Archive

Archive for the ‘the Southwest’ Category

Napoleon of the Stump

April 14, 2013 Leave a comment

For the last several months, for two hours a week, I have been locked in a soundproof room with James K. Polk. Yes, that Polk: 11th President, architect of the war with Mexico, subject of a They Might Be Giants Song (alas, to my ear, not one of their best efforts; I suppose they thought the obscurity of the subject was good enough.  Me, I would have gone for Millard Fillmore).

Polk, from an earlier edition of the diary.

Polk, from an earlier edition of the diary.

OK, I am not actually locked into that little booth. And of course Mr. Polk has been dead for some 160 years. What I am doing is recording his diary for the New Mexico State Library’s division for the blind. It’s very similar to the volunteer gig I did a few years ago in Chicago, with one main difference. There, we read books requested by our clients, and multiple readers did one book. Here, it’s one reader, one book. And the readers choose the books to record.

Yes, that’s right, I chose to read aloud Polk: The Diary of a President 1845 1849 (edited and annotated by esteemed historian Allan Nevins), thinking some hearing-impaired person might be longing to share in its wonders too.

Gotta keep those History Nerd bona fides up.

Actually, the diary makes some sense for our library. We try to focus on books that have some appeal to Southwestern clients, and what could be more relevant than getting the perspective of the president who brought much of that region into the Union? And it seemed right up my alley to choose something that would give me new insight into one of our presidents—perhaps a bit of a controversial one—given my role at Biographers International Organization (here’s a sample of the newsletter I edit, for the curious). Finally, if I’m gonna read a book out loud, it might as well be about history, since that is my vocation.

I say Polk is controversial because as a champion of manifest destiny at the expense of Mexico, he seems to have tapped early on some of the imperialist impulses that truly emerged some 50 years later, and there was a chauvinistic element in his attitude toward the Mexicans. And of course he was all for letting slavery expand into America’s newly gained Western lands. Or am I wrong?

A scene from the war that added more than 500,000 square miles to the United States.

A scene from the war that added more than 500,000 square miles to the United States.

In his introduction, Nevins offers a historiographical view of Polk that dismisses earlier claims such as those. He says an “anti-slavery interpretation of the Mexican War” led late 19th-century historians to paint Polk as a conqueror marked by “Machiavellian adroitness” who lied to Congress—or suppressed facts, as Nevins puts it, to get a war with Mexico he already wanted. Not so, Nevins claims: Polk was honest and conscientious, if stiff and mediocre, and not capable of “deceit and double dealing.” (Of course, there is this observation of Polk from a contemporary political adversary, John Quincy Adams, who called him a “slaveholding exterminator of Indians.”)

Nevins wrote in 1952; later historians were more apt to side with their 19th-century brethren in assessing Polk’s aims and attitudes. After all, he ran on a Democratic platform in 1844 that was staunchly expansionist. Still, as one college textbook from 2000 notes, war was not inevitable with Mexico; Polk just “made decisions and carried them out in ways that exacerbated already existing tensions and made war difficult to avoid.” In the end, the authors claim, Polk was lucky things turned out as well as they did, but many of the gains he sought—primarily California and the Rio Grande as a border with Mexico—might have been obtained without a war that killed 50,000 Mexicans and left many others under the rule of a Protestant, Anglo-Saxon nation that disdained them.

H. W. Brands, writing in 2002 (The Age of Gold) emphasizes that California was the prize Polk truly craved. He asked Mexico to sell the land; when it refused, Brands says, “Polk determined to take California by force.” Not a vote for casting the Mexican War as an accidental conflict, I don’t think. And, apropos of the Adams’ description quoted above, the 2003 work Slavemaster President: The Double Career of James Polk, by William Dusinberre, shows how Polk’s Southern roots and slave holdings shaped his pro-slavery political views, including support for the gag rule in the House.

So what does the Polk diary reveal about the man? To be fair, I’m only about halfway through, but he does come across as someone who knows his “private” words will be read by others (as surely all president have for generations, if not all the way back to Washington). He also also endured something modern presidents I’m sure are glad to be done with: entertaining complete strangers who come to the White House seeking handouts and loans. Not government money, mind you, but Polk’s personal funds. Perhaps that’s what made him seem so humorless, except when recounting his exasperation with Congressmen and others seeking political favors (so glad that practice has ended). He also seemed to keep close track of personal and political slights, sometimes impugning the motives of those who disagreed with him, showing some of the self-righteousness and pettiness he has been criticized for by some historians.

