The U.S.-Mexican War and
    the Peoples of the Year 2000

 Conflicts of 1846-48:

A Border World Rebels


Inputs from the Politics of Today  

Inputs from History 

  • Population & Rebellion 

  • Deluded White Chieftains 

  • Conflicts of 1846-48:  
  • Opening Attack on Indigenous Life
  • A Border World Rebels
  • Officers Capitulate: Ampudia and Taylor
  • A Note on Strategy
  • A Note on Severed Heads
  • Leader within Walls:  Santa Anna
  • Generals for Social Order
  • The Sorting of Identities
  • The Future of New/Old Nations 
    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 War, among: 
    • Pueblo Indians
    • Plains Indians
    • Mexican officials
    • Mexican settlers
    • priests and missionaries
    • fur-trappers, both Anglo and Mexican
    • soldiers of fortune.
    Any such community was bound to be a mixed-up affair, but there were two different emphases its development could take:  This second, cooperation-for-control, could break down if one of the cooperating parties decided to take full control.  Any vagueness to the distinction between negotiation and command-level cooperation would then turn into a sharp line, with commanders as such opposed to negotiators as such. 

    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 lost. 


    The Border Community

    Mexicans complained, with good reason, that they had allowed scouts and immigrants to enter from the United States, only to find that the ungrateful intruders were soon doing their best to undermine the host society.

    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.

    The Bent Family

    The personal depth of frontier society formed much of the environment into which Washington was about to dispatch military operations. In New Mexico, the pattern of hostilities flowed out of the ways in which armed groups were already operating. Traders and trappers of all races had for decades moved through the region, paying only some attention to boundaries set in treaties. Their encampments followed few rules laid down by any national  government, while Hispanic settlers in New Mexico and California managed with only limited attention from Mexico City.  North of the international boundary, where it ran along the Arkansas River, small units of the U.S. Army kept up only an occasional presence.  At times over the past fifteen years, cavalry detachments from Fort Leavenworth had escorted traders with wagons and mules down the Santa Fe Trail, toward the half-legal, half-contraband market that was New Mexico.  A caravan might be attacked by Comanches, or by patriotic bandits from the new Republic of Texas.  At the border, the escort would stop, leaving the merchants to their own resources.
    And resources they had.  The region around the upper Arkansas, looking toward the area around Santa Fe, was dominated by the Bent family, protected by the fort they built where the trail crossed the river, and by their diplomacy among the indigenous peoples.  The Bents were fur-traders and more.  Derived from a class of merchants and lawyers in the Mississippi Valley, the several brothers worked their territory in the plains and mountains.  (There was also a younger brother in the U.S. Navy, doing duty as far as Japan in that wider world).  One brother took a Cheyenne wife.  Much like the Hudson's Bay Company people,  the family was aggressive, diplomatic, attentive to local cultures.  Over the years, they put gradually more of their energy and resources into their interests at the New Mexico end of the line.  Men in the business found wives there, too.

    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.

    Invasion and Rebellion

    In June of 1846, Colonel Stephen W. Kearny headed up a force of dragoons from Fort Leavenworth, much like the forces earlier designated to protect the merchants headed to Santa Fe.  These regulars were now supplemented by volunteers.  Kearny had orders to conquer New Mexico, then head out to California.  Manuel Armijo, governor of New Mexico, tried improvising a popular militia against the invader, found that he could not mobilize it into an organized resistance, and fled the territory.  Kearny, after taking Santa Fe, acted quickly to establish a new civilian regime.  For governor, he chose Charles Bent.  Some U.S. nationals like Bent, who had long operated within the cultural autonomy of the region, were abandoning any multicultural pretension.

    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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