Thursday, September 12, 2013
“I have a present for you, Pilar.” Geraldo reached behind the chair for a large box. “For the most unique woman in all of Sandoval and Quintana history.”
Inside were gloves of soft leather. Underneath those were canvas pants with a blue stripe traveling down the leg and a multi-hued sash to tie around my waist. On the bottom lay a finely tooled leather holster with a Colt 5-shooter inside it.
“Learn how to use it.” He reached inside his boot and removed a tiny pistol. “And this. It only fires one shot, but one shot may be all you need.”
I ran my finger along its silver inlays and mother-of-pearl grips and traced the engraving of a centaur on its side. “It’s beautiful. Centaurs were shape shifters. Wizards. Born of the mare-headed Demeter, they castrated her priests. They wore female dress—”
“Ah, yes,” Geraldo said. “Perfect for my own little Sandoval shape shifter.”
Spring came late to Santa Fé in 1846, but the first traders traveled across the trail with news that war between the States and Mexico had begun. “Be prepared for anything and everything,” Geraldo said.
In the summer, we got word General Kearny and his Army of the West were coming to claim New Mexico. Americans had been visible on the streets of Santa Fé for some time, usually as the result of their trading ventures. Many New Mexicans, including Governor Armijo, had become involved in the trade. Both my father and Geraldo rode the trail often.
A few men traveled with their wives, usually Indian or Mexican women, but I’d never seen an Anglo woman cross the trail. The plaza was packed with men—American, New Mexican, Spanish, and a few French. For the most part, I passed as one of them.
The Missouri traders were all for the Americans taking over. They wanted it done peacefully so as not to disturb business along the trail. They also wanted to get rid of Armijo and the high levy he put on each wagonload of goods. Many, including Geraldo, suspected the receipts of the tax went into Armijo’s pockets. He had made himself unpopular with the locals by taking land from the public domain and giving it to his friends, many of whom were Americans involved in the Santa Fé trade.
I stood beside Geraldo in the plaza when General Kearny and his army of more than sixteen hundred men entered Santa Fé in August 1846. Hundreds of supply wagons, more than I thought possible, followed the army–1500 oxen, 3600 mules, and 450 horses pulled them. A caravan of eighty merchant wagons traveled with them, ready to set up shop when the city changed hands.
“It’s an entire country!” I said. A few men nodded their agreement.
“An invasion,” Geraldo said. “A military occupation. They’re placing a cannon on the hill overlooking the city.”
Acting governor Juan Bautista Vigil y Alarid surrendered the city. Not a shot was fired. When the Mexican tricolor was lowered, women sobbed and soldiers cheered.
The United States had conquered its first foreign capital.
"Conquest of New Mexico" 1882, artist unknown
“Some of your priests have told you that we would ill-treat your women and brand them on the cheek, as you do your mules on the hip. It is all false,” General Kearny said to the crowd of New Mexicans and foreigners filling the plaza.
“Hear, hear,” the Americans cheered.
“He cuts a striking figure under the star-spangled banner,” said a female voice behind me. I turned and saw an American woman, about my own age. She spoke to another woman, her servant by the style of her dress. “Our countrymen will remember this day forever.”
“Mine, too,” I said. She searched for who had spoken among the assembled men surrounding me. An officer standing next to her eyed my holster and stepped between us.
“Just a boy, ma’am,” he said to her.
Over the next few days, Kearny worked alongside lawyers he’d brought with him to draft a set of laws to govern the American territory of New Mexico. “The code is workable,” Geraldo said later. He rubbed his jaw, speaking as much to himself as to me. “But the lawyers are out for themselves.”
My business and political lessons never seemed to end. Geraldo rushed to fill me with a lifetime of what he had learned. “Hire several lawyers, pay them well, and have them check each other’s work. Are you listening Pilar?” Satisfied he had my attention, he continued, “Honesty is hard-won in rough country. In the short run, the clever and dishonest will run the territory of New Mexico. Make sure both sides work for you.”
Please join me at the Somos Salon in Taos on Saturday, September 28 or Bookworks, Albuquerque on September 29.