Old Times and Old Timers

by Don Bullis

New Mexico’s Old Times & Old Timers

William Frederick Milton Army Indian Agent & More

William Frederick Milton Arny (1813-1881) is not well known in the history of New Mexico even though he held several important positions in the territorial government between 1861 and his death: territorial secretary, acting governor and Indian agent.

Arny was born in Washington, D.C. in 1853 and educated there. He developed a religious bent as a young man and soon became enamored of Alexander Campbell who was the leader of the Disciples of Christ church and founder of Bethany college in Virginia in 1840.¹ He had a falling out with Campbell in the late 1840s and moved on, first to Illinois and then to Kansas, arriving there in time to align himself with the abolitionist Free-Soil Party in 1848. When Abraham Lincoln was elected president in 1860, Arny applied for a political appointment in the new administration. Lincoln named him agent for the Ute and Jicarilla Apache Indians of northern New Mexico. He replaced Kit Carson in that position.

Arny believed that his Indian charges should become “civilized” and that the government should provide the assistance necessary to accomplish that goal. By assistance he meant that Indians should be educated, at least taught to read and write; that they should be provided with tools, equipment and livestock that would make them self-sufficient. Reports are that he did fairly well with what few resources he had at hand.

Arny is said to have traveled to Washington in 1861 and to have appeared at a White House gathering dressed like a mountain man in fringed buckskin clothing, moccasins and animal skin hat while armed with a bow and arrows.²

President Lincoln appointed Arny New Mexico Territorial Secretary in 1862. He served under Governor Henry Connelly. While Connelly had been successful in resisting the invasion of Texas Confederates in early 1862, and in keeping New Mexico aligned with the Union, his health apparently was not good. He was often away from his office, which meant that Arny was frequently acting Governor. His administrative activities do not appear to have been significant in the events of the time.³

By 1863, the Navajos had been subdued, specifically at the hand of Kit Carson, but under the overall direction of General James H. Carlton, and removed to confinement at Bosque Redondo near Fort Sumner. This was an operation strongly opposed by territorial Secretary Arny. He believed that the Indians should be allowed to return to western New Mexico and eastern Arizona where they could feed and clothe themselves, thus saving the federal government thousands of dollars. Carleton would have none of it and the dispute between the two men had far-reaching implications in that it created an impasse on a variety of Indian issues.4

Probably the most important work Arny did was in 1870 when he served as “Special Agent for the Indians of New Mexico.” In a seven-month period he visited every tribe in New Mexico and took a census.5 He sent summaries of his findings to his superiors; one of which read in part,

“. . . they [the people of Jemez Pueblo] want a school and will do all they can do have their children taught to read and write. A Roman Catholic priest has lived in their town for many years, but has not troubled himself to teach them [the children] . . . as only four can read and write a little in the Spanish language.”

Such a statement naturally led to conflict with Roman Catholic Archbishop Jean Baptiste Lamy. Lamy was concerned that Protestant missionaries would supplant the priests who had served the pueblos for generations. That concern was compounded by the fact that President U. S. Grant had initiated his so-called “peace policy” which provided that Protestant missionaries should take the lead in Indian matters. Stalemate again.

Arny again served briefly as territorial secretary in the early 1870s, appointed by President Grant, but he was not well received in Santa Fe because of his earlier unpopular political positions concerning the Indian people. In 1873 he was again designated Indian agent, this time for the Navajo in western New Mexico, and again he was not well received. He was popular enough with the Indian people, but the Indian traders in the region were used to having their own way, and Arny interfered with that by making them comply with federal regulations. Arny also refused to deal with the Mormons, and there were many of them in the area. In the end, Arny was forced off the reservation. He resigned in the summer of 1875 and returned to Santa Fe.

He spent his remaining years, virtually penniless, lecturing on his experiences with the Indians. He died in 1881 and was buried at the National Cemetery in Santa Fe. Perhaps his epitaph should have read, “William Frederick Milton Arny: At Least He Tried.”


SELECTED SOURCES: Howard R. Lamar. The Far Southwest 1846-1912, A Territorial History

Miguel Antonio Otero. My Life On The Frontier 1864-1882.

Jack D. Rittenhouse, Ed. Indian Agent, Wm. Arny’s Journal, 1870.

Marc Simmons. Kit Carson and His Three Wives.

Dan Thrapp. Encyclopedia of Frontier Biography.

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