.”

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The wine flowed easily, and the party went far into the night. The tiny ballroom sweltered in the close heat as the guests pressed through a haze of cornhusk cigarette smoke. On the dance floor, the Americans and Mexicans swirled together in “an infinity of petticoats.” With the sweep of an eye, Susan Magoffin could see the future of the territory: judges, bankers, engineers, businessmen, the whole new American imprint on the ancient country. In one corner stood the newly appointed governor of New Mexico, the stout and stolid Charles Bent, Kit Carson’s old friend. Bent was a bullnecked Missourian with dark features and a massive furrowed brow—“tough as an oak knot” in the words of his biographer David Lavender, “a man of implacable drive.” It was Charles Bent who had first tested and then perfected the use of large ox-teams (instead of horses or mules) to pull wagons along the Santa Fe Trail; the success of the slower but far stronger oxen, Lavender suggests, led the way to the “gargantuan freight caravans that came to sinew the West.”

General Kearny had picked Bent for the job after careful consideration, but the choice was a controversial one. Bent was an unlovable sort, resented by many Spaniards for arrogances real and imaginary, a hard-driving businessman whose mercantile savvy was often taken for simple greed. He had financial interests spread out from St. Louis to Taos and owned a good number of servants, both Indian and black. But Bent was perceptive and practical-minded; he loved New Mexico and understood its unique problems, and he had already become a towering figure of the Southwest.

Susan Magoffin knew Governor Bent well, and she doubtless spoke with him as she pressed through the milling crowds. His mud fort on the banks of the Arkansas, where her stillborn child lay buried, had already profoundly changed the face of New Mexican life. Traders like Bent had served, in a sense, as the first wave of the American invasion, and so his assumption of political power seemed only a natural progression. He was, thought one historian, “a mighty man whose will was prairie law, who knew Indians and Mexicans as few others did, who had great influence for hundreds of miles…and held many tribes in the palm of his hand.”

Also circulating in the crowds was Col. Alexander Doniphan, the self-taught country lawyer appointed to replace Kearny as military commander upon the general’s exit from Santa Fe the next morning. Magoffin liked Doniphan and accepted his offer to dance. Forty years old, big-boned, a lumbering six-feet two-inches tall, Doniphan towered over her. He was a good-looking man, with bright hazel eyes and a mane of dark hair. The “colonel” had no military training, but he had a reputation for being an unbeatable defense attorney back in Missouri—the sort of man you called if you were in real trouble. He had once defended the Mormon prophet Joseph Smith. At Kearny’s command, Doniphan had drawn up a constitution for the new territory that was quite eloquent and forward-thinking. He had a penchant for quoting the classics, yet at the same time he was unpretentious, easygoing, and beloved by the rabble of volunteers who had elected him as their highest officer. He could be coarse—refreshingly so. As one of his subordinates wrote, “The colonel is in the habit of interlarding his language with strong expressions which many Eastern men would call something very like swearing.”

Doniphan spun Magoffin around the crowded floor, performing the “cuna,” or “cradle”—a kind of frontier waltz. They wrapped arms around each other’s waists, leaning “well back,” as Magoffin put it, to mimic the rocking of a cradle. Some of the American onlookers found the swinging embraces of the dance enticingly sexual: “Such familiarity of position,” said one, “would be repugnant to the rules of polite society in our country; but among the New Mexicans, nothing is reckoned a greater accomplishment than passing handsomely through all the mazes of this waltz.”

Magoffin was also taken with Henry Turner, a captain who served as the adjutant of the Army of the West and kept one of the best diaries of the westward trek. Turner would leave the next day with Kearny and travel all the way to California with him, becoming his second-in-command. Kind, smart, a pious Christian devoted to his wife Julia back in St. Louis, Turner was a West Pointer who had studied cavalry tactics at the famous Saumur Military Academy in France. Although he was a cousin of Robert E. Lee and would become a Southern sympathizer during the Civil War, he was a close friend of future Union general William Tecumseh Sherman. Magoffin thought Turner “a gentleman of extensive information, and exceedingly polite.” He was a fine storyteller, too, a man who “endeavors to make himself agreeable with his interesting narrations.”

Mostly, though, Magoffin gravitated toward the guest of honor, Stephen Watts Kearny, the military and civil governor of New Mexico. Enjoying himself on his last night in town, Kearny was turned out in his finest blue uniform, with epaulets, polished boots, and a gleaming sword. His gray hair was swept back, his forehead glistening in the moist heat of the ballroom. Over the past five weeks Kearny had become something of a father figure to Susan Magoffin, and it is through her diary that we have our most vivid descriptions of the conquering general. He took her on horseback tours of the city, accompanied her to mass, gently remonstrated her for peccadillos. He kept asking her, half-seriously, to come to California with him. Magoffin was especially fond of the fifty-two-year-old general, finding him “candid and plain-spoken, very agreeable in conversation. He conducts himself with ease, and places himself at my command, to serve me when I wish. United States General No. 1 entirely at my disposal! He speaks to me more as my father would do than any one else.”

