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Encountering the Archives

First Lady Susan Wallace, storyteller and writer, tells of a winters' day when she took a walk and discovered hundreds of years of New Mexico's history--neglected in a shed. Here, in her own words, she tells of her discovery:

North of El Palacio, is a waste spot of earth, covering perhaps half an acre. It contains neither grass, weeds, nor moss, not even a straggling sage-bush or forlorn cactus; nothing but bare desert sand and a solitary cotton-wood tree, whose luxuriant leafage gives no sign of its struggle for life in a region waterless ten months of the year. High adobe walls bound the sterile enclosure on two sides; the third is occupied by government buildings; and the fourth is partly wall and partly abandoned offices, always locked and unused since the brave days when the Spaniards lorded it like princes in "The Palace."

Ever a lover of lonesome places, I had often wistfully eyed these mysterious apartments; and one day, being sadly in want of entertainment, hunted up the keys and sallied across the back yard, determined to explore the secret places. The first door I tried to open was made of heavy double plank, studded with broad-headed nails. I fitted a key into the rough, old-fashioned lock, and, pushing with all my strength, it slowly swung on rusty hinges, into a room, perhaps seventeen by twenty feet in size, barely high enough for a man to stand upright in. As I stepped on the loose pine boards of the floor, a swarm of mice scampered to their burrows in the walls, and the deathlike smell of mildew and decay smote the afflicted sense. Well for the chronicles is it there are no rats in the territory. Involuntarily I paused at the entrance, to let the ghosts fly out; and several minutes passed before my eyes, accustomed to the darkness of this treasure house, could see the shame of its neglect.

I had entered the historic room of New Mexico! Tumbled into barrels and boxes, tossed on the floor in moist piles, lay the written records of events stretching over a period of more than three hundred years, the archives of a Province known as Nueva Espagña, large as France. In an atmosphere less dry than this they would have rotted ages ago. Nothing but the extreme purity of the air saved them from destruction. It was mid-winter, and melted snow slowly trickled through the primitive roofing of mud and gravel. The sun shone brightly, and, though days had passed since the last white spot disappeared from the surface of the earth, still a hideous ooze filtered through the ashes and clay overhead, and dripped in inky streams down the pine rafters and walls. I am told the house was anciently used as a stable. If the first Spanish commandants and governor-generals kept their horses in this windowless cave, sorry am I for the gallant steeds they professed to love next to their knightly honor and the ladies.

The names of some of the Conquestadores have faded from history, and others live only in tradition. Nearly all the earlier important records have been destroyed. They accumulated rapidly in immense masses, and the heavy lumber was shifted from place to place by officials, to make room for things more valuable. Careless hands and the slow wear of time were not as effectual in blotting them out as a certain chief executive—a lineal descendant of Genseric, appointed by President of the United States—who made his administration memorable by building a bonfire of parchments and papers, filled with priceless material, never to be replaced. He also sold a quantity as waste paper. By happy accident, a portion of this merchandise was afterward recovered, though one might think it as well employed in wrapping tea and sugar as going to decay in this neglected den. We grow indignant over the spirit which could not spare one reader of the picture-writing of the Aztecs or the quippus of Peru. What shall we say of the man in authority who, in the best age of culture and research, abuses a trust like this, who deliberately fired whole wagon-loads of manuscripts of the deepest interest to the archaeologist, the historian, and student. He had not even the excuse of the first Archbishop of Mexico, who burnt a mountain of manuscripts in the market-place, stigmatizing them as magic scrolls; and was more guilty than Cardinal Ximines, who in the trial by fire alone could exercise the sorcery concealed in the Arabic manuscripts of Granada.

The delusions of fifteen hundred years are not easily put to flight, and there might be a drop of charity for the bigotry and intolerance of the Spaniard; but the destroyer of history in New Mexico has no defense. I suppress his name. An archaeologist from New England is now busy among a heap of the sold documents, piled away in the back room of an old shop by a citizen of Santa Fe, who forsaw that they might one day be of interest, possibly of value.

It was my pleasant work to help in overhauling the state papers, and the quiet hours of careful work were well rewarded. All sorts of papers were tossed together in the cavernous hole. I dug out quantities of printed matter of recent date, mixed with the old and weather-stained official documents, letters, copies of reports and dispatches, marking political changes from 1580, when Santa Fe was founded by Don Antonio de Espego, to the year 1879. The province at first was ruled by military governors, appointed by the viceroys of Mexico, and communication with them and with Spain was so rare they reigned as despots, in haughty pride of place, and bitterly abused their power to kill, enslave, plunder, and subdue the heathen claimed for an inheritance.

