Colonization, Political Conflict & Rebellion

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On the heels of Mexican independence, Americans continued to express their interest in the new republic’s northern lands that had begun with the Lewis and Clark and Pike expeditions. When Major Stephen H. Long traversed the area that later became Oklahoma and Nebraska in 1820, he referred to it as the “Great American Desert.” He declared it “almost wholly unfit for cultivation, and of course uninhabitable by a people depending upon agriculture for their subsistence.”15 Those areas were later settled by American farmers, and they were discovered to be less arid than sections of the Rocky Mountain West and Southwest. At the time, Long’s assessment redirected others toward the far better climates and lands in east Texas. East Texas was also particularly attractive to southerners who hoped to expand cotton production and plantation agriculture supported by slave labor.

Stephen F. Austin
Stephen F. Austin followed his father’s dream of creating a colony of Americans in Texas. During the 1830s and early 1840s, he brought settlers to Texas as an empresario.
Courtesy of The State Preservation Board, Austin, Texas

When Moses Austin and his son Stephen F. Austin initiated dealings with Mexico City officials for the colonization of Texas in the early 1820s, New Mexico was the northern province with the heaviest population. About 43,000 nuevomexicanos adjusted to the transitions that accompanied Mexico’s independence. By comparison, tejanos numbered nearly 4,000 in 1810, but only about 2,000 in 1821 due to the conflicts associated with the independence movement. The majority lived in San Antonio de Béxar and La Bahia (later Goliad), and they were surrounded by as many as 40,000 Comanches, Caddos, and Kiowas. As late as the early 1840s the Mexican-heritage populations (not counting indigenous peoples) of Texas and California each numbered around 3,000. Leaders in central Mexico were concerned with the sparse population in those northern areas because, like Spanish royal administrators before them, they believed that large numbers of Mexican citizens ensured territorial claims.

Further complicating the issue was Mexico’s meager national population overall. At independence, the entire nation, from Alta California to Guatemala, boasted only seven million inhabitants. Many of these were peasants of mestizo heritage who maintained deep ties to the lands they had grown up working with their extended families. Most had no incentive whatsoever to relocate to arid regions dominated by hostile nomads. Unable to rely on internal migration to increase the northern population, Mexican colonization laws were enacted in 1823 and 1824. The legislation guaranteed rights to colonists who were Roman Catholic, or who converted to the faith, although that provision was never enforced and not repeated in subsequent revisions of the laws. Empresarios, or colonization agents, contracted to bring at least two hundred colonists to a designated frontier area and to act as guarantor that all colonists would adhere to Mexican laws. As an enticement, settlers were exempted from taxes for six years and given special rates on customs duties.

In the joint state of Coahuila y Texas, the result was an influx of American settlers, mostly from points throughout the U.S. South. By 1835, nearly 27,000 had arrived in Texas along with 3,000 African American slaves. The Constitution of 1824 prohibited slavery, so Texas settlers used inventive means to sidestep the law. They worked in tandem with José Antonio Navarro, a former mayor of San Antonio and delegate to the state legislature in Saltillo who favored the idea of continued immigration and also supported colonists’ pleas to normalize slavery. Navarro sponsored a bill that allowed for the entry into Texas of “indentured servants” with ninety-nine-year contracts. In practice, this meant that slaveholders drew up contracts with their slaves which required them to accept the term of indenture in order to “learn the art and science of agriculture.”16 For most Texans, including Austin and Navarro, slavery was not a moral issue but an economic concern.

Political and economic conflicts arose occasionally between representatives of the two sections of Coahuila y Texas between 1821 and 1836 when Texas declared independence from Mexico. Figures like Austin and Navarro worked together across their ethnic differences to expand the Texan economy through migration and trade with the United States. They sometimes took issue with the policies crafted in Saltillo by the state legislature, but believed they could resolve differences through the systems that were in place. Another group of U.S. immigrants became known as the War Party. Many of these people came from areas in the deep South with the intention of breaking Texas away from the Mexican nation and then appealing for annexation to the United States. They viewed any conflicts, no matter how minor, as potential openings to realize their plans.

