Thanks to the local newspaper and its series of special editions on local cultural highlights that were printed while we were in town, I learned about the Taos insurrection of 1847.
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Taos, like Santa Fe and Albuquerque, is a high altitude desert — 7,000 feet elevation. Albuquerque recently had to bring out the snowplows. When we visited in late September locals were enjoying the warm fall weather, but were “bracing for winter.” It can reach a high of 10 degrees when winter comes to the New Mexico high desert. Average highs for Taos in December through February are 42-47 and lows are 12 through 18.
In 1680 a charismatic leader of the Taos Pueblo named Popé led a revolt that included a number of other Pueblos and drove the Spanish out of Taos. Not only that but they besieged Santa Fe. The governor eventually sallied forth from the Governor’s house — more like a fortress — with all his men, beating the Indians back and retreating to El Paso.
The Spanish did not return to Santa Fe and Taos for 10 years, eventually reaching peace terms with most Pueblos in 1692. Many converted, but all were allowed to keep their Indian ceremonies.
The first church built on the Taos Pueblo dates to 1619. That was destroyed in the rebellion of 1847. As a consequence of the war with Mexico, in which the U.S. Army made it all the way to Mexico City, the U.S. took control of New Mexico territory, which included what is now Arizona and Utah. It reached an agreement to pay Mexico $15 million for California and New Mexico, setting the U.S. border at the Rio Grande River.
But some local Spanish and Pueblo Indians didn’t like the U.S. taking control of New Mexico in 1846, seeing it as an unwanted change to their way of life.
According to a story in the Taos News by J.R. Logan featuring John Suazo, whose grandfather had passed down an oral history of the Jan. 19, 1847, Taos rebellion, “those at the Pueblo were wary of American rule, fearing it would lead to a loss of land. Suazo says young men in the tribe allied with Mexican rebels and plotted the assault.”
“‘They had no choice,’ says Suazo, explaining the tribe’s connection to the land must be defended, regardless of the risk.”
“The rebellion, fueled by heavy drinking, according to Suazo’s grandfather, was swift the bloody.”
The band of rebels surrounded the home of Gov. Charles Bent. Bent came out and tried to talk with them. Instead he was given an arrow shirt and then was scalped in front of his family, who escaped through an underground access. Several other officials and eight traders were killed.
Curious about the rebellion, we toured Gov. Bent’s home. It cost $1.50, which worked out to 50 cents a room. Not much of a gubernatorial residence. Kit Carson’s home was bigger, had more rooms and was better protected, being more of a typical Spanish colonial building with an entrance that could be barricaded with all rooms surrounding an interior courtyard.
Killing a U.S. territorial governor was serious business. The U.S. Army arrested the Mexicans involved in the rebellion. The Taos Pueblo men fled into the hills. About 150 Pueblo women sought sanctuary in the Taos Pueblo church, according to our Pueblo tour guide, Pat Romero. The Army flattened the San Geronimo Church with artillery, killing most of those inside. A replacement church was built in 1850 not far from the destroyed church that now serves as a cemetery. The army hanged 12 tribal council members and 12 Mexicans in the Taos Plaza.
Today there are 2,500 people associated with the Taos Pueblo and 100 actually live in the Pueblo. They may not all live in the Pueblo, since none of the homes in the Pueblo are allowed to install running water and bathrooms or electricity. When we visited the Pueblo they were applying new adobe to portions of the walls and to the horno ovens in preparation for a big powwow. Most of the workers were hired, since the tribe’s gambling revenue helped with maintenance work on the Pueblo. A majority of the Pueblo dwelling are just used during ceremonies and powwows.
In the 1970s the government built homes for the Taos Pueblo people to move into. Also in 1970 after lobbying Congress the Taos Pueblo got control of the source of its water supply, the Blue Lake area and dams — 48,000 acres in all. Blue Lake in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains is considered sacred to the Taos Pueblo people, who see it as their point of origin. With the use of casino revenue the tribe added to that, bringing its total land holdings to 98,000 acres, said Pat Romero.
Another article from the Taos News special editions included the recollections of the Taos Pueblo men who fought forest fires after World War II.
“Mescalero had the Red Hats,” wrote Jim O’Donnell. “The Zuni had the Thunderbirds. The Navajo crew were known as the Scouts. The crew from the Taos Pueblo were the Snowballs. ‘One version of the story,’ said Rene Romero, ‘is that the name came from the speed with which they put out the fires. It was as if they were using snowballs.'”
The beauty and cultural uniqueness of Taos attracted illustrator Ernest Blumenschein and colleague Bert Phillips, who stopped in Taos to fix a broken wagon wheel in 1898. In 1915 Blemenschien helped form the Taos Society of Artists. The original members were Blumenschein, Phillips, Oscar E. Berninghaus, E. Irving Couse and W. Herbert “Buck” Dunton.
Blumenschein married an artist in Paris, but wasn’t able to convince her to move with their daughter to Taos until 1919.
Besides the Bluemenschein house and its Spanish style courtyard, the two biggest art museums in Taos are the Harwood Museum featuring photographs and paintings of Burt Harwood. That museum is celebrating its 90th year. The other museum, with the best art we saw in New Mexico — better than the big art museum in Albuquerque — is the Taos Art Museum and Fechin House. Totally not an imitation Pueblo architectural style, Russian artist Nicolai Fechin began building his home on 7 acres in 1927, hand-hewing and carving interior doors all differently. It is an airy, sunny house. Completed in 1933 and converted to a museum in 1981, it features some of Fechin’s impressionistic style portraits and paintings by contemporaries.
The most painted and photographed church — Georgia O’Keeffe and Ansel Adams, in particular — is 4 miles south of town. The San Francisco de Asís Church is recognizable by its adobe buttresses with the straw shining through. Its twin towers are typical of New Mexico Spanish churches. It is copied by everyone from Lutherans and Presbyterians to Baptists.
The most interesting thing I found in talking to the Taos County assessor was that the county doesn’t even bother sending tax bills to any property owners west of the Rio Grande River Canyon. Except for a few people who “live off the grid” there and have taxable improvements, most property there is largely worthless and original owners have simply disappeared. Our family, however, has continued to pay the annual $5 tax on a parcel my late father purchased west of the Rio Grande in 1962.
Taos is a picturesque place, a jumping off point for skiing or rafting, depending on the season. It is also isolated. Snow or mudslides from torrential rains can block off access south to Santa Fe and the big city of Albuquerque, population 546,000.
Michael Raffety is editor of the Mountain Democrat. His column appears twice weekly.