I don’t particularly like the Polk who emerges from his own words, but that probably reflects my biases. But like anyone else, he has his high and low moments. He condemns one Protestant minister seeking a chaplaincy in the army for his “abuse of Catholics and…fanaticism,” and he made a personal loan of $100 in gold to a Congressman, even as he deplored the man’s descent into alcoholism (the lawmaker soon after killed himself, leaving Polk to comment on the “melancholy” of intemperance). Yet Polk also had derogatory views of the Mexicans (though not an uncommon stance for Americans of the day), and he found it amusing when a Portuguese diplomat gave a “solemn account” of the queen of Portugal’s miscarriage. Huh?

I’ve seen several sources that say at one time Polk was often included in historians’ lists of the top ten presidents, primarily, I assume, because of the huge expansion of the country that went down on his watch. A 2010 poll I found still had him highly ranked, at #12. So, as I keep reading and recording, I’ll try to keep an open mind about Young Hickory.

And dead last in that survey? Andrew Johnson. I don’t think I’ll be reading his diary any time soon.

History Close to Home

September 23, 2012 Leave a comment

One reason why I chose to live in New Mexico (or perhaps why the L of E chose me) is its rich history. I know, no matter where you live, you can find interesting historical tidbits about people and places, but something about that intersection of the three cultures here, played out amidst such amazing scenery, has captivated me since my first excursion to Santa Fe and Taos more than 15 years ago.

Unfortunately, of late I haven’t been exploring the area too much to experience some of that history firsthand. I rectified that a bit yesterday, with a trip to the Puye cliff dwellings followed by a drive to Los Alamos. It was a day of contrasts: the ancestral Pueblos and 20th-century Americans, pottery shards and detritus of the Cold War. But all of it was framed by the Jemez Mountains and a sense that this is truly a unique place.

The Puye Cliffs

The Puye cliff (and mesa) dwellings date back to about the 900s and were occupied for almost 700 years. Today’s descendants of the residents live just to the east and north at Santa Clara Pueblo. The Santa Clarans administer the cliff site today and provide the guides for the tour.

Before the tour, I wandered around the Exhibition Hall, which had a one-day treat. Two state archaeologists were on hand, displaying artifacts—genuine and replica—representing some 14,000 years of New Mexico history. The state, you may know, was the home of two paleo-Indian sites that gave their name to past cultures: Clovis and Folsom. We saw arrowheads from the era, some made from obsidian, which turns up frequently at Puye (the Spanish, when confronting the Aztecs to the south, quickly learned of the acute sharpness of weapons made from this volcanic rock, and in modern times surgeries have been done with obsidian tools, which leave behind smaller scars). The discussion included a short lesson on how the paleo-Indians hunted, and how the dry New Mexico climate has helped preserve artifacts that would have disintegrated in other parts of North America.

We also heard how the first New Mexicans used the atlatl, as people around the world did to increase the range and force of their thrown missiles. The diffusion of the atlatl is a mystery: was it spread by migration and/or trade contact, or did it originate independently in areas as distant as Australia and South America? I don’t know, but I do know I love to say atlatl. Atlatl, atlatl, atlatl!

Thank you for indulging my juvenile diversion.

The archaeologists went on to explain how the ancestral Pueblo people and their descendants made a fiber from yucca, which was used for shoes, clothing, and baskets, among other items. One of the archaeologists explained that waterproofed yucca vessels could be used as cooking pots, with hot rocks dropped inside to warm a stew. In recent years, some Indians of New Mexico have been turning to that fiber again.

On the mesa

I added to the collection of shards and obsidian started by tourists before me.

For the tour itself, I chose the mesa dwellings, since I’d already seen the larger and better known cliff dwellings at nearby Bandelier. Sam was our guide, and he took us inside the kiva on the mesa, which is surrounded by the ruins of several buildings with many small rooms, one fairly well-preserved larger building, and a spot where a reservoir once sat (farming went on down below the mesa). Sam explained that artifacts still cover the site. The Santa Clarans had halted an early dig there when the Anglo professor in charge, Edgar Hewitt, took all the bones his team found of the long-dead dwellers and less than respectfully threw them into a heap, which he then covered with rocks. Today, Sam said, some tourists take home pieces of pottery they find (which is against the rules), only to return home and begin experiencing odd, supernatural occurrences. The shards are returned post haste.