When President Antonio López de Santa Anna exacerbated existing rifts between Centralists and Federalists by switching sides and implementing a new constitution in 1836, the Texas War Party found the type of opportunity its members had been hoping for. A political chameleon, Santa Anna embodied the instability of the Mexican central government during the decades following independence. Between 1833 and 1855 there were thirty-six different presidential administrations. Of those, Santa Anna held power eleven separate times. He was an opportunist who held no consistent ideology or platform. He wavered on every major point of contention at the national level, including his stance on the Catholic Church. At times he was pro-Catholic, at others he was anticlerical. Along the lines of a typical Latin American caudillo, he relied on personal charisma, machismo, patronage, and private wealth—rather than constitutional law or the electoral process—to maintain authority. Also typical of caudillo rule was a lack of regular means of succession. When the ruling caudillo’s wealth and power waned, stronger challengers led armed coups to take the reins of government.

In May 1835, the new Centralist congress in Mexico City replaced the nation’s Federalist moorings by drafting a new constitution. Called the Siete Leyes (Seven Laws) or Constitution of 1836, the new document revoked the autonomy of state and local governments and greatly enhanced the power of Mexico City. The new constitution extended the president’s term to eight years, placed new property requirements on suffrage, and created age requirements for office holders. Most troubling to people in the north, the new constitution stripped them of governmental self-determination. It disbanded state legislatures, shrunk local militias, and refashioned the states as departments. Under the new system, governors of departments were appointed by the president—not elected by its residents.

Northern federalists in Coahuila y Texas and elsewhere anxiously considered the impact of such changes. The unstable foundations of Mexican national politics and the ascendency of centralism under Santa Anna contributed to Texans’ decision to declare independence. Moderates like Austin and Navarro reluctantly joined members of the War Party in declaring, and eventually winning, independence from Santa Anna and Mexico.

Far less famously, the Centralist-Federalist struggle also came to a head in New Mexico. Nuevomexicanos had a different type of relationship to the United States and the central Mexican government than tejanos. New Mexico had been granted territorial status in the Mexican republic, yet in practice the lack of resources and political will in Mexico City meant that nuevomexicanos enjoyed a great deal of autonomy. They maintained their own ayuntamientos and expected a great deal of freedom to do as they wished with their local resources. Under the Siete Leyes, however, national officials attempted to change the status quo.

One of the most troubling developments under the Centralist government was the imposition of a new governor, Albino Pérez. Despite Pérez’s experience elsewhere in administrative posts, he was ill-prepared for the realities of life on the far northern frontier. His experience as governor brings together the threads of political instability in Mexico, lack of comprehension of the state of affairs between Mexicans and nomadic peoples, local nuevomexicano desires for autonomy, and the increasing influence of American traders and immigrants. As he attempted to instate provisions of the Constitution of 1836, he alienated nuevomexicanos of all socioeconomic backgrounds and unwittingly exacerbated existing political feuds.

Along with announcing his dedication to Mexican nationalism and a strong transition for New Mexico from territory to full-fledged department under the new constitution, Albino Pérez declared his intention to “annihilate the Navajo Indians.”17 Weary of the seemingly endless campaigns that “forced them to leave their families, farms, and flocks to the mercy of Plains Indians in order to protect rich men’s sheep,” poor nuevomexicanos hoped that Governor Albino Pérez’s connections in Mexico City would translate into reinforcements and supplies that would take the burden of the Navajo wars off of them.18 Much to their chagrin, however, Pérez attempted to wage war without new resources from the central government. The governor led an unprecedented winter offensive in 1836-1837 that eventually resulted in negotiations with Navajo headmen at the staggering cost of 140 militiamen’s toes or ears lost to frostbite. Hundreds of animals also perished in the inhospitable conditions. Pérez then botched the peace talks. Once again, nuevomexicano militiamen came away from their ordeal with nothing to show for it.

