Tag Archives: new mexican history

New Mexico History: The Battle of Columbus

Last week was the 100th anniversary of the interception of the Zimmermann Telegram (1/19/1917), in which Germany encouraged Mexico to attack the United States to keep them from participating in WW1. Ironically, the interception contributed to the United States entering the war in April. When we learned about the telegram in school as a child, the idea of Mexico attacking the US sounded laughable. In fact, Pancho Villa had attacked the town of Columbus, New Mexico nine months before. At the time of the Zimmermann Telegram, General John Pershing was hunting Villa in northern Mexico in the “Punitive Expedition.”

At the time of the Battle of Columbus, Mexico was several years into the Mexican Revolution. After 35 years, the presidency of Porfirio Díaz collapsed in 1911. A string of leaders followed; Francisco Madero ruled from 1911 until his assassination in 1913. Victoriano Huerto and Venustiano Carranza controlled different parts of Mexico in 1913-1914. In 1914, the United States assaulted the port of Veracruz, with Wilson stating his desire to overthrow Huerta. The United States then supported the presidency of Pancho Villa’s rival, Carranza.

The reasons for the Battle of Columbus aren’t fully clear, but they were probably partially motivated by Villa’s need for munitions and by his irritation that the United States was supporting his rival. Early on March 9, 1916, Villa attacked Columbus with 500 men. The raid didn’t go well for Villa. 90-170 of his men are estimated to have died. President Wilson sent General Pershing into Mexico to hunt for Villa for nearly a year. He evaded capture and entered pop culture fame. At the close of the Mexican Revolution in 1920, he agreed to retire to the country. He was assassinated in 1923 after re-involving himself in politics.

Book review: Forty-Seventh Star: New Mexico’s Struggle for Statehood (David V. Holtby 2012)

Rating: 3.5/5

David V. Holtby’s Forty-Seventh Star is about New Mexico’s struggle for statehood. The land of New Mexico (mostly) entered the United States with the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo at the end of the Mexican-American War in 1848. (The southernmost chunk of the state was acquired in 1853 with the Gadsden Purchase.) New Mexico petitioned for statehood in 1848 and 1850, but waited until 1912 to be admitted into the union. In the intervening 64 years, 15 states joined the union. By contrast, California, also obtained at the end of the Mexican-American War, became a state in 1850 (gold helped); Colorado became a state in 1876. So why was New Mexico’s wait for statehood among the longest?

After reading about the Mexican-American War, I would have guessed racial issues. Even by the time of statehood, New Mexico was not majority Euro-American. Forty-Seventh Star argues for a variety of causes—petty politics at the national level, bad luck, local corruption, incompetent petitioners, and racial and religious issues all contribute.

Forty-Seventh Star is rife with scoundrels of New Mexico. There’s Thomas B. Catron, member of the powerful and corrupt Santa Fe Ring. Catron, “the largest individual landholder in the history of the United States,” fought for statehood on the theory that it would raise land prices; highly indebted, he needed that land to grow in value. Republican Catron was long suspected in the death of Francisco Chávez, the former sherif of Santa Fe and powerful Democrat. Albert B. Fall is another jerk from New Mexico. Most famously, Fall was Warren Harding’s secretary of the interior responsible for the Teapot Dome Scandal, which concerned the corrupt leasing of federal land for oil extraction. Before Teapot Dome, Fall busied himself with shenanigans in New Mexico; for three months, he was the state attorney general until President Roosevelt insisted upon his removal. He also served as a judge, a state representative, and another stint as attorney general. When New Mexico became a state in 1912, the august persons of Catron and Fall became its first two senators.

President Taft and his Postmaster General Frank Hitchcock deserve the most credit at the federal level for bringing statehood to New Mexico. Taft was willing to cajole and convince senators to see his point of view. Roosevelt, who wished for statehood,  didn’t confront senators who opposed admission for political reasons. Taft is not particularly well-remembered today, but the more I read of him, the more interesting he sounds. Taft went on to become the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, which was his true passion. His passion for the law shows in his handling of New Mexican statehood.

WHY THIS BOOK?

As a new resident of New Mexico, I want to learn more of the history of my new home. I read Amy Greenberg’s A Wicked War about the Mexican-American War and Marc Reisner’s Cadillac Desert, about the history of water in the west.

THE GOOD

Holtby is the former editor in chief of the University of New Mexico Press. Forty-Seventh Star is a meticulously researched and well-sourced book, relying on primary documents in both English and Spanish. Holtby takes pains to include the Nuevomexicano perspective on statehood, and addresses the lives of natives, blacks, and asians in the territory as well.

There’s a ton of interesting tidbits in Forty-Seventh Star. As I mentioned, there are plenty of 19th century schemers and scoundrels. The role of various federal figures in the fight is interesting as well; there’s McKinley and Roosevelt, each with New Mexican counties named for them, and Taft, who despite bringing statehood has no namesakes in the state. There are senators like Albert Beveridge of Indiana, who hammered against New Mexican corruption not for ethical reasons but for partisan gain. There’s Nelson Aldrich, grandfather of Nelson Aldrich Rockefeller, Republican Rhode Island senator who had grown tired of his political power being diluted by the admission of often-Democratic western states.

I particularly enjoyed the section of the book devoted to nuevomexicano and minority interests in the territory. We learn about Chinese workers who are smuggled across the border at El Paso in violation of the Chinese Exclusion Act. We learn about the ghost town of Blackdom, founded by Francis Boyer, as a town for black people in southeastern New Mexico; it’s so lost to history that it doesn’t even appear on my 2 foot by 3 foot map of New Mexican ghost towns. We learn about nuevomexicano settlements in the Rio Puerco Valley, which fulfill McKinley’s exhortation for more people and more irrigation, but probably not with the people he’d imagined.

