A Border World Rebels
||Wherever cultures impinge on each other, and none has dominant
power, communities of shared life can grow up. It was so in the region
between the United States and Mexico, in the years before the U.S.-Mexican
The U.S. attack of 1846, in New Mexico, exploded the local cooperative regime by imposing a fresh sovereignty from Washington. Against this, the "ordinary" people of the area rebelled, mounting a resistance that continued even after Hispanic leaders were making their peace with the invaders.
The community of negotiated cooperation was fighting back. It
The complaint only missed the depth of what was happening. People coming from many directions entered Oregon, or California, or New Mexico, or Florida. Fur trappers had come from Ireland, or Tennessee, or Chihuahua. Some individuals came out of the stream of indigenous peoples whom the United States was pushing from east of the Mississippi. Some even emerged from the peoples who had long lived in the High Plains or the Rockies: attaching themselves as scouts or spouses to the newcomers, they added their "contribution" to the making of new social ties.
Much as would happen in other ways a century and more later, these movements were producing regional societies that did not fit exactly into the frame of any nation-state, even while few people really shucked off the whole identities they were born with.
Take the matter of Kit Carson, who took a prominent part in that raid near Lassen's ranch. He was from a cautious family back in Kentucky, one that westered as far as Missouri, but was reluctant to let its impatient son take off into the wilderness. He broke away in the 1820s, attached himself to the merchants going to Santa Fe, then got taken on by mountain men headed farther west. He first entered California in 1829. By 1830 he was in the San Francisco Bay area. He saw that there was already a society there, in which he could make himself acceptable by doing things that local people needed. He did not have to act the part of the foreigner.
The Catholic missions in the area still operated by taking into their
walls Indian "converts" who would labor on the lands that the missions
claimed. At times the converts would run away. If not brought
back, they often set up again as independent, hostile natives, raiding
the missions and Hispanic ranches for horses. Young Carson, meeting
a party that was chasing down fugitives from the San José mission,
offered his services. Having traced the fugitives to a Miwok village,
they burned it, threatened to kill everyone there, then returned the quarry
to the mission. Carson was acting like a good temporary member of
the California community -- that is, the "civilized" community -- doing
much what he would have done back in the U.S. South, if a slave patrol
had called on him to help chase down fugitives.
Later in the 1830s, and into the 1840s, Carson spent much time in New Mexico, and in the parts of the United States just north of New Mexico. He took an Indian wife early on, then later a Mexican wife. From whatever kind of Protestant he had been earlier, he became a good Catholic. He was one of many individuals who were part of that larger mountain community, forming personal ties within it, yet always and finally available to act as agents of higher authority.
Carson's operations were only somewhat gentler than those of James Kirker, a mountain man who came to the Southwest from Ireland by way of service on privateers during the War of 1812. Kirker got to know the indigenous communities of the area, recruited followers from some of the soldiers of fortune who frequented the region (both white and Indian), then offered his services to the local authorities as a scalp-hunter, to fight Indian raiders. The violence of his methods did not keep him from taking a Mexican wife, settling in as a resident of the state of Chihuahua.
For the people of Santa Fe and Taos, the trade with St. Louis offered both benefits and danger. It brought textiles and tools, of real value to an isolated community, plus tobacco and firearms, which were contraband. It took out silver, which played a role in the international financial system. It also took out skins, which New Mexicans and mountain men and Native Americans had brought to market.
The Bents kept up a direct trade with indigenous hunters of the farther mountains and high plains. To these hunters, the most important manufactured product supplied them was firearms, useful in hunting, and essential for raids into Texas or deeper parts of Mexico. In exchange, they provided products of the buffalo: meat for consumption in New Mexico, and ever more skins sold to the traders, in quantities that were reducing the herds. The traders from the United States presented a triple danger in New Mexico: their land purchases (through middle-men, to evade laws against landholding foreigners); their role in contraband (corrupting local officials, and hunting in areas reserved to Mexican nationals); and their threat to the meat supply.
But the Bents' family "empire," and their connections across national lines in New Mexico, had begun as a venture by men in the prime of life, not yet worried about their own mortality or the security of their gains. Their multicultural families, like any well-fed 19th-century family, grew larger and vulnerable. The incentive grew, to find some security for the family investment, by choosing some one national identity. When the opportunity and pressures came to a head, the Bents did something more than fall back on the prior nationality of the men in the family: they accepted the backing of military power.
There was some resistance against Bent and the U.S. Army, from a few Mexican soldiers in the area, and from some conspirators among the Hispanic élite. This was put down, and the élite eventually came to terms with the new regime. To some leaders on either side, the real enemy was less some opposing government than it was the whole set of popular and non-white groups who were reluctant to take part in anybody's centralized nation.
In January of 1847, rebellion broke out in the northeastern part of the territory, led by a man who had rebelled in 1837 against a conservative Mexican governor. A band of New Mexicans, both Hispanic and Pueblo Indian, found Bent in Taos and killed him. Similar attacks were made in other places, by groups that Manuel Armijo had not been able to raise against the U.S. invasion in the first place. Soldiers and volunteers fought running battles with the rebels, captured some of those who had killed Bent, then attacked a concentration who took refuge in the church at Taos. Even after this group was defeated, and many leaders executed for "treason," scattered rebel raids continued into the middle part of 1847. Only then was the rebellion substantially at an end.
Through the haze at the Taos church -- clouds of gunsmoke and adobe fragments it was, not incense -- observers thought they could see a figure they knew from earlier years. It was -- or they said it was, which was enough truth for the time -- a Delaware Indian they called "Big Nigger." He belonged to that array of soldiers of fortune who had fought as scalp-hunters in Mexico, some of them with Kirker. Here one of them turned back to side with the communities of the region.
When the Bents had begun attending more to New Mexico real estate, and when Kirker took service as a paid guide to the U.S. invaders, they were repudiating a world that had developed outside the trappings of national sovereignty. Kirker could never go back to his family in Chihuahua, where there was a price on his head. The killing of Charles Bent was the execution of a cultural traitor.
The people who wrote reports about the Taos outbreak never knew exactly how to describe the rebels. The visible leaders seemed to be malcontents from within the civilized area of New Mexico. Or they were malignant Indians staging a great fight against civilization. Or they were only wily Mexicans refusing to acknowledge the victory of the new authorities.
Any rebellion in the borderlands was an occasion for Anglos and Hispanics to point blame at each other. Each could blame the "outside agitator," ignoring the possibility that real leadership might come from "inside agitators." This mutual blame-throwing, whether against Texans in 1837 or against infiltrators sent up from Mexico in 1847, was a way of claiming that only Anglos and Hispanics furnished "real" leaders. In that case, the two nation-states had the right to divide the action between them: they were the legitimate war-makers, and they would be the peace-makers.
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