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Gringo Views of Governor Manuel Armijo

Between 1821 and the outbreak of war with the United States in 1846, no governor of New Mexico enjoyed a longer term in office than Manuel Armijo. He ruled from 1827 to 1829 and again for all but eighteen months between 1837 and the arrival of American troops in 1846. Though his tenure was relatively long for a frontier governor, it was not without extreme pressures arising both from the state of political unrest in Mexico and the zealous activities of non-Mexicans participating in the Santa Fe trade.

by Daniel Tyler

Between 1821 and the outbreak of war with the United States in 1846, no governor of New Mexico enjoyed a longer term in office than Manuel Armijo. He ruled from 1827 to 1829 and again for all but eighteen months between 1837 and the arrival of American troops in 1846. Though his tenure was relatively long for a frontier governor, it was not without extreme pressures arising both from the state of political unrest in Mexico and the zealous activities of non‑Mexicans participating in the Santa Fe trade. A lesser man, or one who was afraid to modify the laws to suit frontier conditions, might have faltered. Not so Armijo! His policies were both autocratic and arbitrary. The central government in Mexico City was neither stable enough nor sufficiently affluent to offer regular assistance, and Armijo pursued a course of action directed primarily at keeping himself in power at the expense of dissident elements. That he remained governor for the better part of ten difficult years is testimony to his instinct for survival.

But Armijo was more than a governor, and because he acted in the capacity of trader, judge, lawmaker, and soldier, opinions of him varied among extremes. The reason for this variation is fairly simple: Armijo used people in order to protect his office, his trade arrangements, and his Department. Those who were useful were rewarded and in turn spoke favorably of the governor. Others, interested in their own aggrandizement, became the victims of Armijo’s justice, arbitrarily meted out and summarily executed.

The same dichotomy existed in Armijo’s relations with foreigners. Among his gringo[1] acquaintances, Armijo recognized friends and enemies and many degrees of both. Consequently the gringo view of Armijo is diverse and inconsistent. It is most important, because the writings of Americans and other foreigners gave Armijo the popular image of a dishonest, self‑seeking, and vindictive governor. Furthermore, official American views of Armijo’s New Mexico were undoubtedly influenced by the writings of sojourners, military men, and traders who were critical of the governor’s ethics. Very rarely were Armijo’s problems understood. Those who knew him best appreciated the economic and social problems peculiar to New Mexico, and their judgments were usually tempered by extensive frontier experiences. But the preponderance of commentaries filtering back to Washington displayed an anti-Mexican bias which served to convince expansion‑minded politicians that Mexico needed to be absorbed by the more productive Anglo‑Saxons.

Among those who condemned Armijo and whose judgment received wide circulation in official Washington were Josiah Gregg and Manuel Alvarez. Gregg had business contacts with Armijo and the Mexican customs houses between 1831 and 1840. Because of a number of complications involving trade matters, Gregg saw the governor as an “unmitigated tyrant.”[2] Manuel Alvarez, United States consul at Santa Fe between 1840 and 1846, was equally displeased with Armijo because of his discrimination against American traders and apparent unwillingness to ensure American rights for American citizens in New Mexico.[3] His displeasure was expressed in numerous dispatches to the War Department.

But those who most eloquently castigated Armijo were those who participated in the ill‑fated Santa Fe expedition. None of these men had a kind word for the governor. They were justified in recounting their tale of capture and harsh treatment, but their opinions of Armijo, written during or after a forced march to Mexico, have been accorded disproportionate value by other writers. George Wilkins Kendall’s account of his capture is a case in point. He wrote:

I might detail many horrible murders which he [Armijo] has committed. I could relate‑many a thrilling story of his abuse of the rights of women, that would make Saxon hearts burn with indignant fire;… Assassinations, robberies, violent debauchery, extortions, and innumerable acts of broken faith are themes upon which I am armed with abundant and most veritable detail; but my readers would sicken.[4]

Certainly, Kendall felt abused. His hostility toward Mexicans in general and Armijo in particular was due not only to the physical discomforts suffered as a prisoner, but to the fact that his rights as a passport‑bearing American citizen had been violated. His sanguinary description of Armijo, however, was that of a newspaper man who appreciated the reader interest which his purple prose would generate. New Mexican gringos, who did not read the New Orleans Picayune, thought better of Armijo.

Charles Bent, for example, Taos resident and trader, had considerably more faith in the governor. Bent was consistently critical of local officials and of some of the Mexican traders; but he supplied Armijo with trade goods, and from these dealings, he believed that the governor’s integrity was sufficiently praiseworthy.[5]

Another trader, James Josiah Webb, recognized a quality of frontier honesty in Armijo, which, if not consistent with Anglo-American standards, was at least suited to the economics of Mexican‑American commercial relations.[6] In the same vein W. W. H. Davis, writing at a later date, noted that even though Armijo governed according to his own predilections and kept the majority of people in superstition and ignorance, he was still “the most distinguished man that New Mexico has ever produced.”[7] Coming from a man who was convinced that Americans were racially superior to Mexicans, this is a magnanimous compliment.

