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1837 Rebellion of Rio Arriba

by William H. Wroth

The Rebellion of 1837 in northern New Mexico began in Santa Cruz de la Cañada and neighboring communities along the Santa Cruz River and its tributaries. Its causes were complex. They can be attributed mainly to the poverty and discontent caused by the large increase in population that Santa Cruz and other rural areas had experienced since the mid-1700s combined with limited water and other resources and isolation from the rest of Mexico. In the series of political upheavals which took place in Mexico beginning with independence in 1821, New Mexico had been forgotten and all but ignored.

This background situation came to the forefront in 1837 due to several interconnected factors. An important contributing factor which has not been adequately considered is the impact of the virtually worldwide depression of 1837, which began in most countries in 1836. It was the largest depression and financial crash in history to that date and it affected all the trading nations of Europe and the Americas. Great Britain, France, Belgium, Germany, Canada, and the United States were hit especially hard. In Canada there were two serious rebellions, as well as a rebellion in Guatemala. In the United States the financial markets were devastated, and many people were made destitute. These conditions also had their effect on Mexico and New Mexico.

In 1835 Mexican President Antonio López de Santa Anna instituted a centralized form of government which greatly reduced local autonomy throughout Mexico. Santa Anna’s purpose was primarily financial. The government of Mexico, after so much interior upheaval and then the depression in world markets, was in grave need of funds to continue operating. He and his conservative centralist supporters abolished the federalist constitution of 1824 which had been based on that of the United States and introduced a centralized Departmental Plan which made every state directly accountable to the national government. The state governors were deposed, to be replaced with a governor directly responsible to the central government, and state legislatures were dissolved and replaced with appointed five-man councils.

The reaction from the liberals (federalists) was strong and in several states rebellions broke out. In May 1835 Santa Anna was able to quickly subdue the rebels in the northern state of Zacatecas. A second rebellion began the same year in Texas, fomented not only by Anglo-American settlers but also by Mexican federalists. The Texas Revolution ended in 1836 in victory for the Texans and ignominious defeat for Santa Anna. Yet another rebellion against the centralist government occurred in California in 1836 in which the appointed governor Nicolás Gutiérrez was deposed and sent back to Mexico, to be replaced with a native-born Californian, Juan Alvarado.

In 1835 Santa Anna appointed Albino Pérez, a distinguished army officer from central Mexico, to be governor of New Mexico. Governor Pérez quickly became unpopular in New Mexico for his autocratic style and for the fact that he was not a native New Mexican. He was seen as the representative of the unpopular centralist government and expected to be the enforcer of the dreaded collection of taxes and other obnoxious aspects of the Departmental Plan, which had already been challenged in Zacatecas, Texas, California, and elsewhere in Mexico.

In New Mexico there was immediate concern that the Departmental Plan would result in the collection of taxes. New Mexicans had never paid taxes to the national government. They had been exempted due to performance of military service; local militias were a necessity on the remote northern frontier. And they had received little benefit over the years from the national government. It is not at all certain that Governor Pérez actually intended to collect taxes, but the laws enacted by the government were well known and it was expected that heavy taxes would soon be imposed. Fearful rumors began to stir up the populace. It was said that the tax might amount to one half of a person’s property. Another rumor reported by Davis, which perhaps was circulated by enemies of the government, was that husbands would be compelled to pay a tax for the privilege of sleeping with their own wives.

While these rumors were floating around, Governor Pérez proceeded to enact another controversial aspect of the Departmental Plan. The Plan called for the dissolving of state legislatures and this could be extended to the local level. In December 1836 Pérez dissolved the municipal council (ayuntamiento) of Santa Cruz de la Cañada on the pretext that most of the seven members were related. This caused great consternation in the community, which was further inflamed when the alcalde of Santa Cruz, Juan José Esquibel, disobeyed the governor on other legal issues. In July 1837 Esquibel was finally arrested and put into jail in Santa Cruz. He was quickly freed by a mob, and he then formed a new governing council of twelve members which he called a canton (district), in conscious opposition to the government. The first proclamation issued by Esquibel and his followers on August 1, 1837, explicitly stated their opposition to the Departmental Plan and to the exacting of taxes.

