A month after General Kearny reached the California coast, Gov. Charles Bent of New Mexico made his way north on the icy, rutted road to Taos. Under leaden skies, his mules strained up the steep hills on the outskirts of Santa Fe and plunged into arroyos blanketed with snowdrifts. The animals snorted in the crisp desert cold, their nostrils shooting twin plumes of steam. The day was bleak and gusty, and as the governor crept through the small towns north of the capital—Santa Cruz de la Cañada, Chimayo, Trampas—the locals glowered at him. Off to his right, five thousand feet higher up in the winter mists, he and his small entourage could see the sharp triad of the Truchas Peaks, whose snaggled ridges bared themselves like a dog’s angry snarl.
Charles Bent was a shrewd, determined man with a round face and a merchant’s eye for details. Short and squat and tough, he was forty-seven years old, and his receding hair had gone prematurely gray. Bent always had business to attend to in Taos, but mainly the governor was embarked on a personal errand: He wanted to see his wife, Ignacia, and their three young children. The governor still had his giant mud fort pitched on the edge of the plains, but he rarely went there. Like his friend and brother-in-law Kit Carson, his main home was in the mountain town of Taos, seventy miles north of the capital. Since her husband had become governor, Ignacia rarely ventured down to Santa Fe—she had a busy household to run, a rambling adobe off the Taos plaza, just a stone’s throw away from Carson’s place. Ignacia always kept her sala filled with relatives and the smells of savory Mexican food. Now, in the dead of winter, the governor wanted to be home.
Traveling with Governor Bent were several Taos officials—Sheriff Steve Lee, Circuit Attorney James White Leal, and Ignacia’s uncle Cornelio Vigil, who was the Taos prefect. They had been in Santa Fe on official business and decided to ride north with the governor. Also in the party were Ignacia’s young brother Pablo Jaramillo, and another teenager named Narciso Beaubien, the bright-eyed son of a U.S. judge who’d just returned from boarding school in St. Louis. The two boys were close friends.
It was January 14, 1847. The United States had occupied Santa Fe for more than four months. Still, Governor Bent knew that the American hold on the territory was extremely tenuous. The weak military garrison back at Fort Marcy was young and inexperienced, the Missouri troops so thoroughly bored they could not be called vigilant. With Kearny and Doniphan gone, the American command was led by an impressively mutton-chopped lawyer-politician, Col. Sterling Price, a stern Missourian who, though by no means incompetent, mistakenly believed that he had a firm handle on things. In truth, the territory was seething with hatred toward the Americans. Bent could feel the spite thickening in the air, could see it in the false grins and narrowed stares of the locals. The Mexicans had failed to fight at first, but they despised these foreigners just as surely as any occupied people must despise their oppressor. Their true feelings, harbored in secret, were now bursting to the surface.
Their defiance was fueled by racial mistrust, religious zeal, and the desire to defend a country they still loved—even if their country, governed corruptly and indifferently from faraway Mexico City, had never particularly loved them. Up and down the Rio Grande the padres had fed the fires of resistance. These gringos sought to outlaw the Catholic religion, the priests warned. They would ban the Spanish tongue, scrap the fiestas and feast days, and jettison all the old ways of doing things. The priests were not above spreading wild untruths, but they had genuine reasons to feel threatened. With the Kearny Code, the Americans had already instituted radical concepts, such as the separation of church and state, and jury trials in which the padres would play no role whatsoever. What was to stop them from going even further? These Americans had godless ideas that sprang from the cold marble halls of a secular republic. The priests now understood that Washington was determined to reform the marooned Catholic world they had run for so long—and this reformation could only mean the steady erosion of their power.
What’s more, the Americans were arrogant. They called the Mexican men “greasers,” sometimes to their faces, while at the same time they freely consorted with Hispanic women. The Americans brought venereal diseases. They caroused and fought, they mangled the Spanish language, they gorged themselves like hogs. They seemed to have no concept of family or of obligation toward their homes—they just skipped about like flies, rootless, always looking to advance themselves. Their bivouacs on the edge of town were sties of filth. An epidemic of measles, thought to have originated in an American camp, swept through the Mexican and Indian populations alike, infecting thousands and killing hundreds, most of them children. Nearly every day Santa Fe held another juvenile funeral—the dead child carried through the streets on a bier strewn with flowers and borne on the shoulders of four other children, with the grieving adults following behind, drinking brandy and singing doleful songs.
Each week brought new outrages. The longer the Americans stayed, the more the people resented them—not only for the central fact of their conquest, but for the thousand little insults and daily humiliations committed by an uncouth foreigner who considered himself, in every possible way, superior.
It was not entirely surprising, then, that only a few weeks earlier, Governor Bent had discovered a Mexican plot for a full-scale insurrection. The ringleaders were said to be Tomas Ortiz, Augustin Duran, and the ever-proud Diego Archuleta, who nursed an understandable grievance against the Americans that dated back to General Kearny’s promise—sweepingly tendered but quickly welched on and then forgotten—to give the colonel control of all of New Mexico west of the Rio Grande. The insurrection plans had called for all Mexicans to rise up on the day after Christmas and murder every American in the territory. The rebellion was to start at midnight with the tolling of church bells. Governor Bent and Colonel Price were to be assassinated, the artillery on the plaza seized, and the garrison at Fort Marcy stormed. In fact, the bloody scheme was only very narrowly foiled. Madame La Tules, the Santa Fe saloon-keeper loyal to the Americans, leaked news of the revolt to the American authorities only a few days before it was set to commence. The Americans soon arrested seven of the insurrectionists, but the three ringleaders managed to escape to the south, one of them disguised as a servant girl. Governor Bent and Colonel Price put the whole province under martial law. American soldiers redoubled their patrols, and impressive guns were strategically mounted along the parapets of the city. Price optimistically wrote to his superiors that “the rebellion appears to be suppressed.”