Perhaps the warmest expression of support came after Armijo’s death and was offered by a close friend, Dr. Henry Connelly, in the New Mexico legislative assembly: 

Resolved, That this Council has heard with profound regret of the death of our distinguished citizen, General Armijo, who expired on the 9th day of this month. Resolved, That this Council offer the most sincere condolence to the family and friends of General Armijo and to the Territory for the loss of one of its greatest benefactors. Resolved, That in respect to the memory and distinguished services of General Armijo this Council now adjourn until 10 o’clock tomorrow.[8]

 Connelly may have been paying off a political debt, but later writers, such as Hubert Howe Bancroft and Lansing Bartlett Bloom, were aware of and pointed out the magnitude of Armijo’s administrative problems.[9] In a recent work, Ward Alan Minge excuses many of Armijo’s arbitrary acts in the light of the appalling shortage of funds available to the governor. Minge even questions the authenticity of the belief that Armijo pocketed a percentage of duties paid by the Santa Fe traders.[10] Any conclusion that Armijo was merely a self‑interested tyrant is both oversimplified and inaccurate. But the truth is hard to uncover.

The most diligent researchers have had difficulty in evaluating conflicting reports of Armijo’s behavior. Insufficient documentation has even confounded attempts to ascertain his true origin. Gringos writing in the mid‑nineteenth century tended to accept the story of the governor’s humble birth and rise to wealth as a sheep thief, although it is possible that he was actually born into a wealthy family.[11] Whatever the truth may have been, Armijo reinforced the self‑made reputation that grew up around him. Unaware that others were listening, he once characterized himself in a conversation with Mariano Martinez, who had temporarily replaced him as governor of New Mexico in 1844, as follows: 

… I have been stealing all my official life, and have got the money in my pocket to show for it, but I don’t see how he [Santa Anna] has mended matters by sending you here, for I know your history and have known your course for years. You poor devil have been stealing all your life, and today haven’t got a dollar. Which is the smartest man, and which is the best fitted to administer an economical government in New Mexico? [12]

The true Armijo was further obscured by his mercurial nature. He was as likely to treat his gringo guests with unmatched politeness as he was to order their execution. His temper was volatile. Calm and confident when the occasion called for it, he was also cruel and vengeful when it suited his purpose.

But the most singular obstacle in the path of objective gringo assessments of Armijo was the ethnocentric bias of the reporters themselves. In the decade before the Mexican War, Manifest Destiny was more than an intangible. Of the many official and unofficial sojourners through Mexico during this period, very few regarded the Mexicans as equals of the Anglo‑Saxon race. This attitude of racial superiority was the most significant of the many factors causing confused and unreliable reports about Armijo and the Mexican people. The theme was consistent: Mexicans were inferior, and Americans would regenerate them. A few gringos tried to understand and occasionally complimented the Mexicans on their courtesy, hospitality, and friendliness. But in most cases, Mexicans were judged by gringos who felt themselves superior.

The gringos’ attitude was aggravated by their inability to obtain justice through a reliable authority. Armijo quickly became the symbol of corrupt frontier efficiency. Since he was the “Legislature as well as the executive—the judge and jury in all cases whatsoever—and united the whole government within himself,” foreigners were continually forced to deal with Armijo on Armijo’s terms if they expected redress.”[13] There simply was no way around Armijo. One either played the game according to his rules or suffered the consequences.

To gringos who considered themselves superior, this state of affairs was particularly galling. The situation was exacerbated by changes in the rules of the game when the Indian menace, shortage of revenue, and revolutions in the central government caused Armijo increasing concern. The gringo view of Armijo depended upon Armijo’s treatment of the gringo, and Armijo’s treatment of the gringo depended upon his administrative problems of governing New Mexico. The fewer administrative pressures Armijo experienced, the more likely was he to treat the gringos hospitably and the more favorable, in turn, would be the reports filed by sojourners in Santa Fe.

The political upheaval of 1837 had a profound effect on resident Americans and Santa Fe traders. When the central government attempted to increase New Mexico’s taxes and sent Albino Perez as governor to oversee the collections, a revolt occurred. When Perez was murdered and José Gonzales was elected to replace him, Armijo proclaimed a contrarrevolución in favor of federalism. With a group of discontented ricos, he marched on Gonzales at La Cañada. Gregg reported that Armijo’s bravery was somewhat suspect during this crisis, but the rebels were routed, and Armijo again became governor of New Mexico.

Americans had reason to be hostile. Not only did Armijo consider restoring the taxes, but he confiscated property from a number of Mexicans who owed considerable debts to American traders.[14] Further, American merchants had loaned sizable sums to the government with the understanding that they would receive an adjustment in customs house fees. This relationship was important to merchants who risked heavy losses in crossing the Plains, as well as to the government which was always short of operating capital.[15] The revolution caused traders to be uneasy about Armijo, and his apparent disregard for their property made them highly critical of his administration.