In truth, General Kearny and Colonel Doniphan weren’t the only soldiers smitten with Magoffin—almost all the Army of the West officers were. She was the only American woman in the conquered capital—and quite possibly the first American woman ever to venture all the way down the Santa Fe Trail. As such, she was in high demand: the paragon of American femininity, by default, in a foreign town overrun by roistering young men. She had beautiful long brown hair, dark glistening eyes, and a petite frame. She was intelligent and cultured, with a generous spirit and a bottomless font of good cheer. One historian called her “the belle of the occupation,” and the house she and Samuel Magoffin set up not far from the plaza became a kind of salon. Though she was happily married, and devoted to her new husband, visitors came to the house nightly, solicitous young men eager to be in her presence, to remember what American women were like, to catch her smells and ways and inflections. Some came to her excitable and drunk, others came seeking the sustenance of her Christian virtue, and still others came with flames in their hearts and loins. One Missourian rapped on her door, believing that her house was the Madame Tules bordello, and skulked away, mortified and disappointed, when a virtuous young woman from Kentucky answered the door.

Susan Magoffin was mildly shocked by the rough edges of these men—“What an everlasting noise these soldiers keep up—from early dawn till late at night they are blowing their trumpets, whooping like Indians, or making some unheard of sounds, quite shocking to my delicate nerves”—but she recognized the remarkable circumstances of her presence in Santa Fe. And she loved being there, the sole American woman among sixteen hundred American men, eighteen years old and capturing history in her journal. “I am the first American lady who has come under the auspices of the Star-spangled banner,” she wrote. “I have entered the city in a year that will always be remembered by my countrymen.”

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This farewell ball was perhaps the first occasion General Kearny had had to enjoy himself in public since he marched into the capital five weeks earlier. From his first afternoon in Santa Fe, he had kept himself and his men ceaselessly busy. Kearny was a fastidious man with an uncompromising work ethic, and he kept at it in a quiet fury. He observed an uninterrupted schedule of meetings, junkets, treaties, ceremonies, appointments, construction projects. He was a fine conqueror, firm but beneficent, and the locals seemed to like him. Kearny understood the public relations aspect of conquest, and he went out of his way to show goodwill. He carried a candle during a church processional even though, as he later confessed to Susan Magoffin, “I felt like a fool.” He befriended the priests and went to mass. He reduced taxes. He invited delegations from surrounding tribes to come to Santa Fe and smoke the pipe of peace. He took a sojourn down the Rio Grande and visited the pueblos and the haciendas of the rich. At dinners and ceremonies his favorite toast was, “The U.S. and Mexico—they are now united, may no one ever think of separating.” He was discreet and diplomatic, and, as one chronicler put it, “he avoided offending a single god.”

From the start, Kearny made it clear that things would be done very differently in Santa Fe. A successful democracy required the free flow of information, which depended in turn upon the published word. So he located an antique press up in Taos and had the behemoth hauled down to print Spanish-language circulars and proclamations, and eventually, an English-language newspaper. He kept regular office hours at the Palace of the Governors, opening up the dark, musty rooms and removing all traces of Armijo’s cruel regime. In one room of the palace Kearny had found scores of human ears tacked to the wall—ears that had presumably once belonged to Armijo’s enemies. The general promptly had the room cleaned up and these grisly trophies buried.

Kearny, an egalitarian at heart, wanted the new government to operate with a simple transparency—and without frills or fanfare. A good example of this no-nonsense style could be found in his reaction to the use of “stamp paper,” a clerical practice in Santa Fe that dated back many decades. One day the alcalde of Santa Fe explained to Kearny that “an instrument of writing is not legal unless it is drawn up on paper stamped with the government seal and coat-of-arms.” All deeds, marriage licenses, death certificates, bills of sale, and other documents had to bear this official imprimatur. The mayor showed the general a copy of the all-important “stamp paper” and explained that it cost eight dollars a sheet—just for the paper, quite apart from any clerical fees that might be involved. “It is a very moderate sum to pay,” the alcalde contended, “for having an important document made strictly legal.”

General Kearny stared at the alcalde in annoyed disbelief. On the contrary, he thought eight dollars was a scandalous fee, especially for such a poor population. More to the point, it was a ridiculous bit of finery that had no legitimate purpose—Kearny found it offensive on every level. He dashed off a new command with his pen: “The use of ‘stamp paper’ by the government of New Mexico is hereby abolished. Done by the governor.”

