COMMERCE OF THE PRAIRIES, by Josiah Gregg: Volume I



Government of New Mexico The Administration of Justice Judicial Corruption Prejudices against Americans Partiality for the English Anecdote of Governor Armijo and a Trapper Outrage upon an American Physician Violence suffered by the American Consul and others Arbitrary Impositions upon Foreigners Contribucion de Guerra The Alcaldes and their System The Fueros Mode of punishing Delinquents and Criminals Mexican System of Slavery Thieves and Thieveries Outrage upon an American Merchant Gambling and Gambling-houses Game of Monte Anecdote of a Lady of Fashion Chuza Cockpits Correr el gallo El Coleo Cigarritos.

     PRIOR to the adoption of the Sistema Central in the Mexican republic, the province of New Mexico was under a territorial government. The executive was called Gefe Politico (political chief), and the Diputacion Provincial very inefficiently supplied the place of a legislature. Under the present system, however, New Mexico being a department, the names of these powers have been changed, but their functions remain very nearly the same. The Gobernador (governor) is appointed by the President for eight years. The legislative power is nominally vested in a Junta Departamental, a kind of state council, with very circum-


scribed powers, somewhat analogous to, and certainly not more extensive than those of a board of aldermen with us. But even this shadow of popular representation was 'prorogued' by Gov. Armijo soon after his accession to power (five or six years ago), and has never since been convened; so that its functions have been arbitrarily exercised by the governor ever since.

     The administration of the laws in Northern Mexico constitutes one of the most painful features of her institutions. Justice, or rather judgments, are a common article of traffic; and the hapless litigant who has not the means to soften the claws of the alcalde with a 'silver unction,' is almost sure to get severely scratched in the contest, no matter what may be the justice of his cause, or the uprightness of his character. It is easy to perceive, then, that the poor and the humble stand no chance in a judicial contest with the wealthy and consequential, whose influence, even apart from their facilities for corrupting the court and suborning witnesses, is sufficient to neutralize any amount of plebeian testimony that might be brought against them.

     The evil consequences arising from maladministration of justice in New Mexico are most severely felt by foreigners, against whom a strong prejudice prevails throughout the South. Of these, the citizens of the United States are by far the most constant sufferers; an inevitable result of that sinister feeling with which the 'rival republic' views the advance-


ment and superiority of her more industrious neighbors. It is a notorious fact, that while the English are universally treated with comparative consideration and respect, the Americans residing in the southern parts of the republic are frequently taunted with the effeminacy of their government and its want of decision. So openly has this preference for British subjects been manifested, and so thoroughly conscious have the Americans become of the humiliating fact, that when a mercantile firm, consisting of an American and an Englishman, has occasion to present a memorial of any description, or to sue either for an act of favor or of justice from the nation, the application is sure to be made in the name of the latter, knowing it will thus be more likely to command proper attention.

     Few men, perhaps, have done more to jeopard the interests of American traders, or to bring the American character itself into contempt, than Armijo, the present arbitrary governor of New Mexico. I am happy to say, however, that in the midst of his many oppressions, he was once at least obliged to 'knock under' to one of those bold and daring spirits of the Rocky Mountains whom obstacles rather energize than subdue. This was about the year 1828, during Armijo's previous governorship. A law was then in existence which had been enacted by the general Congress prohibiting foreigners from trapping beaver in the Mexican territory, under penalty of Confiscation, etc.; but as there were no na-


