Abraham Rencher: A Poet in the Palace of the Governors

by Don Bullis

New Mexico Territorial government did not make an auspicious beginning during its first decade, from 1851 to 1861. The first four governors—James S. Calhoun, William Carr Lane, David Meriwether, and Abraham Rencher—faced formidable challenges and were obliged to function with few resources and little support from Washington City (as Washington, D. C., was called at the time). These were men who had been successful in life before they reached New Mexico: two of them were lawyers, one a medical doctor, and one an army colonel. Among them they had held numerous elected offices at the local, state and national levels.

Fourth among them was Abraham Rencher (1798-1883) who was born in North Carolina and attended the University of North Carolina from which he earned a law degree. He was soon elected to Congress and served for a decade: from 1830 to 1834 as a Jacksonian, from 1834 to 1838 as an Anti-Jacksonian, and from 1838 to 1840 as a Whig. By 1857 he was a Democrat.  Rencher resided in Europe for some years; in Switzerland and then Portugal where he served as U. S. Minister (1843-1847).  He was a cultured man who wrote poetry and taught French, even while he served in Santa Fe. For some reason, unexplained by all who write of him, Rencher actively sought the office of New Mexico territorial governor, and President James Buchanan accommodated his wish. He arrived in Santa Fe on November 11, 1857.

Expectations were high. The Santa Fe Weekly editorialized: “…[W]e feel justified in predicting an enlightened and liberal administration…guided by an elevated regard for the interests and rights of the people and a scrupulous reference to the aims and wishes of the Federal Government towards this people.”

Rencher was the first territorial governor to move his family to Santa Fe, and into the Palace of the Governors, a structure with dirt floors, and in some disrepair. Mrs. Rencher was pleased to find a piano in the residence and the governor was able to secure funds to make the place a bit more habitable.

Problems with the nomadic tribes continued during the Rencher years even though there had been some reduction in hostile activity during the late Meriwether administration. Estimates are that nearly 300 New Mexico citizens were killed by Indians during Rencher’s term, and the Navajos launched an attack on Fort Defiance in April 1860. It is noteworthy that Rencher was the first governor who was not also the Superintendent of Indian Affairs.  Even so, when he attempted to raise two companies of civilian militia, the military commander, Col. Thomas Fauntleroy refused to provide arms and ammunition because he believed that claims of Navajo raids were exaggerated. It should be noted, though, that Col. Fauntleroy joined the Confederate army as a brigadier general about a year later. It is not beyond the realm of possibility that he refused to arm and equip a civilian militia so that New Mexico would be less able to defend itself should the Confederates invade (which, of course, they did in early 1862).

Slavery became an issue during the Rencher years. While a form of involuntary servitude had been demanded of Indian captives in New Mexico for generations, and some considered peonage virtual slavery, Rencher had to deal with the institution of Negro slavery as practiced in America’s southern states. Through the influence of territorial congressional representative Miguel Otero Sr., who held strong southern sympathies, “An Act Providing for the Protection of Slave Property in this Territory” (essentially a fugitive slave act) was passed by the territorial legislature in February 1859. While Rencher opposed the law, it was not repealed until 1862.

On April 12, 1861 the Civil War began in earnest at Fort Sumter, South Carolina, and Texas Confederates soon began casting covetous eyes on New Mexico and the Southwest. Governor Rencher reacted by again calling for voluntary New Mexico militia units to resist the coming invasion.  That effort should have established his bona fides as a Union loyalist, and he made it clear that he would be happy to stay on as governor, if President Abraham Lincoln so desired. He had a political enemy, though, in the person of Judge Kirby Benedict. The judge, a long standing friend of the President—they were both from Illinois—wrote to Lincoln in June 1861:

“Governor Abraham Rencher from North Carolina is a Confederacy sympathizer and says he must do as his state does, and if she ‘goes out’ he must share her fate. So far, his opinions, sentiments, and sympathies are all against the Union and the Government and tend in favor of the secessionists…  As an executive he is of no further value, whatever, aside from the plain details imposed upon him by law. If a crisis should arise where a man of energy and action would be required, he will not be worth two cents.”

And the fact that Rencher owned slaves even as he served in Santa Fe did not help his case. President Lincoln declined to re-appoint Rencher, and the Governor left the Territory in late summer 1861.

New Mexico historian Calvin Horn said of Rencher, “[He was] a true patriot and, though from the South, he held New Mexico firmly in the Union.”

Rencher returned to North Carolina where he died in 1883.

So ended the first decade of N.M.’s Territorial days. Many of the problems faced by Governor Calhoun in 1851 had not been resolved by the close of the Rencher administration in 1861. The situation with the hostile Indian tribes would only get worse as regular army troops were pulled off the frontier to participate in the Civil War in New Mexico and in the east. The conflict between civil authorities and military commanders continued. Perhaps one thing can be said of the decade: for better or worse, civil government was firmly established. It didn’t do much, but it was there to stay.