Foreign objections to Mexican justice were also rooted in the apparent inability or unwillingness of the authorities to prosecute suspected criminals. Writing from Taos in 1837, Charles Bent requested Consul Manuel Alvarez to urge Governor Armijo to appoint a court for the trial of a suspected murderer, William Langford.[16] Apparently Armijo did nothing, for the murders continued, and in 1840 Bent again beseeched Alvarez to obtain some action: 

We are all equally interested in having theas murderers punished. This is the fourth merder that has bean committed on American citizens within the last fue yeares, and as yet neather of the murderers have bean punished. Theas people think that it is too much to put to death two or more men for the murder of one heritic, I say, if thare be twenty concerned in the murder of one of uss let us insist upon the whole being punished, and with nothing short of death.[17]

Alvarez made several entreaties to Armijo in an attempt to secure justice, but he became increasingly convinced that Armijo was uninterested. Even when suspects were caught, the authorities allowed them to escape. Armijo was obviously concerned with other problems, and when rumors of a Texan invasion reached the Department of New Mexico, he became noticeably irritated by Alvarez’s requests for more effective enforcement of the law.[18] To the consul, Armijo appeared more interested in popular support than in defense of foreigners’ rights. Alvarez concluded that Armijo not only avoided enforcing the laws, but encouraged their violation if, by so doing, he could effect some injury upon a foreigner, particularly a wealthy foreigner, and even more particularly a wealthy American. When the American David W. Spaulding purchased a marriage license from the vicar of Santa Fe, he was charged thirty dollars above the fee exacted from Mexicans.[19] Even without this surcharge, a marriage license in New Mexico cost $119.00.[20] Spaulding complained to Alvarez, who appealed to Armijo:

On May 24 [1841] I was replied to and informed, that, the Ecclesiastical classes being entirely independent of the civil authorities, his Excellency could in no way compel the vicaria [to interfere].[21]

Bent was equally distraught by the actions of the local priest, who insisted upon informing Armijo that Bent was trading with the “Youtah” Indians and was encouraging Indian attacks on the Mexicans. Indeed, the priest was so concerned with Bent’s activities that he accused the American of digging a hole from his house to the church and planting three kegs of powder which he was planning to ignite on Good Friday.”[22] Bent wrote to Alvarez on Christmas day:

 We have had a dull Christmas heare, I believe the Priest was the only merry person in town today, he is quite loving . . . I think he is more sinsearly devoted to Baccus than any of the other Godes.[23] But Bent failed to draw the same conclusions as Alvarez. Alvarez blamed Armijo for corruption in the church; Bent saw the problem as a local matter which Armijo could and would resolve.

Indians were also a source of friction between Armijo and the gringos. Indians harassed the Santa Fe caravans. They stole sheep and horses from outlying ranches, and by and large their depredations went unchecked. Armijo did not have adequate funds to conduct effective military excursions against them, though he made several attempts. Instead, he believed that by making the Indians dependent on the Department for trade goods, he could force them into a position of economic dependence. But when, for example, he issued instructions in 1839 to halt trading with the Apache, Americans and Mexicans objected to having their lucrative gun trade circumscribed. Consequently, Armijo found it impossible to enforce the boycott.[24] Bent tried to act as negotiator between the Indians and the Mexican authorities, but did not realize that Armijo suspected his motives.[25]  Nor did Armijo think that anything could be gained by tentative agreements. He knew how easy it was for one individual to destroy the most carefully arranged treaty. But to the gringos, Armijo’s Indian policy was deplorable and seemed to be just another manifestation of the corruption and inefficiency that his administration had espoused from the beginning. Little thought was given to the fact that Armijo had inadequate funds, too few soldiers, and too much terrain to declare open war on all the Indians that ravaged his Department. Besides, the very foreigners who wanted protection were likely to turn on the Mexican government if any attempt were made to overthrow Armijo’s regime.

By 1840 Armijo was primarily concerned with the encroachment by North Americans. In a letter to the Mexican Secretary of War, he singled out Bent’s Fort as a primary source of sedition. He believed that this fort encouraged contraband trade and supplied the Indians with arms and ammunition. He also felt that the fort protected robbers, whose spoils were a source of profit for the fort’s traders.[26]

Bent sensed Armijo’s concern. As rumors of Texan invasion plans circulated in Taos, he requested letters of security for himself and for the other American citizens in the area.[27] Whether he wanted protection from the Mexicans whom Armijo was stirring up to meet the Texans, or whether he feared the Texans themselves, he was concerned for the safety of his person and property. Armijo had been quite clear about the fate that awaited Texan sympathizers,”[28]  and Bent knew “that not all those who found hospitality at Bent’s Fort would rally to the defense of Mexico.”[29]

In Santa Fe, Alvarez encountered additional hurdles in his relations with Governor Armijo. By a decree of August 6, 1841, no one was allowed to leave the Department.[30] Alvarez wanted to return to the United States with the eastbound caravan, and he explained to Armijo that it was necessary for him to speak with the Texan commander in order to secure the interests of Americans resident in New Mexico. Armijo’s reply was candid and abrupt:

I reply to your Excellency’s note of this day, I have to say that I can in no manner whatever assent to your request, since I am to uphold order in the interior, and meet the Texan enemy. When your Excellency shall learn that I am beaten, you can then travel whither you please, but before that event—, by no manner of means, nor under any pretext whatever. If your Excellency wishes, you can join my camp.[31]

Like Bent, Alvarez feared lest the outbreak of hostilities would be a signal for jealous Mexicans to assume that anarchy prevailed and that the time was ripe to deal a few well‑placed blows against the gringos. In fact, Alvarez’s suspicions proved correct. Shortly after Armijo departed Santa Fe to meet the Texans, the governor’s nephew, Don Tomás Martín, with the aid of a friend, administered a sound beating to the consul. Fourteen foreigners who witnessed the attack signed a letter of protest in which Armijo once again received the bulk of the blame. The letter concluded that:

