Charles “Don Carlos” Beaubien: Trader, Judge, Pioneer

On October 22, 1800, Alexis Hypolite Beaubien was born to two wealthy landowners in Nicolet Quebec. After spending his teen years in the seminary, Alexis followed in family footsteps, and his mother’s wishes, to become an ordained priest.1 A year later, Alexis left the priesthood and Canada for good, traveling southwest to join a fated clan of French fur traders in St. Louis and with them venture into the uninhabited and unfriendly mountains of northern New Mexico. Here would begin Beaubien’s legacy. No longer Alexis Hypolite, ordained Canadian with both money and future spread out before him, Beaubien transformed himself into Charles “Don Carlos” Bobian, penniless citizen of the new Republic of Mexico. He had nothing except ambition, and, perhaps, a bit of luck, for before his death in 1864 Beaubien would become a prominent storeowner, father of nine children, a Mexican justice of the peace, an American supreme court justice, and sole titleholder of two sprawling land grants totaling nearly three million acres. He would be called a speculator, a feudal baron, and he would shape the history of New Mexico.

His maiden journey into New Mexico was daunting. Upon stepping foot in the territory, Beaubien and his party of St. Louis Frenchmen, including fellow future pioneers Ceran St. Vrain and Antoine Leroux, were captured by Mexican soldiers and transported to Santa Fe in order to be “killed without delay.”2 Fortunately for them, a well-known Spaniard and Mexican official by the name of Manuel Alvarez took notice of the incident and secured their release. Alvarez even invited them to stay, an invitation accepted gladly.

Apparently, what the arresting soldiers did not know but what Alvarez did, was that New Mexico was actively seeking foreign inhabitants. Just three years before, under Spanish rule, New Mexicans were barred from trading with foreigners. But upon Independence and the Treaty of Cordova, free trade opened between Mexico and the U.S., and both American and French-Canadians migrated into the territory in increasing droves. Initially, eager to boost the population and economy in the barren northern provinces, as well as create a buffer between marauding Indians, the Mexican government welcomed it. Immigration policy would tighten soon enough however following the Texas Rebellion.

During his first four years in Taos Beaubien prospered off of fur trapping alone, honing his skills in New Mexico’s untapped waterways and then selling his pelts at nearby posts. But as more and more foreign settlers filtered into New Mexico, Beaubien found himself increasingly pressured to gain citizenship. For one, trappers, if they intended to remain working in Mexican territory, were eventually required to swear allegiance. On top of that, new regulations enforced higher taxes on foreign traders than on citizens.3 So it was that on September 11, 1827, Beaubien set upon the fastest route to citizenship and married the Mexican national Maria Pabla Lovato.4 The wedding could not have come soon enough, for one month later Maria gave birth to their first child, Narcisso.

Manuel Armijo

It was around this time that Beaubien opened his own trading post and further “Mexicanized” himself by taking on the title Don Carlos Bobian. The mercantile rapidly flourished, and along with it so too did Beaubien’s prominence in New Mexico’s burgeoning gentry. He became close friends with such influential figures as Governor Manuel Armijo, Charles Bent, Manuel Alvarez, and Kit Carson. With the help of these connections he gained the position of elector for two counties in 1832, only to be declared in 1834 first alcalde of Taos.5 He continued his education, becoming fluent over time in French, English, Spanish, German, and even some Navajo and Pueblo Indian.6 By the mid-1840s Beaubien had opened a second mercantile and he and his family lived in a thirty-eight bedroom home where Mrs. Beaubien, dressed in the finest east-coast fashions, presided over a dining room that seated one hundred people.7

