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David Meriwether

Born: 1800 - Died: 1892

David Meriwether (1800-1892) was the third governor of New Mexico Territory, serving from 1853 to 1857 and also served as Superintendent of Indian Affairs for New Mexico. He had a colorful early career as a would-be trader in Spanish-colonial New Mexico which no doubt figured in his 1853 appointment. Meriwether was born in Louisa County, Virginia on October 30, 1800. He was a cousin of Meriwether Lewis of Lewis and Clark fame. As a child he moved with his family to Kentucky where at age 11 his adventures began. After the 1811 Pigeon Roost massacre in southern Indiana, he was sent on horseback to raise the alarm among his neighbors who attempted in vain to engage the perpetrators of the massacre. At age 14 during the War of 1812 he was entrusted with delivering a message from Louisville to the state legislature in Frankfort concerning the provisioning of two regiments of American soldiers who had just arrived in Louisville by riverboat.

In March 1819 a friend of his father, Colonel John O’Fallon asked Meriwether to work for him in the Indian trade up the Missouri River. O’Fallon was sutler for the Major Stephen H. Long Yellowstone expedition, a follow-up of the Lewis and Clark expedition, and Meriwether was employed to assist him in his duties and in trading with the Indians. By the spring of 1820 Meriwether had proved his competence on the Yellowstone expedition and was asked to open trade with the Pawnee Villages. Among the Pawnees he heard that the Spanish territory of New Mexico had large deposits of gold and silver. Returning to Council Bluffs, he proposed to his employers that he go on a trading expedition to New Mexico. O’Fallon and his partner Captain Lewis Bissell agreed and supplied him with goods and necessities for the trip, including a companion and servant, a young Black man named Alfred, who among other duties served as his cook. In June Meriwether and Alfred returned to the Pawnees and organized a party of 17 of them, led by a chief named Big Elk.

Upon reaching northeastern New Mexico, their party was attacked by Spanish soldiers on the banks of the Canadian River. Many of the Pawnees were killed, and Meriwether and Alfred were captured and taken to Santa Fe where they were brought before Governor Facundo Melgares. The governor accused Meriwether of being a spy for the United States and incarcerated him in the prison of the Palace of the Governors. Meriwether knew no Spanish and could not effectively communicate with Governor Melgares who knew no English. However, a Catholic priest in Santa Fe came to his jail cell and they were able to communicate in French, Meriwether having learned it while living with a French family in Louisville. The priest interceded for him with the governor and Meriwether was allowed to leave the jail and live in the priest’s residence. Finally Governor Melgares released Meriwether after one month with the promise that he would never return to New Mexico. Ironically he was to return to serve as governor over 30 years later in the same gubernatorial palace next to which he had been jailed. An anecdote from Meriwether’s days as governor, and reported by W. W. H.  Davis is that the roof of the old prison where he had been incarcerated in 1820 collapsed on the day of his inauguration, and was said to be a good sign for the beginning of his administration.

Meriwether’s servant Alfred was also released and the two reunited much to Alfred’s delight: “On coming up the next morning with the priest, I saw my Negro boy holding three mules at the door of the Governor’s and making a fine display of his ivory, saying, ‘Marse Dave, I never expected to see you again.’” With the three mules and other supplies and an armed guard, all provided by the Governor, Meriwether and Alfred set off for the United States, crossing the pass to the Pecos river and traveling northeast until they encountered Big Elk and two of his surviving companions at a pre-arranged rendezvous. With winter coming on they finally camped in a cave on a tributary of the Platte River where they stayed for about two months.  According to W. W. H. Davis, among their adventures with hostile Indians as they traveled there was a fight between Meriwether and an Indian “chief.” Just as his opponent wounded him in the thigh with his lance, causing him to faint from loss of blood, Alfred came to the rescue, killing the Indian with a hatchet, and thus saving Meriwether’s life. For this act Meriwether released Alfred from servitude when they returned to Kentucky.

Upon his return from Santa Fe Meriwether continued through the year 1822 in the employ of O’Fallon and Bissell with more trips up the Missouri. In February 1823 he married Sarah H. Leonard who lived directly across the Ohio River from his home in Kentucky. The newly-married couple settled on land given them by Meriwether’s father in Jefferson County, Kentucky where Meriwether farmed and practiced law. He began a long career in state politics, serving in the Kentucky House of Representatives from 1832 to 1845. In 1846 he was an unsuccessful Democratic candidate for the United States Congress. In 1849 he was a delegate to the State constitutional convention and served as Secretary of the State of Kentucky in 1851. In 1852 Meriwether was appointed to the United States Senate to fill the vacancy caused by the death of Henry Clay and served from July 6, to August 31, 1852, when a successor was elected. 