Had there ever occurred any dispute between this officer and our Consul, we might have supposed that this attack on the latter was made to gratify personal revenge; but as nothing of this kind had ever occurred, we are forced to the conclusion that it was only the outbreaking in one person, of the evil spirit which exists in the bosom of the principal Authority; and also in those of a large majority of the citizens towards us foreigners who are here.[32]

The hostility shown toward Consul Alvarez was an exceptional and uncalled‑for incident. Even so, it was more to be expected than the kind of hospitality that the misinformed Texans believed awaited them. The wrongs and losses suffered by some Mexicans in the Revolution of 1837 and the general lack of law and order in the Department caused a small number to desire a different and more reliable government; but hospitality to the Texans was offered at the risk of Armijo’s retribution, and his authority was generally feared. Taos was supposed to be the center of pro‑Texan cordiality; this same community was conspicuous for its opposition to Americans after the conquest in 1846. If a modicum of enthusiasm for the Texans existed, it was submerged under Armijo’s campaign of propaganda, which compared the Texans to invading Mongols bent on pillage, rape, and murder. As rumors of plots on Armijo’s life spread, Mexicans became increasingly intolerant of the gringos’ presence. Though Alvarez remained concerned for his safety, Armijo was only willing to assure him that he would make “recommendations to preserve order, and cultivate friendly feelings toward foreigners residing in the department.”[33]

When the Texans entered the outskirts of Mexican territory, they were greeted by an enemy that was militarily prepared and emotionally charged to thwart them. The journey from Texas had been much more difficult than the organizers had foreseen, and when the invaders encountered Mexican troops, they were in no condition to offer battle. Capture, imprisonment, and a long march to Mexico City provided zesty material for those who chose to write about their experiences, and none of the accounts dwelled extensively on attractive characteristics of New Mexico or of Governor Armijo.

In addition to the writings of journalist Kendall, two other gringo observers recorded the capture of Texan soldiers. Thomas Falconer, an Englishman, accompanied the expedition as historiographer. Trained as a lawyer and possessing written instructions to record matters of scientific and historical importance, Falconer was totally unprepared for the reception accorded the Texan expedition upon entering Mexican territory. He was with the main body of troops under General Hugh McLeod when they were captured by Colonel Juan Andrés Archuleta. Falconer saw Armijo’s orders stating that the Texans were to be treated according to regulations provided that they surrendered and gave up their arms.[34] Because they were in no condition to make demands of the Mexicans, the Texans surrendered their arms and their personal baggage upon assurances that the latter would not be disturbed. But Falconer later witnessed the looting of his personal possessions as well as the distribution of his property to the Mexican militia and their Indian allies—all of which took place under the watchful eye of Governor Armijo.[35]

Franklin Combs was also a guest of the Texan Santa Fe expedition. In his narrative he corroborated several of Falconer’s observations, particularly Armijo’s instructions that each of the captured Texans was to have his own personal property returned.[36] Combs further noted that the arrival of Armijo seemed to precipitate the inexcusable looting. Combs wrote that they were immediately bound: 

… six and eight together, with hair ropes and thongs of raw hide, and put in a filthy sheep‑fold, surrounded by a large armed guard. … In this place we were kept all night . . . suffering the most intense agony . . . and in full hearing of the disputes in the council called by the governor to deliberate upon our destiny, which decided about daybreak, by a single vote, that we should not be shot but marched off for Mexico.[37]

Combs believed that the governor was so annoyed at being overruled that he “took from me my blanket and buffalo robe, cursing and striking the prisoners and raving like a madman.”[38]

This view of Armijo’s behavior was consistent with others which characterized the governor as a sadistic tyrant. Yet there is a strong possibility that Armijo allowed himself to be outvoted so that he would accomplish the dual purpose of appearing intractable to his men while avoiding the heavier responsibility of executing the Texans. After all, Armijo knew that often it was better to be taken for a brave man than to be one.[39] But whatever the reason for Combs’ escape from a firing squad, he considered the march to Mexico City only slightly more humane. The captives were tied in twos, and he recorded that:  

… to each pair there was a rope tied above the waist, neck or arms, and fastened to the pummel of the saddle of the horses on which the guard was mounted. The soldiers would occasionally put their horses in a gallop to torture those fastened to them, and whenever any of us fell down or lagged behind, we were dragged upon the ground and beaten with thongs, sticks, or whatever else was at hand.[40]

 Such treatment did not inspire any of the prisoners to think or write favorably of their captors. For the better part of the trip, the men were inadequately clothed and fed, and because they traveled in the coldest part of the year, these privations constituted a real hardship. Armijo has been accused of condoning this maltreatment. Perhaps he did, but several scholars suggest that the Texans:

 … received the same sort of treatment that would have been accorded by their own people had Texan territory been invaded by a hostile force or one acting and moving under pretenses acknowledged and proven to be false.[41]

After the excitement of the Texan invasion had passed, Armijo enjoyed more power than ever before, but his financial problems continued. Hoping to exact additional revenue from the Santa Fe traders for the purpose of meeting the most urgent obligations, he made several attempts to enforce the collection of legal duties. His policies clashed with techniques to which the traders had become accustomed, and whenever attempts were made to lengthen the list of contraband items or raise the import tariff, merchants became more convinced that Armijo was taking the increase for himself. Even when Armijo reverted to the more traditional arrangements which allowed the customs officials to reduce the duty requirements in return for a substantial bribe, Armijo received the pointed abuse of visitors to the Department who were shocked by his toleration of such goings on. Whatever Armijo did regarding the Santa Fe trade, he managed to incur the hostility of some gringos.