Bent, for his part, was not too sure. Only a few weeks earlier he had issued a proclamation beseeching the people of New Mexico to “turn a deaf ear on all false doctrines and remain quiet, attending to your domestic affairs, so that you may enjoy the blessings of peace.” Bent seemed pleased that the insurgents’ “treason was discovered in time and smothered at its birth.” The governor was sufficiently confident in his own standing among the Hispanic population to believe that he could travel safely without a military guard (although his aides back in Santa Fe thought his trip extremely incautious). He had kept a home in Taos since 1832 and knew practically everyone in the village by virtue of his business dealings and his having married into the prominent Jaramillo family. Among his many other roles—trader, entrepreneur, politician—Bent over the years had established himself in the community as something of a family apothecary; although he had no formal medical training, he had a knack for diagnosing and treating health problems, and through his local store he dispensed medicines and tinctures and herbal cures to the poor of Taos, Hispanic and Indian alike, usually for no charge. Prudently or not, he did not worry for his own safety.
But Governor Bent also recognized that, in general, the Mexicans still felt a “lasting antipathy” toward the Americans. He knew that the Catholic priests of New Mexico found American rule distasteful, and they had the power to stir up trouble among the faithful. There was a particularly influential priest in Taos, in fact, an erudite and somewhat Machiavellian man named Padre Antonio Martinez who, among his many endeavors, published a Spanish-language broadsheet called El Crepusculo de la Libertad (The Dawn of Liberty), the first newspaper printed west of the Mississippi.
So powerful was Padre Martinez in the ecclesiastical affairs and political intrigues of northern New Mexico that he was known as “the Gray Eminence of Taos.” Martinez was a bitter enemy of Charles Bent. This animosity dated back many years and was perhaps related to the fact that Bent had neither forsworn his American citizenship nor converted to Catholicism when he married Ignacia. Kit Carson had shown proper deference by becoming Catholic and joining the padre’s church; Martinez, consequently, had presided over the marriage of Carson and Josefa and given the couple his formal blessing. But Charles Bent seemed to flout the protocols of the Church entirely and never sought to solemnize his common-law marriage with Ignacia. His children were, in the eyes of the Church, “natural”—that is, illegitimate.
Martinez had other long-standing differences with the governor. For one thing, he was suspicious of the various sub rosa schemes pursued by Bent and other Americans to snatch up large tracts of pristine wilderness in northeastern New Mexico from old land grants that were, Martinez felt, based on dubious historical claims. In the padre’s estimation, Bent was just another American opportunist trying to make a fast buck without cultivating any true interest in New Mexico’s traditions or people. (Indeed, the governor once wrote in a letter that Mexicans were “stupid, obstinate, ignorant, and vain.”) The padre had long viewed Bent’s Fort and its trading networks as a corrupting secular force. As a successful Missouri merchant, dealing in whiskey and trinkets and pelts often trapped illegally from Mexican territory, Bent seemed to represent all that was pernicious about American influence years before Kearny ever set foot in New Mexico. What’s more, Martinez believed that Bent had sold guns directly to various Indian tribes who used the weapons to raid Spanish settlements.
Bent, for his part, thought Martinez a corrupt and tyrannical man—and a drunk. Bent (who could be an atrocious speller in notes that went unproofread) once wrote of the Padre: “I think he is more sinsearly devoted to Baccus than any of the other gods.”
Priests like Martinez were not the only enemies Bent had to keep an eye on. In the south there were many influential landowners who presided over large haciendas on the Rio Grande. They had a good life, by and large, with plenty of Indian peons to do the work and lazy river water oozing into their fields from the acequias. In the relative terms of New Mexico, these landowners in the Rio Abajo (the “Lower River”) were wealthy, and they seemed to fear that the coming of the Americans meant that their patrician existence would be forever upset.
With so many potential flash points of discontent, Bent was understandably anxious about the future of the New Mexico territory. He worried that a new revolt might easily sprout, hydralike, from the severed neck of the old. “The principal movers,” Bent wrote to Colonel Price on Christmas Day, “may well not leave the country without a last desperate struggle.”
If he had any time for reflection as he rode toward Taos, Governor Bent must have wondered why he had accepted this thankless post. He had spent four hard months ensconced in the Palace of the Governors in Santa Fe, fretting over the intricate affairs of this volatile new U.S. territory whose many forms of turmoil were exceeded only by its poverty. He loved New Mexico for its raw beauty and wide-open ways, but it was quite another thing to try to govern this remote and benighted place. The province was a cauldron of conflict, its culture rich and old but stunted by hardship. The population of New Mexico was almost entirely illiterate and swayed by religious passions too potent to gauge, let alone manage.
During its long isolation, New Mexico had preserved archaic traditions, vestigial dialects of Spanish, and fierce strains of a sometimes unorthodox Catholicism that dated back to the most hysterical days of the Inquisition. Throughout New Mexico there were families who carried on curious traditions—lighting nine-lamped candelabras, singing verses of Hebrew, refusing to eat pork. These were the “crypto-Jews,” as they’ve been called, descendants of Spanish Jews who had fled to Mexico in the 1600s to escape the rampant anti-Semitism of the Inquisition, and then had spread to the most isolated and (they hoped) more tolerant precincts of the empire. Heeding a stubborn cultural memory, these families pursued Hebraic customs in semisecrecy, often without knowing why.
