Modern history


Chapter 19


With Kearny only a day away from the capital, Armijo flew into a dither of inspired play-acting at Apache Canyon. As the vital hours slipped by, the governor grew more unpredictable, and at the same time more grandiose. He gathered together the members of the legislative assembly on the steep hills and sat them in the cool shade of the juniper trees. Instead of exhorting them, however, he presented a series of questions.

You tell me what I should do,” he said, Pontius-like.

They looked at him with puzzled expressions.

He cast about for the most delicate way to phrase the question. “Should I fight or treat with the enemy?”

One of the legislators stood up and spoke for the others. “The question you have posed is improper,” the man resolutely said. “We came here as soldiers, not as legislators. Our duty is to act as such, and obey orders.”

This was not the answer Armijo was looking for. He stiffened up and nodded vigorously, grumbling something along the lines of, “Of course we are soldiers.” With that, he took his leave.

Then he turned to the officers of the militia and floated the same question. Again, the answer failed to satisfy him. “We have assembled to fight,” one of his interlocutors stated, “and that is what we should do. That is our only wish.”

Armijo again nodded, commending the man for his patriotism. He paced and stewed and sulked, and then suddenly spun around, having worked his actor’s face up into a fit of feigned indignation. “With the regular army I would of course meet any enemy,” he assured them. “But not with these volunteers.” He gestured deprecatingly at the peasants and peons working down in the canyon, still slaving away on the fortifications, felling trees to construct a crude abatis. “Look at them—they are all cowards! I shall not compromise myself by going into battle with people who have no military discipline!”

Then to everyone’s mute astonishment, the governor formally disbanded the defenders of Apache Canyon, the whole lot of them. As he did so, he affected a look of intense exasperation, as if they were the ones who had let him down. He was, he said, a victim of circumstance; he had done all that could be done, but it was entirely out of his hands now. A militia captain vowed to kill him for deserting the homeland, but the threat came to nothing. For the next several hours the canyon was a scene of dusty disarray, with people stampeding this way and that. The three thousand men—bewildered and most of them, in truth, greatly relieved—hopped on whatever mules or burros immediately presented themselves and scurried toward home to see to the safety of their families.

Then Armijo sat down and dictated a final letter to Kearny. A syrup of emotion flowed from his lips to the pen of his mystified amanuensis. “My heart is grieved with pain on seeing that from my hands the country in which I first saw light will pass to another nation,” he dictated. The governor went on to suggest that Kearny hadn’t seen the last of him, that Armijo would return in due time to avenge the American conquest. “I do not deliver to Your Excellency the province of New Mexico,” he explained. “I only make a temporary military retreat, until I shall receive further orders from my government.”

Finishing the letter, and leaving it in the hands of a messenger, Armijo assembled his bodyguard of one hundred soldiers and galloped for Santa Fe. From the Palace of the Governors he took all the money and gold plate he could cram into his trunks and then mounted his horse. According to one account, an angry throng materialized and tried to prevent him from leaving. Digging into his overstuffed pockets, the governor tossed out several handfuls of gold and silver coins, strewing them at the crowd’s feet. While the people jostled for the money, he spurred his horse and sped away toward Chihuahua, never to be seen in Santa Fe again.

At that very moment a large force under Colonel Ugarte was hastening up the Rio Bravo to reinforce Armijo’s defenses.

Armijo’s second-in-command, Diego Archuleta, did not rise in Armijo’s absence to take the reins of the army. James Magoffin, President Polk’s secret agent, had met with Archuleta, too, and apparently offered him a separate deal. Magoffin quite disingenuously told Archuleta that Kearny was interested in annexing only the eastern half of New Mexico, to the banks of the Rio Grande. The details of their meeting are frustratingly vague, but it appears that Magoffin promised Archuleta that if he acquiesced in the American invasion and did not put up any resistance, he could have all of western New Mexico—an attenuated domain that nonetheless encompassed Arizona and parts of present-day Utah, Nevada, and Colorado. It is not known whether Archuleta accepted this offer, but, like Armijo, the proud soldier declined to defend his country, a tack quite uncharacteristic of him. He retreated to his ranch on the lower Rio Grande, near Albuquerque, to ride out the invasion.

In Santa Fe, the people were left in shock at the realization that their leaders had truly deserted them. The American infidels were coming, and not a thing could be done about it. Women wept in the streets. Valuables were hidden, children sent away. The people battened down their houses as though preparing for a storm. One citizen, mortified by his pusillanimous governor, wrote in disgust, “Mr. Armijo did absolutely nothing. All is lost, including honor.”