To return to the welcome center, we had a choice of taking a van or walking down, then using a ladder, as the Pueblos once did, for the final descent. One woman in our party was game, so the rest of us followed. That simple choice showed the serendipity one must rely on when traveling/exploring. Although I sometimes unsteadily navigated the foot holes long ago cut into the rock, I made it down to the ladder. And on the ledge Sam pointed out petroglyphs, including one he said is perhaps the earliest depiction of a Spaniard in what became the United States. He also showed us a tiny piece of turquoise he found on the trail. The gemstone, like the pieces of obsidian we saw all around, came from mines not far from the dwellings.

The Spaniard clutching a heart–religious symbolism, or something more nefarious?

Coyote and roadrunner, pre-Warner Brothers

The tour at Puye is not cheap–$20 for what was supposed to be an hour, though ours was more like 90 minutes, thanks to the walking descent. And Bandelier gets all the attention for cliff-dwelling attractions. But this little excursion barely an hour from my home was rewarding because of Sam—a person with direct ties to the people who once lived there. And like other ruins of ancient Southwest cultures or the surviving pueblos of New Mexico, Puye awed me again with the resourcefulness of people who could thrive in such seeming isolation in a challenging environmental setting.

Leaving Puye, I headed for Los Alamos, on a drive that offers some stunning scenery. In the town, I headed for spot decidedly less ancient than Puye and less stunning than the drive: the Black Hole. Something of a Los Alamos institution, I only heard about it because it was holding its going-out-of-business sale this weekend. The Black Hole was the all-consuming passion of “Atomic Ed” Grothus. He called it a military surplus store, but from what I saw, nothing of it was the guns and camo you usually find in such places. Grothus gathered much of his surplus from the nearby Los Alamos Nuclear Laboratory, birthplace of the atomic bomb (Grothus once worked at “the  Lab,” as everyone here calls it, until he decided he’d rather not be at a place associated with nuclear annihilation.)

A must for every home–the atomic toilet!

Grothus was not overly about selling his wares; he just liked to accumulate them. As he told NPR a few years back, his store’s name reflected the fact that things enter the Black Hole, but they never leave. I wandered through the collection of atomic-era relics, mostly wondering what I was looking at. But a group of what I assumed to be artists, at-home tinkerers, and curio buffs seemed to be finding things to their liking. When the sale is over, I wonder if some of this stuff will end up in a dump—or a museum.

Our archaeologists back at Puye said that the essence of their work is using artifacts to explain how people lived. The obsidian and shards on the mesa tell one tale. What will the electronic equipment and pumps and pipes Ed gathered say about us? At least we can say, with I hope some conviction, that the nuclear holocaust that seemed so imaginable during the Cold War is a distant memory. But what the Los Alamos scientists wrought will never go away, even if the Black Hole does. The histories of the modern era and the ancestral Pueblos will still sit side-by-side here in northern New Mexico, and the History Nerd is better for it.

Still Ridin’ the Rails

March 8, 2012 Leave a comment

Come with me on a ride back through time, when iron horses chugged across the Wild West, outlaws terrorized the trains riding the rails, and the coming of the railway meant life or death for many Southwest towns.

Or, take a slow, short jaunt into the outskirts of Santa Fe. Like the one I took this weekend on the Santa Fe Southern Railway.

On the railroad again...

To kick off a new season of train-based tourist traps—uh, trips—the SFSR offered half-priced rides on its routes into Lamy and the Galisteo Basin. (The railway also still brings some freight into the city.) Being a cheapskate as well as a History Nerd, I jumped all over this deal, taking the ride into the basin. I am also something of a train aficionado (though not to say expert, not by a long shot), and I’ve written about some of my past railway experiences here and here. This ride promised to be a short trek back into time as well as physical trip into the Santa Fe environs.

The railway came to Santa Fe in 1880, though just barely. The main route of the Atchinson, Topeka, and Santa Fe passed some 15 miles to the south of the capital on its way from Las Vegas (our Las Vegas, not the other one) to Albuquerque. Concerned Santa Feans, worried about being shut off from civilization and commerce (there is, of course, a huge difference) begged for and got a spur line that ran from Galisteo Junction (now Lamy, named for the French bishop of some renown/infamy in these parts) to their city. Today, Lamy’s stucco train station is an Amtrak stop, and Santa Fe’s station is…basically non-existent.