In the remote rural areas of the north were secret societies of flagellants who called themselves penitentes—pious men who went out into the countryside to enact dour passion-play processionals in which they whipped themselves to a bloody pulp and, in certain extreme circumstances, even erected wooden crosses and crucified those brethren who wished to know the fullest meaning of Christ’s suffering. (To die on the cross, some penitentes thought, guaranteed one’s place in heaven.) It was said that the floggings and other penitente rituals had only intensified since the American occupation, as though they feared that the kingdom was at hand—or at least that their religion was now under genuine threat.
As for secular entertainment, the locals had few choices. Aside from horse races and card gaming and fandangos, the chief forms of amusement in this deadly dull province seemed principally to involve chickens. There were cockfights, of course, but also the immensely popular el gallo, an old blood sport in which a living fowl was buried up to its neck in the dirt of a hard-packed yard; horsemen would then take turns galloping by and attempt to yank the rooster up by the twitching wattles of its head in a single deft motion. Then, in a final free-for-all, the caballeros would fight over the chicken as though it were a football and, in the frenzy, invariably rip their quarry to pieces.
New Mexico officials had long ago learned to accept their sorry lot and make do with very little—and so Governor Bent would also have to resign himself. The day he was appointed governor, Bent wrote a long letter to Secretary of State James Buchanan in which he complained of the sad state of affairs. The whole territory was “impoverished and undeveloped,” he said, and education was “criminally neglected.” He warned that “a rude and ignorant people are about to become citizens of the U.S.” There was no regular mail service, no law books or stationery, and not enough translators to conduct the work of government. The legal system was a joke, the bench stacked with incompetents. An army lieutenant summed up the primitive state of jurisprudence in a letter home: “All the judges of the New Mexico Superior Court together do not possess the legal knowledge of a single justice of the peace in St. Louis.”
Little had changed with the coming of the Americans. Santa Fe had always been a neglected capital, among the last to receive the news of the world and the fruits of invention. It had been the forgotten tongue-tip of the Spanish empire, and now it was a mere outpost of an expansionist American republic. Far to the south, in the agave thickets of Mexico, the war raged, and the Americans were pressing toward the real prize: Mexico City. And out west, in California, Kearny and his dragoons were consummating President Polk’s fondest desire to make the United States a continental nation, with American ports on the Pacific. But Santa Fe, true to its forlorn past, had been forgotten again. It had been successfully invaded, but not entirely conquered. Bent’s rump government crept along in spite of its conspicuous wants: not enough money, not enough troops, not enough information—an extremity feeling only the feeblest pulse of the nation to which it was newly attached.
And then, there were the Indians. The United States had in no way been able to make good on its promise to check the attacks of the marauding tribes. Every point of the compass brought danger. To the west, the Navajos, emboldened by the disappearance of General Kearny and Colonel Doniphan from New Mexico, had only stepped up their raids. The Apaches in the south, and the Kiowas and Utes in the north, were all testing the will of the Americans. On the east, the Comanches had declared open war, and wagon trains from Missouri were under constant attack along the Santa Fe Trail. The Comanches believed, with good reason, that the epidemics of smallpox and other diseases now running rife through their tribe had been brought by the Americans. As one historian put it, the Comanches blamed the white soldier “for having blown an evil breath on their children, and they were out for revenge.”
The only group of Indians that did not seem to worry the governor were the Pueblos. Though they were secretive, they had a reputation for being docile and generally peace-loving. Scattered up and down the Rio Grande, huddled in their mud apartment complexes, they were stolid farmers who loved their corn and their kiva ceremonies and their complicated dances, and they mostly wanted to be left alone. The fact that they were Christians somehow made them seem more understandable, less foreign. They of course had never abandoned their own religion, but had found clever ways to intertwine the new with the old. Their stoic culture was thought to be even-tempered and nearly impervious to change. In 1680, the Pueblos had successfully risen up against the Spanish, ejecting their oppressors from New Mexico in a bloody purge. But when the Spanish returned twelve years later, they established an absolute reign over the Pueblos. Bent believed that at least the Pueblo Indians could be counted on to go along with the new dispensation handed down by America. And of all the Pueblo tribes, officers in the Army of the West thought that the Taos Indians were the most receptive to the Americans. Lieutenant Emory had written that a Taos man “may be distinguished at once by the cordiality of his salutations. That portion of the country seems the best disposed towards the United States…. They are our fast friends now and forever.”
So it was with great surprise and some alarm that after four hard days of winter travel Governor Bent crested the brow of the sage-splashed hills and descended into his hometown of Taos, only to be accosted by a mob of hostile Indians from the Taos Pueblo. Fired with whiskey and in an uproar, they surrounded the governor and demanded that he release several Pueblo friends who were now stuck in the Taos jail. Their comrades had been arrested—wrongly, they felt—for theft.
Governor Bent waved them aside, explaining that it was not a matter in which he could intervene. The processes of law were more powerful than any governor, Bent said. The issue would be handled in due time by the courts. Their friends would just have to wait in jail.
This only incensed the Taos Indians more. As Bent pushed through the crowds, they shouted their displeasure and cut him sour looks.
The governor safely reached his home and warmed himself by the fire with Ignacia at his side. His house was a foursquare piece of New Mexico architecture, a little gloomy on the inside, its walls three feet thick, its windows small and defensive in posture, paned with sheets of mica. It had an old floor of hard-packed dirt seasoned with ox blood and piñon ash, as was the custom. The flat roof was made of dirt as well, several feet of earth packed above the supporting pine vigas. The walls were whitewashed with a plaster fashioned from a local pale clay swirled in a milky liquid of pounded wheat. The Bent children found the chalky mixture so delicious that they had a naughty habit of licking the walls.