Guadalupe Miranda

If mercantiles were where Beaubien first earned his money, land is where he began his empire. Despite the Law of 1830 (passed after the growing troubles in Texas) stating that no land could be claimed by a person born outside of Mexico if the desired land bordered the United States, New Mexico’s Governor Amijo nonetheless showed little discrimination when it came to dolling out grants.8 Because New Mexico at the time remained very much populated by hostile Indians, Armijo usually asked only that applicants be married to a Mexican woman and that they petition jointly with a Mexican-born resident.9 With this in mind, on January 8, 1841, Beaubien, along with Mexican native Guadalupe Miranda, applied for a land grant in northern New Mexico stretching over almost two million acres.10 In their petition, the two applicants emphasized their education and business acumen, asserting that such privately held land would utilize the nation’s natural resources, create jobs, and boost a stalled economy. “This is the age of progress,” the petition read, “and the March of the Intellect, and they are so rapid we may expect at a day not so far distant that they will even reach us.”11 Not only that, but by putting citizens to work clearing forests, irrigating water, and building homes on the grant, crimes would be reduced: “Idleness, the mother of vice, is the cause of the increase in crimes, which are daily being committed… homes are overrun with thieves and murderers, who by this means alone desire to procure their substance.”12 With such persuasiveness, what was Governor Armijo to do but approve the grant, especially when the two men sweetened the deal by agreeing to “silently” deed one quarter of the plot to Armijo, plus another quarter to their mutual and similarly influential friend Charles Bent.13 The grant would become known as the Beaubien-Miranda Grant.

Only three years after securing his first two million acres, Beaubien, always the entrepreneur, would figure out a way to finagle yet another million. Because Mexican law permitted individuals to apply for only one grant, when Beaubien nonetheless applied for yet a second grant, he did so this time under the names of his son Narcisso and his close fur-trading friend and future Taos sheriff Stephen Luis Lee.14 The application was for an expanse of land directly adjacent the Beaubien-Miranda – the two grants split down the middle by the Sangre de Cristo mountain range in present-day southern Colorado. The grant was approved, and with Narcisso in St. Louis attending college and Lee hundreds of miles south focusing on his trading business, Beaubien was left to manage the new Sangre de Cristo Land Grant alone.

Stephen Watts Kearny

That same year, 1844, Beaubien was appointed justice of the peace of the Rio Colorado region north of Taos.15 Two years later, Brigadier General Stephen Watts Kearny and his Army of the West would arrive, and Beaubien would receive his most powerful political boost yet. After declaring the territory for the United States, Kearney would attach a letter to the Adjutant General along with his Code of Laws. The letter read in part:

“Being duly authorized by the president of the United States of America, I hereby make the following appointments for the government of New Mexico, a territory of the United States. The officers thus appointed will be obeyed and respected accordingly: Charles Bent to be governor… Joab Houghton, Antonio Jose Otero, Charles Beaubien, to be judges of the superior court.”16

It remains unclear what prompted Kearney’s appointment of Beaubien to the Supreme Court (he was also named district court judge for New Mexico’s northern district) as Beaubien possessed no formal training or experience in law. Most likely what inspired the decision was Beaubien’s connections in the territory, his education (which, while not in law, was still more than most), and because he presented himself to Kearney as a United States sympathizer. Whether Beaubien, in protecting his interests, embraced occupation only once Kearney arrived is unknown, however chances are the businessman had become disillusioned in the years leading to the war as Mexico had raised its taxes on foreign merchants.

At the turn of the new year, 1847, three white Mexican citizens presided over Taos, New Mexico in shared representation of American interest. They were Charles Bent, governor, Stephen Lee, sheriff, and Charles Beaubien, supreme court justice. Even Beaubien’s son Narcisso, fresh out of college, was back home and eager to begin help managing his grant.

On January 18, 1847, Beaubien was called to the town of Los Luceros where he held regular court for Rio Arriba County.17 Early the next morning, likely as Beaubien was still in bed, a mob of drunk and enraged Mexicans and Pueblo Indians swarmed Taos. They surrounded the home of Governor Bent, broke down the door, shot the governor with arrows and then scalped him before his wife and children with a taught bowstring. Next they killed Sheriff Lee as he hid atop his roof. Young Narcisso meanwhile cowered next to a friend below a wagon. When spotted by an Indian servant, the servant yelled, “Kill the young ones and they will never be men to trouble us!”18 The insurgents lanced the two boys unrecognizable. By the time he returned home more than two weeks later, Beaubien found his son murdered, his house plundered, and the surviving women and children of his family traumatized.

