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Tortillas and Rebozos: A Middle Ground in the New Mexico Territory, 1846-1889

By Katherine Sarah Massoth

On the evening of 12 September 1846, Susan Shelby Magoffin lamented in her private diary, “[We are] in this foreign land where there are so few of our countrymen, and so few manners and customs similar to ours, or in short anything to correspond with our national feelings and fire-side friendships.”[1] Magoffin had just a few months prior left Missouri, where she lived a settled middle-class life, and joined her new husband on his economic endeavor down the Santa Fe Trail and the Camino Real into México. As Euro-Americans, like Magoffin, increasingly left the United States and entered what is today New Mexico, beginning in 1846, they believed that the people al otro lado, on the other side of the border, were significantly different. They believed they were in a foreign land.

While Euro-Americans used various methods, such as race, gender, class, and nationality, to create division between themselves, and Spanish-Mexicans and American Indians, daily activities became permeable borders for cultural exchange. Daily acts such as wearing rebozos (shawls) and eating tortillas became a middle ground in the New Mexico Territory. Throughout world history, and even today, individuals and communities have used material items and foodstuffs to manifest their ethnic, class, religious, and national identities on a daily basis. From the personal writings and correspondence of Euro-American women between 1846 and 1889, it is evident that women were mostly concerned with the material and food culture surrounding them.

Euro-American, Spanish-Mexican, and American Indian women served as a meeting point between the different cultural groups through their interactions with material practices and food ways. The use of Spanish-Mexican and American Indian customs benefitted the Euro-Americans in their daily survival but their opinion of Spanish-Mexicans and American Indians as cultural inferiors did not change. Often Euro-Americans used clothing and food ways to demarcate the “civilized” and “uncivilized.” Other times, women played a significant role in initiating genial relationships between each cultural group through clothing, trinkets, and recipes. Women participated in adopting (probably, temporarily) Spanish-Mexican and American Indian cultural practices, especially dress and cooking methods. Material items and food ways became sites of physical and cultural contact and exchange between Euro-Americans, Spanish-Mexicans, and Americans Indians. 

In the New Mexico Territory, Euro-Americans often used clothing as an indicator of Euro-American communities or non-white societies. For example, on 6 August 1866 as Eveline Martin Alexander and the U.S. troops she was accompanying approached Fort Bascom, New Mexico, the soldiers knew they were close due to the presence of a woman in Euro-American clothing. She wrote, “We have not known within a hundred miles how near we were to Fort Union…We learned that were four miles from Fort Bascom. Quite an excitement was received among the soldiers who did not know they were near any post, by the appearance of a ‘lady on a horseback’ dressed in the usual costume of civilization.”[2] The “lady on a horseback” was Mrs. De Weisse, the Euro-American wife of a surgeon stationed at Fort Bascom. The soldiers found the markers of Euro-American community and culture in the clothing of a woman.

On the other hand, when Alexander saw Utes, she noted the difference in outfits and hairstyles. She wrote, on 23 August 1866, “Saw a couple of Utah Indian today, a ‘buck’ & a ‘squaw’ who came riding along on a pair of Indian ponies. Their costume exceeded anything, I have seen yet.”[3] For Alexander, the Ute woman’s costume was the most shocking, as she appeared either masculine or androgynous. She noted, “The squaw had her hair divided into two tails which were wound round & round with strings of small beads - both her eyes & one of her cheeks were painted with vermilion. She was dressed like the buck in doeskin… and she rode astride her horse, it was hard to define her sex.”[4] While Alexander did not describe the woman’s clothing, she provided an image of Ute women’s hair and face paint. The Ute woman’s hair, face paint, clothing, and manner of riding her horse, according to Alexander, marked her as androgynous. In the eyes of a middle-class Euro-American woman, the clothing and demeanor de-feminized the Ute woman.

Moreover, Euro-Americans took time to note the type of clothing (or lack of clothing) they saw. Susan Shelby Magoffin painstakingly detailed throughout her diary the clothing Americans Indians wore. For example, on 17 June 1846, she recorded, “we had a visit from an Indian of the Kaw tribe… He was entirely in a state of nudity, except the breach clout which all of them wear.”[5]  She commented again, on 6 August 1846: “His [American Indian man] dress consists of a striped blanket wrapped around his body, a string of beads, and his long hair tied up with a piece of red cloth.”[6] Magoffin was fascinated with the type of clothing worn by the American Indians she interacted with on the Santa Fe Trail. She documented her interactions with American Indians by recounting their garb. While these may seem like mundane comments, the fact that Magoffin, and other women, took time to note the type of clothing they observed means this was a significant moment for them.