Kit Carson’s wife Josefa was spending the night at the house, as was another young Hispanic wife of an American, Rumalda Boggs. Bent’s children were happy to have their father home, and their laughter filled the rooms. Food simmered on the corner hearth stove, and soon everyone would sit down to a convivial meal.
Beyond Bent’s window, however, an unmistakable rancor hung in the air.
Early the following morning, around six o’clock, a mob of Taos Indians and a few New Mexicans appeared outside Bent’s house. Roaring drunk and chanting war songs, they pounded on the door. In the crackly cold darkness, just before dawn, the stars shone as pinpricks in a black bowl.
Bent awoke with a start, threw on some clothes, and shuffled out to the porch. “What do you want!” he demanded groggily.
“We want your head!” came the answer. “We don’t want you to govern us!”
Recognizing the ferocity of their emotions, Bent tried to reason with them. “What have I ever done to you?” he shouted. “When you came to me with your illnesses, I always tried to help. I gave you medicines and cures. I never charged you a cent.”
The Indians answered not with words but with their bows. Feathered missiles shot at him from the shadows. It seemed as though they had drawn their weapons laxly, to maim him and make him suffer but not to kill. The governor staggered back into the house with three arrows lodged in his face—one of them buried at a queer angle in the skin of his forehead. He cursed in pain. Blood streamed down his temples and over his cheeks. Bent quickly bolted the door and turned to find Ignacia, wide-eyed with worry, dressed in her nightgown. She, too, had been slightly wounded by an arrow. The couple moved deeper into the safety of their house, trying to decide what to do. The arrows protruding from Bent’s head flopped awkwardly as he moved about the rooms. Windows were breaking all around them, and they could scarcely hear each other over the din of the pounding and shouting. Kill the Americans! The gringo must die!
Ignacia handed the governor his pistols, but he shook his head. “It’s pointless—there’s too many out there,” he said. “If I use these, they’ll massacre all of us.”
“Then why don’t you jump on one of those and go somewhere?” Ignacia pleaded, pointing out the window at the horses corralled in the courtyard.
“Ignacia, no,” Bent said. “It wouldn’t do for the governor to run away and leave his family. If they want to kill me, they can kill me here.”
Above them, they heard a terrific scraping and digging sound. Some of the mob had clambered onto the parapets; they were trying to tear away the dirt roof and bore through the ceiling. By now everyone in the household had risen—the Bents’ daughter Teresina, their son Alfredo, Josefa Carson, Rumalda Boggs, as well as an Indian servant who was probably a kidnapped Navajo. They huddled together, sobbing and shivering in fright.
One of the women devised a plan. The Bent home happened to be connected to another residence by a shared wall of thick adobe bricks. Grabbing whatever tools they could find—a fire poker, large metal spoons—the women scrambled to a back room of the house and began to claw their way through the wall. They pried the bricks apart and scraped at the mortar until they could see light on the other side.
As they worked in a frantic fury, the governor tried to buy time with the rabble outside. Shouting through a broken window, he offered them money, but they only laughed in derision. Bent’s son Alfredo appeared at his side. The boy was holding a shotgun in his hands. He peered up at his father with a determined grimace and said, “Let’s fight them, Papa.” But Bent told the boy: No, it was too late for that, hurry back to the women and help them dig.
The governor resumed his attempts to stall for time. He still clung to the hope that he could pacify the crowd. Bellowing out the window, he promised to set up a committee to hear all Indian grievances, and then offered himself up as a prisoner if they would take him away peaceably.
They would have none of it. “We will start with you,” one of them yelled back, “and then we will kill every last American in New Mexico!” A blast of musket fire drilled through the front door. One of the ricocheting bullets pierced the governor in the abdomen, another creased his chin.
By this point the women in the back room had scraped and gouged the hole until it was just big enough for a person to squeeze through. Teresina and Alfredo crawled through first, then Josefa and Rumalda. Realizing that the hordes outside were on the verge of breaking in, Ignacia insisted that Governor Bent go next.
“You’re the one they want,” she said. “Not me.”
Reluctantly, he agreed. But the governor had forgotten about the arrows buried in his head and face, and now they pinched and buckled and tore at him as he squeezed into the tight passage. In a rage, Bent stood up and plucked the arrows from his head and crushed them against the plaster wall. Then he dived back into the hole, gingerly holding his bleeding pate with one hand as he forced his stout body through to the other side.
By then the Taos Indians had broken into the house and were storming through the rooms. They seized Ignacia and one of them raised his rifle to shoot her, but the Navajo servant woman, who had lived as a peon with the Bent family for much of her life and was as loyal as she was brave, stood in front of her mistress in an attempt to shield her—and was promptly gunned down.
The Indian attacker then turned on Ignacia, striking her on the back with the butt of his gun and bringing her to her knees. He and his comrades moved on without causing her further harm. They discovered the hole in the wall and began crawling.
In the house on the other side of the wall, Governor Bent fumbled through his pockets for his memoranda book, with the notion of writing his last words, or possibly a will. He had lost a great deal of blood and was growing faint. Rumalda Boggs cradled him in her arms as he tried to compose his thoughts. He knew the invaders were pressing in on all sides, and that it was only a matter of time. Before he could write anything down, the Taos Indians stole into the building—some streaming in through the passageway from his house, others digging through the dirt roof and dropping down through the vigas.
