It was a gray and bitter morning on February 4, 1847. Colonel Sterling Price and more than 300 American soldiers and vengeful mountain men had the St. Jerome church surrounded. Set in the northwestern corner of the Taos Pueblo, the church was a formidable building of clay walls packed six-feet thick with twin belltowers looming thirty feet high. Inside, the only light being the few candles flickering along the wall and the slits of silty dawn streaming in through freshly-punched rifle holes, huddled 200-some Mexican and Indian rebels.
Price let loose the batteries and all through the morning the Americans bombarded the walls with artillery shells to little effect. Men with hatchets stormed the heavy front door, some of them falling to sniper shots, and managed to hack a small breach in the wood. They lit cannon shells and tossing them inside the cramped quarters. The results were devastating. The breach was widened and the Americans pushed their giant howitzer within ten yards of the hole and blasted the corralled insurgents with wave after wave of six-pound grapeshot. Men set up ladders and set the church’s roof ablaze and the Americans rushed through the broken door and engaged the remaining survivors in intense hand-to-hand combat — the air thick with smoke and flaming timbers raining from above — until more than 150 Mexican and Indian rebels lay mutilated. Those that surrendered were arrested and led away to meet their own bleak fates.
The attack had been retaliation for one of the most bloody insurrections ever conducted by native inhabitants against their American conquerors, and it had effectively squashed the only major resistance against the United States’ occupation of New Mexico.
It began in August of 1846, shortly after the start of the Mexican-American War, as General Stephen Watts Kerny marched unchallenged into the northernmost Mexican province and declared it for the United States. Kearny inserted a new system of government, dubbed the “Kearny Code,” and appointed a number of territorial officials that included Charles Bent as Governor and Charles Beuabien as one of three federal judges. With that, Kearny departed New Mexico, leaving Colonel Sterling Price in charge of its military.
In the months that followed, tensions quickly rose between the territory’s Mexican and Indian population, and the new American regime. Under Price’s watch the soldiers digressed sometimes into cruel occupiers — requisitioning food and items from merchants without paying, abusing the women, and littering the villages. More than that, Mexican landowners grew justifiably concerned for their titles to plots previously granted by the Mexican government. And finally, due in large part to the efforts of a few paranoid and anti-American priests, Mexicans came to fear for the future of their Catholic church.
With the majority of American forces currently waging war further south in Mexico or else pressing further westward through California to the Pacific Coast under the dream of Manifest Destiny, the environment was ripe for rebellion. And as the year came to a close, Taos was to be the starting place.
On the morning of January 14, 1847, a roaring mob of Mexican and Pueblo Indians — some of them drunk on whisky — descended upon Taos. They were led respectively by a Mexican man named Pablo Montoya, and Puebloan known simply as Tomás, and their first stop was the home of Governor Charles Bent. Knocking rather civilly, the mob met Bent at his door and shot him three times in the face with arrows. Bent fell back, managed to bolt the door behind him, and with his wife and children, as well as Kit Carson’s wife Josefa and another woman staying with the family at the time, the group cowered in the corner of the small home as above them the mob ripped away the roof. The insurgents broke through, and with the arrows still sticking out of his face grabbed Bent by the hair and scalped him in front of his horrified family.
The massacre did not stop for two days. The mob destroyed American homes and slaughtered their inhabitants. They shot down Taos Sheriff Stephen Lee as he hid atop his roof. They discovered 13 year-old Narcisso Beaubien, son of Judge Charles Beaubien, who was absent at the time, huddled beneath a water trough with another young friend. When one of the Indian women spotted them, she yelled, “Kill the young ones, and they will never be men to trouble us,” the mob dragged the two boys out of their hiding place and lanced them to death. They broke into Kit Carson’s house, who was away with Kearny in California, and pillaged everything. A few miles north of town the mob surrounded Turley’s Mill, a distilling place of Taos Lightening, and burnt it to the ground. All but two died inside the fire; one of them Tom Tobin, who would go on to join the retaliation attack against St. Jerome, and John Albert, who fled nearly two hundred miles through the snow to Pueblo.
From there, the rebellion spread across northern New Mexico, and dispersed bands of Mexicans and Indians attacked American wagons, camps, and ranches. But as they raided their way toward Santa Fe and the big prize, they were met outside the city by Colonel Price and his command. The Americans quickly overcame the rebels and chased the survivors back northward until the majority of them had barricaded themselves inside Taos Pueblo’s missionary church. After that, Price and his men — all of them thirsting for vengeance — required only patience. That, and a few tons of cannon shells.
In the weeks that followed the siege of Taos Pueblo, the Indian leader Tomás was murdered in his prison cell. A few days later his counterpart Montoya faced a drumhead court-martial and became the star of Taos’ first public hanging. The remaining captured rebels stepped before a court presided over by none other than Judge Charles Beaubien — father of the slain Narciso and, coincidentally, father-in-law of Sheriff Stephen Lee. The jury box consisted entirely of vengeful Americans and their deliberations took only minutes. Sixteen men faced charges of murder while five more stood for treason. Sixteen times Judge Beaubien declared this same, irrefutable sentence: “Muerto, muerto, muerto.”