Old Times and Old Timers

by Don Bullis

New Mexico’s Old Times & Old Timers

The tribulations of James S. Calhoun: 
New Mexico’s first Territorial Governor

James Silas Calhoun, a Whig, New Mexico’s first territorial Governor, should not be confused with John Caldwell Calhoun (1782-1850), a Democrat and a United States Senator from South Carolina and vice president of the United States during both the John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson administrations. John C. Calhoun was also a fanatic supporter of slavery. All references below will be to James S. Calhoun, and not John C. Calhoun. (John C. Calhoun died almost exactly one year before James S. Calhoun took office in Santa Fe.)

James S. Calhoun (1802-1852) was born in Columbus, Georgia, served as mayor of his hometown and in the Georgia legislature. He also served as United States Consul to Cuba and rose to the rank of colonel during the Mexican War. He was first appointed Indian Agent for New Mexico, in 1849, but his real purpose was to promote statehood for New Mexico at the behest of President Zachary Taylor.

In early February 1850, Calhoun wrote a letter to his friend, William C. Dawson, a United States Senator from Georgia which read in part:

“If I cannot be made a General or at least, succeed to the command of this Department [New Mexico], or may not be employed as indicated . . ., if it is not too late, I should like to go to Liverpool, as Consul, or to Havre.

“If none of these things can be accomplished for me, quietly inform, and quickly too, that I may decently retire, for I cannot play second fiddle to any one now in this territory. [Note that New Mexico was not officially a territory at that time. The Compromise of 1850, as it pertained to New Mexico, was not passed until September 1850.] I should be willing to serve as a Senior Colonel of Dragoons, under any one of the present Generals in the U. S. Service.

“I am content to be Superintendent of Indian Affairs in this territory but not an Agent, to be subject to the control of a Territorial Governor.”

It appears that President Zachary Taylor took no action on any of Calhoun’s requests before he died in July of the same year; assuming of course that Senator Dawson passed them along to the executive office. Action came after Millard Fillmore ascended to the office of President on July 10, 1850. One historian wrote, “Having worked faithfully for New Mexico statehood for two years, he [Calhoun] had received the governorship as a compensatory reward from the Whig Administration of Millard Fillmore.”

Calhoun became the first governor of the territory, in March 1851. Not long after he took office, he wrote this in a letter to Washington, D.C.,

“. . . [W]ithout a dollar in our territorial treasury, without munitions of war, without authority to call out our militia, without the cooperation of the military authorities of this territory, and with numberless complaints and calls for protection, do you not perceive I must be sadly embarrassed and disquieted?”

The bane of Calhoun’s professional life was Colonel Edwin Vose Sumner, who considered “patronage hacks”, like Calhoun, beneath contempt and he refused to cooperate with them. Sumner wrote this to his superiors in Washington:

“The New Mexicans are thoroughly debased and totally incapable of self-government, and there is no latent quality about them that can ever make them responsible.

“. . . No civil Government emanating from the Government of the United States can be maintained here without the aid of a military force; in fact without its being virtually a military government . . . All branches of this civil government have equally failed—the executive for want of power, the judiciary from the total incapacity and want of principle in juries; and the legislative from want knowledge.”

One historian of the day wrote this:

“Everybody and everything in this country [the Territory of New Mexico which then included all of what is now Arizona] appears at cross purposes. In the first place the civil and military are at war. Colonel Sumner refuses to acknowledge the right of the Governor to send Indian agents with him into Indian country…. The governor and secretary of the Territory cannot hitch horses. The American residents are at war with the governor, while the Mexican population sides with him. The American troops are at war with the Indians, . . . if only they could catch them.”

All of this serves to demonstrate that the Territory of New Mexico did not get off to a auspicious start.

Calhoun’s bad luck did not end with his inability govern effectively. Less than a year into his administration, he became ill with jaundice and scurvy. He left Santa Fe in late May of 1852 en route to Georgia. He and his small party rested at Fort Union, and the governor apparently realized that his health had deteriorated and he had a coffin constructed there. He died near Independence, Missouri, on July 2, 1852.

According to a news item in the late 1980s, he was interred in a pauper’s cemetery in Kansas City, and the location of his grave was thereby lost to history. Historian Richard Melzer reported, though, that a grave marker for Calhoun may be found in the Union Cemetery in Kansas City.

Historian Calvin Horn wrote, “Governor Calhoun won the respect and confidence of the native New Mexican people and the Pueblo Indians for himself and thereby for the United States Government.”

Don Bullis is the author of ten books on New Mexico.
Go to www.DonBullis.biz
for more info.

Durwood Ball, Army Regulars on the Western Frontier 1848-1861
George Fitzpatrick, New Mexico
Howard Lamar, The Far Southwest 1846-1912: A Territorial History
Robert W. Larson, New Mexico’s Quest for Statehood 1846-1912
Richard Melzer, Buried Treasures, Famous and Unusual Gravesites in New Mexico History
Marc Simmons, Albuquerque
Fritz Thompson, Albuquerque Journal, Sept. 27, 1987
Ralph Emerson Twitchell, Leading Facts of New 
Mexico History, Vol. II