And then, with Teresina, Alfredo, Rumalda, and Josefa watching in horror, they set upon him. The mob’s main instigator, a firebrand from the Taos Pueblo named Tomacito Romero, hoisted the governor by his suspenders and hurled him onto the hard dirt floor. They shot more arrows into his body, then riddled him with bullets. The children pleaded for mercy, but, as Teresina Bent later recalled, “Our sobbing had no power to soften their enraged hearts.” Tomacito leaned over the governor’s still-living form and raked a bowstring over his scalp, pulling away his gray hair in a glistening sheath. As Rumalda described it, the skin was “cut as cleanly with the tight cord as it would have with a knife.”
Gloating over their triumphs, crying in a drunken delight, the attackers stripped Governor Bent of all his clothes and then slashed and mutilated him until he ceased to breathe. Someone brought a board and some brass tacks. They stretched out the governor’s scalp and nailed it taut to the plank. And then they brought their trophies out into the dawn light and marched toward the town plaza and the mazy mud streets of Taos.
Bent’s children were still cringing on the floor with their Aunt Josefa, all of them cursed to be American by blood or marriage—and believing they were next.
The rampage continued all that day and into the next. The Taos Indians and their Mexican allies had vowed to kill every American in the territory, and they were making good on their promise. The entire party in which Governor Bent had traveled from Santa Fe was now marked. Prefect Cornelio Vigil was hacked to pieces. Sheriff Stephen Lee was killed on the roof of his own house. U.S. Circuit Attorney James Leal was stripped and tortured for hours in broad daylight, and then thrown, blinded but still breathing, into a ditch where he was eaten by hogs.
Next the mob set upon Narciso Beaubien and Pablo Jaramillo, apparently ignoring the fact that these boys were not American. The two young friends were hiding under a straw-covered trough in a stable not far from the Bent house when an Indian servant tipped off the rebels, saying, “Kill the young ones, and they will never be men to trouble us.” The Pueblo Indians slashed and pierced the boys with lances until they were unrecognizable.
Photo Insert 1
End of the Trail: A Missouri caravan arrives in Santa Fe after a journey of nearly one thousand miles; a lithograph from the 1840s.
“Not so much a place as a new kind of existence”: Merchant ox and mule teams crowd the streets of Santa Fe, 1867.
“Nature’s Gentleman”: One of the earliest known portraits of Kit Carson, taken in the early 1840s.
“It was all over a squaw”: An artist’s conceptualization of Kit Carson’s 1835 duel with the French trapper Chouinard at the Green River mountain-man rendezvous.
“A good girl, a good housewife, and good to look at”: An idealized portrait of Carson’s first wife, the Arapaho beauty Singing Grass.
“Prompt, self-sacrificing, and true”: An illustration depicting Carson and Alex Godey triumphantly returning stolen horses (with the scalps of the Indian horse thieves dangling from Godey’s rifle barrel).
“The finest head I ever saw on an Indian”: Narbona, Navajo elder, as sketched by expedition artist Richard Kern on August 31, 1849, the same day the great leader was killed by American troops.
The sacred peak of the South: Blue Bead Mountain (a.k.a. Mount Taylor), a landmark of Narbona’s country, as sketched by Richard Kern on September 18, 1849.
The great houses of Chaco Canyon, widely considered the most magnificent prehistoric ruins in the American West, as drawn by Kern on August 27, 1849.
“What a wild life!”: Army explorer (and notorious glory hound) John Charles Fremont, a.k.a. the Pathfinder.
“The better man of the two”: Jessie Benton Fremont, the explorer’s gifted—and utterly devoted—wife.
“An aggressive patriotism”: Senator Thomas Hart Benton of Missouri, the roaring apostle of Manifest Destiny.
“The hardest-working man in America”: President James K. Polk, land-hungry instigator of the Mexican War.
“We will correct all this”: General Stephen Watts Kearny, conqueror of New Mexico and California, sometimes called the father of the American cavalry.
“A year that will always be remembered by my countrymen”: Susan Magoffin, whose diary of the 1846 conquest has become a Western classic.
“A beauty of the haughty, heart-breaking kind”: Josefa Jaramillo Carson with unidentified child.
“Carson’s home, sentimentally if not in fact”: A lithograph of Taos, New Mexico, from the 1850s.
“My happiness directs me to my home and family”: The Kit Carson House, photographed in the 1930s.
Taos Pueblo: One of the oldest continually inhabited villages in North America—originally settled around A.D. 1300—the pueblo was the site of the bloody American siege that ended the 1847 Taos Revolt.
Now the rebels swarmed in all directions. They broke open the jail and freed the two Pueblo Indian prisoners whose incarceration had sparked their ire. They smashed into Bent’s store and picked the place clean. They broke into Kit Carson’s house, too, and pillaged everything; if Carson had been home and not off in California, he almost certainly would have been attacked and killed.
The revolt spread to other parts of the north. Mexicans set upon U.S. pack trains and grazing camps, killing all Americans they could find and stealing large herds of animals. Every American trader, merchant, and mountain man was now in mortal danger. Near the town of Mora, some forty miles to the southeast, eight Americans traveling in a caravan were murdered in cold blood. In the tiny settlement of Arroyo Hondo, north of Taos, a force of several hundred Pueblo Indians surrounded the house of a well-known American named Simeon Turley, who ran the distillery that produced Taos Lightning, the pure-grain alcohol on which many of the Indians were now drunk. As it happened, nine American trappers were staying at the Turley mill that day, most of them friends of Charles Bent and Carson. The Indians encircled the place and, after a prolonged siege, killed all but two of the Americans, who managed to escape under cover of night.
