New Mexico Massacre: The Taos Rebellion

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.

General Stephen Watts Kearny

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.

Governor Charles Bent

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.

Judge Charles Beaubien

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.”

The Remains of old St. Jerome, Taos Pueblo

“The Man and the Snake”

Indian Camp at NightThe camp consisted of a dozen teepees connected by footpaths of frozen mud set on a sunken meadow within the forested hills outside Guadalupita, New Mexico. It was night and a large fire illuminated the center of the camp. Two bands of men formed two crescents around the fire separated only by a few feet of empty space where the last man of one band met the first of the other like the opposing ends of two horseshoe magnets. On one side were the Jicarilla Apaches, the men adorned in ratty pelts of coyote, bear, and elk, while behind them a huddle of women used chipped stones to shave clinging flecks of meat from the upturned ribcage of a deer. On the other side were the rogue soldiers, dressed not in uniform but soggy boots, knee-holed trousers, duster overcoats, bandanas, soiled cavalry hats rimmed with snakeskin. One man from each party stood, he of the soldiers being the storyteller and he of the Apaches his translator.

The men quieted, the women stopped their work, and Garret Kelly — twenty-four, tall, trim, toothy, golden-haired, green-eyed, Confederate, polyglot, and self-proclaimed swordsmith, professional gambler, whisky distiller, riverboat engineer, author, and one-time paramour to the First Lady of Kentucky — began his story:

“There was a man who lived not far from here and not long ago. He had a home in a village that he shared with no wife and no children. Instead, the man lived with a profound collection of pets. They were not regular pets like cats and dogs but rather creatures of typically abhorrent species. Tarantulas, centipedes, scorpions, snakes, toads, lizards, mice, and rats crawled about sawdusted and soggy cages made of chicken wire or glass that cluttered and stunk the man’s home. Of this collection the man was boastful, proud the way such men are, as if their peculiarity was rather courage to live as others dared not to. Like boys who flip their eyelids and laugh at their friends’ repulsion.

“But there was one pet among them the man was especially fond of. Obscenely so. It was a snake, one whose breed was not known but could only be speculated upon mythologically. It measured thirteen feet. The midsection was muscly and thick as a man’s thigh, its eyes large black beads — round and unslitted. The man claimed to have acquired the animal when it was young from a traveling Mexican out of the Yucatan.

“The snake did not live like the other man’s pets, cooped in one of his many stacked cages. It was of course too big for that. Instead, the man allowed the creature free roam of his house. And so attached did he become to his prized animal that he openly admitted to sharing his bed with it, inviting the snake nightly to coil under the warmth of his sheets, to glean the heat off his own body. Behind the home the man raised rabbits and chickens, and from these pens both man and snake sufficed dietarily until, as inevitably the animal’s appetite paced its physical growth, the man was forced to begin raising goats. Of this stock the snake was fed one pre-killed goat every two weeks, each time unhinging its jaws to swallow and then slide the bulge deep into its length. Like this the two lived, contentedly sharing home, bed, and diet, for more than two years.

“But then the man grew worried, for suddenly the snake stopped eating. When he set the bi-weekly goat before his pet’s nose, the snake simply darted its tongue and then turned its head, uninterested. A month passed and the man decided the snake had grown tired of goats, so he tried a freshly shot fawn, still to no success. And when two whole months passed with the snake not eating a single thing, the man’s concern turned to panic; anguish even at the fear of his most beloved companion being sick and dying. More than this, the animal’s sleeping behavior had changed. No longer did it rest peacefully tight in its coil by the man’s legs. Instead the man would wake in the night to find it stretched out stiff and lengthwise against his body, its head near his own and its tail draping off the bed and into the doorway.

“Desperate now, the man sought out a farmer clever in the biologies of exotic things. The story of the snake, along with its symptoms, were related in great detail to the farmer, and as he spoke the man observed the face of the farmer become so disturbed by the time he finished he had already concluded the worst for his cherished pet. He asked if his snake was dying and was surprised when the farmer said no, the animal was not dying.