Governor Pérez soon learned that an armed insurrection was taking place in Santa Cruz, and he attempted to rally together enough troops to meet it. Few people would commit to help him; local alcaldes could muster only a few troops. He turned to the Río Abajo area south of Santa Fe, which he hoped was more supportive of him, and was able to put together a force of about 200 volunteer troops, mostly from the Pueblos of Sandia, Cochití and Santo Domingo. On August 7 he and his small force of men under direction of presidial officers from Santa Fe marched north, along with other members of his government who he expected would help in negotiations with the rebels. At La Mesilla (Black Mesa) near San Ildefonso Pueblo he met a force of 1500 to 2000 armed rebels who immediately attacked, causing Governor Pérez’s Pueblo volunteers, two officers, and ten soldiers all to desert. Pérez and a small remaining force attempted to defend themselves but soon had to retreat to Santa Fe. That night he and a small party of supporters began to retreat towards Río Abajo. On the outskirts of Santa Fe they were apprehended by Indians from Santo Domingo Pueblo, sympathizers with the rebellion, who overcame them and killed and decapitated Pérez. A number of his supporters were also killed, including three members of the influential Abréu family.

The rebels then marched in full force to Santa Fe and camped on the outskirts near the Rosario chapel where on August 10 they proclaimed one of their leaders, José González of Taos, as governor of New Mexico. The ethnic background of González has been debated over the years, with some calling him an Indian from Taos Pueblo and others claiming he was a Genízaro (detribalized, Christianized Indian). However, it seems most likely that he was of español status, that is, he was a vecino, a member of the Hispano community of Taos. He appears, like many other rural vecinos of the period, to have had little education (apparently he was illiterate) and made his living as a cibolero (buffalo hunter). According to Josiah Gregg who was present during the rebellion, González was “a good honest hunter but a very ignorant man.”

The first acts of González were to try to justify the murder of Governor Pérez and the reasons for the rebellion by sending envoys to the national government in Mexico City. After a series of meetings in Santa Fe of the governing body (assemblea general), support for González began to weaken, and no envoys were ever sent. On the one hand many of the more radical leaders of the rebel cantón thought he was too moderate, and they could not reach agreement upon the best response to the central government. On the other hand the nearly 200 American merchants and traders living in Santa Fe were unhappy not only because of the danger and chaos of the situation, but because some of them had had their goods confiscated and divided up among the rebels.

On September 4 González went to Taos and presumably to Santa Cruz to meet with other rebel leaders. In his absence the opposition to the rebellion began to take form. A troop of some 600 volunteers was organized in Santa Fe under Captain José Caballero. These troops joined another 400 men from the Rio Abajo, and all were put under the leadership of Manuel Armijo, former governor and wealthy Rio Abajo sheep rancher. They received considerable material support from the American traders in Santa Fe and also from wealthy Hispanos.

Meanwhile a disorderly and probably insufficiently armed troop of some 3000 rebels under the leadership of Pablo Montoya marched to within a league and a half of Santa Fe. Armijo was successful in getting Montoya to agree to a truce in exchange for turning over the original fomenters of the rebellion, Juan José Esquibel and three others, who were then jailed in Santa Fe. However, the rebellion was not over. On October 18 there was news of a new rebellion brewing in the mountain town of Las Truchas with the intention of invading Santa Fe. While this rebellion never materialized, in January a proclamation issued by Antonio Vigil (known as “El Coyote”) of Truchas was again intended to rally rebel forces and march on Santa Fe to free the four jailed leaders. In response on January 24 Governor Armijo had the four prisoners executed, and on the 27th he marched towards Santa Cruz with his troops, now augmented with over 150 dragoons from Veracruz who had been stationed in Zacatecas.

Armijo’s force encountered the rebels near Pojoaque on January 28, and in a short battle they were dispersed, with 20 rebels killed and eight captured. Armijo then took possession of Santa Cruz and took José González prisoner and had him executed immediately. Antonio Vigil was said to have been killed in the battle and his body hung on a post near Pojoaque as warning to the remaining rebels. Pablo Montoya maintained his freedom thanks to his turning over the four leaders of the original rebellion, but ten years later was an instigator of the Taos Rebellion and was hung by American soldiers.

Sources Used:

Bloom, Lansing Bartlett. New Mexico under Mexican Administration, 1821-1846. Santa Fe: Old Santa Fe Press, 1913-1914.
Davis, W. W. H. El Gringo. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1857.
Gregg, Josiah. Commerce of the Prairies. New York: Henry G. Langley, 1844.
Jones, Oakah L., Jr. Santa Anna. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1968.
Lecompte, Janet. Rebellion in Río Arriba, 1837. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1985.
Wright, Carroll D. Industrial Depressions. New York: Augustus Kelley, 1968 (reprint of 1886 edition)

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