All told, seventeen Americans were murdered in the opening hours of the revolt, but the rebels were not yet sated. Now a ragtag force of nearly a thousand insurrectionists, Indian and Mexican alike, were clamoring toward Santa Fe, collecting recruits as they marched south. Delirious from their initial success, they now planned to overtake Fort Marcy and storm the Palace of the Governors, driving out every trace of the American presence.
What had started as a localized Indian grievance had ignited into a full-scale Hispanic rebellion of the north. Yet it was not entirely spontaneous, for the revolution almost certainly was encouraged by certain Catholic priests around Taos—Padre Antonio Martinez was widely suspected—and possibly by influential penitente leaders as well. The revolt did not greatly differ in sentiment or design from earlier plots that had been laid for the December insurrection, the one that Bent and Price had narrowly thwarted just before Christmas. The Taos rebels had not formulated much of a plan other than to drive the Americans out, but with so much discontent on which to feed, that was enough.
For some reason the rebels spared the lives of the women and children huddled inside the Bent home. After stealing nearly everything from the house, the Indians told the family to stay put, that under no circumstances should they leave the premises or they would be killed. As Teresina Bent later recalled, “They ordered that no one should feed us, and then left us alone with our great sorrow.” The Bents only had their nightgowns to wear, because the mob had taken all their other clothes.
As the revolt fanned out over the north, Spanish women who were married to gringos prepared pastes of mud and spices to daub on their fair-complected half-American children so they might look darker. Whether Ignacia Bent went to these lengths with her own children, the record does not show. But that first night, Josefa Carson disguised herself as an Indian slave and slipped away to live at a friend’s house, where she ground corn at a metate and kept to other menial tasks expected of a New Mexico servant.
For two days the Bent family grieved and starved in their bare cold house while the governor’s scalped body lay naked on the floor in a congealed pool of blood.
On January 21, 1847, when Sterling Price learned what horrors had transpired in the north, he flew into action, swiftly mustering a force to put down the revolt. The colonel decided not to wait for the Taos rebels to come to him, but rather to meet them head-on, thus stanching their hopes of gathering more recruits as they swarmed south toward Santa Fe. It was a bold decision to leave the capital undefended and thus vulnerable to insurgents who might materialize from other quarters, but Price thought it was worth the risk. He left Fort Marcy on the frigid morning of January 23 with four mountain howitzers and five companies of Missouri soldiers. Also in his party was a company of New Mexico volunteers, commanded by Ceran St. Vrain, a legendary Missouri fur trapper of French-Canadian descent who was Governor Bent’s business partner and part owner of Bent’s Fort.
St. Vrain was a burly man from St. Louis with great appetites, a connoisseur of good brandy, bawdy stories, and French obscenities. Historian David Lavender describes him as a “convivial figure, with a glossy black beard and wide-set eyes that were quick to crinkle in humor.” The volunteers St. Vrain managed to call up were a spirited hodgepodge that included suspenders-wearing American merchants, hirsute mountain men, and a surprising number of Mexicans who had suddenly seen the advantages of demonstrating their allegiance to the United States of America. For his part, St. Vrain’s cause was intensely personal: Like his friend Kit Carson, he had learned the frontier code of loyalty and swift reprisal, and now the seasoned mountain man was determined to “count coup” on those who’d murdered one of his own.
Another unlikely enlistee in this ad hoc army was a black man known as Dick Green: He was Charles Bent’s slave, whom the governor had left behind in Santa Fe. Apparently moved by genuine sorrow and outrage, Green wanted to do his part to avenge his master’s death.
Sterling Price’s force, numbering nearly four hundred men, marched northward from the capital, fired by an urgent fury. “We were tiger-like in our craving for revenge,” one American trapper recalled. But the thick snow soon stymied their march. Many of Price’s men got frostbitten feet as they slogged through the same tiny settlements that Governor Bent and his entourage had passed through a week earlier. This time the villagers did not scowl at the Americans; in fact, they scarcely showed their faces at all. It was plain to see that this army was out for blood—and that little would be required to provoke it. Whatever their true loyalties, the locals were prudent enough to stay out of sight, keeping to their high-walled plazas and adobe compounds.
At half past one on the afternoon of January 24, the Americans met the forward lines of the Taos rebels outside the rural village of Santa Cruz de la Cañada. Price’s soldiers mounted a series of ferocious charges, fighting from hilltop to hilltop, and from door to door, until the insurgents were rooted from their holes and thrown back in retreat just before dusk. The American forces at La Cañada suffered only eight casualties. Thirty-six of the enemy lay dead.
Two days later Price’s men encountered another line of resistance in a canyon near a place along the Rio Grande called Embudo. “Soon the enemy began to retire, bounding along the rugged mountains,” Price reported with pleasure. In the fray, St. Vrain lost only two men while the rebels counted upward of twenty dead and another sixty wounded.
Other than deep snowdrifts, no further obstacles stood in the way of Price’s last push into Taos. Scouts brought word to the colonel that the insurgents had all fallen back to the safety of Taos Pueblo, where in their thousands they were barricading themselves behind the massive adobe walls, preparing for a final stand.
First settled around A.D. 1300, Taos Pueblo was one of the oldest continually inhabited places in North America. The pueblo’s two enormous apartment complexes lay separated from each other by an icy creek that spilled from the looming Sangre de Cristo Mountains. The source of the people’s drinking water, the creek originated in a beautiful alpine lake that figured prominently in the tribe’s cosmology. With the two seven-storied buildings rising from the banks as though replying to one another, the village hunkered in an exquisite symmetry. The staggered rooflines were connected by scores of wooden ladders, and the long centuries had left the mud-slathered ramparts gracefully mottled and warped. Piñon smoke issued from the sunken kivas where the men gathered in council. Women scurried about in their bright blankets and doeskin boots, tending to their outdoor ovens, shaped like beehives, in which they baked the soft round bread that was a staple of the tribe. To the immediate east the snowy mountain peaks rose to a crowding height of nearly thirteen thousand feet, slabs and shards of rock arrayed in sublime confusion. Surrounded by high wooden fences and thick defensive walls, the village looked like a medieval Moroccan citadel set against the Atlas Mountains.