Inside, quite the festive atmosphere.

On its tourist runs, the SFSR uses a modern diesel pulling several coaches from the 1920s—though they were used back east, in New Jersey, rather than out here. Our tour guide said that he’s also in charge of reupholstering the seats when they wear out, and he’s counted 17 layers of fabric on some. He offered some historical tidbits along the way, and of course no telling of Santa Fe history in the days of the first railroads would be complete without mentioning Billy the Kid and Governor Lew Wallace. I don’t think either man had a direct connection to the trains; perhaps they rode on the line at some point. But the tourists sure do like hearing about Billy the Kid! And the New York accent of the folks behind  me was just one sign that many of the day’s riders were tourists. I doubt many locals would take this trip, certainly not at full price, as the scenery is, in all honesty, not very compelling for these parts. And the history, too, is a little thin.

I learned the most when we reached our destination, the Galisteo Basin. Another tour guide joined us on the one open, flatbed car and talked a little about the ancient history of the region. Archaeological artifacts about 7,000 years old have been found there. So have parrot beaks, a sign that the Native American of the region once traded with peoples much farther to the south, exchanging  turquoise and other minerals mined in the nearby Cerrillos Hills. And it’s thought that some Anasazi Indians left their grand city of Chaco Canyon and settled in the basin some 800 years ago. They and later inhabitants built several thriving pueblos in the region, though few traces of them remain today. (More on all this can be found here).

No trip back into New Mexico history would be complete without mentioning the state’s role in the movie biz. Tour guide #1 recounted some of the films shot nearby, including Young Guns 1 and 2 and the remake of 3:10 to Yuma. The railway’s wooden trestle, which gave me pause when we passed over it  (will this thing hold?), was featured in the latter–I think; I was spacing out a bit at that point.

And some art along the way.

Or not spacing, exactly, but ruminating on the role trains have played in our history. They were once the largest employers of Americans. They gave us our system of time zones. And they created the wealth of some of the robber barons of the past—with government help, of course. Yes, when some people like to champion our rugged-individualism brand of capitalism, they overlook that it was the granting of government land to the railways that helped create that wealth—and then help timber interests, mine owners, and ranchers make money, too. At times, capitalism needs a dose of government intervention to thrive, and the railroads are a prime example of it. Though some would argue that not all the land grants were good for the country as whole, an idea explored in great detail at Landgrant.org.

Today, of course, we have the perennial attempt by conservatives to shut down Amtrak. And some New Mexicans grumble about the cost of our commuter line, the Rail Runner, which I love. The fact is, some people still need the trains to get from point A to point B, or to move their goods efficiently. Riding the rails is not just a pleasant Sunday excursion. Forget nostalgia—we need trains, modernized trains, to be a part our transportation network. If the SFSR’s trips can convince folks of that, then I’m all for them.

There Will Be No Blood

December 25, 2011 2 comments

Faithful readers know that it doesn’t take much to set the History Nerd into a tizzy. Just a few words can do it, as this post on the Civil War shows. This week, it was the simple phrase “bloodless conquest.” A circular from the History Book Club (the HN has been a faithful member for decades) used that phrase while promoting a new book on Stephen Kearny’s trek into California during the Mexican War. Along the way to what would become the Golden State, Kearny traveled through New Mexico, taking control of the territory for the United States. That’s where the offending phrase came in.

The sanctuary that wasn't.

The ordeal here in the Land of Enchantment, HBC’s blurb claimed, was a “bloodless conquest.” Hmm, I thought, what about the remains of that church at Taos Pueblo I’ve written about before? Didn’t the cannon fire that reduced it to rubble spill some blood too?

I suppose the copy meant bloodless in the sense of no large-scale clash of armies, and that was certainly true. When the Mexican War began, the governor of New Mexico was Manuel Armijo, a local wealthy landowner. He asked Mexico for more troops and began to muster a volunteer force. About 1,700 U.S. soldiers under Kearny were soon on their way from Kansas to New Mexico, and they knew who the enemy’s leader was. As they marched the Americans sang a little tune with words penned by one of their own: “Oh, what a joy to fight the dons, and wallop fat Armijo! So clear the way to Santa Fe! With that we all agree, O!”

