150th Anniversary of the Taos Rebellion
1997 marks the 150th anniversary of the Taos Rebellion. It took place in January of 1847, seven months after General Stephen Watts Kearny and his 3000 soldiers invaded and conquered New Mexico with surprising ease. Their opponents, under the command of Governor Manuel Armijo, retreated to Mexico. After consolidating his conquest Kearny split his army in three directions. The major contingents went to Mexico to fight the Chihuahua campaign or traveled to California to claim that territory for the United States. Three hundred troops under the command of Colonel Sterling Price remained in Santa Fe to maintain the peace so easily won.
In the first six months of 1847 the concealed anger of Spanish-Mexicans and Pueblo Indians erupted into violence. The Rebellion claimed over 200 lives, extending from Taos to Mora and Las Vegas. The uprising changed the life of Lucien Bonaparte Maxwell, a mountain man from Illinois who married the daughter of Carlos Beaubien, part-owner of a vast land grant of 1.7 million acres.
This writer now creates an interview with Maxwell a year after the Rebellion occurred. I take the role of a reporter asking him the following questions:
• What caused the Rebellion to take place? I understand that Kearny assured everyone that their rights would be protected.
First of all the Americans had it too easy. There’s some talk that Armijo took a substantial bribe to leave the Territory. He had a reputation for such things. With the army gone, everyone felt helpless and angry. Add to this a long standing dislike and suspicion of foreigners. Secondly, Kearny’s actions betrayed his words, He said the American conquest would stop east of the Rio Grande. Some New Mexicans, like Diego Archuleta, Armijo’s second in command, believed they could control the land to the west for Mexico and themselves. But after Kearny established control, he moved his army to California, claiming everything to the Pacific Ocean. There was a general feeling that the Americans could not be trusted.
• Did Archuleta do anything about it?
Lots of angry words, but no action. He gave up and returned to Mexico. All he did was increase the resentment of the New Mexicans. Keep in mind that the American conquest of 1846 was very different from Mexico’s independence from Spain in 1821. After independence, Mexico kept its cultural, legal, religious and economic traditions. All that changed was that Spain was no longer in charge. But the Americans brought with them a totally different set of values and standards, touching every aspect of life, a new language, new laws affecting property, a new justice system and a new religious culture. Fear and anxiety were added to anger and distrust.
• I can understand all the feelings the people had, but how did this translate into open warfare?
(Shaking his head): It was spontaneous, not carefully planned. In January last year, a mob got together and all the fears and resentments surfaced into violence. The New Mexicans and Taos Indians went on a rampage. Their targets were Americans and anyone associated with the new political structure. That first night they killed 13 people including Governor Bent, the justice of the peace, the sheriff and my brother-in-law, Narciso Beaubien, who had just returned from his college studies in Missouri. I was away at the time. So was my father-in-law and Kit Carson. We all feared for our wives and children. Except for Narciso, they all managed to escape.
• What was the American response? Their army was only 70 miles away in Santa Fe.
It took them almost a month to get organized. Colonel Price had some difficult decisions to make. By the time he was ready to move, the Taos insurgents had 1500 men ready to fight. Then he received word that the town of Mora had joined the rebellion. Five American businessmen were killed there. Price, with only about 300 men, decided to handle one situation at a time. Mora was only about 40 miles from Taos, so he could keep his army intact to confront the Taos uprising.
• If your figures are correct, Colonel Price was outnumbered five to one. Those were tough odds to overcome.
He had the advantage of leading professional soldiers supplied with firearms and cannon. The Taoseños were motivated but poorly equipped and badly organized. A battle was fought near where the Embudo River flows into Taos Canyon. The insurgents were no match for a disciplined army with all its firepower. They retreated to the little church in the Taos pueblo and prepared a line of defense. Their situation was hopeless. The Americans surrounded the church, killing more than 750 men and capturing the rest. Price then sent Captain J. R. Hendley and a contingent of troops to Mora. A bloody battle was fought southeast of the town. Hendley was killed, but his troops won the day. The army then moved to Las Vegas where there was no violence but threats of an uprising. Those suspected of planning a rebellion were captured, arrested and brought to Santa Fe. In June, thirty of them were hanged. Now there’s talk about the army establishing a major fort in the north central part of the Territory. I don’t think there will be any more uprisings.
• You say the Taos Rebellion changed your life. In what way?
My brother-in-law Narciso Beaubien should have inherited the land grant co-owned by his father, Carlos. Now that Narciso is dead, Carlos is making me his heir. Part of the deal is to colonize the grant, so come spring I’ll be establishing some kind of permanent settlement there on the east side of the mountains. Kit Carson said he’d help.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Maxwell eventually became sole owner of the largest privately owned piece of property in the United States. Colonel Sterling Price became an honored Confederate general in the Civil War. The army established Ft. Union in 1851. Native New Mexicans adjusted to the political situation and went on to play a major role in the building of Ft. Union and, later on, the defense of New Mexico during the Civil War.
Jack C. Urban is a Moreno Valley historian and editor of the Santa Fe Trail WagonMaster, a vintage newspaper celebrating the Santa Fe Trail.