Making matters worse, Pérez’s attempts to implement the Centralist Constitution of 1836 resulted in new taxation that New Mexico had never been subjected to as a territory. In a pragmatic, although ill-advised, effort to generate income for his administration, Pérez also issued new regulations that placed heavier duties on the Santa Fe Trade, required locals to purchase licenses to harvest timber, and charged fees at theaters and dances. His plan for a compulsory education system further contributed to nuevomexicanos’ feeling of repression. To poor New Mexicans, Pérez and the Centralist national administration exacted terrible sacrifices and then expected them to “pay for the privilege of membership in the republic.”19 When the governor attempted to take sides in regional political feuds that he did not understand, he also encountered the ire of rico politicians like former governor Manuel Armijo.

In August of 1837 a small group of nuevomexicanos in the Rio Arriba village of Santa Cruz de La Cañada declared themselves in opposition to Pérez’s authority after he dissolved the local ayuntamiento in accordance with the centralizing policies of the 1836 Constitution. Within only a few days, nearly two thousand angry and frustrated residents of the surrounding area rose in revolt. Gravely miscalculating the earnestness of the situation, Pérez decided to lead a small contingent northward to quash the uprising. On August 8 the governors’ force was routed at San Ildefonso, and the insurgents captured Pérez the following day on the outskirts of Santa Fe. Not long thereafter his head was paraded on a pike as a signal that the rebellion had successfully ended the usurpation of Mexican Centralists.

The event came to be known as the Chimayó Rebellion, and it has been alternately characterized as a spontaneous class uprising, a battle over home rule, and a Federalist revolt. In reality, it was all of the above. The Centralist-Federalist struggles in Mexico City that resulted in the Constitution of 1836 caused smoldering regional conflicts between rico officials and poor nuevomexicanos to ignite. Those who participated in the rebellion, however, were more concerned with protecting their right to local village autonomy than they were about national politics.

The movement’s reluctant leader, José Gonzales, illustrates the focus on local village concerns rather than department or national level issues. Members of the insurgency elected Gonzales to serve as the new governor, marking the only time in New Mexico history that a person of peasant status held the post. A genízaro from Taos, Gonzales was an experienced cibolero (buffalo hunter) who spoke various indigenous dialects and likely had kinship connections to certain bands among the region’s nomadic peoples. Like so many other nuevomexicanos of his day, he was illiterate and inexperienced in political affairs. Historian Brian DeLay aptly characterizes Gonzales as “an honest, naïve, and ineffective leader.”20 Indeed, the insurgent governor found the task of reconciling the various socioeconomic and political factions at play in New Mexico to be insurmountable. He was unable to create common ground for Federalists who favored a return to the Constitution of 1824, others simply content to be rid of Pérez, those who mainly desired village autonomy, and ricos whose central concern, whether they espoused Federalism or Centralism, was to maintain the benefits of the lucrative Santa Fe Trade.

Ricos, led by Manuel Armijo, feared Gonzales’ ascendency and almost immediately initiated a counterinsurgency, dubbed the Plan de Tomé. Armijo’s home and base of support was located in Rio Abajo, and he drew strength not only from other nuevomexicanos of like mind, but also from Santa Fe Traders with whom he associated. As he moved to mobilize forces to contest the rebellion, he called attention to the brutality exhibited by the insurgents. Not only had they beheaded Governor Pérez, they also tortured despised former Governor Santiago Abreú. By one account, they “cut off his hands, pulled out his eyes and tongue, and otherwise mutilated his body, taunting him all the while with the crimes he was accused of.”21 Such reports convinced most of New Mexico’s gente decente (respectable people) that drastic reprisals were in order.

Armijo further stoked nuevomexicano fears by broadcasting the idea that Navajos, Apaches, and Comanches would use the occasion of their disunity to mount new offensives. In an open letter, Armijo declared that “Navajos, reassured by the deplorable condition in which we find ourselves, and in combination with the Pueblos of the frontier, wage a disastrous war that reaches into the very bosom of our families.”22 Although he had largely invented the threat of expanded nomadic invasion, Armijo’s rhetoric proved effective.