Kearny’s men reached New Mexico in August. Armijo never received the promised reinforcements (unlike in 1841, when the Mexican government sent aid to thwart a planned attack by Texans intent on seizing New Mexico for themselves—perhaps one reason among many why Texans are still somewhat scorned here today?), and he knew his local volunteers were no match for the Americans. Also influencing him were several Americans who acted as emissaries for the U.S. government. The story goes, among Anglo sources at least, that Armijo was persuaded to abandon any thought of resistance, with some greenbacks making the decision a little easier for the guv to make. The state historian here disputes that Armijo took a bribe. In any event, the governor left Santa Fe for Chihuahua and Kearny took control unopposed. It was, as New Mexican historian Marc Simmons notes, the first time U.S. troops had conquered a foreign capital. Manifest Destiny, indeed!

Some New Mexicans welcomed the commander and his troops. After all, they were American immigrants who had settled there years before. But the Spanish and Indian populations were not as thrilled. Wealthy landowners in Santa Fe and Albuquerque, fearing the inevitable Anglo land grab, began organizing a rebellion by the end of 1846. Details of the plan leaked out and the leaders were arrested. But to the north in Taos, new leaders emerged, determined to fight for their land (proving once again that one man’s freedom fighters are another’s insurgents—or, in the language of the day, “insurrectionists”).

Fort Burgwin, named for one of the American soldiers killed in Taos.

The Taos Rebellion started with the killing of the American governor, Charles Bent, in January 1847. Also killed in the first blows of the rebellion were several dozen other Americans there and in other northern towns. The Niles Register, a prominent newspaper of the day, relayed news of the deaths, noting also that “their families [were] despoiled.”

U.S. forces moved north from Santa Fe to squash the revolt, and they found the New Mexicans in the church at the Taos pueblo. Not recognizing the hiding place as a sanctuary, the Americans opened fire. Cannon shot and flame destroyed most of the church; the ruins of it are still standing next to the pueblo’s cemetery. The better-armed Americans then killed about 150 Indians and New Mexicans. Fighting also took place in Mora. The residents there fled before the invaders destroyed all the buildings and set fire to crops. Soon after, most of the rebel leaders were captured and tried for treason, an oddity given, in the words of our state historian, “the illogic and in fact illegality of convicting citizens of another nation of ‘treason.’” But invading armies are not always known for their logic or legality, eh? In any event, the convicted were executed.

And the amazing thing about these several weeks of conflict and killing? It was all bloodless.

The HBC wording that incited this rant just goes to show that you can’t always believe marketing copy (as if anyone needed the History Nerd to affirm that…).  And it seems like another example, intentional or not, of how some people tend to whitewash certain aspects of our history. But here in New Mexico, some folks don’t forget.

No Kidding

December 15, 2011 Leave a comment

A Robin Hood of the West.  And a punk cop-killer.

An Irish American who sided with an Englishman in a turf war—against other Irish Americans.

An East Coast urbanite who quickly adapted to the rural ways of the Hispanic Southwest.

Who are these people? No, actually, not plural; we’re talking about a single he. But not just any figure from America’s past. He’s Henry McCarty. And Henry Antrim. Also William H. Bonney.

But you may know him as Billy the Kid.

And if you don’t know much about his story except the outlaw ways, the death at the hands of Sheriff Pat Garrett, and the larger-than-life legacy, you might not know how much New Mexicans have embraced him as part of the state’s Wild West past.

Or at least some of them.

The stuff of legends, despite the somewhat goofy expression.

Billy the Kid (or BTK, as the History Nerd will sometimes refer to him for brevity’s sake), is something of a historical icon here in the Land of Enchantment. Visitors stopping at the I-40 tourist center just over the Texas border are greeted by a life-sized cut-out of the Kid, a blow-up of the only photo of him known to exist. BTK was the subject of sensational newspaper accounts during his lifetime and pulpy dime novels after, and the star of countless books and films since. The 1973 Sam Peckinpaugh version of his life might be the best-known movie, though hardly the most accurate. That title would have to go to Billy the Kid vs. Dracula. (Ha ha, despite what you may have heard, the History Nerd does have a sense of humor.) Now there’s another contender for the definitive story—as definitive as a legend’s life gets: the American Experience documentary Billy the Kid.