The first MS. opened bore the date 1620. It was illuminated with heavy seals and signed with strange, puzzling rubricas; but the signature was completely effaced. It was part of a frozen chunk, tied with hempen cord, and peeled off a block wet through and through. The excellence of the parchment-like paper kept it from dissolving into a lump of sticky pulp.

Some papers were soaked so it was necessary to spread them on boards, to be dried in the sun, before being deposited in a place of safety. Rich treasure for the mining of the future historian. The eternal west wind fluttered mockingly among crumpled leaves torn from the book of human fate, and a sudden gust whirled a yellow scrap high up in the branches of the cotton-wood tree. With the help of a Mexican boy, I rescued from ruin what proved a portion of the journal of Otervin, military commandant of Nueva Espagña, who undertook to reduce the Pueblos to subjection in 1681, and found them too many for him.

Mixed with high heaps of worthless trash were worn and water-stained fragments, precious as the last leaves of the Sybil. These, pieced together, were smoothed with care and laid by for after reference. Poor, perishing records of ambitions baffled and hopes unfulfilled; and, dreaming over the names of men who sought immortality on earth and now sleep forgotten, I deeply felt their teaching—the law that any lasting condition is impossible in the hurrying march we call life, where nothing is constant but change, nothing certain but death.

Through the lazy Mexican afternoons I groped along the musty annals with steady purpose, and in the shadowy history wandered back two centuries. Among the MSS. I lived in the days when William of Orange fought the grand battle which decided the fate of the Stuarts and established English dominion over the seas; when the sun of Poland was sinking in endless night with the dying Sobieski, our patriot hero of early romance, whose name, consecrated by poetry and heroism, dwells in memory with Emmet and Kossuth; when Madame de Maintenon, at the court of the king, who was worshipped as a demigod, was writing long letters of the fatigues of court, and how she worried from morning till midnight, trying to reconcile the irreconcilable, and amuse the old tyrant, who was past being amused. Spain had been shaken by desperate wars, and out of armies nursed in victories came a host of adventurers to the New World, where glory and fortune were reported as waiting for every newcomer. They were not colonists, emigrants, as with us, who had everything to gain and nothing to lose; but men of the sword, used to command, who loved no music so well as trumpet and drum, the rattle and clang of arms. Reckless gamblers as Spaniards have been in all ages everywhere, they were ready to stake vast possessions on a venture in mines reported richer than ancient Ophir, and to risk assured fame for possible conquest, among nations whose walled cities were described as equal to the best strong holds of Islam. The rich mediaeval glow enveloping some of the reports charms the literary forager, not overfond of statistics, who loves no figures so well as figures of speech. Men in their summer prime organized roving expeditions in quest of fortune, gallant freebooters, made ferocious by greed of gold, who started gayly, as to a regatta, for the unexplored province of Nueva Espagña.

They found the Promised Land one of which the greater part must forever remain an uninhabitable magnificence. Yet everything reminded them of old Spain, especially of the Castiles. The chain of snowy peaks, accessible only to the untamable Apache, projected against the speck-less blue the blade of white teeth which suggested the name of Sierra Nevada. The dry, scorched table-lands, league after league, stretching away under the blazing sun a shadeless desert, were like the mesas in the dreariest portions of the kingdom of Philip—and the mud hovels of adobe, with open apertures for windows, were a perpetual reminder of the homeless habitations of the Castilian peasantry.

The few rich valleys (pasturas) capable of cultivation by irrigation were not unlike the vegas of the East, and little streams of melted snowwater, filtered down from the " iced mountain-top," cold as snow, clear as glass, still bear the lovely names of the rills sparkling along the Alpujarras.

The old hidalgoes looked for better things than half-naked savages, mud huts, and stunted corn-fields. Sterile and forbidding as the country appeared, they believed an inheritance was reserved for them behind the gloomy mountain walls, beyond the awful canon, where the black, rushing river is shut in by sheer precipices fifteen hundred feet high. Sustained by a faculty of self-persuasion equaled by no other people on the face of the earth, they pushed on and on through the very heart of the wilderness, nearly to the present site of Omaha. This was more than three hundred years ago; yet are the novel-writers complaining that we have no antiquity, no mystery, no dim lights and deep shadows, where the imagination of the story-teller may flower and bear fruit.


This story, entitled "Among the Archives--Things New and Old" is excerpted from Susan E. Wallace, The Land of the Pueblos (New York: John B. Alden, Publisher, 1888) pp. 108-114.