Euro-American women also read clothing as text on civilization and sometimes used clothing to divide literally themselves from the non-white “other.” Near San Miguel, New Mexico, on 27 August 1846, Magoffin inscribed a vivid scene:

It is truly shocking to my modesty to pass such places…The women slap about with their arms and necks bare, perhaps their bosoms exposed (and they are none of the prettiest or whitest) if they are about to cross the little creek…regardless of those about them, they pull their dresses, which in the first place but little more than cover their calves - up above their knees and paddle through the water like ducks, sloshing and spattering every thing about them…And it is repulsive to see the children running about perfectly naked…I am constrained to keep my veil drawn closely over my face all the time to protect my blushes.[7]

Magoffin described her revulsion of the dress and behavior of the women in San Miguel as linked. Perhaps, she thought that their clothing made them behave in a specific manner, or vice versa. She compared the women’s behavior to her modesty and implied that their behavior tarnished her modesty. Moreover, she associated the modesty of the women based on the length of their skirts. Magoffin suggested that white women covered their arms and necks and only wore long skirts. For her, the lack of clothing marked the women as animals and different from herself. That the clothing did not cover up their dark skin disgusted Magoffin the most.

Similarly, in November 1855, Mother Magdalena Hayden, from the Sisters of Loretto Convent, expressed her disgust for New Mexican women’s dress and bodily comportment. She wrote, “Among many things in this country, there were two which disgusted the Sisters, which are: the lack of care and the filthiness of the churches, and the bareness in the dress of the women. Their common dress is no more than a shirt, under-petticoat and shawl. It is true that they never leave off the latter, but this cannot always cover their breasts and bare arms.”[8] Not even a shared religion could bring the Irish Catholic Sisters of Loretto, who had recently transplanted themselves from Kentucky to Santa Fe, to overlook the difference in bodily comportment and clothing of the Spanish-Mexican women. Among the many things the Sisters could have found wrong with New Mexico, dress and cleanliness were among the top demonstrating that Euro-American women placed high importance on appropriate dress along white middle-class standards. The women, as Hayden and Magoffin demonstrate, cared about what parts of the body were and were not exposed. For Euro-American women, clothing marked community, morality, and the “other.”

Not only did clothing mark the lack of modesty in women, but Euro-American women also used clothing to protect and separate themselves from non-whites, as evident above with Magoffin’s reference to the veil. The veil served as a border between “civilized” and “uncivilized,” and “white” and “non-white.” Magoffin provided a stunning example of how Euro-American women saw clothing as a means of determining civilization and as a means of physically separating oneself from the “uncivilized other.” The veil allowed Magoffin to view the Spanish-Mexicans without having to expose herself fully to them. Similarly, on 26 August 1846, she wrote about her use of clothing as a border in Las Vegas, New Mexico, “My veil was ingenuously drawn down, not only for the better protection of my face from the wind and constant stare of the natives,’ but also afforded me a screen from whence to beholding [sic] my schrutinizing [sic] spectators.”[9] Magoffin used the veil to protect herself and as a method to study the residents of Las Vegas without coming in contact with them.

Euro-American women also attempted to change the clothing worn by American Indians and Spanish-Mexicans. At the Zuni Pueblo, Baptist missionary Mary Ramsey Ealy filled her 1881 diary with commentary on Zuni dress. Ealy remarked about the “Indian” dress of her Sunday school pupils and remarked when the Zuni people dressed in “American outfits.”[10] Ealy sought to change not only the religion of the Zuni people but also their dress as she recorded daily how much clothing she distributed. On 21 January 1881, she noted, “Gave out 27 dresses & about 30 bonnets.”[11] Six days later she rejoiced, “We have dressed a great many girls,” as if the act of changing one’s clothing was similar to converting a soul.[12] Comments like these are littered throughout Mary Ramsey Ealy’s diary demonstrating that, for her, Americanization and Christianization efforts in the Zuni Pueblo was inextricably tied to changing the clothing of the Zuni people. In fact, she never once enumerated how many Zuni she or her husband converted. Instead, she focused on their dress. For Ealy and many other missionaries, material differences came part and parcel with religious differences. The annexation of New Mexico was not enough. Euro-American missionaries were to obliterate material differences through cultural assimilation and religious conversion. Material culture played an integral part in spreading Euro-American political control and social structures.