Apropos of BTK’s life and death in New Mexico, filmmaker John Maggio turned to several scholars and writers based here to try to get at the heart–and soul–of this orphaned youth-turned-coldblooded killer. Maggio and American Experience executive producer Mark Samels then came to Albuquerque and Santa Fe last week to give a sneak preview of the film and take part in a panel discussion of the work and its mythic subject.

To Samels, one intriguing part of the Kid story is its international scope. Henry McCarty, as he was known at birth, was the son of an Irish immigrant, Catherine McCarty (father unknown). Later in life he was befriended by the Englishman John Tunstall, and he blended easily with the Hispanic population of his adopted home of New Mexico, where he settled with his mother and stepfather. There, he quickly learned Spanish, favored wearing a sombrero, and took at least one Hispanic girlfriend. (He also won the support of the Hispanic community for challenging the Anglos who had stolen their land.) Once the legend spread, BTK became a symbol of the American West for many foreigners. His obituary appeared in a London newspaper, and Lincoln, NM, the site of his last days, is a popular tourist attraction with European visitors.

To Maggio, BTK was an underdog, an actual kid who was dealt bad breaks and made some mistakes. By 15, he was on his own, with his mother dead and his stepfather casting him off. Henry/Billy turned to petty theft, was arrested, and escaped. During his time as a fugitive he tried to go straight—briefly—but soon turned back to a life of crime. He became a murderer when a card game turned violent, though the killing might have been in self defense.

BTK killed again as he took part in the Lincoln County War, a bloody affair that pitted John Tunstall against “the House,” a local outfit that controlled the county’s politics and economics. Dozens–hundreds?–of  people died during the war, which began with Tunstall’s death in 1878 and lasted, on and off, until 1884. By then, Billy was in the ground, shot down by Pat Garrett after one more escape from the law.

Gardner's book. And he's a musician too!

Billy once joked that despite his reputation, he was not responsible for all the murders that occurred during the war. His actual death toll was in single digits. But as Mark Lee Gardner pointed out, there’s no escaping that some of those victims were officers of the law, merely trying to do their duty. In Santa Fe, Gardner joined Samels, Maggio, and writer Hampton Sides for a discussion of the film and BTK. Gardner, author of a book on the Kid, was one of the consultants for the film. He called Billy smart and passionate. He had a way of ingratiating himself with people that put them at ease. Though territorial governor Lew Wallace was not impressed when the Kid wrote to him from jail, seeking a face-to-face meeting. BTK told the governor in 1879, “I have no wish to fight again.” Wallace—a former Union general and author of Ben-Hur—made a deal with the Kid, promising him his freedom if the outlaw informed on other participants in the Lincoln County War. Billy kept up his end of the deal, but Wallace didn’t. Despite Billy’s obvious local popularity, the governor put a $500 bounty on the Kid’s head.

If Wallace was a contemporary unswayed by the growing BTK legend, Hampton Sides considers himself a modern-day Kid “contrarian.” Sides stirred up local controversy in 2010 when he came out against the idea of departing New Mexico governor Bill Richardson’s granting him a pardon (Richardson eventually demurred). Sides ran up against the many New Mexicans—and other Americans—who see BTK as a lovable antihero, or at least a symbol of part of America’s Western heritage. And of course, Sides also inflamed the folks in these parts who make money off the tourists who embrace the symbol.

Me and the Kid...

The American Experience film premieres on January 10. I’ll watch to see how the rest of this revisionist look at the Kid plays out. I think Maggio worked extremely hard to be as accurate as he could be, given the limitations he faced—only a few letters and the one, just one, photo of the Kid. But legends do have a way of transcending historical sources, and a cowboy cash cow like Henry McCarty will surely spark more books and films. Me, I can’t wait for the sequel to BTK vs. Dracula.

Take Me Back to Taos

December 17, 2009 4 comments

A recent conversation turned to traveling, and destinations in the Southwest came up. I don’t recall if someone mentioned Arizona or New Mexico, but I quickly offered my opinion that Phoenix is a hellhole I could easily never visit again, and that one of my favorite places in the world is northern New Mexico, specifically Taos.