tive trappers in New Mexico, Gov. Baca and his successor (Narbona) thought it expedient to extend licenses to foreigners, in the name of citizens, upon condition of their taking a certain proportion of Mexicans to learn the art of trapping. In pursuance of this disposition, Gov. Narbona extended a license to one Ewing Young, who was accompanied by a Mr. Sublette, brother of Capt. Wm. Sublette, and almost equally celebrated for his mountain adventures. Previous to the return of this party from their trapping expedition, Armijo had succeeded Narbona in office, and they were informed that it was his intention to seize their furs. To prevent this, they deposited them at a neighboring village, where they were afterwards discovered, seized, and confiscated. The furs being damp, they were spread out in the sun before the Guardia, in Santa Fe, when Sublette, perceiving two packs of beaver which had been his own property, got by honest labor, instantly seized them and carried them away before the eyes of the whole garrison, and concealed both them and his own person in a house opposite. The entire military force was immediately put in requisition, and a general search made for the offender and his prize; but in vain: indeed, if the truth must be spoken, the troops seemed to have as little desire to find Sublette as the latter had of being found; for his character was too well known to leave any room for hope that his capture could be effected without a great deal


of trouble. In the meanwhile, Armijo raved, and threatened the Americans for not ferreting out their countryman and delivering him over to justice. Failing to produce any impression by blustering, however, he caused a couple of cannons to be pointed at the house where the offender was supposed to be concealed, declaring at the same time that he would batter it down; but all to no purpose. Mr. Sublette finally conveyed his furs in safety to the frontier, and thence to the United States.

     The following anecdote affords another illustration of Armijo's summary mode of dealing with Americans. In the fall of 1840 a gross outrage was committed upon a physician from Massachusetts (said to be a gentleman of unexceptionable deportment), who was travelling through the country for his health. He had loaned nine hundred dollars to a person of the name of Tayon, who afterwards borrowed the same amount of another foreigner and repaid this debt. The doctor then left for the South, where he intended to pass the winter, being afflicted with a pulmonary disease. But the individual who had lent Tayon the money, being informed that he was insolvent, applied to Gov. Armijo for an order to compel the doctor to return, expecting thereby to make him reimburse the money. The order overtook him at the village of Algodones, near forty miles from Santa Fe, where he was at once arrested by the alcalde, and detained some time, ignorant even of the offence for which he was doing penance.


In the meantime, the American Consul at Santa Fe, having been informed of what had taken place, procured a counter-order from the governor for the release of the prisoner. When the alcalde of Algodones received this document, he determined at once that so extraordinary an act of justice should cost the foreigner some trifle. Accordingly, another order was forged on the spot, commanding that he should be taken to the capital yet a 'gentle hint' was given, that his liberty might be purchased by the payment of two hundred dollars. Being in a land of strangers, among whom he had but little hope of receiving fair play, the doctor resolved to pay the amount demanded, and fly to Chihuahua, where he would at least be safe from Armijo's clutches. Having been informed, however, of the fraud practised by the alcalde, before he had proceeded far on his journey, he returned and made an attempt to bring the delinquent officer to justice, but altogether without success.

     But perhaps the most glaring outrages upon American citizens were committed in 1841, upon the occasion of the capture of the Texan Santa Fe Expedition. In Taos, a poor deaf and dumb U. S. creole Frenchman was beaten to death in open day. In San Miguel, the alcalde, at the head of a mob, entered the store of a Mr. Rowland, whom he robbed of a considerable amount of merchandise. At the same time, the greatest excitement raged in Santa Fe against Americans, whose lives appeared in imminent danger; and a most


savage attack was made upon our excellent Consul, Manuel Alvarez, Esq., who had always taken an active interest in the welfare of American citizens.

     A few minutes after the governor had departed for San Miguel, to encounter the Texans, a fellow named Martin, his nephew and confidential agent, aided by a band of ferocious sans cullottes, and armed with a large knife, secretly entered the house of the Consul, who perceived him in time, however, to avert the blow; yet he received a severe wound in the face during the scuffle that ensued: the rabble running in at the same time, and vociferating, "Saquenlo afuera! matenlo!" Drag him out! kill him!" Mr. Alvarez doubtless owed his preservation partially to the consternation with which the failure of their clandestine attempt at his life inspired the cowardly ruffians. Instead of being punished for this diabolical act, the principal assassin, on the contrary, was soon after promoted in the army.