Everywhere he went, Kearny preached amnesty and inclusion. No one’s property would be harmed, he said. Past wrongs would be forgiven. Even Manuel Armijo was welcome to return—and if he did, Kearny urged the people to greet the old governor and not molest him in any way. Kearny paid a visit to Armijo’s wife, Trinidad Gabaldon, in Albuquerque and thought her “a good-looking woman and rather cheerful.” (A subordinate traveling with Kearny described her more interestingly: “A comely dame of forty, with the remains of considerable beauty, but quite passe.”) Mrs. Armijo indicated that probably her husband would not return to New Mexico. Nearly all his relatives and former friends said the same thing: “The governor has gone to hell.”

The constitution that Kearny had Colonel Doniphan draw up was a model of fairness and progressive statecraft. The “Kearny Code,” as it was called, had deliberate echoes of the Magna Carta and the Bill of Rights and was so well crafted that it continues as the basis of New Mexico state law to this day. Whether the New Mexicans appreciated all of these doings, in the end, is hard to say. Spanish documents from the period are spotty and circumspect. It was clear that however much the locals might have liked the sound of Kearny’s high-minded documents and lofty pledges, they remained skeptical and still clung to a national pride, hoping the war in the south would turn in Mexico’s favor. Private Gibson said it best when he wrote in his diary, “The people are civil and well disposed, not being able to resist the force brought against them. But they are far from receiving us generally as deliverers.”

In back of all his goodwill and diplomacy, Kearny’s main purpose remained starkly military—to solidify the American victory and quash any remaining sentiments of defiance. The larger war was raging deeper in Mexico, and Kearny had almost no knowledge of how the American armies were faring. He constantly had to sift rumors of alarming developments to the south, and he had good reason to fear that Mexican reinforcements might be sent up from Chihuahua or Durango to retake Santa Fe.

Within days of his arrival in the capital, Kearny ordered the building of a mighty new fortress on a hill overlooking the town. Fort Marcy, it would be called, in honor of William Marcy, the secretary of war back in Washington. Looming over the plaza, the fort was laid out in a complex zigzag pattern like a misshapen star. Buried safely in its center was a magazine capable of storing many tons of ammunition. The fort’s walls were stuck with cannons and notched with various loopholes and crenellations. It was built over a large area, with room enough to garrison a thousand soldiers. One day Kearny took Susan Magoffin by horseback up to see the construction site, where hundreds of masons were building the enormous walls. “It is the sole master of the entire plain below,” Magoffin wrote cheerfully of the emerging fort. “Every house in the city can be torn by the artillery to atoms.”

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Kearny’s orders had been to stay in New Mexico as long as necessary to thwart any possibility of a revolt, and then to continue on posthaste to California. The general felt confident he had achieved his goal—“All is quiet and no armed force of any kind remains in the field,” he reported in mid-September. But this was a somewhat hollow statement, he must have realized, for the real war in New Mexico was not between the Americans and the Mexicans, but rather between the nomadic Indian tribes and everyone else. He had stumbled into an age-old conflict that showed no signs of abating with the American presence.

Kearny threw himself into the chaos of the Indian conflicts with his characteristic optimism and resolve, but it was clear that the problem was too complex, too multidimensional, and too long-festering for his army to “correct” during its brief stay. Knowledgeable Indian-fighters recognized that the situation with the Southwestern tribes could potentially escalate into the kind of costly, lengthy, messy war the U.S. government had recently fought against the Seminole Indians of Florida—although instead of pursuing their defiant enemy in the swamps of the Everglades, soldiers would have to fight in equally inaccessible desert mountains. Wrote Capt. William McKissack, an assistant quartermaster stationed in Santa Fe: “I fear another Florida War if the Indians desire to protract it.”

Kearny, for his part, was much more optimistic. He demanded that representatives of these “wild tribes”—the Utes, the Apaches, the Comanches, and especially the Navajos—come in for council. And if they did not “desist from all robberies and crimes,” Kearny said, he would send his soldiers amongst them “and destroy them from the earth.”

This tough talk made little impression on most of the Navajos—if they received the import of his message at all. In fact, during her short stay in Santa Fe, Susan Magoffin records that the Navajos descended on the very outskirts of the capital “and carried off some twenty families.” Perhaps realizing that she herself could be kidnapped, Magoffin seemed acutely distressed by the news, noting that “there is mourning and lamentation in the streets, for friends who may never again be seen on earth.”

In response to the attack, Kearny demanded that the Navajos return all kidnapped prisoners. Susan Magoffin, for one, was optimistic that they would heed his warning, “as the Navajos deem the general almost superhuman since he has walked in so quietly and taken possession of the palace of the great Armijo, their former fear.”

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