On the High Road from Santa Fe to Taos

One of my tablemates had never heard of Taos, which I guess is not surprising if you’ve never been to the region. Home to barely 4,000 souls, it probably only registers for culture mavens, students of US history, and skiers.

The pueblo

For most tourists, the main attraction is the Taos Pueblo, just a few miles out of town. Some times when I’m relaxing, I imagine taking that drive from the center, bearing right, heading past the tiny “casino,” and pulling into the parking lot. To your left is a cemetery and ruins of a church (more on that later), while the center is filled with the original adobe pueblo. Behind it is part of the Sangre de Christo Mountains and the unseen Blue Lake, a sacred site said to be the birthplace of the Taos Indians. To the right is another part of the pueblo. The pueblo’s claim to fame: It has been continuously inhabited for 900 or so years, longer than any other spot in the country. About 150 people live in there year round, eschewing electricity and other modern conveniences as they remain true to their culture. Other tribal members live near the pueblo and spend time there during the summer.

The people of Taos are sometimes called Pueblo Indians, along with the other Indians of the region. They trace their roots to the Anasazi and Mogollon of centuries past. The native New Mexicans speak three different but related languages; Taos and several other pueblos nearby use Tiwa. The Taos and tribes from the other pueblos nearby greeted the Spanish when they explored the region in 1540. Unfortunately for them, the Spanish were looking for more than just a hearty welcome. Gold topped the list, along with converts to Catholicism. Suffice to say, as in Florida and just about everywhere else the Spanish came ashore in North America, the visitors did not bode well for the Pueblo Indians.

And again

The Spanish largely ignored New Mexico until 1598, when the first settlers trekked north from Mexico. Under the leadership of Juan de Onate, they subdued various Pueblo tribes. By 1680, the Indians were feeling less hospitable, and Taos and the other pueblos united in a successful, though short-lived, rebellion. The leader, a shaman named Popé, lived for a time in Taos. The people there had shown their resistance to foreign rule even earlier, killing a missionary decades before. But after the Spanish reconquest of northern New Mexico, the Taos and their neighbors remained under Spanish rule for almost 150 years. Only to see another bunch of white-skinned outsiders seize power during the Mexican War.

The remains of the mission church

Among many US leaders of the 1840s, taking Mexican lands, especially the much-coveted California, was part of America’s grand “Manifest Destiny,” a mission from God much less entertaining than the one Blues Brothers undertook. In 1846, soon after the Mexican War began, US forces quickly took control of northern New Mexico. Charles Bent, an American trader who lived in Taos, was named the governor. Local Indians and Spanish New Mexicans joined forces to resist their new rulers, killing Bent and other Americans. The rebel leaders, along with civilians, holed up in the Taos Pueblo mission church, where a much-better armed American force carried out a retaliatory attack. The remains of the church and the graves nearby still remind the Taos of their introduction to US rule.

In later years, another American who lived in Taos, Kit Carson, did his part to endear the Americans to the Native Americans of the region. He carried out bloody attacks against the Navajo, as the US government tried to force them onto reservations. You don’t often hear as much about that as you do his exploits as a frontiersman. His house is in downtown Taos (such as it is) and serves as a museum.

New Mexicans, whether Spanish or Indian, were not too respected by the incoming Anglos. That’s one reason why it took so long for New Mexico to become a state, as American leaders doubted their ability to practice democracy. But finally, the territory joined the Union in 1912, and soon artists discovered the natural beauty of northern New Mexico. Socialite Mabel Dodge Luhan built a home in Taos and invited artists to work there. Georgia O’Keefe and Ansel Adams were just two who accepted the offer, drawn to the light and the mountains and allure of the high desert. D.H. Lawrence came too, and he later bought land outside Taos (of course O’Keefe became the most permanent transplant of all, settling down in not-too-distant Abiquiu).

Taos sunset on my last visit

Today Taos still has its cultural scene and a counterculture feel. The three influences – Pueblo, Spanish, and Anglo – live side-by-side, if not always comfortably. I’m drawn to the region because of that blending, because of the history, and because of the spiritual sense I feel as I look at the mountains or watch the sunset. After my first visit, travelers’ Stockholm syndrome took hold: I was ready to sell most of my possessions and move there. I didn’t, but I still think about it. In the meantime, I visit whenever money allows, And when I meet people who have never heard of Taos, I quickly tell them of all its splendors.