In 1853 President Franklin Pierce, a cousin by marriage of Meriwether, appointed him Governor of New Mexico Territory. Meriwether’s experience in the fur trade dealing with Native Americans and especially his early experiences in New Mexico no doubt were important factors in justifying his appointment. In his first interview with Pierce, Meriwether demonstrated his grasp of issues concerning the Mexican border. Pierce was concerned that new hostilities between the United States and Mexico were likely to break out, and one of Meriwether’s first duties as Governor was to help in the resolution of the border issues and achieve better relations between the two countries.  On his way to New Mexico an encounter with a party of Kiowa Indians resulted in the release of two captured Mexican girls. When he reached Santa Fe, Meriwether quickly sent the girls down to El Paso and thence to their homes in Chihuahua, thereby winning the support of Chihuahua governor Angel Trias. After the signing of the Gadsden Purchase treaty between the United States and Mexico December 30, 1853, Meriwether successfully negotiated with Governor Trias the transfer of the disputed territory in southern New Mexico from Mexico to United States possession. Trias was concerned with the protection of the former Mexican citizens living in this region from hostile Indian attacks, and Meriwether responded by increasing the number of United States troops in southern New Mexico. On November 15, 1854 Meriwether met with Governor Trias at Fort Bliss in El Paso and the next day the United States took formal possession of the Mesilla Valley.

Just prior to his appointment there had been a lot of friction in the territory between the newly established American administration and the nomadic Indian tribes, and much of  Meriwether’s time as governor was  taken up with Indian affairs. However, first he had to deal with political issues due to the election of the Democrat, Franklin Pierce. Meriwether’s arrival in Santa Fe was not welcomed by a number of Americans who were of Whig sympathy or who had been Whig political appointees. He had strong opposition on a variety of issues from, among others, former governor William Carr Lane and James L. Collins, publisher of the Santa Fe Gazette. Soon after his arrival Meriwether awoke one morning to find that he and Judge J. J. Davenport, recently appointed chief justice of New Mexico, had been hung in effigy on the plaza by disgruntled but unidentified Whigs.

The transfer of New Mexico to United States sovereignty after 1846 had produced changes in the delicate balance previously existing between the Hispanic settlers and the nomadic Native American tribes, who were often characterized, in contrast to the more peaceful and ostensibly Catholic Pueblo Indians, as “wild,” “uncivilized,” and “heathen.” The United States policy towards these tribes was an unapologetic desire to defeat and control them, and the policies of Governor Meriwether were no exception. However, he approached tribal issues in an intelligent manner and in a spirit of fairness that was unusual for the day. In 1854 Meriwether pacified a band of Utes by actually attempting to bring a Hispanic man to justice for the murder of a Ute. The Ute leaders, Chico and Tamouche, were surprised and of course pleased to see this response and began to cooperate with American authorities.  But some of the Utes bands, allied with the Jicarilla Apaches, were proving exceedingly hard to control in northern New Mexico. The Utes were renowned for their courage and prowess in warfare and had been raiding extensively north of Taos to the San Luis valley and the Front Range of Colorado, which had traditionally been their territory. The regular U. S. Army forces were having trouble containing them, so Meriwether, at the request of General John Garland, called for a battalion of volunteers to supplement the regular troops. He appointed a prominent Taos merchant and fur trader, Ceran St. Vrain, as commander. By the summer of 1855 many of the Indians were tired of persistent warfare which was disrupting their life and impoverishing them. In August Meriwether met with a delegation of Muache Utes and Jicarilla Apaches and made treaties with them in which the Indians agreed to stop raiding and to give up claims to all lands outside of the reservations to be established for them. Meriwether, on behalf of the government, hoped to transform them into farmers and promised to issue them rations, blankets, clothing, household utensils, agricultural implements, and seed.

In July 1855 Meriwether, traveling with his son Raymond and W. W. H. Davis, his secretary, went to Fort Defiance in order to make a treaty with the Navajo Indians. At Laguna Negra, 14 miles north of Fort Defiance, Indian agent Henry L. Dodge had assembled a council of Navajos led by Zarcillas Largas and Manuelito. The Navajos turned out in force; it was estimated that 1500 to 2000 mounted and armed Navajo warriors were present. Meriwether met with the leaders and again showed some sensitivity to tribal issues. When Manuelito expressed concern that the newly proposed reservation would not include many sacred sites of the Navajos, Meriwether carefully went over the map with him, pointing out some of the important sites which were within the boundaries, and apparently satisfying him because on July 18 the Navajos agreed to the Treaty of Laguna Negra, their first treaty to be signed with the United States government.

The treaties with the Utes, Apaches and Navajos produced at least a brief period of relative peace in New Mexico and aided substantially to the solidification of American sovereignty. Governor Meriwether played a large role in these treaty negotiations, but he was never fully at home in Santa Fe and was glad to resign his office in 1857 and return to his family in Kentucky where he spent the rest of his long life. In 1858 he was elected to the Kentucky House of Representatives, serving several terms over the next 27 years, the last one at age 85. He died at home in 1892 at age 92.


Sources Used:

Carter, Harvey Lewis. 'Dear Old Kit': The Historical Christopher Carson. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1968.

Davis, W. W. H. El Gringo; Or New Mexico And Her People. New York: Harper & Bros., 1857.

Meriwether, David. My Life in the Mountains and on the Plains: The Newly Discovered Autobiography. 1965.

Simmons, Mark. “Territorial governor had no problem making enemies.” Santa Fe New Mexican, June 25, 2005.

Twitchell, Ralph Emerson. The Leading Facts of New Mexico History, vol. 2. Cedar Rapids: The Torch Press, 1912.