Ceran St. Vrain

A militia of mountain men, led by Ceran St. Vrain, departed to locate and capture the scattered insurgents.19 Because the massacre had taken place inside Beaubien’s jurisdiction, it fell on the judge to try all those brought back. Beaubien, despite no doubt being aware of his deep conflict of interest, accepted the responsibility whole-heartedly. He impaneled a jury consisting almost entirely of family members of the victims (one of them being Narcisso’s brother in-law, Lucien B. Maxwell), and on April 5, 1847, court was in session.

The first to be tried for murder was a Mexican named Jose Manuel Garcia. The jury promptly found him guilty and Beaubien sentenced Garcia to “hang from the neck until dead, dead, dead.”20 Such would be a similar sentence over the next few weeks. In fact, Beaubien handed down so many death penalties that on April 12 Taos curate Jose Martinez wrote to Manuel Alvarez in Santa Fe:

“The Judge of Crimes, Don Carlos Beaubien, and his associates are endeavoring to kill all the people of Taos… on the first day they sentenced six and these were hanged the third, the second day nine were sentenced to death but their execution has been delayed until the arrival of reinforcements asked for by the people…”21

Fate had delivered to Beaubien a cruel, ironic hand. His son and long-time friends Bent and Lee had been brutally murdered. His partner Guadalupe Miranda, sensing trouble, had fled back to his home city of El Paso del Norte shortly before the Revolt. And former Mexican governor of the territory and Beaubien-supporter Manuel Armijo had retreated to Mexico City upon word of Kearney’s approach. The judge had lost a son and four close friends, and in the process he had become sole inheritor of three million acres of land.

Lucien Maxwell

But before he could dive headlong into the management of those acres, Beaubien still had three years left in his term as judge as per Kearney’s appointment. Beaubien thus turned to his son-in-law Lucien Maxwell for help, and in 1848, as the war wound to an end and as Maxwell marched deep into the Beaubien-Miranda Grant to establish a settlement along the Rayado River, Beaubien prepared to stretch his political clout to its limit.

He began by lobbying acting civil governor Donaciano Vigil in the governor’s appointments of the multiple political positions left opened after the Revolt. Beaubien made the case for Pascual Martinez, the brother of the priest that had married Charles and Maria, prefect, fellow trader Juan Martinez to the post of Taos alcalde, and friend Andrew Metcalf as sheriff.22 Ultimately, Beaubien succeeded in persuading Vigil in agreeing to all but Metcalf.

Then came the question hanging over every New Mexican’s mind following America’s victory in the war: State or Territory? It was an issue in which Beaubien was deeply invested, both personally and morally. Personally, perhaps selfishly, he knew there was much he stood to lose should New Mexico gain statehood as his political appointments would likely become divested and his landholdings would potentially come into question. Morally, Beaubien was a staunch abolitionist and like many New Mexicans feared slavery spreading into the area (ironically, these abolitionists seemed to overlook the abundance of Indian slavery within the territory). On October 10, 1848, a convention was held in Santa Fe with officials from around the territory set to debate the issue.23 Beaubien was elected one of thirteen northern delegates, and by its conclusion the convention drafted a petition to Congress reading in part, “We do not desire to have domestic slavery within our borders; and until the time shall arrive for admission into the Union of States, we desire to be protected by Congress against the introduction of slaves into the Territory.”24

James S. Calhoun

Over the next two years, two factions would emerge in New Mexico, those for statehood and those against. In 1849, Beaubien traveled to nearby Indian pueblos pressured natives to vote against pro-statehood delegates. When Indian Agent James S. Calhoun caught wind of Beaubien’s lobbying and complained in a letter to the Commissioner of Indian Affairs, Beaubien denied his doings but nevertheless stated that he would “in the future act with President Taylor’s real friends.”25 President Taylor, a supporter of statehood, urged Calhoun the same. In 1850 however, Beaubien’s faction prevailed and Congress decreed that New Mexico remain a Territory.