Clothing and accessories also served as a source of conversation and commonality between Spanish-Mexican women and Euro-American women. For example, while visiting a Mexican ranch outside of Taos on 5 November 1846, Alexander spent the evening examining a Spanish-Mexican woman’s jewelry. She wrote, “The señora showed me her jewelry during the evening, as is the custom of the country. She had a handsome necklace & earrings Mexican work…and a curious girdle of solid silver, set with colored stones of some sort.”[13] Alexander thought it was customary for Spanish-Mexicans to show-off their jewelry and possessions. Alexander also showed the woman her possessions, “In return, I showed her my trinkets, as I happened to have my jewel box along with me.”[14] Alexander reveals that contact between Euro-American and Spanish-Mexican women often consisted of showing each other their material culture. Material culture became the site of contact and conversation, almost as a common language, between Spanish-Mexicans and Euro-Americans.

As Euro-American and Spanish-Mexican women interacted in the New Mexico Territory, they often traded dress patterns and clothing designs. Some Spanish-Mexican elite women learned how to sew and dress in a Euro-American fashion. Magoffin noted, on 15 September 1846, doña Juliana visited her and inquired about acquiring a pattern for Euro-American clothing. She wrote, “[doña Juliana] took a great fancy to my cape because it is high in the neck, and will return for the pattern.”[15] Additionally, Magoffin noted that both the Spanish-Mexican wife of Dr. Eugene Lietensdorfer and her sister dressed in an “American style; with bonnets, scarfs & parasols and dresses.”[16] It is apparent that changes in both Spanish-Mexican and Euro‚ÄĎAmerican elite women’s clothing were some of the earliest products of U.S. colonization in New Mexico. From Magoffin’s and Alexander’s exchanges over clothing, it is apparent the Euro-American and Spanish-Mexican women shared cultural practices and even appreciated each other’s customs despite, or in light of, U.S. colonization efforts. The women, through their material practices, served as a cultural middle ground during a very tense moment in U.S. and Mexican history.

Food products were another venue in which Euro-Americans encountered Spanish-Mexicans and American Indians. The tables and trading posting not only served as sites of nourishment but political and cultural contact. Sometimes, the Euro-Americans used the food to judge and stigmatize the “non-white other” or as a site to embrace the “other’s” cultural practices. As Euro-Americans, Spanish-Mexicans, and American Indians exchanged food items, they also expressed preferences for taste and recipes. Alexander commented on how the soldiers in her company preferred a certain type of New Mexican chile. She remarked, “The Mexican onions and ‘chili colorado’ are the most noted productions of New Mexico at least they have a great reputation among the officers…This Mexican, however had only ‘chili verde,’ with which we had to content ourselves.” The Euro-American soldiers developed a preference for the infamous red chile of New Mexico demonstrating that food, regardless of political conquest, became a site of cultural exchange. Euro-Americans moved into the Southwest with the intent to conquer the people and its culture; however, sometimes the New Mexican food conquered Euro-Americans. This is significant because the myths of American westward expansion claim that whites brought civilization and American ways west but this demonstrates the daily exchanges between the two cultures, and that the New Mexican food culture influenced American food culture.

The daily action of producing, preparing, and consuming foodstuffs was not only central to everyday existence but also to cultural colonization following U.S. conquest of the Southwest. Some Euro-American women used market exchanges to mock non-white women. For example, Sarah Louise Wetter wrote her brother in September 1870 about buying foodstuffs in the Santa Fe market. She wrote, “I often buy fruit & vegetables from them [“Mexicans”] if they cant say one word in English. They can scream in English it is too amusing some times when I wont give them all they ask…many a good laughs do we Americans take at them.”[17] By the 1870s, some of the congenial relationships created over food and clothing had changed to tense and artificial relationships. While Euro-Americans depended on the market goods of Spanish-Mexicans and enjoyed their foodstuffs, they spared no expense in being disrespectful of cultural differences. These friendly or hostile relations between whites and non-whites occurred over the daily gathering and selling of provisions.