“The snake, the farmer solemnly informed him, was not dying and neither was it sick. It was instead, as members of their species do, hollowing its stomach and building up its appetite as it prepared for a very large meal. And the reason it lay outstretched in bed close against the man’s side was to confirm the meal would fit.”

When he finished, Garret surveyed the men around the fire. For a long moment no one spoke or moved. Then, finally, his face grave and understanding, the Apache chief nodded at Garret Kelly.

Later that night while making up his bedroll, Garret was interrupted by the runt of the group, Connor Rutledge. Of all the men in their party Connor was the youngest, the smallest, and also, in Garret’s estimation, the dimmest, which was all vexing as Garret had never understood what it was that had qualified Connor for this mission except that he, like Garret, spoke Spanish. Otherwise the young man was clumsy and unconfident and, consequently, dangerous. Adding to all this, Garret had somehow found himself after two nights of poker forty dollars in Connor’s debt.

Connor took a seat next to Garret’s bedroll. “Is that a true story?”

“Hell yes it’s a true story,” Garret said. “Happened in the town of Pine Bluff. Feller’s name was J.B. Wooten. He had that thing where one eye is a different color than the other. I forget what it’s called.”

“I never know when you’re lying.”

“I ain’t asking you to.” Garret lay down on his roll with his hands folded under his head, allowing Connor in the silence of the stalled conversation to feel like a prick.

“So you weren’t just yarn-spinning?”

“You think we wasted an afternoon of riding and gave away half our food just so I could spin a yarn?”

Connor was quiet.

“You watch, when this thing heats up Indians are going to end up our best and perhaps only ally. Because way out here who else is going to take our side? Not the Mexicans, that’s for sure. Sibley and them are all Texan for God’s sake, and anymore Texans fighting Mexicans is almost a virtue. The Indians on the other hand, they hate the bluecoats. Granted, they hate us too, along with anyone else who’s ever shot a rabbit or drank from one of their creeks, but at least their hate is negotiable, gullible even. We’re not trying to get them to stop hating us, just to keep hating the other side more. Them burning wagons and attacking forts is the reason so many federals are being kept here instead of going east.”

“I already know all that,” Connor said. “I’m asking about the story.”

“You’re too stuck on the drama of the tale and not my reason for telling it. See, Indians like to have their arguments made allegorically. Legends and yarns and such. They’ll tell you a dozen stories about some god slaying another just to explain why the sun sets red. Tonight’s story wasn’t really about a man and a snake. It was about a people that allowed an inherently evil being into their home, an entity that over time grew so large it required not just the space of the home but also its food. And it continued to grow until even that which had come to trust it eventually and inevitably became yet another thing for it to swallow.”

“You were instigating.”

“And how.”

“The snake was the Union.”

“Really I could have made it stand for just about anyone, Mexicans too I’d bet.” Garret could almost hear Connor’s mind whirring as it replayed the story, little mechanical arms picking up and connecting metaphors.

“Why did the chief call you aside afterward?” Connor asked. “What were you two talking about?”

“He wanted to know the end of the story.”

“That wasn’t the end?”

“He wanted to know what became of the snake.”

“What did?”

“Well, there are two versions.”

“You said the story was true!”

“It is, save for one of the endings.”

“So what are they?”

“In one version the man returned to his home after meeting with the farmer, picked up an ax, and hacked the snake to pieces. But in the other, the man, so trusting of his pet and unbelieving of the farmer, did nothing until one night as he slept the snake wound its coils about his body and squeezed the life out of him. And when the man was dead it devoured him just like one of its goats.”

“Jesus. So what version did you tell the chief?”

Still resting on his hands, Garret tilted his head backwards to look at where the young man sat behind him. “Since my mission was to instigate the chief, it doesn’t matter which version I told, does it?”