We also get a peek into turn-of-the-century partisan squabbling. The more American political history I read, the more I understand its ubiquity. The tools and individuals vary, but the goals and motivations are essentially the same.

THE BAD

There is one tremendous flaw in Forty-Seventh Star—it’s hard to read. The timeline is a veritable zig-zag, following one story for three years, then jumping back two years, then following that for 15 years then jumping back 12 years. If I were more familiar with the players of the story, I might not have minded this so much. But one contentious senator in 1894 is much like a contentious senator in 1905 to me. Keeping track of senators and New Mexicans and newspapers and litigants as the narrative zig-zagged across the decades was frustrating. When it came time to summarize this book, I had to review pretty extensively; I ended up having to make a narrative for myself because the author didn’t provide one, he provided several dozen. Holtby is clearly a knowledgable editor and historian; perhaps this is closer to historical academic writing. As a casual reader, it was not a plus.

Contributing to the first flaw, Holtby’s characterizations of the players in his story could be stronger. Scoundrels like Catron and Fall are memorable because Holtby gives them time on the page. I remember little about the more neutral individuals such as Miguel Otero, Solomon Luna, George Curry, and others. Many of Holtby’s quotes come from local newspapers, but again, I had trouble remembering which was which and what they stood for, and thus they blended together.

OVERALL

Forty-Seventh Star is a worthwhile read if you have an interest in statehood, New Mexican history, or historical politics. For these topics, it’s excellent and meticulously researched. Otherwise, it probably isn’t worth reading. I’m glad to have read it, but I’m very glad to be done; it took me over four weeks. This is not a poorly written book, it just lacks a narrative for the novice reader and it covers a variety of really challenging topics.

Exploring New Mexican Names: Mount Taylor

Mount Taylor is a volcano 80 miles west of Albuquerque, the most prominent feature in the western panorama looking from the foothills of the Sandias. It was named in 1849 for then-President Zachary Taylor. The Navajo call it “Tsoodził” (don’t ask me to pronounce that), and the mountain is important in the beliefs of the Navajo and local pueblo peoples. The mountain is rich in uranium, and was a mine until 1990. In nearby Grants, you can visit a mock uranium mine. Mount Taylor is also the site of the grueling-sounding Mount Taylor Quadrathlon, featuring biking, running, cross-country skiing, and snowshoeing. 

Zachary Taylor was the second and last Whig to be elected to the presidency. Both he and William Henry Harrison were generals, and both died early in their presidential terms. Taylor was mostly apolitical; the presidency was his first elected office. He fought in the War of 1812, against the Black Hawk Indians in what is now Minnesota, and against the Seminoles in Florida. He became known as “old rough and ready.” His daughter married future president of the Confederacy Jefferson Davis, but she died three months into the marriage.

Taylor came to national prominence during the Mexican-American War. This war eventually brought the territory of New Mexico into the union, and is detailed in Amy Greenberg’s A Wicked War. Taylor won famous victories in the Battle of Monterrey and the Battle of Buena Vista. The war was initially popular, and Taylor became correspondingly popular after his victories. Taylor privately opposed the war from its beginning, calling an early troop movement “injudicious in policy and wicked in fact.”

Democratic president James K. Polk (1845-1849), who had almost single-handedly created the war, grew frustrated that Taylor, a whig, was getting credit for what Polk considered democratic achievements. Before the Battle of Buena Vista, Polk stripped Taylor of a portion of his troops, leaving Taylor and his troops more vulnerable to attack from the army of Mexican general Santa Anna. Santa Anna was a busy boy in early Mexican history; he was president 11 nonconsecutive times, and he was the leader of the Mexican forces at the Battle of the Alamo in the Texas revolution. As time passed, the war grew unpopular, and so did Polk. After the invasion of Mexico City, the war stagnated, with US forces harassed by guerrilla warfare. US troops committed atrocities, such as the Agua Nueva Massacre. Polk wanted to annex all of Mexico, and some wealthy individuals in Mexico preferred this to the constant coups that plagued early Mexico. But would this territory permit slavery? And how would dreaded dark skinned Catholics be allowed to become citizens? Eventually, the upper one-third of Mexico’s territory was ceded to the United States in the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo (a treaty that Polk opposed, but grudgingly accepted).

Taylor never saw Mount Taylor nor set foot in New Mexico, as far as I can tell. But he made his mark on the modern state of New Mexico in a couple of ways. The Mexican-American War brought most of the territory of New Mexico into the United States. And during his brief presidency, Taylor opposed Texas’ claims to the eastern half of New Mexico. Thanks in part to President Taylor, I live in New Mexico and not Texas.

Taylor assumed the presidency in March of 1849. Perhaps Polk resented this, but not for long; he had the shortest retirement of any president, dying just three months after leaving office. In the 1800s, presidents took office on March 4th after the election. Because March 4th, 1849 fell on a Sunday, Taylor refused to be sworn in. This led to “President for a Day” David Rice Atchison, who is slightly famous in my home state of Missouri. Taylor lacked specific policies and history considers him to be in the worst 25% of presidents. On July 4th, 1850, President Taylor ate some fruit and milk at a Fourth of July celebration. He became ill and died on July 9th, leaving Vice President Millard Fillmore, who is rated even worse than Taylor, historically. Polk, incidentally, is rated 10th best president, a ranking I suspect the author of A Wicked War disagrees with.

Perhaps someday I will learn how to pronounce Tsoodził, what it means, and the names and meanings of Mount Taylor in the Puebloan languages. Until then, I suppose Old Rough and Ready will have to do. He seems like the sort of person one makes do with.

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