Taos County, New Mexico
Taos is in the northern tier of counties, extending from about the center of the northern boundary line in a narrow formation, and covering an area of 2,300 square miles. "Although the smallest county in the Territory, it is larger than Delaware and almost twice the size of Rhode Island. It has a population of about 1 1,000, substantially the same as that of Colfax, Dona Ana and Mora counties.
In a previous chapter it has already been shown how Taos was originally the largest division of the Territory, and the steps by which it was reduced to its present limits. Its first boundaries, as defined by the act of January 9, 1852, which divided New Mexico into nine counties, were as follows: On the south, from the first house of the town of Embudo, on the upper side, where the canyon of Picuries terminates, drawing a direct line toward the south over the mountain of Bajillo at the town of Rincones, until it reaches the front of the last house of Las Trambas on the south side; thence drawing a direct line toward the east dividing the mountains until it reaches the junction of the river Mora and Sapeyo, and thence to the boundary line of the Territory; from the above mentioned house of Embudo drawing a line toward the north over the mountains and dividing the Rio del Norte in the direction of the Tetilla de la Petaca; thence taking a westward direction until it terminates with the boundary line of the Territory, and on the north by all the land belonging to the Territory of New Mexico.
Records Open with Revolution
The first existing records of Taos County, under the caption of "March term. 1847," begin as follows: "Be it remembered that on the nineteenth day of January, in the year of our Lord eighteen hundred and forty-seven, a revolution broke out in Don Fernandez de Taos, in the Territory of New Mexico, among the Mexicans, in which many of the Americans in Fernandez were horribly murdered, besides the books, papers and property of this office were destroyed; and also it is to be regretted that the lamented Cornelio Vigil, the late prefect, was one of the murdered, as well as the Governor of this Territory. On the 25th clay of February Vicente Martinez took the oath of office as prefect for the county of Taos. Monday, the first day of March. A. D. 1847, being the second regular term of holding this court (Vicente Martinez, prefect, presiding, and Robert Cary, clerk), the sheriff, Archa Metcalf, presented his bond as such, and also his bond as ex-officio collector."
Thereafter, the officers of Taos County, as shown by the records were as below:
The Turbulent Taos Valley
The valley of Taos, with its two great Pueblos, the old town of Fernando de Taos and the still more ancient settlement known as Ranchos de Taos, is one of the most fascinating and historical points in the entire West. Taos was for many years following the American occupation, the chief political storm-center of the Territory. The presence there of such men as Charles Bent, the first Governor (whose death in the revolution of 1847 is among the first events officially recorded in the county); Colonel Christopher ("Kit") Carson, the famous scout and guide; Colonel Cerean St. Vrain, the well-known merchant; "Don Carlos" Beaubien. one of the original proprietors of the notorious Maxwell land grant and first Chief Justice of New Mexico; Father Martinez, demagogue, traitor, conspirator against peace and as great a rascal as ever remained unhung in New Mexico, whether viewed from a political or moral standpoint, such as these gave the community a position in Territorial affairs equal to that of Santa Fé, the capital. The halo of romance and the glamour of tragedy with which it became invested in the early days, though somewhat dimmed during the more peaceful years that have followed, still surround the name of Taos, and always will.
Among the Americans and other foreigners who became the pioneer white settlers of Taos and the valley nearby, besides those mentioned, were Theodore Mignault, who was manager of Bent & St. Vrain's store, and afterward a partner of Marceline St. Vrain, a nephew of the Colonel Henry Green, a West Point graduate and formerly an officer in the regular army; Jesse Turley, a Missourian, who established a trading post there; James Herbert Ouinn who organized several scouting parties in times of trouble; Theodore Weedon, or Wheaton, a lawyer who came from Missouri in 1846; Charles Hardt, who also migrated from that state in 1846, and had a ranch near town: "Squire" Hardt, who was engaged in the overland trade for several years; Webster, a merchant and miller, who became very wealthy; the three Buedners, Solomon, Samson and Joseph who had a general merchandise business; Frederick Mueller, who married a daughter of Charles H. Beaubien, and "Uncle Dick" Woolton.
The erection of the church at Fernando de Taos was begun in 1796, but the edifice was not completed until 1806. The ancient church at the Pueblo, which was ruined during the bombardment of 1847, was at one time the headquarters of the Roman Catholic diocese.