“The Cemetery”


Brown and black shapes appeared in the valley ahead and for a moment Ignasio thought he was looking at a boulder field. Then the shapes took form. Little square hovels, their roofs all caved so that the homes sat like opened boxes next to each other in an almost perfect rectangle with a pasture in the middle. Some of the walls were crumbled and Ignasio saw heaps of rain-packed ash and metal scraps turned sepia from flame and rust. It was a village, dead and burnt.

“So there it is,” Ignasio said.

They approached it in silence and entered as if through cemetery gates; even the boy grew solemn.

Ignasio walked between two adobes, the smell of charcoal filling his nose. “Did you know I helped build some of this? I had a say in its design.”

“I helped too, Papá. Don’t you remember? I carried mud from the river. We all did. Do you really not remember?”

But Ignasio was lost in memories. They weaved through the outer buildings until reaching the center to what was once the plaza. They halted. Long mounds of earth blanketed with weed and brush filled the old plaza from one end to the other. There had to be more than thirty, each one staked at the head with two sticks wrapped crudely together with twine; unmarked crosses that leaned in all directions as if in mass celebration of the very confusion of the place.

“Who did this?” Ignasio asked.

“Me and Mamá, and also Padre Montoya but he did not help much with the digging, mainly just said the prayers and went back to Abiquiú. Mamá said it was because he is old, but he is not that old, Papá, just fat.”

“You and your mother did this? All of it?”

“And Padre Montoya but, Papá, he mostly sat during the digging.”

Ignasio strained to picture the boy and his mother dragging and shoving thirty-some corpses into graves.

The boy sensed his father’s confusion. “We smelled the smoke before we saw it all the way from home. When we stepped outside we saw it pluming in one single string into the sky. Mamá knew what it was right away but she would not let us come until fetching the padre. We brought the muzzleloader with us but everyone alive was already gone and everyone here was already dead, except for one man. When Mamá and I had his grave dug we went to drag him but when we picked up his feet he opened his eyes and kicked at us. The man was bleeding in his chest and his scalp was cut so we had thought for sure that he was dead. Mamá had to shoot him. It took us four days to dig and cover all the holes. I did not mind except that we slept here during the nights to keep a fire going to ward off the coyotes. And, Papá, how it stunk. I hated sleeping with so many dead.”

“Come,” Ignasio said, putting a hand on his son’s shoulder, turning him around. “This is not getting us closer.” He walked behind the boy through the narrow alleys until they reemerged in the openness of the valley.

“Blanco left us alone though, Papá. The Utes would do nothing to us.”

“No, they would not.”

“Because I am their friend.”

“Because that was our deal.”

“What deal?”

“The deal I made with Blanco. I gave him almost all the money we had. You didn’t know this?”

The boy stopped.

Ignasio looked over his shoulder. “Keep up with me. Why do you look hurt? Did you never wonder why they killed every other Mexican, even the women and the babies, why they burnt and scalped the entire town but never bothered you and your mother?”

“Because we are friends.” It was almost a whisper.

En absoluto. Friends bought and paid.”

“Even the food? All the meat they left at our door? All the things they gave us, Papá?”

Ignasio whirled on the boy, hooked a palm behind his neck, knelt, and pulled his face close. “Look at me, Felipe. You are done with those savage boys, with Blanco and his Utes. Do you understand?”

Ignasio saw acceptance slowly forcing its way in painfully. He felt the neck relax, shoulders slump. The boy nodded.

The rest of the way they said very little. Around noon they forded the Río Grande. Beyond that the land remained flat, dry, and unforested. Shortly after sunset they came upon a great sprawl of tiny firelights in the shadow of the Sangre de Cristos. A mile out of the village, they ate a cold dinner, smoothed out places in the brush with their boots, and laid out their blankets.

Ignasio lay a long time with his eyes open. The meat had never been part of the deal.