     The outrage did not end here, however; for on the Consul's demanding his passport for the United States, it was refused for nearly a month; thus detaining him until the cold season had so far advanced, that, of his party (about fifteen in number), two perished from the cold; and not one arrived without being more or less frost-bitten some very severely besides suffering a loss of about fifty animals from the same cause.

     Although these and other daring outrages have been duly represented to our Govern-


ment, it does not appear that any measures of redress have yet been taken.

     With a view of oppressing our merchants, Gov. Armijo had, as early as 1839, issued a decree exempting all the natives from the tax imposed on store-houses, -shops, etc., throwing the whole burden of impost upon foreigners and naturalized citizens; a measure clearly and unequivocally at variance with the treaties and stipulations entered into between the United States and Mexico. A protest was presented without effect; when our Consul finding all remonstrances useless, forwarded a memorial to the American Minister at Mexico, who, although the vital interests of American citizens were at stake, deemed the affair of too little importance, perhaps, and therefore appears to have paid no attention to it. But this system of levying excessive taxes upon foreigners, is by no means an original invention of Gov. Armijo. In 1835, the government of Chihuahua having levied a contribucion de gurrra for raising means to make war upon the savages, who were laying waste the surrounding country, foreign merchants, with an equal disregard for their rights and the obligations of treaties, were taxed twenty five dollars each per month; while the native merchants, many of whom possessed large haciendas, with thousands of stock, for the especial protection of which these taxes were chiefly imposed, paid only from five to ten dollars each. Remonstrances were presented to the governor, but in vain. His official


reply, that functionary declared, "que el gobierno cree arreglado el reparto de sus respectIvas contribuciones" the government believes your respective contributions in accordance with justice which concluded the correspondence, and the Americans paid their twenty five dollars per month.

     The only tribunals of 'justice' in New Mexico are those of the ordinary alcaldes or justices of the peace; and an appeal from them is carried to the Supreme Court in the department of Chihuahua. The course of litigation is exceedingly simple and summary. The plaintiff makes his verbal complaint or demand before the alcalde, who orders him to summon the defendant, which is done by simply saying, "Le llama el alcalde" (the alcalde calls you) into his presence, the applicant acting thus in the double capacity of constable and complainant. The summons is always verbal, and rarely for a future time instant attendance being expected. Should the defendant refuse to obey this simple mandate (which, by the bye, is a very rare occurrence), the alcalde sends his baston de justicia, his staff of justice, an ordinary walking-cane, distinguished only by a peculiar black silk tassel. This never fails to enforce compliance, for a refusal to attend after being shown the staff, would be construed into a contempt of court, and punished accordingly. The witnesses are sometimes sworn upon a cross cut on the baston de justica, or more frequently, perhaps, upon a cross formed with


the finger and thumb. Generally speaking, however, the process of examination is gone through without a single oath being administered; and in the absence of witnesses the aleralde often proceeds to sentence upon the simple statements of the contending parties. By a species of mutual agreement, the issue of a suit is sometimes referred to hombres buenos (arbitrators), which is the nearest approximation that is made to trial by jury. In judicial proceedings, however, but little, or rather no attention is paid to any code of laws in fact, there is scarcely one alcalde in a dozen who knows what a law is, or who ever saw a law-book. Their decisions, when not influenced by corrupt agencies, are controlled by the prevailing customs of the country.

     In the administration of justice, there are three distinct and privileged jurisdictions, known as fueros: the eclesiastico, which provides that no member of the clergy, at least of the rank of curate and upwards, shall ever be arraigned before a civil tribunal, but shall be tried by their superiors in the order; the militar, which makes a similar provision in favor not only of commissioned officers, but of every common soldier from the ranks; and the civil or ordinary courts, for all cases ill which the defendants are laymen. These fueros have hitherto maintained the ecclesiastical and military classes in perfect independence of the civil authorities. The civil, in fact, remains in some degree subordinate to the other two fueros; for it can, under no cir-


cumstances have any jurisdiction whatever over them; while the lay plaintiff, in the privileged tribunals of these, may, if unsuccessful, have judgment entered up against him: a consequence that can never follow the suits of the ecclesiastical or military orders before the civil tribunals. The judgments of the latter, in such cases, would be void. It is no wonder, then, that the cause of freedom in Mexico has made so little progress.