While the present village of Fernando de Taos, the county seat, has been the scene of crimes innumerable and the hotbed of most of the early conspiracies against the American government, few criminals of note have made that town their headquarters since the establishment of peaceful conditions following the Civil War. Cue notorious character, however, made such a record there that the closing incident in his career deserves a permanent place in the historic literature of New Mexico. "Colonel" Thomas Means, a surveyor by profession, came to the Territory soon after the inauguration of civil government by the Americans. He lived in Colfax County for some time, and for years was more or less identified with the tragic episodes which marked the early history of the infamous Maxwell land grant. He finally settled down in Taos, where he made life one continuous round of misery for all who were forced into contact with him. He exhibited an insolence and obstreperous disposition that constantly precipitated him into trouble until he became such a nuisance to the more peaceably inclined inhabitants as to render drastic measures necessary. He would not only grossly insult and frequently attack anybody who came within his reach, but beat his wife so badly on innumerable occasions that her life was despaired of. Finding that appeals to courts of justice were of no avail, in 1868 a number of citizens decided to organize that common frontier institution known as a Vigilance Committee and put an end to "Colonel" Means and all his meanness. After an unusually aggravating outbreak on his part, following a pointed warning as to what his fate would be, he was taken from his home to the old court house and hanged from a beam in the ceiling in front of the judge's bench. The day following was one of general rejoicing that the community had been summarily rid of one of its most disagreeable and dangerous factors. Thus ended the career of one of the most widely known, and at one time one of the most influential, men of northern New Mexico.
An episode which for a time threatened the peace of Taos County, and by some was regarded as a possible cause of a repetition of the bloody scenes of 1847, occurred at Fernando de Taos in December, 1898. On the twelfth of that month, which is celebrated by the native inhabitants as Saint Guadalupe Day, in honor of one of their most honored patron saints, practically all the Mexican inhabitants of Taos and the surrounding country, most of whom are members of the order of Penitentes, were parading the streets of the village carrying an image of Our Lady of Guadalupe. Two young men who were strangers to the scene, and who were not aware of its significance nor of the custom of the superstitious Penitentes, Bert Phillips," the famous Indian painter, and Mr. Myers, stood upon the sidewalk watching the procession. An official who accompanied the procession stepped up to them and ordered them in Spanish to remove their hats out of respect to the saint. As they did not understand the Spanish tongue they did not comply with the request, whereupon the constable, or deputy sheriff, attempted to pull their hats off. At this Myers promptly knocked the officer down. Soon afterward both Phillips and Myers were arrested and placed in the wretched building which served the purposes of a jail. Pail was immediately offered for their release pending a hearing, but the sheriff, Luciano Trujillo, who in the meantime had been drinking heavily and had become ugly, refused to accept bail, declaring that the two men must stay in jail and freeze to death, for all he cared. Later, however, he consented to allow them their freedom on bail.
Early that evening Trujillo, who had been making dire threats against Phillips, Myers and Americans in general, entered a saloon where a number of Americans were congregated. Among them was a youth named Albert Gifford, aged nineteen, who had armed himself with a revolver in anticipation of trouble. Most of the Americans present had similarly prepared themselves for protection, for it was generally believed that Trujillo intended to kill upon the slightest provocation. Hardly had the drunken sheriff entered the room than somebody fired a shot. In an instant the room was a blaze of pistol shots, and when the smoke cleared Trujillo was found dead.
The dead sheriff was one of the recognized leaders of the Penitentes, and the news of his death aroused a strong- feeling of revenge in their breasts. Young Gifford, who was known to have been armed and who was a comparative stranger in Taos, was at once selected as the person upon whom their revenge should find an outlet, and a hunt for him was begun at once. Immediately after the shooting- he fled from the scene, and the chase proved fruitless, as he was hidden by faithful friends. The entire American community, less than a dozen adults, became alarmed at the aspect of affairs and stood on guard all that night, in zero weather, fully armed and determined to shoot upon the first indication of a desire for a fight upon the part of the Mexicans. For two or three days a united attack on the part of the natives was feared, as open threats of revenge were made by the Penitentes: but Gifford soon made his escape and the trouble quieted down. At no time since the uprising of 1847 have the American inhabitants of any portion of northern New Mexico stood in such fear of an organized native outbreak as on the night of December 12, 1808.
The county is traversed from north to south by the Rio Grande, which from its eastern side receives the Red, Taos. Embudo and Ojo Caliente, with smaller tributaries. On the western side the valley is practically devoid of streams suitable for irrigation supplies.
Most of the eastern boundary of the county is occupied by the Taos range of the Rocky Mountain system, and the Taos valley itself is one of the most picturesque in existence. On the east it is surrounded by a half moon of mountains, with no foothills extending into the mesas to diminish the grandeur of the scene. Eleven streams issue from these mountains and across the valley in a westerly direction, and the Rio Grande cuts through it in a canyon '500 feet deep. At places the bed of the parent stream sinks abruptly from the high table lands, or cuts through the mountain spurs. That part of its course known as the Taos canyon is so deep and abrupt that it is one of the most awful and remarkable gorges in the world.