Historian Jeffrey Pilcher argues that while culinary borderlands serve to divide people, they can also unite different ethno-cultural groups. He claims, “[Foods] offer an inviting port of entry for those who wish to taste the unfamiliar. These culinary borderlands become fertile sites of innovation as cooks borrow recipes and ingredients from their neighbors.”[18] Towards the end of her visit to present-day New Mexico, Susan Shelby Magoffin transformed her opinion of New Mexican food ways. By 17 November 1846, Magoffin had developed an appetite for New Mexican food and clothing, and craved learning the recipes and patterns. Magoffin wrote, “If we remain here during the winter, I must learn a good many of the New Mexican ways of living, manufacturing serapes, rabozos, to make tortillas, chily peppers, and cholote [chocolate], which by the way I do know a little something about - I made myself a passable cup this afternoon.”[19]

Magoffin’s comment is in stark contrast to her earlier comments in which she despised New Mexican food and clothing. Obviously, something had changed in a little over two and a half months to lead Magoffin from refusing to eat the food of New Mexico to hungering for it and wanting to make serapes and rebozos. Her interactions with Spanish-Mexican and American Indian women challenged her to adapt the surrounding culture into her own. Magoffin’s adaptation of Spanish-Mexican recipes, ingredients, and clothing into her Euro-American daily life served as a borderland.

Tortilla production became Magoffin’s culinary borderland as the act allowed her to connect with Spanish-Mexican culture. By October 1846, Magoffin had fallen in love with tortillas. She expressed her adoration, “we are living on the fine Mexican tortillas - and they are fine indeed…one does not eat a bad dinner.”[20] While stuck in San Gabriel, New Mexico due to the war between the U.S. and México in late November 1846, Magoffin boarded with the family of Don José. The wife and daughter taught Magoffin how to make tortillas. She described, “The wife and daughter of Don José…came today with their mola stone [metate, grinding stone] and corn to show me how to make tortillas….When they were finished the good lady presented me with a plate full of fine tortillas.”[21] Magoffin witnessed the customary women’s labor of tortilla production that dates to the pre-Columbian period. The women in don José’s family wanted to share their food production practices with their Euro-American visitor. In addition, Magoffin observed the traditional labor surrounding the preparation of tortillas. These women served as a cultural middle ground and the tortilla served as culinary borderland as they taught and exchanged practices during and despite of U.S. annexation. In fact, while Euro-Americans were invading New Mexico to assimilate the people and land, the Spanish-Mexican women were facilitating a form of reverse cultural assimilation. Magoffin was not tense or hostile in this exchange as she was earlier during her trip down the Santa Fe Trail, even though she was in the middle of the war and trapped in San Gabriel due to the war. Tortilla production, clothing, and chocolate became a safe borderland for Euro-Americans and Spanish-Mexicans to interact and create relationships despite larger political hostilities.

However, this culinary borderland was temporary. By 1889, Euro-American women, such as Mary C. Douglass, did not interact directly with female tortilla makers. Instead, Douglass observed from a safe distance at the Tesuque Pueblo. She wrote about her visit, as a tourist, not as a guest like Magoffin. The day Douglass visited was “tortilla baking day.” She described her observations:

On the right of the door were three flat stones set somewhat slanting in a bed of clay; behind one of these was a girl grinding corn which she put by handfulls [sic] on the large stone and then crushed it by moving a narrow long stone up and down with it. An old crone sat on the floor shelling the corn which was black. On the right in front of the door was a pretty young squaw moistening the crushed corn with water and rubbing it up and down on another stone like the first – then they made it in cakes and baked it like the first in large flat cakes in the ashes.”[22]

Similar to Magoffin, Douglass provided a vivid depiction of the backbreaking labor of women creating nourishment for their community. However, Douglass’s relationship to the food production was different from Magoffin’s. She maintained a distance and the women did not approach Douglass with the intent to teach her the trade. In 1846, Magoffin craved the recipes of the New Mexicans. In contrast, by 1889, when Euro-Americans had become more entrenched in the territory, Mary C. Douglass did not ingest the tortillas from Tesuque. Instead, she left the room to eat a lunch of “soda crackers and dried tongue” on the church steps.[23]