     Imprisonment is almost the only sort of punishment resorted to in the North. For debt, petit larceny, highway robbery, and murder, the usual sentence is "A la carcel" (to jail), where a person is likely to remain about as long for inability to pay dos reales, as for the worst of crimes: always provided he has not the means to pacify the offended majesty of the law. I never heard of but one execution for murder in New Mexico, since the declaration of independence. The most desperate and blood-stained criminals escape with impunity after a few weeks of incarceration, unless the prosecutor happens to be a person of great influence; in which case, the prisoner is detained in the calabozo at will, even when the offence committed has been of a trivial character. Notwithstanding this laxity in the execution of the laws, there are few murders of any kind committed.

     In case of debt, as before remarked, the delinquent is sent to jail provided the creditor will not accept his services. If he will, however, the debtor becomes nolens volens the


servant of the creditor till the debt is satisfied and, serving, as he does, at very reduced wages, his expenses for clothing, and other necessaries, but too often retain him in perpetual servitude. This system does not operate, however, upon the higher classes, yet it acts with terrible severity upon the unfortunate poor, whose condition is but little better, if not worse indeed, than that of our Southern slaves. They labor for fixed wages, it is true; but all they can earn is hardly sufficient to keep them in the coarsest clothing and pay their contingent expenses. Men's wages range from two to five dollars a month, and those of women from fifty cents to two dollars; in payment of which, they rarely receive any money; but instead thereof articles of apparel and other necessaries at the most exorbitant prices. The consequence is that the servant soon accumulates a debt which he is unable to pay his wages being often engaged for a year or two in advance. Now, according to the usages, if not the laws of the country, he is bound to serve his master until all arrearages are liquidated; and is only enabled to effect an exchange of masters, by engaging another to pay his debt, to whom he becomes in like manner bound.

     As I have already remarked, capital crimes and highway robberies are of comparatively rare occurrence in the North, but in smaller delinquencies, such as pilfering and petty rogueries of every shade and description, the common classes can very successfully com-


pete with any other people. Nothing indeed can be left exposed or unguarded without great danger of its being immediately stolen. No husbandman would think of leaving his axe or his hoe, or anything else of the slightest value lying out over night. Empty wagons are often pillaged of every movable piece of iron, and even the wheels have been carried away. Pieces of merchandise are frequently purloined from the shelves, when they happen to be in reach. In Chihuahua, goods have actually been snatched from the counter while being exposed to the inspection of a pretended purchaser. I once had a trick of this kind played upon me by a couple of boys, who made their escape through a crowd of spectators with their booty exposed. In vain I cried "Agarren a los ladrones!" (catch the thieves!) not a single individual moved to apprehend them. I then proffered the goods stolen, to any person who might succeed in bringing the rogues to me, but to no purpose. In fact there seems to exist a great deal of, repugnance, even among the better classes, to apprehending thieves; as if the mere act of informing against them was considered dishonorable. I heard a very respectable caballero once remark that he had seen a man purloin certain articles of merchandise, but he could not be induced to give up his name; observing, "O, I can't think of exposing the poor fellow!"