The soil of the Rio Grande valley is a dark loam and very deep, being particularly rich in wheat-bearing properties. The grain is large and plump, and weighs from sixty-five to sixty-eight pounds per bushel. This county is one of the few sections of the Territory that is adapted to the growth of potatoes, and vegetables grow to an astonishing size. Corn is a staple crop and grasses of all kinds grow luxuriantly. Fruits are becoming a steady source of profit, the Taos valley especially demonstrating what can be done, under irrigation, in the raising of apples, peaches, plums, pears, apricots and nectarines.
The Rio Grande gravel, from the mouth of the Red River southward, carries fine gold, and in spots where the windings of the river or some other feature has caused it to accumulate, it is found in large quantities. Red river, the San Cristobal and Arroyo Hondo also are bordered by placers of much value. Copper and silver are found in the mountains east of the Rio Grande and above Rinconada.
The town by this name is the county seat, and is one of the oldest and most interesting points in New Mexico. Its full name is Fernando de Taos, or Don Fernando de Taos, and is only a few miles from the Indian pueblo which was such a hot-bed of revolution in the Indian uprisings against the early Spanish rule. The town, which has a population of some 1,200 people, is quaintly built around a large plaza, with a fenced park in the center, and possesses, among other attractions, a large adobe church of considerable antiquity. Before the advent of railroads it was a commercial center of considerable importance, and was the first port of entry established for merchandise brought across the plains to the Territory.
The Taos Pueblos
Only three miles to the northeast, under the shadows of great mountains and occupying both sides of a clear, bright river, is the pueblo of Taos, with its great terraced buildings, presenting one of the most primitive illustrations of Indian architecture. At the annual festival on September 30th tourists from all over the world, and Apache and Pueblo Indians from every pueblo north of Santa Fe gather here. The pueblo of Taos guards the sacred fire of the ancient Aztecs, which is kept by a company of priests. According to tradition this fire has not been extinguished for a thousand years. It was removed to Taos from the old village of Pecos, the birthplace of Montezuma, in 1837, and the Children of the Sun believe that as long as it continues to burn there is hope of the coming of their Messiah, who will return as he left them, on the back of an eagle, at dawn. Hence the pious caciques climb to the housetops every morning at sunrise and, shading their eyes with their hands, gaze anxiously toward the east.
The two Taos pueblos, erected in 1716, and occupied by what is left of the ancient tribe of Tao Indians, are generally conceded to be the most remarkable specimens of Indian architecture in America. They are certainly the greatest of American pyramids. The Taos pueblos number something less than 500 souls. In the main, their system of government is similar to that of the other pueblos in the Territory. Their tradition states that the predecessor of the present casiquis, or cacique, held office for a period of 118 years. Fifty years before his death he fell from the roof of one of the rooms of the pueblo, while enjoying the effects of copious draughts of "vino," and broke his leg. Some of these Indians have received a fine English education, though for the greater part they profess to be unable to understand or speak this language. Like the inhabitants of most of the other pueblos, each person has three names first, the one by which he is known by the Mexicans, usually a name more or less common among the descendants of the Spanish, like Antonio, Romero, Jose Concha, or Juan Gonzales; second, the name inherited from his Indian ancestors; third, an interpretation of the latter, such as Yellow Shell, Yellow Deer, or Gray Wolf. They keep several "fiestas," or festivals, notably, the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, December 12th, and San Geronimo (St. Jerome) day, September 30th. They occupy a fertile tract of 17,000 acres, a grant from the Spanish government. It was originally much larger, but for protection against the Comanches, Kuowas, Cheyennes and Utes, who formerly caused them great annoyance, they gave the east part of their grant to Mexican settlers, with the understanding that the latter would assist them in repelling invasions from Taos canyon. In September, 1896, the federal government organized a day school at the pueblo, which is now conducted ten months each year. Previous to that time the only schools there were those founded by the Franciscan missionaries and afterward maintained in an indifferent manner by the Jesuits.
Ranchos de Taos is located about four miles south of Fernandez de Taos, is in the center of fertile agricultural and fruit lands, and has several flour mills, schools and Presbyterian missions. Arroyo Hondo, Arroyo Seco and Colorado are little towns north of Taos, engaged in mining, agriculture and stock raising, and Ojo Caliente (Hot Spring) is a health resort on a creek by that name and near the southwestern boundary line of the county. It is at an altitude of 6,292 feet, and the temperature of the waters is about no degrees Fahrenheit.
The main centers of population, in Taos County, lie east of the main channel of the Rio Grande, away from the Rio Grande & Denver Railroad, which passes through its southwestern corner, and follows its western boundary, or runs a short distance from it in Rio Arriba County.
Source: History of New Mexico, Its Resources and People, Volume II, Pacific States Publishing Co., 1907.
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