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1847 Taos Rebellion
By William H. Wroth
In the summer of 1846 General Stephen Watts Kearny marched with 1750 troops over 850 miles across the Plains from Fort Leavenworth and invaded the Mexican territory of New Mexico. On August 18 the American forces took possession of the city of Santa Fe without a battle, as Governor Manuel Armijo had retreated to Chihuahua, rather than engage in battle. Thus began the American occupation of New Mexico, one of the easiest victories in the Mexican-American War. Kearny in his famous first speech in Santa Fe as military governor of New Mexico assured the populace that the United States government would respect their property and their religion and protect them from marauding Indians. With the territory seemingly pacified and the residents seemingly welcoming or resigned to the American occupation, in September 1846 Kearny appointed the Taos trader Charles Bent as governor of New Mexico Territory and went on to California. He left Colonel Sterling Price and a smaller contingent of troops in Santa Fe to maintain the peace.
Many New Mexicans, however, were not at all pleased with the new regime. They resented the invasion, the loss of sovereignty, and being cut off from Mexico. Some were afraid of losing their land (and in fact later many of them did). Also the occupying American soldiers and their ethnocentric attitudes were a continual source of friction. The rebellion has been depicted, both in accounts written at the time and even in more recent works, as the plotting of “barbarous” Indians and the poorer class of uneducated Hispanos, but in fact resentment against the American invaders and the consequent loss of sovereignty was shared by all classes. Members of some leading families in Santa Fe and Albuquerque began plotting a rebellion to take place in December 1846. Two of their leaders were Diego Archuleta and Tomás Ortiz. Archuleta was a military officer and son of Juan Andrés Archuleta, the former military commander of New Mexico; Ortiz was the brother of the vicar of Santa Fe, Father Juan Felipe Ortiz. The elaborate plans of the conspirators to take back control of New Mexico were found out before any actions occurred, and many of them were arrested, which seemed to Governor Bent to be the end of the rebellion.
On January 14 1847 Bent traveled to his home in Taos without military accompaniment, not expecting any trouble. Early in the morning of January 19 a newly-formed group of Hispanic and Taos Indian rebels under the leadership of Pablo Montoya, a vecino of Taos, and Tomás (Tomasito) Romero, a Taos Pueblo member, broke into Bent’s house and killed him, along with his brother-in-law Pablo Jaramillo, Taos sheriff Stephen Lee, Judge Cornelio Vigil, attorney J.W. Leal, and Narciso Beaubien, the nineteen-year-old son of Charles Beaubien.
Pablo Montoya was the commanding officer of the rebellion and he is said to have called himself “the Santa Ana of the North.” Ten years earlier he had played a controversial role in the Rebellion of 1837. In September 1837 he led an army of 3000 rebels to within a league and a half of Santa Fe where he arranged a truce with General Armijo and gained his personal immunity by turning over the original fomenters of the rebellion, who were then jailed in Santa Fe and later executed, while Montoya was allowed to return to his home.
In Taos Father Antonio José Martínez was accused of complicity in the rebellion by American commentators, a charge still perpetuated in recent literature, but the facts of the matter make this accusation most unlikely. Over the years he had maintained good relationships with most of the Anglo-Americans who had settled in Taos (although his relations with Bent were strained). Immediately following the American occupation of Santa Fe in 1846, he met with General Kearny and later loaned him his printing press, the only one then in the territory, sending it down to Santa Fe for Kearny’s use. Father Martínez also provided sanctuary at his home for Sheriff Lee’s brother Elliot Lee and several others fleeing from the rebels. He tried unsuccessfully to convince the rebels of both the moral wrong of killing unarmed people and the futility of trying to drive out the powerful Americans. The priest urged moderation on both sides. He testified neutrally at Pablo Montoya’s trial and later wrote a letter to Colonel Price complaining about the lack of due process and the unfairness of the conduct of the trials of the insurgents. Proper to the role of a priest, he conducted burials of the dead on both sides.
After the murders in Taos a large contingent of the rebels then went on to nearby Arroyo Hondo where they attacked Simeon Turley’s mill and distillery. After a long siege they killed Turley and six other men and burned down the distillery. One of their motivations for destroying the distillery may have been the simmering resentment of the corruptive effects of American whiskey on the local population. Two more Americans were killed by the rebels in Rio Colorado (now Questa), north of Arroyo Hondo.