     The impunity with which delinquencies of this description are every day committed is


perhaps in some degree, the consequence of those severe enactments, such as the Leyes de las Indias (the laws of the Indies), which rendered many thefts and robberies punishable with death. The magistracy contracted the habit of frequently winking at crime, rather than resort to the barbarous expedients prescribed by the letter of the law. The utmost that can be gained now by public prosecution, is the recovery of the stolen property, if that be anywhere to be found, and occasionally a short period of imprisonment for the culprit. This is more particularly the case when the prosecutor happens to be a foreigner; while on the other hand, if he be the party accused, he is likely to be subjected to very severe treatment. A remarkable circumstance of this kind occurred in Chihuahua in the year 1835. One of our most respectable Missouri merchants had bought a mule of a stranger, but the animal was soon after claimed by a third person, who proved that it had been stolen from him. The Missourian would have been perfectly satisfied to lose the mule, and end the matter there; but to the surprise of all, he was directly summoned before an alcalde, and forthwith sentenced to jail: the partial judge having labored to fix the theft upon the innocent purchaser, while the real culprit, who was a native, was permitted to go at large.

     The love of gambling also deserves to be noticed as a distinguishing propensity of these people. Indeed it may well be said, without any undue stretch of imagination, that shop-


lifting, pocket-picking, and other elegant pastimes of the same kindred, are the legitimate offspring, especially among the lower classes, of that passion for gaming, which in Mexico more than anywhere else to use Madame Calderon's language "is impregnated with the constitution in man, woman, and child." It prevails in the lowly hut, as well as in the glittering saloon; nor is the sanctity of the gown nor the dignity of station sufficient proof against the fascinations of this exciting vice. No one considers it a degradation to be seen frequenting a monte bank: the governor himself and his lady, the grave magistrate and the priestly dignity, the gay caballero and the titled senora may all be seen staking their doubloons upon the turn of a card; while the humbler ranchero, the hired domestic and the ragged pauper, all press with equal avidity to test their fortune at the same shrine. There are other games at cards practised among these people, depending more upon skill; but that of el monte, being one exclusively of chance, seems to possess an all-absorbing attraction, difficult to be conceived by the uninitiated spectator.

     The following will not only serve to show the light in which gambling is held by all classes of society, but to illustrate the purifying effects of wealth upon character. Some twelve or fifteen years ago there lived (or rather roamed) in Taos a certain female of very loose habits, known as La Tules. Finding it difficult to obtain the means of living in that


district, she finally extended her wanderings to the capital. She there became a constant attendant on one of those pandemoniums where the favorite game of monte was dealt pro bono publico. Fortune, at first, did not seem inclined to smile upon her efforts, and for some years she spent her days in lowliness and misery. At last her luck turned, as gamblers would say, and on one occasion she left the bank with a spoil of several hundred dollars! This enabled her to open a bank of her own, and being favored by a continuous run of good fortune, she gradually rose higher and higher in the scale of affluence, until she found herself in possession of a very handsome fortune. In 1842, she sent to the United States some ten thousand dollars to be invested in goods. She still continues her favorite 'amusement,' being now considered the most expert 'monte dealer' in all Santa Fe'. She is openly received in the first circles of society: I doubt, in truth, whether there is to be found in the city a lady of more fashionable reputation than this same Tules, now known as Senora Dona Gertrudes Barcelo.

     Among the multitude of games which seem to constitute the real business of life in New Mexico, that of chuza evidently presents the most attractions to ladies; and they generally lay very heavy wagers upon the result. It is played with little balls, and bears some faint resemblance to what is called roulette. Bull baiting and cock-fighting, about which so much has been said by every traveller in Mex-


ico, are also very popular 'amusements' in the North, and generally lead to the same excesses and the same results as gaming. The cockpit rarely fails to be crowded on Sundays and other feast days; on which occasions the church, the ball-room, the gambling-house, and the cock-pit look like so many opposition establishments; for nothing is more common than to see people going from one place to another by alternate fits, just as devotional feeling or love of pleasure happens to prompt them.