At the northwestern corner stood the enormous mission church of St. Jerome, whose twin belltowers rose thirty feet into the gray winter sky. It was a formidable building hugged close by an old graveyard jumbled with crosses. With bulging walls more than six feet thick, the St. Jerome mission offered an obvious refuge, and so it was here where most of the rebels massed. Perhaps the Taos Indians thought the American army would never dare attack a Catholic church—or even if it did, that the numerous holy relics and santos stashed along the vestibule walls and niches would protect them. If they had to die, they preferred to die here, closer to God; it was the one place in the world where they felt safe. Inside the dark and draughty cavern, bathed in the guttering light of votive candles, the rebels crudely punched loopholes into the walls from which to fire their weapons. And they waited.
When Colonel Price led his army to the walls of Taos Pueblo on the bitterly cold early morning of February 4, he was immediately impressed and daunted by the pueblo, finding it “a place of great strength, admirably calculated for defence.” From a tactical military standpoint, it presented puzzles of complexity he had never faced before. The ladders of the two great houses were all drawn up now, and, as one historian later put it, “their occupants waited within like creatures in burrows listening for a favorable change in the weather.” Price had Ceran St. Vrain and his trappers form a half circle around the eastern side of the town “to discover and intercept any fugitives who might attempt to escape toward the mountains.” Then the colonel ranged his artillery pieces around the mission and for two hours unleashed an intense bombardment. But the church walls were so thick and at the same time so soft that the shells did scarcely any damage—the friable mud bricks seemed to swallow up the balls and absorb the shock of their detonations.
Frustrated, Price told his artillerymen to cease fire, and then ordered a company of his soldiers under a Capt. J. H. K. Burgwin to charge the western and northern flanks of the church. Burgwin was one of Kearny’s best-trained dragoons, “as brave a soldier as was ever seen on the frontier,” according to one old trapper who watched him fight. Through withering fire, Burgwin’s men ran right up to the mission walls and began hacking into the adobe bricks with hatchets and axes. But Burgwin’s sappers were no more effective than the artillery shells had been at breaching the ramparts, so the captain hastened around to the front of the church with some of his men and attempted to break down the immense wooden door.
This sortie proved overly bold, however. Burgwin left himself exposed to direct fire from the rebel loopholes, and he was promptly cut down by a sniper within the church. With their captain slain, Burgwin’s men redoubled their efforts and finally managed to chip away a small hole in the wall with their axes. Some lit fused shells with matches and tossed them into the church by hand while others propped crude ladders against the walls and ascended with torches to ignite the roof.
By three o’clock in the afternoon an inferno was blazing from the rooftop. Colonel Price rolled his six-pounder—a howitzer that fired a six-pound shell packed with grapeshot—within fifty yards of the mission. The artillery piece pummeled the building with ten rounds, and when the dust thinned it was discovered that one of the shells had directly struck and enlarged the ragged hole that Burgwin’s ax-men had initiated; the breach was now nearly wide enough to admit a person. Encouraged by this, Price had his artillerymen draw the six-pounder within ten yards and blast away at the fissure until it was a yawning gap. This point-blank bombardment resulted in a wholesale slaughter inside; scores of Taos Indians packed in the mission were sliced to pieces by hot shrapnel, and the Americans outside could clearly hear their pitiful cries of agony. As one participant recalled, “The mingled noise of bursting shells and the shrieks of the wounded was most appalling.”
Now Price’s soldiers stormed through the breach. One of the first to leap inside was Dick Green, Charles Bent’s black slave. Inside the mission it was intensely hot and thick with acrid smoke, and mangled forms lay moaning on the floor. Most of the defenders were either dead, wounded, or fast quitting the church through a back door and fleeing east toward the mountains. Those who still dared to put up a fight were soon gunned down or killed in hand-to-hand fighting. There was a suicidally brave Delaware Indian married into the Taos tribe who was, according to one account, “a keen shot and the most desperate of the enemy.” The Delaware refused to surrender even as the blackened church rafters creaked and sagged in imminent collapse. The Americans chased him to a back room behind the altar and riddled him with thirty balls.
The church had become a charnel house, the smoke inside “so dense it was impossible to exist in it,” wrote one young artillery officer. Eager to declare victory, the troops planted the Stars and Stripes in one of the sturdy mud walls of the church, but several retreating Mexicans stopped long enough to shoot it to tatters.
East of the Pueblo, hidden in the brush, their weapons loaded and cocked, Ceran St. Vrain’s volunteers waited. As the insurgents scurried for the foothills, the company slaughtered more than fifty of them, dropping the first wave with well-placed bullets, then chasing down the rest with clubs and knives. One of the men succinctly recalled, “They fled in every direction. Not much quarter was asked or given.” St. Vrain himself was nearly killed by an Indian who, playing dead, suddenly sprang upon him with a steel-tipped spear.
Later, one of the escaping Taos Indians emerged from a thicket of sage and cringed before St. Vrain’s lynching squads, calling out, “Bueno! Bueno! Me like Americanos.”
One of the trappers curtly replied in Spanish, “If you like the Americans, take this sword and return to the brush, and kill all the rebels you find there.”