In 1851 Beaubien retired from public office and began focusing on the settlement of his two land grants. With villages like Rayado, Cimarron, Costilla, and San Luis growing steadily on the two grants, Beaubien, with the help of Maxwell, issued rules to the settlements that included the barring of fighting within the presence of families and the regular collection of a chapel fund.26

By the mid 1850s Beaubien’s health was in decline. In 1858 Maxwell would purchase all of Beaubien’s interest in the Beaubien-Miranda Grant and the grant would from then on become known as the Maxwell Grant.27 In 1862 Beaubien began talks with former Colorado Territory governor William Gilpin on the sale of the Sangre de Cristo Grant. The deal would be finalized in March of 1864 by Beaubien’s family following the Don’s death that month.28

His detractors declared him an opportunist, a self-serving and malleable foreigner who came to New Mexico seeking only wealth. There was credence to the thought, but only to the extent that any foreigner who entered this desolate and hostile territory did so for some form of personal gain. But at the same time, whether consciously or not, through his quest for prosperity in New Mexico Beaubien would help tame the wild Indian frontier with the establishment of his settlements, as well as raise the quality of life for citizens by ushering in an economy. If Beaubien entered the west an opportunist, he left it a pioneer.

Sources

John W. Grassham. Charles H. Beaubien, 1800-1864. M.A. thesis, New Mexico State University, 1983.

  1. Joseph Elzer Bellemore, Historie de Nicolet 1669-1924 (Quebec: Arthabaska, 1924), pp. 71-82.
  2. Joseph Tasse, The Canadians of the West (Montreal: 1878), p. 187.
  3. David Lavender, Bent’s Fort  (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1972) p. 427.
  4. Archives of the Archdiocese of Santa Fe, Marriage-Taos, 1827, State Records Center and Archives (hereafter cited SRC&A); Marriage Dispensation (Beaubien), McGarvan Collection, SRC&A
  5. Lawrence Murphy, The Mountain Men of the Fur Trade, ed. Leroy Hafen (Glendale: The Arthur H. Clark Co.), p. 24.
  6. Albert D. Richardson, Beyond the Mississippi, 1857–1867 (Hartford: American Publishing Company, 1867), p. 270.
  7. Santa Fe New Mexican, February 6, 1864.
  8. David J. Weber, The Mexican Frontier, 1821-1846; The American Southwest Under Mexico (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1982), p. 191.
  9. Ibid., p. 181.
  10. Beaubien-Miranda land grant petition, January 8, 1841, Records of the Surveyor General of New Mexico (SGNM), No. 15, SRC&A, Santa Fe, New Mexico.
  11. Ibid.
  12. Ibid.
  13. Jim Berry Pearson, The Maxwell Land Grant (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1961), p. 5.
  14. Beaubien-Lee petition, December 27, 1843, SGNM, No. 52, SRC&A, Santa Fe, New Mexico.
  15. Charles Beaubien appointed Justice of the Peace, Document No. 7533, SRC&A.
  16. Kearney Appointments, Governors Papers, SRC&A.
  17. Beaubien to Donaciano Vigil, Taos, New Mexico, February 7, 1847, William Ritch Papers, Huntington Library.
  18. Hampton Sides, Blood and Thunder: The Epic Story of Kit Carson and the Conquest of the American West (New York: Doubleday, 2006), p. 219)
  19. Reel 85, Frame 5, Territorial Archives of New Mexico, SRC&A.
  20. Taos County District Court Records, Taos County, Journal, 1847-1851, SRC&A.
  21. Padre Antonio Jose Martinez to Manuel Alvarez, April 12, 1847, Benjamin Read Papers, SRC&A.
  22. Beaubien to Donaciano Vigil, Taos, New Mexico, February 7, 1847, William Ritch Papers, Huntington Library.
  23. William Ritch, The New Mexico Blue Book, 1882, facsimile ed. Territory of New Mexico (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1968), pp. 99-100.
  24. Robert Larson, New Mexico’s Quest for Statehood (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1968), p. 15.
  25. Ibid.
  26. Francis T. Cheetham, The Early Settlement of Southern Colorado,” The Colorado Magazine (February 1928).
  27. Jim Berry Pearson, The Maxwell Land Grant (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1961), p. 34.
  28. Marrian Stoller, “Grants of Desperation, Lands of Speculation: Mexican Period Land Grants in Colorado,” Journal of the West (July 1980

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