The traders in Richard L. Wilson’s 1842 caravan knew the old routine well. Near San Miguel, five wagonloads were compressed into four wagons. Contraband articles were sent to Santa Fe by pack mule over a secret trail.[42] When the Mexican functionaries arrived to inspect the train, they were provided with sufficient surplus goods for their own use, and when they had left, the traders arranged to circumvent the five‑hundred‑dollar tax which Armijo had placed on each wagon. They especially wanted to avoid this tax, Wilson noted, because “it was exclusively a revenue tariff for the sole use and benefit of his obesity, the Governor.” [43]

Waiting until night, the traders packed all the most valuable goods on mules and dispatched them to town. When the customs officers returned to shepherd what was left of the caravan into Santa Fe (ostensibly to render the baggage safe), Wilson remarked that an old trapper:

Placed “a thumb upon the tip of his nasal promontory and executed so novel a gyration with the four fingers” that the other traders nearly lost their self‑control.[44] Armijo was probably aware of most transgressions, and he knew that if he disturbed the system too often, his own clandestine business affairs would suffer. Knowing this, traders were rather brazen about admitting their violations.[45]

To Consul Alvarez, Armijo’s relationship with the traders was incomprehensible. He failed to understand how a lawfully constituted official could be so unprincipled. He was further annoyed by the fact that Armijo had the power to discriminate against American traders by raising the tariff rates on their goods while reducing rates on goods imported by Mexican merchants. When Alvarez tried to complain to Armijo, he found himself in an embarrassing position owing to the fact that, even with the tax increase, American traders still paid less duty than the law required.[46] In fact, while the Americans complained of Armijo’s five‑hundred‑dollar wagon tax, which was in effect between 1839 and 1844, legal duties averaged between one and two thousand dollars per load.[47] Those who appreciated this fact were also aware that Armijo’s vices were a necessary part of the trade structure. When the central government took a greater interest in New Mexico’s financial affairs in 1843, American traders found additional reasons to censure Mexican administration.

For a number of reasons, Santa Anna was afraid that Armijo was losing control of his Department. When Colonel Jacob Snively appeared on the Santa Fe trail with a ragtag Texan force, Armijo was expected to win another day of glory. However, the Texans managed to annihilate a party of Mexicans, killing their commander before American troops and Indians forced the Texans to retire. To the central government, this episode indicated that Armijo had lost his ability to defend the frontier. Furthermore, the central government had been receiving repeated notifications of corruption in the New Mexican customs houses. Contraband goods were known to be entering the republic through ports of entry in this Department. To regain control of the situation, Santa Anna decreed on August 7, 1843, that the northern entry ports would be closed to foreign commerce. Other decrees marked more goods contraband and prohibited foreigners in Mexico from engaging in retail trade. At the end of September a six per cent tax was levied on gold or silver coin or bullion exported from Mexico.[48]

Immediately both gringo and Mexican traders felt the pinch. One American predicted a revolution if the customs houses were not opened soon.[49] But Armijo could do nothing. He wanted the ports opened as much as anyone did, if for no other reason than to restore the income which the Department needed to pay civil and military salaries. As the shortage of funds became acute and he found himself the object of mounting criticism, Armijo “retired” from the governor’s office complaining of ill health, and offered no objections when he was not renominated for the post.[50] For more than eighteen months, Mariano Chavez, Mariano Martínez, and José Chavez tried to implement the stringent laws promulgated by the central government. Between the reopening of the entry ports on March 31, 1844, and the return of Armijo to the governor’s office on July 24, 1845, American traders had cause to wish for the return of the old system.

Trader James Webb noted that, contrary to the more direct approach of Governor Armijo requiring traders to “make diligencia” upon arrival in Santa Fe, he was now forced to unload and submit all of his goods for inspection. Having arrived from the East in 1843 to stake his fortune on the Santa Fe trade, Webb was incensed by the inconveniences that impeded his business arrangements. Furthermore, Governor Martinez required a wagon tax of seven hundred and fifty dollars.[51] Webb felt that the new governor’s attempt to uphold the laws would actually produce less revenue for the Department than that received during the administration of Governor Armijo, which had never called on the central government for money.[52] He was convinced that the change in governors had created a loss of confidence among citizens, who were afraid to buy from the traders for fear that “there would be a demand for forced loans.” “Those able to buy,” said Webb, “chose rather to plead poverty, and would only buy in limited quantities and on credit, for fear of exciting the cupidity of the new governor.”[53]

Undoubtedly, Webb’s judgment was affected by his entrepreneurial frustrations, but the new commercial restrictions did not improve New Mexico’s financial problems. Also, morale deteriorated as both residents and foreigners lost their source of illegal income. Hoping to prevent another revolution, the Departmental Assembly of New Mexico submitted a list of names to the central government and a recommendation that a new governor should be chosen from among the names. Armijo was at the top of the list and was approved for his third term as New Mexico’s governor.