The terrified Indian accepted the sword and disappeared into the sage as he’d been told. A few minutes later he returned with his blade “dripping with gore,” according to one trapper account.
“I have killed them,” the Pueblo Indian reported, although the blood on the sword may well have been from the body of a fellow countryman—or a Mexican ally—who had already fallen in battle.
The American trapper who had dispatched him on his errand raised his Hawken rifle in disgust and replied, “Well, then you ought to die for killing your own people,” and shot the Indian dead.
The battle for Taos raged the rest of the day and into the next. Colonel Price’s soldiers went door to door, ransacking the place in search of holdouts. They camped inside the northern pueblo, which the Indians had abandoned, and feasted on the Taos cattle and corn and wheat. They lowered Captain Burgwin into a grave, and then buried thirty other Americans en masse in a long trench near the still-smoldering church, not far from where they’d fallen. Price’s lieutenants arrested scores of rebels, Pueblo and Mexican alike, including Tomacito Romero, the man who had scalped Governor Bent alive. Tomacito was confined in a cell to await a formal trial, but an angry dragoon visited him under the pretense of questioning him. The soldier promptly drew his pistol and shot the Indian leader in the head.
Finally, on the third day, the distraught women of the pueblo emerged from the southern apartment complex bearing white flags and sacred relics to offer the Americans. As one witness put it, “They kneeled before the colonel to supplicate for the lives of their surviving friends.” Colonel Price accepted their surrender under the condition that these Pueblos turn over other leaders of the insurrection.
Nearly two hundred Pueblo Indians had lost their lives and many more lay wounded. The Pueblos had been utterly defeated. The day after the battle, a young Cincinnati writer named Lewis Garrard walked over the charred and rubbled remains of the village. Garrard, who had traveled to Taos with a group of trappers from Bent’s Fort, captured the desolation of the village with pathos. “A few half scared Pueblos walked listlessly about, staring in a state of gloomy abstraction,” he wrote. “Their leaders were dead, their grain and cattle gone, their church in ruins, the flower of the nation slain or under sentence of death. In the superstitious belief of the protection afforded by the holy Church, they were astounded beyond measure that they should be forsaken in the hour of need. That los diablos Americanos should, within the limits of consecrated ground, trample triumphant, was too much to bear.”
A few weeks later a government wagon was parked beneath a leafless cottonwood tree. Two mules were harnessed to the vehicle, and they stood still on this bright cold morning, unaware of their present purpose. A long plank was set across the rear of the wagon, overlapping each side by several feet. From a gnarled gray branch of the tree dangled six rope nooses, recently moistened with soapy water to make them pliable.
People were crowded on the rooftops, trying to get a glimpse of the first public hanging Taos had ever known. A guard of soldiers led the six condemned Pueblo Indians through the town and to the gallows. During the trial, the prisoners had been confined to a cold, dark, filthy room, and now their appearance was deplorable. Lewis Garrard described them as “trembling wretches…miserable in dress, ragged, lousy, greasy, and unwashed.” They were marched to the tree and told to climb up in the wagon. They had to be careful to balance the plank just right. Two stepped on the middle of the board, while the two other couples offset each other, perching on the overhanging ends. Now the six stood facing the mule-driver, so close together that their arms touched. The sheriff adjusted the nooses around their necks.
“Mi madre, mi padre,” one of the doomed was heard to mutter. Then another yelled, through gritted teeth: “Carajo, los Americanos.”
Their trials had been crude. Judge Carlos Beaubien, whose own son had been murdered in the revolt, presided. Ceran St. Vrain served as court interpreter. And the jury box was packed with vindictive Americans who’d had loved ones die and property stolen.
Ignacia Bent and Josefa Carson had testified convincingly in court, sharing the grisly details of the governor’s murder. Yet many of the insurgents had been convicted not for murder, but for treason—quite a feat of legal legerdemain when one considers that Mexico was still at war with the United States. Lewis Garrard, who observed the trials, was puzzled and then incensed by the charge. “To conquer a country and then arraign the revolting inhabitants for treason,” Garrard wrote, “certainly was a great assumption. What did these poor devils know about their new allegiance?”
Whatever the charge, the sentences had all come down the same, pronounced by the solemn voice of Judge Beaubien—“Muerto, muerto, muerto.”
The massacre of Governor Bent had been instigated by Pueblo Indians, it is true—by several dozen of the most desperate members of the tribe. But the larger revolt, the province-wide revolution, had been smiled upon—and in all likelihood masterminded—by a few well-placed Mexican leaders and Catholic priests who would forever remain in the shadows, their identities unknown, their conspiratorial roles suspected but never proven.
So the Pueblo Indians would pay the price. Precisely what they had been promised for defying the Americans, precisely what they had expected to gain in return, no one knows—the Taos Indians never wrote their own account of the revolt. (Even today, if you visit the lovely Pueblo, with its old mission church still moldering in ruins, the locals will gently admonish you for even asking if such an account exists. “Everything is oral here,” they say, the old days are not open for study, and those events of 1847 are never to be spoken of, except perhaps in the smoky safety of the kivas.)
Now the American sheriff gave the signal, and the driver hawed the mules forward. The doomed kept their feet on the board until the last possible moment. With a sudden snap, the men fell in unison and the nooses yanked tightly. Garrard described how their bodies swayed back and forth, and how in coming in contact with each other, they shuddered convulsively. “The muscles would relax and again contract,” he wrote, “and the bodies writhed most horribly.”
But in this random twisting, the hands of two of the Taos Indians found each other. Garrard noticed that their fingers became locked in a firm grip, a handshake of brotherhood, “which they held till the muscles loosened in death.”