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The Ortega Borrego Papers

By Don J. Usner

Two hundred years ago, Gervacio Ortega, my fourth great-grandfather, returned to Chimayó from a trip out to the eastern plains to hunt bison, only to find that his father, Manuel Ortega, had died in his absence. Furthermore, Gervacio’s stepmother had claimed Manuel’s property for herself and her children by a previous marriage. A judge had affirmed her claim, which omitted Gervacio and his siblings from inheritance.

Gervacio protested the claim his stepmother, Maria Antonia Fresquis, had made and he kept a copy of his petition for safekeeping—but I doubt he realized just how safe it would be kept, and I’m sure he never imagined that it would be carefully guarded for the next five generations to end up, along with some 300 other documents (some of them much older than Gervacio’s), in a box in my mother, Stella Chávez Usner’s house.

Thanks to a grant from the Office of the State Historian last year I was able to begin transcribing these documents, focusing on photocopies on file in the State Records Center and Archives. I transcribed about 50 documents, and took up the task again this year with another grant and worked my way through another 50. I’ve come to know the papers well and have concluded that they are significant and important to the telling of the story of New Mexico history for several reasons.

Of course the fact that these are family papers is of primary interest but the number of people that constitute “family,” with relatives mentioned in these documents is enormous. The family has grown to be a community. Thousands of people in northern New Mexico can find ancestors‘names in these documents, and they can learn about who those people were and how they lived. This alone gives the papers significance.

These papers also have special value because they are deeply rooted in place. We know not only who authored them, but, in many cases we know in which houses and on which land the authors lived. Thus, we can connect documents with buildings and places. It is remarkable that the oldest document in the collection, written in 1706 by Luis López and the first document on record from Chimayó after the Pueblo Revolt, initiates an unbroken record of land ownership since 1706.

The papers also are invaluable as educational tools. Each is a window into a fascinating world that is not all that distant in the past and still very much has bearing on the present. We can take, for example, Gervacio Ortega’s petition for nullification of the document authorizing his step mother’s inheritance. The first thing that caught my eye about this document was: “en cuyo tiempo andaba yo en los sibulos.” It didn’t take long to figure out that he was referring to a trip to the eastern plains, known then as Cíbola, probably to trade and hunt buffalo. This leads, of course, to the origins of the myth of Cíbola, the Seven Cities, Cabeza de Baca’s journey across the Southwest, the reasons for Coronado’s venture into New Mexico, and on and on.

Returning to the land grant document of Luiz López: In his petition for land, López calls himself an “original resident” who is resettling land. He refers to “royal land” mentions that it is vacant. He describes as one of its borders a ditch dug by the “Thano” Indians when they lived in San Cristóbal. These few statements lead to questions that help to unravel the Spanish Colonial history of New Mexico. Why was he “returning” to New Mexico? Where had he gone, and why? Who were the “Thano” Indians, where was San Cristóbal, and if the land was vacant and abandoned, where did the Indians go?

I’ve found that each document is a Pandora’s Box that leads to a deeper and deeper exploration of New Mexico history. And the signatories and parties involved in the transactions include a who’s who of Spanish Colonial New Mexico, including Roque Madrid, the Marquis de la Peñuela, Fermín de Mendinueta, Juan Bautista Anza, Francisco Cuervo y Valdez, and others.

The collection of papers is especially valuable because it comes from and focuses on the Plaza del Cerro in Chimayó, a place that is better preserved than most plazas and retains more historical artifacts and information. Here we have a museum, a fine historical photo collection, a long and well-preserved and studied history of weaving, and a growing collection of oral histories. These papers extend the impressive record of life in this little plaza to over three centuries.

Most of documents are wills and settlements of estates or land conveyances. The core of the Ortega collection traces land ownership in the Plaza del Cerro area, beginning with the grant to López. The wills and settlements, dealing with about 28 estates, include many families, but the central thread is on the Ortega family in its many ramifications. These provide some of the most detailed glimpses of the material culture of Chimayosos in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

The addition of documents such as personal letters and other notes add interest to these collections, diverting from the routine accounts of land transactions, grants, and wills and testaments. Among these is a letter from Nicasio Ortega to his parents while he was away working in the mines in Silverton, Colorado in 1896; a letter home from Juan Domingo Ortega, who moved to Mora in the 1860s; and a list of the 15 children born to José Ramón Ortega and Petra Mestas.

Some of the Ortegas were involved in politics and some documents reflect this, such as a formal letter to José Ramón Ortega from Alejandro Read, a prominent Republican and brother of historian Benjamin Read, regarding the results of an election and thanking José Ramón for his help in garnering votes. José Ramón also served as a Justice of the Peace and records of some of his cases offer some insight into the darker side of life in the nineteenth century, including descriptions of murder and thievery for which José Ramón meted out justice.

Reading through the papers, I’ve kept in mind questions that many have asked about the plaza and I’ve found a few answers. Curiously, in all the listings of personal belongings in the wills and testaments, there is almost no mention of any kind of weaving implement. Many people have sought to find the roots of the well-established weaving industry in Chimayó and oral history points to Grabiel Ortega as the first weaver in the plaza. But among his effects and those of his descendants, no evidence shows up supporting this.

Several documents in the collection support the notion that the interior of the plaza was considered communal space, including an April 9, 1806 order from Mañuel Garcia de la Mora, alcalde of the Santa Cruz de la Cañada district, forbidding the construction of corrals inside the Plaza del Cerro; and a July 7, 1827 sale of land by Mariano Silva to Luis Ortega, specifying that the sale does not include land inside the plaza because this was “property common to all.” Similarly, there were public rights of way around the plaza that protected access to homes around the plaza, to the common gardens inside, and to sources of water outside. (Unfortunately, the small holdings claims that allowed Chimayosos to patent land under U.S. law completely ignored commons such as the plaza and rights of way around it.)

There is no end to the questions my reading of these papers has prompted. And, having dealt with perhaps a third of the documents, I’ve still so far to go. I intend to continue, as I believe that making scans and transcriptions available will greatly enrich the historical record of Chimayó and New Mexico.