While camped along the Pecos River near the great ruins, Kearny’s men suddenly heard approaching hoofbeats. They turned from their fires to behold a rider galloping at them, gesticulating wildly, aiming straight for General Kearny. “A large fellow, mounted on a mule, came towards us at full speed, and extending his hand to the general, congratulated him on the arrival of his army,” wrote Lt. William Emory. It was the alcalde of the nearby Hispanic village of Pecos, and he came bearing important news. “He said, with a roar of laughter, ‘Armijo and his troops have gone to hell! The canyon is all clear!’”

Kearny did not necessarily believe the man. He treated the alcalde’s news as a rumor, like all the others. The Army of the West rose before dawn on the morning of August 18 and pushed toward Apache Canyon. The news that filtered back from his runners and scouts was encouraging—the alcalde apparently spoke the truth. But Kearny cautiously refused to accept his good fortune until he could see it with his own eyes.

When the American forces approached the canyon around noon that day, they were heartened to find that the place was indeed completely deserted. Mexican campfires were still smoldering, the earthworks were half-completed, and trees had been felled this way and that in a manner that suggested both confusion and incompetence. The defenders had quit the canyon in such a hurry that they left their cannons in place, only to be reclaimed by the Americans. Kearny did not waste time studying the nuances of this formidable defile, but it was obvious to him that the New Mexicans could have made the passage murderously difficult for his army. Lieutenant Emory thought that although Armijo’s arrangements for defense were “very stupid,” Apache Canyon was “a gateway which, in the hands of a skillful engineer and one hundred resolute men, would have been perfectly impregnable.” Had Armijo “possessed the slightest qualifications for a general,” Emory went on, “he might have given us infinite trouble.” Similarly, volunteer George Gibson, a Missouri lawyer who kept a thorough journal, deemed Apache Canyon a place of such “great natural strength [that] a few men could have held off a whole army, for cannon at the mouth could sweep the whole road as it is almost impossible even for infantry to ascend the precipitous sides.” A historian would later go further, suggesting, somewhat melodramatically, that had it been defended by an able general, the battle of Apache Canyon “would have proved a second Thermopylae.”

Nothing now stood in the way of General Kearny’s path to Santa Fe, and he made double time, hoping to have the capital before sundown. It was thirty miles from their morning’s campsite to Santa Fe, but the Missourians were excited to get a glimpse of the mythic city. “We marched rapidly on,” volunteer George Gibson wrote, “for we were all anxious to see the place about which we had heard so much.” The trail made a final bend to the right, skirting the green ridges, climbing over hills covered in chamisa sagebrush and cholla cactus and sprinkled with purple aster. It was monsoon season and the rutted road had recently been doused by a summer shower. Though it left a few wallows, the rain was a welcome thing. It cooled and sharpened the air and dampened the dust. Even now, thunderheads were piled overhead, dropping gray nails of rain that evaporated into vapor as the storms grumbled eastward.

In every direction rose mountains, an embarrassment of them, erupting in incremental shades of blue from the burnt yellow plains—mountains of every description and geological origin, some volcanic, some forged by faults and violent uplifts, some stand-alone monadnocks, others tied to the Rocky Mountain chain. They all had Spanish names and had had them since before the pilgrims sailed to Plymouth Rock: The Sandias. Manzanos. Ortiz. Jemez. Los Cerrillos. Sangre de Cristos. San Mateos. Atalaya. Some seemed so close they could be plucked as effortlessly as pendulous fruit, others were more than a hundred miles off, thin blue phantoms rising from the Navajo country in the hazy west.

Hoping to enter Santa Fe “in an imposing form,” Kearny called for frequent halts so that his artillery could catch up. The strain of this final dash sapped the artillery’s overworked animals. “Their horses almost gave out,” Emory noted, “and during the day mule after mule was placed before the guns, until scarcely one of them was spared.”

As Kearny rode the final miles into Santa Fe, the late afternoon sun slanted beneath the clouds, tinting their gauzy undersides in oranges and reds. The high elevation made the atmosphere strangely clarified. Since they had been out on the prairie, the men had been steadily climbing. They were now at seven thousand feet, an altitude that made many of these Missouri flatlanders wheeze and gasp, and gave others nosebleeds and headaches or an anxious tingling at the top of their lungs. Nearly twenty miles to the west lay the muddy Rio Grande, its presence felt by the marching men though they could not see it behind the intervening buttes and ridges. It was the central river toward which all land tilted, the one clear trend in this magnificent jumble of landscapes.