By September, the stability of Gonzales’ administration had already evaporated. In one last-ditch effort to bridge the factionalism that plagued his ability to govern, the governor issued a proposal that New Mexico request annexation to the United States. His desperate move played right into Armijo’s hands. Gonzales allowed the opposition to ignore the class and ideological divides at the heart of the conflict, and instead recast the struggle in the discourse of patriotism. Armijo painted the insurrection as a traitorous ploy to remove the department from the Mexican nation and hand it over to the United States. Gonzales was unable to overcome the label of traitor that had erroneously become associated with his name. Put in these simpler terms, even most Pueblo peoples declared their intention to remain loyal to Mexico. By mid-month the governor decided that further attempts to hold New Mexico’s government against Armijo’s forces were futile and he abandoned the capital.

Conflict continued to flare over the next several months. Fighting broke out in Taos just after Gonzales’ abandonment of Santa Fe in September, and another leg of the revolt arose in Truchas in October. The final stand came at Pojoaque Pueblo in mid-January of 1838; Armijo’s forces received reinforcements from Chihuahua. Armijo led 582 men against nearly 1,300 rebels entrenched at the pueblo. Despite the numerical disparity, the rico-led forces had superior firepower and the battle proved relatively one-sided. According to the account of Pedro Sánchez (who later wrote a history of Padre Martínez), Padre Martínez was present when Armijo captured Gonzales. Despite Gonzales’ request for security if he surrendered, Armijo ignored the plea and told Padre Martínez, “Padre, confess this genízaro, hear his confession so that he may be given five shots.”23 Along with Gonzales, four other insurgent leaders were also executed. The Chimayó Rebellion came to a close at the cost of much bloodshed.

Initially, Padre Martínez had apparently supported the cause of the rebels. The uprising began in his parish, and he understood well the grievances that caused his flock to take up arms. Despite his rico and ecclesiastical background, Martínez was an advocate of social justice. Yet when the movement adopted an anticlerical and anti-rico stance, the Padre abandoned his parishioners and worked tirelessly to quash their efforts. Martínez used his sermons to demonize the rebels and add religious imagery to give weight to the accusation that they were nothing more than traitors to the Mexican nation. He also maintained regular correspondence with Armijo during the final weeks of the conflict to inform the commander of the rebels’ activities.

In the end, the grievances that inspired the Chimayó Rebellion were not addressed through Armijo’s violent campaigns. That an uprising occurred at all underscores the relative position of weakness that most poor, rural nuevomexicanos occupied. In order to send a message to the national government, they had to resort to violence as their only means of communication. In turn, Armijo and his supporters employed violence on several different levels to ensure the status quo. Their actions in quelling the revolt were especially important to Santa Fe Traders whose commerce ensured the ricos’ wealth and status. Not only did Armijo physically suppress the revolt via military force and Gonzales’ public execution, he also altered the terms of the conversation that the insurgents had initiated. Instead of addressing problems of unpaid militia service and lack of access to the gains of the new capitalist economic order, Armijo’s manipulation of Gonzales’ desperate proposal of annexation to the United States redirected the debate toward the simpler question of Mexican nationalism. Through manipulation of the message, association with the insurgency was portrayed as treason while support for the ricos was projected as patriotism and loyalty to the nation.

Armijo emerged from the conflict with a reputation as an ardent Mexican patriot, and he maintained his status as New Mexico’s leading political figure for the next decade. When General Stephen Watts Kearny led the U.S. Army of the West toward Santa Fe in 1846, however, Armijo was either unable or unwilling (perhaps both) to mount an effective defense. As nuevomexicanos resisted the U.S. occupation, their ongoing grievances were just beneath the surface.

Disturnell Map
Mexico in 1847 The Disturnell Map was used during the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo negotiations. Although it was considered the most accurate map of U.S. and Mexican holdings in North America in the mid-1840s, it was later found to be inaccurate.
Courtesy of Library of Congress
Back to: The History of New Mexico > Chapter 7: The Mexican Period, 1821-1848