Colonel Price in Santa Fe was soon alerted about the rebellion and marshaled his forces to suppress it. He began to march north on January 23, and at the same time the rebels were marching south with the intention of attacking Santa Fe. He met them near Santa Cruz de la Cañada and with superior force of arms caused them to scatter and retreat. A smaller battle took place near Embudo on January 27 with the same result; then Price and his men marched east to Las Trampas, through Chamisal and over the pass (now known as U. S. Hill) to the Taos valley community of Rio Chiquito where they camped on the night of February 2.
On February 3 Colonel Price marched through the town of Taos without opposition and found the rebels assembled in the Taos Pueblo. As Price began to lay siege to the Pueblo, the rebels took refuge in the Pueblo church of San Gerónimo de Taos. Ignoring the sanctity of the church, he blew holes with cannons in its thick adobe walls and set it on fire, forcing the rebels to flee. In the ensuing melee over 150 Indian and Hispanic New Mexicans were killed and the church virtually destroyed. Seven American soldiers were killed, including Captain John H. K. Burgwin, for whom Fort Burgwin was later named. The next day the people of the Pueblo sued for peace which Price granted on condition that they turn over Tomás Romero, the Pueblo rebel leader. In addition to Romero, Pablo Montoya and other rebels were also captured.
On January 20 another insurgent leader, Manuel Cortez, organized a group of about 200 armed men in the Mora area. They first killed some traveling American merchants, and then took over the town of Mora. On January 24 Captain Israel R. Hendley with 80 American troops attacked Mora, and a house-to-house battle followed. Hendley was killed in the battle and the American troops then retreated to Las Vegas, claiming twenty-five rebels killed in the battle and seventeen captured. On February 1 Captain Jesse I. Morin, replacing Hendley, returned to Mora with 200 troops and a howitzer. All the inhabitants fled to the mountains, and Morin and his men destroyed the entire town, burning and razing all the homes and other buildings and burning their wheat fields.
The chief rebel leaders captured at Taos Pueblo, Pablo Montoya and Tomás Romero, quickly met their deaths. Romero was imprisoned, and then murdered in his cell by a soldier the day after the Taos battle. On Ferbuary 6 Montoya was brought before a drumhead court-martial and quickly sentenced to death. He was hung in Taos on February 7, 1847. The rest of the captured rebels were jailed and on April 5 brought before a court headed by Judge Charles Beaubien, whose son Narciso had been killed by the rebels. In this trial fifteen of the sixteen men accused of murder and one of the five accused of treason were sentenced to death. Observers at the time and later commented on the illogic and in fact illegality of convicting citizens of another nation of “treason.” However, the accused had no one to defend them and no recourse to appeals. The men sentenced to death were executed in a series of hangings in Taos on April 9, April 30, and May 7.
With the exception of one later incident, this ended the rebellion in Taos, but on the eastern slope of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains it continued for several months. The leader of the rebellion in Mora, Manuel Cortez, was not captured when the American army invaded that town on February 1. Cortez and his men, apparently with the aid of Comanche, Apache, and Cheyenne allies, continued to wage guerrilla warfare against the Americans. On May 20 near Wagon Mound the rebels attacked an army wagon train and grazing party under command of Captain Robinson. They killed one soldier, wounded two others, and made off with about two hundred horses and cattle. Major Edmundson, commander at Las Vegas, went in pursuit of the rebels with a detachment of troops and met them on May 26 in a canyon of the Canadian River. In the ensuing battle the American troops ran short of ammunition and had to retreat without defeating the rebels or recapturing the lost livestock.
In early June Lieutenant R. T. Brown attempted to retrieve livestock taken by the rebels from Las Vegas. He and three soldiers with him were killed by the rebels. Major Edmundson responded by attacking Las Vegas where he killed ten or twelve men and took about 50 prisoners, at the same time burning down the mill of the alcalde of Las Vegas, Juan De Dios Maes, whom he suspected of complicity in the rebellion. The prisoners were sent to Santa Fe, some of them later tried by court-martial, sentenced to death, and executed by hanging.
Two more battles with the rebels took place in July 1847. A detachment of 31 American troops was attacked at La Cienega near Taos, and Lieutenant Larkin and five soldiers were killed, nine others wounded. A final battle with the forces of Manuel Cortez took place later in July near the village of Anton Chico, in which Cortez was apparently killed and about 50 prisoners captured and sent to Santa Fe. In Santa Fe 25 or 30 prisoners were tried by court-martial, sentenced to death and hanged, the final hanging taking place on August 3, 1847. Although Price continued to worry about the constant rumors reported to him of further plans for insurrections, the rebellion died out after July 1847 and diminished into isolated raids and the theft of livestock.
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