The sagebrush gave way to cornfields and sheep pastures and then scattered houses, and finally the men dropped down into the somber capital—the Royal City of the Holy Faith of Saint Francis of Assisi. Although it had a fabled name with a venerable history—it was founded in 1609—Santa Fe was not a town that sought to impress anyone, numbering at most seven thousand inhabitants. “Our first view of this place was very discouraging—dirt, pigs, and naked children,” wrote Frank Edwards. George Gibson dismissed the town as “shabby” and “without taste,” offering “nothing to pay us for our long march.” Garbage was heaped on the mostly deserted streets, with goats picking among the sour edges. The low mud dwellings, flat-roofed and seemingly random in their cluttered placement, gave Santa Fe the appearance of “an extensive brickyard,” one soldier thought. Kearny’s men unfurled their pennants and banners and carried them on poles as they filed through the narrow mud streets amid the incessant barking of dogs. They crossed the Santa Fe River, shallow but swollen gray-brown from the rainstorms. The soldiers were still not sure whether they would encounter any resistance, so they struck an exaggeratedly martial pose, with “drawn sabres and daggers in every look,” as one lieutenant described it. Behind the courtyard gates and tiny windows pulled taut with oiled rawhide in lieu of glass, the Santa Feans grieved. A few brave young men leaned against a wall, smoking cornhusk cigarettes. Thunder growled in the distant skies.

In sixty days of marching, Kearny’s Army of the West had come to the end of the line, for that is what Santa Fe had always been—a geographical and cultural terminus. It was the end of the Santa Fe Trail, the end of the Camino Real, the northern end of the desert, the western end of the prairie, the southern end of the Rockies. It was where Spain stopped and existential wilderness began. The impoverished citizens of this hard outpost, whose families had lived here longer than any Bostonian or Virginian could claim lineage in North America, blinked in disbelief at what was now happening to their ancient city. Lieutenant Elliott of the Missouri volunteers kept noticing “surly countenances and downcast looks of watchfulness if not terror.” Elliott went further than most in sympathizing with their predicament. “Strange must have been their feelings,” he wrote, “when an invading army was entering their home—all the future vague and uncertain, their new rulers strangers to their manners, language, and habits, and as they had been taught to believe, enemies of the only religion they have ever known.”

Around five o’clock General Kearny led his army into the plaza. Behind him came his dragoons, smartly dressed and arrogant without apology, each of his three troop divisions set on mounts of a distinct color: The first rode black, the second white, and the third sorrel horses. (Organizing the horses by color, though completely unnecessary, was just the sort of flourish that warmed Kearny’s fastidious heart.) Then came the infantry, that is, whatever foot soldiers had reached Santa Fe—hundreds of others were still trickling into the outskirts of the city. Kearny made one circle around the plaza and then stopped in front of the Palace of the Governors, an ancient adobe building with a long, sagging porch. The provisional governor, a contrite and conciliatory man named Juan Bautista y Vigil Alarid, emerged with a host of New Mexican dignitaries. Over a doorway of the palace was an inscription that might have been Manuel Armijo’s personal motto. It read VITA FUGIT SICUT UMBRA: Life flees like a shadow.

The American general dismounted and raised his hand, calling for silence. “I, Stephen W. Kearny, General of the Army of the United States, have taken possession of the province of New Mexico,” he declared. “In the name of the government of the United States I hereby instruct the inhabitants to deliver their arms and surrender absolutely. Armijo’s power is departed. I am your governor—look to me for protection.”

Then the provisional governor essentially offered a reply of no contest. “I swear obedience to the Northern Republic and tender my respect to its laws and authority,” he said. “No one in this world can successfully resist the power of him who is stronger. The power of the Mexican republic is dead.” Still, he said, “No matter what her condition, the republic was our mother. What child will not shed abundant tears at the tomb of his parents?”

Later an elderly man emerged from the crowd, his hair white, his eyes watery and perhaps clouded with cataracts. The old-timer threw himself on General Kearny and for a long, awkward moment he shuddered with quiet emotion. The governor admonished the old man to move on. “No, let him remain,” Kearny assured him. “Heaven knows the oppressions this man has had to bear.”

The governor offered glasses of brandy to Kearny and his staff, and, stiffly, they toasted the bloodless conquest. The brandy was from El Paso and it tasted a bit sharp and resinous, but it went down smoothly enough. “We were too thirsty to judge of its merits,” Lieutenant Emory noted. “Anything liquid and cool was palatable.”

The buglemen blasted out their notes of triumph as the Stars and Stripes were run up a temporary flagpole fixed to the palace roof. From a distant hill the artillery fired a thirteen-gun salute, and then, as though punctuating the booms, the young men of the Army of the West let out a raucous war-whoop. For the first time in its history, the United States had captured a foreign capital.

In the silence that hung in the air after the rumbling of the guns had subsided, the women of Santa Fe answered the American soldiers with unstifled screams of sorrow and anguish. It was an upwelling both surprising and haunting to the men of Missouri. “Their pent-up emotions could be suppressed no longer,” Lieutenant Elliott wrote, “and a wail of grief rose from the depths of the gloomy buildings on every hand.”

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