American traders entertained by Armijo before his third gubernatorial inauguration on November 16, 1845, were told that the people of New Mexico would not fight if war broke out between the United States and Mexico.[54] Armijo may have wanted to reassure American traders demoralized by the unsettled affairs of the previous eighteen months, but he also gave notice of his personal reaction to a planned invasion by American forces. After war was declared, President James K. Polk heeded the advice of Senator Thomas Hart Benton, who proposed sending his son‑in‑law, James W. Magoffin, friend and business acquaintance of Armijo, to secure a peaceful surrender of New Mexico’s military forces. Since Magoffin was ultimately accepted as the first United States consul in Durango and Chihuahua, and was referred to affectionately as “Don Santiago” by his Mexican friends, he stood as good a chance as anyone of persuading Armijo to submit peaceably.

When Captain Philip St. George Cooke arrived in Santa Fe on August 12 with Magoffin, twelve dragoons, and a peace request from his commanding general, Stephen Watts Kearny, Armijo received them cordially. In Cooke’s words:

There was no mistaking the governor, a large fine looking man, although his complexion was a shade or two darker than the dubious and varying Spanish.… He rose when I was presented to him; I said I was sent to him by the general commanding the American army, and that I had a letter, which I would present at his convenience.… He hoped I would remain as long as it pleased me.[55]

While Cooke ate supper on the night of August 12, Magoffin talked with Armijo. If the governor was bribed to abandon the territory without resistance, the agreement was probably reached that night. According to Senator Benton, Magoffin was charged with a plan to prevent hostilities, and he accomplished his objective when “Armijo promised not to make a stand at” Apache Canyon.[56] Exactly what Magoffin accomplished, however, remains a mystery. According to Cooke, Magoffin and Armijo approached him at ten o’clock on the night of August 12 and announced that Dr. Henry Connelly would return to Kearny with Cooke bearing an answer to Kearny’s request for surrender. Cooke was also told that the governor would march the following day “with six thousand men.”[57]

Cooke sensed the governor’s dilemma. Armijo had little real “military experience.” He distrusted his own people and had doubts about the outcome of a battle with the Americans. He was torn between “loyalty to his army commission” and “a desire to escape the dangers of war upon terms of personal advantage.”

Although perhaps much superior to those about him, [said Cooke] he is unequal to the trying circumstances of his present situation. Even the patriotic spirit developed by his proclamation appears to embarrass as well as surprise him. Undoubtedly he must go on to direct this current, but to some weak and disgraceful conclusion.[58

Magoffin’s evaluation of Armijo in this crisis is not available. What he and Armijo actually said was not recorded, and if Magoffin confided in Connelly or Cooke, the only record existed in a letter from Kearny to Magoffin, thanking the latter for his services. This letter, if Benton’s account can be trusted, was burned by Magoffin in Chihuahua because it contained proof that Magoffin had helped to overthrow the New Mexican govern­ment.[59] The general impression among the men in Kearny’s army was that Armijo was indeed planning a “vigorous resistance” at Apache Canyon.[60] The governor’s letter to Kearny indicated that he planned to meet the Americans somewhere on the eighteenth or nineteenth of August; but the message was so vaguely worded that it did not make clear whether the encounter was to be friendly or hostile.[61]

As the American army approached Apache Canyon, they heard reports that Armijo and his officers were quarreling and that men were beginning to desert.[62] Subsequently, they learned that Armijo had taken advantage of the dissension and fled to the south. Whether his flight had been part of a deal made with Magoffin or resulted from a fear of his own people, as well as the American army, Armijo has ever since been branded a coward by both gringo and Mexican moralists. But Captain D. Rafael Chacón, who participated in the defense preparations at Apache Canyon, thought that Armijo deserved more understanding:

What could Armijo do with an undisciplined army without any military training, without commissary resources, and without leaders to direct the men? He was a dwarf against a giant. Armijo was the imaginary hero of that epoch. Had he rashly rushed to give battle, it would have been equivalent to offer his troops as victims to the invading army; . . . I was incapable of knowing my artillery men, did not know whether or not they could maneuvre nor do I remember who they were. The guerrillas which Armijo sent out to observe the advance of the enemy brought information back to him of how well provided and equipped they came . . . . It was then he realized that he could not give them battle, nor capitulate without effusion of blood, either with the enemy or with his own people who had already attempted a revolt.[63]

 

Gringos were less sympathetic with the reasons for Armijo’s departure. They felt that the Mexicans were fed up with Armijo and glad to be rid of him. Emory said that as he was approaching Apache Canyon, a fat Mexican on a mule galloped up and “said, with a roar of laughter, ‘Armijo and his troops have gone to hell, and the Cañon is all clear.’ ”[64] Susan Magoffin and Hughes noted a similar feeling of relief among the Mexicans to see the last of Armijo.[65] And when the English trader George Ruxton met Armijo on the trail to Chihuahua and was asked by the former governor to relate the feelings of the rest of the Mexican people toward him, Ruxton gave a similar report:

I told him that there was but one opinion respecting it expressed all over the country‑that General Armijo and the New Mexicans were a pack of arrant cowards; to which he answered, “Adios! They don’t know that I had but seventy‑five men to fight three thousand. What could I do?”[66]

