Old Times and Old Timers

Future Governor Imprisoned in Santa Fe. 

A young Kentuckian named David Meriwether along with a small band of Pawnee Indians and a young Negro boy illegally entered New Mexico in 1819 for the stated purpose of establishing trade relations with the Spanish government.

It was a fool’s errand, to a considerable extent, as the Spanish were very serious about keeping their country’s borders closed, and a 19-year-old interloper doesn’t seem creditable as a negotiator, especially since he didn’t speak Spanish.

The Pawnees who accompanied the party were either killed or fled when Meriwether was taken into custody by Spanish authorities in northeastern New Mexico in 1819. He and the young Negro, Alfred, were taken to Santa Fe where Meriwether appeared before Governor Facundo Melgares, the last Spanish Colonial Governor of New Mexico. The problem was not only that Meriwether didn’t speak Spanish, but the Governor didn’t speak English. Since no communication between them was possible, Meriwether was simply locked up.

Criminal justice in Spanish Colonial New Mexico didn’t include a prison system akin to the American model. Criminal penalties often involved corporal punishment, including flogging, or forced labor on public projects. Exile was sometimes ordered and executions were rare, but not unheard of. Many historians refer to jails – cárcels – of the day, but they were often much like the one in which Meriwether was housed.

Located in the west end of the Palace of the Governors in Santa Fe, Meriwether described it as “a small, close, dirty apartment, with only a small window about the size of pane of eight by ten glass to admit a little fresh air and light.” Meriwether wasn’t any more complimentary about the food. “[That] night my jailor came with a small earthen bowl with boiled frijoles or red beans. I found [them] so strongly seasoned with pepper that I could not eat it. But I soon devoured the tortillas as I was very hungry.” Nor was he pleased with the sleeping arrangements. “. . . [S]preading my blanket on the dirty floor, I lay down and tried to get a little sleep. In this I was sadly disappointed, as I thought the bed bugs and fleas would eat me up before morning.”

The next day things began to look up. A French-speaking Padre made himself known to Meriwether, who was also passably fluent in French. The two of them appeared before the Governor. When Meriwether told Governor Melgares that he was an American, the Governor replied, “Americans are bad people. You have forcibly taken a province from Spain called Florida.”

The governor was referring to the Adams-Onís Treaty which had been signed in February 1819. It did indeed give Florida to the United States. It was promptly ratified by the U. S., but Spain did not ratify it for two more years. Recall that at the time many countries in the Americas were in rebellion against Spain, seeking independence.

Governor Melgares then asked why the young American was in New Mexico, and Meriwether told him of his intention to open trade with the Spanish. When he had finished, he wrote in his autobiography, the Governor “shook his head in a very incredulous manner . . .” Meriwether was sent back to his jail.

A few days later, the French-speaking priest appeared again, and asked after the American’s welfare. The prisoner complained, “I [have] to keep fighting flies all day, and the bed bugs and fleas all night.” The priest interceded with the Governor, and Meriwether was allowed out of his cell during the day, but obliged to return in the evening.

While walking on the plaza some days later, the American and priest met again, and Meriwether showed the cleric the bug bites on his hands, arms and face. Again the priest approached the Governor and won another concession for Meriwether. He was allowed to remain free in the town, if he promised not to try and escape. Meriwether moved into a room with the priest and found employment with an elderly man, harvesting chile and beans.

After a week of employment, Meriwether was summoned to the Governor’s palace again, for another interview. Melgares again expressed his dislike of Americans, and brought up the time, years before, when “[American] soldiers had been sent into Mexico to seize it.” The reference was to Zebulon Pike’s incursion in 1806-07. Even so, the Governor agreed to let Meriwether leave New Mexico with the promise that he never return, upon pain of being shot. Meriwether promised, saying, “A stray dog always lives longest where he is treated best.”

After a few days of quibbling about what of his guns, animals, and other equipment would be returned to him, he and Alfred were escorted out of the capital by a Spanish corporal and one other soldier. The military escort remained with them until they were well beyond Pecos to the east, and then they were left to their own devices; facing a daunting trek back to the American settlements, which they accomplished the following year.

Meriwether returned to New Mexico, in 1853, when he became New Mexico’s third territorial governor. Legend holds that on his inauguration day, the roof above the room that had been his cell 34 years earlier, collapsed. Everyone counted that a good sign.

A couple of footnotes to this tale are in order. For one, it is curious that throughout his autobiography, Meriwether never provided the name of his benefactor, the French-speaking priest. It is also interesting that Meriwether emphasized Governor Melgares’ dislike of Americans; yet Zebulon Pike, in his journals, spoke well of Captain Melgares, the officer who captured him and his troops during the winter of 1806-1807.

Don Bullis’ latest book, New Mexico Historical Biographies, is available by going to www.donbullis.biz

Don Bullis’ latest book, New Mexico Historical Biographies, is available by going to www.donbullis.biz