Eveline Martin Alexander, Sarah Louise Wetter, Mary C. Douglass, Mary Ramsey Ealy, Sister Magdalena Hayden, and Susan Shelby Magoffin demonstrate the distinctive role of food and clothing in shaping interactions. The fact that these women commented on the clothing and foodstuffs they interacted with throughout their diaries and correspondence demonstrate that food and clothing was central in their judgments of the “other.” Moreover, it shows the sites of inter-ethnic interactions – the market, the kitchen, and the parlor. Often meals and material items became the sites of interactions and “othering” of people, instead of political arenas. Culinary and material borderlands were sites of exchange, as women altered dress patterns and recipes, and exchanged ingredients, but they were also sites of conflict as Euro-Americans identified the “other” through their wardrobe, food preparation and consumption practices. Women’s roles in shaping and re-shaping material culture and food culture served as a meeting place between Spanish-Mexican or American Indian society, and Euro-American society. The cultural middle ground the Euro-American and Spanish-Mexican women created over tortillas and rebozos facilitated both cultural transmission and cultural preservation during and following U.S. annexation.


[1]. Susan Shelby Magoffin, Down the Santa Fé Trail and into Mexico: The Diary of Susan Shelby Magoffin, 1846-1847, edited by Stella M. Drumm (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1926), 126.

[2]. Eveline Martin Alexander, Eveline Throop Martin Alexander Diary, April 30, 1866 – January 17, 1867. BANC MSS P-E 216. Bancroft Library, Berkeley, California, United States.

[3]. Ibid. Eveline Martin Alexander, Eveline Throop Martin Alexander Diary, April 30, 1866 – January 17, 1867. BANC MSS P-E 216. Bancroft Library, Berkeley, California, United States.

[4]. Ibid.

[5]. Magoffin, Down the Santa Fé Trail, 14.

[6]. Ibid., 70.

[7]. Ibid., 95.

[8]. Mother Magdalena Hayden, “Early Annals by Mother Magdalena Hayden, Santa Fe November 1855” Sisters of Loretto Microfilm, Reel 1, New Mexico Historical Records, Territorial Period 1852-1912, Microfilmed from the Loretto Archives, Loretto Motherhouse Nerinx, Kentucky 40049. New Mexico State Records Center and Archives, Cabinet 3, Drawer 2, Santa Fe, New Mexico, U.S.A.

[9]. Magoffin, Down the Santa Fé Trail, 92.

[10]. Mary Ramsey Ealy, Diary entry for January 10, 1881 in Mary Ramsey Diary, 1881, Box 2, Folder 2, Ealy Family Papers, MSS 443 BC, Center for Southwest Research, University Libraries, University of New Mexico, Albuquerque.

[11]. Diary entry for January 21, 1881, ibid. in Mary Ramsey Diary, 1881, Box 2, Folder 2, Ealy Family Papers, MSS 443 BC.

[12]. Diary entry for January 27, 1881, ibid.

[13].  Eveline Martin Alexander, Eveline Throop Martin Alexander Diary, April 30, 1866-January 17, 1867. BANC MSS P-E 216. Bancroft Library, Berkeley, California, United States.

[14]. Ibid.

[15].  Magoffin called doña Juliana “Donna Julienne.” Susan Shelby Magoffin, Down the Santa Fé Trail, 131.

[16]. Ibid., 133.

[17].  Letter from Sarah Louise Wetter to brother (Sam), Sunday September 4, 1870, Folder 1, Henry Wetter Papers, AC 238, Fray Angélico Chávez History Library, Santa Fe, New Mexico.

[18].  Jeffrey M. Pilcher, “Was the Taco Invented in Southern California?” Gastronomica, vol. 8, no. 1 (February 2008), 30.

[19].  Magoffin, Down the Santa Fé Trail, 164-165.

[20]. Ibid., 157.

[21]. Ibid., 167-168.

[22]. Mary C. Douglass Papers, AC 067, Fray Angélico Chávez History Library.

[23]. Ibid.