Old Times and Old Timers

by Don Bullis

New Mexico’s Old Times & Old Timers

General Stephen Watts Kearny & the Occupation of New Mexico, 1846

August 18, 1846 is specifically one of the most important dates in New Mexico history; it was the day upon which General Stephen Watts Kearny and the Army of the West rode into Santa Fe. That date marked the end of Mexican rule and the beginning of American governance. General Kearny became the de facto military governor of New Mexico.

Kearny was born in Newark, New Jersey, and educated at Columbia College in New York, from which he resigned to join the United States Army during the war of 1812. He distinguished himself at the battle of Queenstown Heights in what is now Ontario. Kearny remained in the army after the war and was posted to the West on several occasions. He rose slowly through the ranks and was promoted to brigadier general along the march from Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, to Santa Fe, New Mexico, in August 1846.

On August 19, General Kearny issued a proclamation making the American occupation official. He declared that all property ownership would be honored, freedom of religion would be respected, and that all New Mexicans were, as of then, American citizens. He also said that anyone who took up arms against the Americans would be considered traitors, and dealt with accordingly.

General Kearny had no interest in commanding an army of occupation, or in governing New Mexico. He was anxious to move on to California to pursue the war against Mexico. Even so, he spent more than a month establishing a civil government he hoped would form the basis of American democracy in New Mexico. It was officially called the Organic Law of the Territory, and popularly known as the Kearny Code. An interesting document, here is what one historian says of it: “Compounded of Mexican, Texan, and Coahuila statutes, the Livingston Code of Louisiana, and the organic law of Missouri, it created a governmental structure for New Mexico similar to that envisaged by the Northwest Ordinance of 1787.”

The code called for the creation of government offices, including governor and secretary, as well as an assembly. While there had been a similar body under Mexican rule, its role had been advisory rather than legislative. Kearny’s code also called for creation of courts and the appointment of three district judges who would be a de facto supreme court. Other offices included solicitor general, marshal, treasurer and auditor. Since the Mexican government had created jurisdictions which would come to be called counties, the code also called for creation of the offices of county sheriff and tax assessor.

For governor, Kearny appointed Charles Bent of Taos; for territorial secretary, Donaciano Vigil, also a native of Taos; for Chief Justice, Antonio Jose Otero of Santa Fe. Only two Hispanics had been appointed to the new government and that caused resentment in some quarters, especially among Santa Fe’s ruling elite: the Sena, Archuleta, Ortiz, Delgado, Pino families, and others.

Kearny also promised that the Americans would put an end to depredations at the hands of Navajo Indians, and early on that effort seemed successful. A three-pronged attack was made on Indian strongholds to the west of Santa Fe and Albuquerque before General Kearny departed for California with most of his troops in late September 1846.

Many merchants were pleased with the American occupation because the presence of troops created an unprecedented demand for consumer goods. Business was good. One Bernalillo merchant, José Leandro Perea, reflecting on the events of the late 1840s, said, “Then I felt perfectly satisfied and had no tears to shed over the matter [American occupation], for I knew it would ultimately result in making our people freer and more independent than they ever could be under their former government, although many years might pass before much could be accomplished.”

But folks in Washington, D. C. were not happy with the arrangement. President James K. Polk declared that Kearny had no authority to make Mexican citizens, with whom the United States was still at war, citizens of the United States. Senator John C. Calhoun of South Carolina railed against the new acquisition in the west: “Ours is a government of the white man. The great misfortune of what was formerly Spanish America is to be traced to the fatal error of placing the colored race on an equality [sic] with the white. That error destroyed the social arrangement which formed the basis of their society. This error we have wholly escaped. Are we to associate with ourselves as equals, companions, and fellow citizens, the Indians and mixed races of Mexico? I would consider such association as degrading to ourselves and fatal to our institutions.” (Note: Calhoun’s mantra was repeated many times between 1846 and 1912 as an argument against statehood.)

Some Mexican citizens were not happy with the arrangement, either. The Taos revolt of January 1847, which claimed the lives of Governor Bent and several others, as well as many of the rebels, ended General Kearny’s vision of civil rule for New Mexico. It would not arrive until 1851.

Kearny died at age 54 in St. Louis in October 1848 of a disease he’d contracted in Mexico.

In the scheme of New Mexico history, Kearny should receive credit for at least trying to welcome New Mexico into the Union on equal terms. One admirer wrote of him, “If ever there was a man whom I considered really chivalrous, in fact, a man in all that noble term conveys, that natural soldier and gentleman was Stephen Watts Kearny.”


SELECTED SOURCES: Bauer, The Mexican War, 1846-1848

Bullis, New Mexico Historical Biographies

Crutchfield, Tragedy at Taos

Keleher, Turmoil in New Mexico

Howard R. Lamar, The Far Southwest, 1846-1912

Larson, New Mexico’s Quest for Statehood

Melzer, Buried Treasures, Famous and Unusual Gravesites in New Mexico History

Sachsen-Altenburg, Winning the West: General Stephen Watt’s Kearny’s Letter Book, 1846-1847

Sálaz Márquez, New Mexico, A Brief Multi-History

Simmons, New Mexico, An Interpretive History

Thrapp, Encyclopedia of Frontier Biography

Twitchell, The Military Occupation of … New Mexico

Don Bullis’ latest book, Unsolved: New Mexico’s American Valley Ranch Murders & Other Mysteries, available at www.donbullis.biz or www.NMSantos.com