Undoubtedly, history has recorded few generals whose stature has been enhanced by a retreat of such ignominious proportions. Armijo may indeed have been a coward. But he has also borne much of the gringos’ prejudice toward the Mexican people, and the impression is occasionally given that the gringos expected little more of the Mexicans than desertion on the battlefield. To many Americans of this period, Mexican cultural accomplishments were inferior to those of the Anglo‑Saxons. This negative bias was deeply ingrained in the gringo, was expressed in his writings, and was read by expansion‑minded Americans. According to Richard Wilson:

If to be indolent is a virtue, and to be ignorant is bliss, then are the natives of New Mexico, the happiest and most virtuous people on the globe. If religion consists in rendering homage to a God of gold, they are the most devout nation in Christendom . . . . Education with them is eminently practical and consists of three lessons, pilfering, stealing and robbing. Gambling is an accomplishment earnestly sought after, being the equivalent to three months at a boarding school in more Christian countries.[67]

 Ruxton’s impressions were equally caustic:

 … in his rabbit‑burrow, and with his tortillas and his chile, his ponche and cigar of hoja, the New‑Mexican is content; and with an occasional traveller to pilfer, or the excitement of a stray Texan or two to massacre now and then, is tolerably happy; his only care being that the river rise high enough to fill his acequia …, that sufficient maize may grow to furnish him with tortillas for the winter, and shucks for his half‑starved horse or mule, which the Navajos have left, out of charity, after killing half his sons and daughters, and bearing into captivity the wife of his bosom.[68]

This was the most widely publicized gringo view of New Mexico and her people. It is difficult indeed to measure the influence of such bias on American policy, but since the same general tone was reinforced in Manuel Alvarez’s official reports, Washington was undoubtedly impressed. Little evidence exists that American officials attempted to analyze the inconsistencies in gringo reports of either New Mexico or her governor. A mood of aggression pervaded the land and it was more comforting to hear that New Mexico was backward and her governor a tyrant who needed to be overthrown in order for the people to be regenerated.

But an analysis of more than several gringo reports clearly reveals that Armijo ruled over a potpourri of dissident elements. The uncertainties facing Americans were further agitated by threats from the Indians. If Armijo appeared rash and irresponsible, he at least understood how to survive as a governor on the frontier, and when the Americans arrived he recognized that his methods had become anachronistic. The problems he had faced as governor did not disappear. Those who attempted to govern New Mexico immediately after the American conquest might well have wished that a more critical study had been made of gringo comments on Armijo, so that the machinery of governing the conquered land might have fitted the political and economic conditions of life more realistically.


[1] The origins of the term “gringo” are obscure. It is used in reference to foreigners speaking an unintelligible language; in Mexico it refers exclusively to citizens of the United States.

[2] Josiah Gregg, Commerce of the Prairies, ed. Max L. Moorhead (Norman, 8954), p. 342­.

[3] Manuel Alvarez, February 2, 1842, Memorial to Secretary of State Daniel Webster, Dispatches from U.S. Consuls in Santa Fe, N.M., August 28, 1830‑September 4, 1846. National Archives, Microfilm Publications, M‑ 199. Hereafter cited as Alvarez, Memorial.

[4] George Wilkins Kendall, Narrative of the Texan Santa Fe Expedi­tion, 2 vols. (Austin, 1935), vol. “pp. 359‑60.

[5] Charles Bent to Manuel Alvarez, Taos, May 31 and June 11, 1846, Frank D. Reeve, ed., “The Charles Bent Papers,” NMHR, vol. 31 (1956), pp. 163‑64, 251‑52. Reeve transcribed the Bent Papers (NMHR, vols. 29, 1954; 30, 1955; 3!, 1956), from microfilm in the University of New Mexico Library made in 1953 when these letters were filed with the Alvarez papers at the Museum of New Mexico. They are now in the Benjamin Read Collection, New Mexico State Records Center and Archives, Santa Fe. Other letters by Bent with statements favorable to Armijo include the letter dated some time between Feb. 20‑25, 1841 (NMHR, vol. 29, pp. 316‑17) and the one dated Sept. 29, 1842 (vol. 30, p. 163)­.

[6] James Josiah Webb, Adventures in the Santa Fe Trade 1844‑1847, ed. Ralph P. Bieber (12 vols., The Southwest Historical Series, Glendale, Calif., 1931), vol. 1, p. 83.

[7] W. W. H. Davis, El Gringo or New Mexico and Her People (Santa Fe, 1938), p. 202.

[8] Ralph Emerson Twitchell, The Leading Facts of New Mexican History, 5 vols. (Albuquerque, 1963), vol. 2, p. 208.

[9] Hubert Howe Bancroft, History of Arizona and New Mexico 1530­-1888 (Albuquerque, 1962), pp. 322‑26 passim, 415 n.; Lansing Bartlett Bloom, “New Mexico under Mexican Administration, 1821‑1846,” Old Santa Fe, vol. 1, (1913‑14), pp. 17, 38, 39, 45; vol. 2 (1914‑15), pp. 127, 254­.

[10] Ward Alan Minge, Frontier Problems in New Mexico Preceding the Mexican War, 1840‑1846 (unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, The Uni­versity of New Mexico, 8965), pp. vi‑vii.