     One of the most attractive sports of the rancheros and the peasantry, and that which, more than any other, calls for the exercise of skill and dexterity, is that called correr el gallo, practised generally on St. John's day. A common cock or hen is tied by the feet to some swinging limb of a tree, so as to be barely within the reach of a man on horseback: or the fowl is buried alive in a small pit in the ground leaving only the head above the surface. In either case, the racers, passing at full speed, grapple the head of the fowl, which being well greased generally slips out of their fingers. As soon as some one, more dextrous than the rest, has succeeded in tearing it loose, he claps spurs to his steed, and endeavors to escape with the prize. He is hotly pursued, however, by the whole sporting crew, and the first who overtakes him tries to get possession of the fowl, when a strife ensues, during which the poor chicken is torn into atoms. Should the holder of the trophy be able to outstrip his pursuers, he car-



ies it to a crowd of fair spectators and presents it to his mistress, who takes it to the fandango which usually follows, as a testimony of the prowess of her lover.

     Among the vaqueros, and even among persons of distinction, el coleo (tailing) is a much nobler exercise than the preceding, and is also generally reserved for days of festivity. For this sport the most untractable ox or bull is turned loose upon a level common, when all the parties who propose to join in the amusement, being already mounted, start off in pursuit of him. The most successful rider, as soon as he gets near enough to the bull, seizes him by the tail, and with a sudden manoeuvre, whirls him topsy-turvy upon the plain to the no little risk of breaking his own neck, should his horse stumble or be tripped by the legs of the falling bull.

     Respecting fandangos, I will observe that this term, as it is used in New Mexico, is never applied to any particular dance, but is the usual designation for those ordinary assemblies where dancing and frolicking are carried on; baile (or ball) being generally applied to those of a higher grade. The former especially are very frequent; for nothing, is more general, throughout the country, and with all classes than dancing. From the gravest priest to the buffoon from the richest nabob to the beggar from the governor to the ranchero from the soberest matron to the flippant belle from the grandest senora to the cocerina all partake of this exhilarat-


ing amusement. To judge from the quantity of tuned instruments which salute the ear almost every night in the week, one would suppose that a perpetual carnival prevailed everywhere. The musical instruments used at the bailes and fandangos are usually the fiddle and bandolin, or guitarra, accompanied in some villages by the tombe or little Indian drum. The musicians occasionally acquire considerable proficiency in the use of these instruments. But what most oddly greets, and really outrages most Protestant ears, is the accompaniment of divine service with the very same instruments, and often with the same tunes.

     Of all the petty vices practised by the New Mexicans, the vicio inocente of smoking among ladies, is the most intolerable; and yet it is a habit of which the loveliest and the most refined equally partake. The puro or cigarro* is seen in the mouths of all: it is handed round in the parlor, and introduced at the dinner table even in the ball-room it is presented to ladies as regularly as any

thin black line
* The puro is a common cigar of pure tobacco but the term cigarro or cigarrito is applied to those made of cut tobacco rolled up in a strip of paper or corn-husk. The latter are by far in the most general use in New Mexico, even among the men, and are those only smoked by the females. In this province cigarros are rarely sold in the shops, being generally manufactured by every one just as they are needed. Their expertness in this accomplishment is often remarkable. The mounted vaquero will take out his guagito (his little tobacco-flask), his packet of hojas (or prepared husks), and his flint, steel, etc., make his cigarrito, strike fire and commence smoking in a minute's time all while at full speed and the next minute will perhaps lazo the wildest bull without interrupting his smoke.


other species of 'refreshment;' and in the dance the senorita may often be seen whirling round with a lighted cigarrito in her mouth. The belles of the Southern cities are very frequently furnished with tenazitas de oro (little golden tongs), to hold the cigar with, so as to prevent their delicate fingers from being polluted either with the stain or scent of tobacco; forgetting at the same time its disagreeable effects upon the lips and breath.

     Notwithstanding their numerous vices, however, I should do the New Mexicans the justice to say that they are but little addicted to inebriety and its attendant dissipations. Yet this doubtlessly results to a considerable degree from the dearness of spirituous liquors, which virtually places them beyond the reach of the lower classes.

southwestern-style woven rope chain

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