[11] Susan Shelby Magoffin, Down the Santa Fe Trail and into Mexico, ed. Stella M. Drumm (New Haven, 1926), p.6n., contains a typical account of Armijo’s supposed rise from obscurity. Erna Fergusson in New Mexico, A Pageant of Three Peoples (New York, 1964), p. 250, states that Armijo was born to wealth.

[12] Ralph Paul Bieber, The Papers of James J. Webb, Santa Fe Merchant, 1844‑1861 (Washington University Studies, Humanistic Series, No. 2, 1924, Vol. ii, p. 273).

[13] Davis, p. 115­

[14] Twitchell, vol. 2, p. 63.

[15] Bloom, vol. i, P. 20 Benjamin Read, Illustrated History of New Mexico (Santa Fe, 1912), Pp. 391‑92.

[16] “The Charles Bent Papers,” Dec. 10, 1837, NMHR, vol. 29 (x), P. 235­.

[17] Ibid., Dec. 1, 1840, pp. 238‑39­.

[18] Alvarez, Memorial, Feb. 2, 1842, p. 8.

[19] Ibid., p. 10.

[20] Gregg, p. 183­.

[21] Alvarez, Memorial, p. 11.

[22] “The Charles Bent Papers,” April 18, 1846, NMHR, vol. 31 (1956), pp. 158‑59.

[23] The Charles Bent Papers,” Dec. 25, 1842, NMHR, vol. 30 PP‑ 164‑65.

[24] Minge, pp. 55‑57.

[25] Ibid., P. 67­.

[26] Sister Mary Loyola, “The American Occupation of New Mexico, 1821‑1852,” NMHR, vol. 14 pp. 65‑66.

[27] “The Charles Bent Papers,” Jan. 20, 1841, NMHR, vol. 29 p. 313.

[28] Bloom, vol. 2, pp. 146‑47.

[29] Loyola, P. 66, n. 10.

[30] Bloom, vol. 2, P. 151­.

[31] Manuel Armijo to Manuel Alvarez, Sept. 15, 1841, Consular Dispatches, Santa Fe, National Archives, M‑199.

[32] Letter of Santa Fe residents to Secretary Daniel Webster, Sept. 16, 1841, Consular Dispatches, Santa Fe, ibid.

[33] Manuel Armijo to Manuel Alvarez, Sept. 15, 1841, Consular Dis­patches, Santa Fe, ibid.

[34] Thomas Falconer, Letters and Notes on the Texan Santa Fe Ex­pedition, 1841‑1842 (Chicago, 1963), p. 45. Falconer includes the entire order of Oct. 5, 1841, which Armijo wrote from his headquarters.

[35] Ibid., p. 47­.

[36] Franklin Combs, “Combs’ Narrative of the Santa Fe Expedition in 1841,” NMHR, vol. 5 (1930), p. 308­.

[37] Ibid., p. 309­.

[38] Ibid., p. 309­.

[39] The Spanish saying is, “Vale más estar tornado por valiente que serlo.” See Paul Horgan, Great River: The Rio Grande in North American History, vol. 2, Mexico and the United States (New York, 1954), p. 558.

[40] Combs, p. 310.

[41] Twitchell, vol. 2, p. 82. See also Bancroft, p. 324; Bloom, vol. 2, p. 152.

[42] Richard L. Wilson, Short Ravelings from a Long Yarn (Santa Ana, Calif., 1936), pp. 129‑30.

[43] Ibid., p. 140

[44] Ibid., pp. 141‑42.

[45] Bieber, p. 274­.

[46] Alvarez, Memorial, Feb. 2, 1842, p. 6.

[47] John E. Sunder, ed., Matt Field on the Santa Fe Trail (Norman, 1960), p. 221 n.

[48] Bieber, pp. 257‑58. (Bieber notes that this information is also available in House Executive Documents, 28th Cong., 1st Sess., No. 24, serial no. 441, pp. 113‑17.).

[49] Ibid., p. 258­.

[50] Bloom, vol. 2, p. 161.

[51] Webb, pp. 80‑81, 83­.

[52] Bieber, p. 272; Webb, p. 83­.

[53] Webb, p. 100.

[54] Ibid., p. 179, n. 203.

[55] Philip St. George Cooke, The Conquest of New Mexico and California (Albuquerque, 1964), pp. 28‑29.

[56] Thomas Hart Benton, Thirty Years’ View, 2 vols. (New York, 1858), Vol. 2, p. 683­.

[57] Cooke, p. 31.

[58] Ibid., pp. 32‑33­.

[59] Benton, p. 684­.

[60] Lieutenant Emory Reports: A Reprint of Lt. W. H. Emory’s Notes of a Military Reconnoissance, ed. Ross Calvin (Albuquerque, 1951), P. 47; Magoffin, p. 110; John Taylor Hughes, Doniphan’s Expedition (Cincinnati, 1847), p. 32­.

[61] Hughes, P. 42.

[62] Hughes, p. 42; Calvin, p. 53.

[63] Read, p. 432.

[64] Emory, p. 53­.

[65] Magoffin, pp.109-11; Hughes, P. 42.

[66] George F. Ruxton, Adventures in Mexico and The Rocky Mountains (New York, 1855), p. 119.

[67] Wilson, pp. 153‑54­.

[68] Ruxton, pp. 185‑86.