Arms, Indians, and the Mismanagement of New Mexico: Donaciano Vigil
By David J. Weber
Donaciano Vigil was born in Santa Fe on September 6, 1802. He received an unusually good education for a frontiersman--his father, Juan Cristóbal Vigil, reportedly educated his sons at home. As one merchant later recalled, Donaciano and his brother Juan were widely known as "among the best educated men in public life in the department.
Following the example of his father whose early years were spent as a career soldier in Santa Fe, Donaciano Vigil entered the military in 1823 as a private, fighting in an arduous campaign against the Navajos that year. The military life must have suited him, for he made it a career. Vigil's physique seemed to have preordained him for military life. In his early twenties he was said to stand six feet, five inches tall, to weigh 220 pounds, and to possess enormous strength. Promoted to sergeant in 1832, Vigil came to head the San Miguel del Bado Company, headquartered at Santa Fe. He fought in numerous campaigns against Indians, joined with government forces in the futile attempt to contain the tragic rebellion against Governor Perez in 1837, and participated in the successful routing of an invading force from Texas in 1841. The latter won him promotion to lieutenant and then to captain.
But Vigil was an unusual soldier in frontier New Mexico. His intelligence and training opened doors for him that would have been closed to an ordinary soldier. He held such posts as army supply clerk, secretary to the rebel Governor Gonzales in 1837, and secretary to Governor Manuel Armijo in the early 1840s. On two occasions, 1838‑40 and 1843‑45, Vigil served as a regular member of the Department Assembly, occasionally holding the post of secretary for that body. In 1846 he served as an "alternate" member of the Assembly. In addition to holding public offices, the soldier Vigil also published a newspaper, La Verdad, which made its first appearance on February 8, 1844 under the auspices of the maligned Governor Martinez, and continued to appear for over a year. To augment his modest and undependable soldier's salary, Vigil was shrewd enough to get into the lucrative Santa Fe mercantile trade. In that business, he apparently came to know many Americans.
In the summer of 1846, although he knew that resistance might be futile, Vigil joined in preparations for defense against the invading American army. Like other New Mexico soldiers, Vigil appears to have been surprised by Governor Manuel Armijo's last‑minute decision not to oppose the entrance of American forces into Santa Fe.
With the American conquest of New Mexico, Vigil came into his own as a politician and landowner. After Stephen Watts Kearny secured Santa Fe, Vigil resigned his commission in the Mexican army and on September 22, 1846, received an appointment to the key office of the secretary of the first civilian government established by the United States in New Mexico. Kearny had sought to fill a high post in the new government with a nuevomexicano, and Vigil probably received the appointment because of his knowledge of English and his friendship with influential Americans.
At the same time that he cooperated with the American occupying forces, the pragmatic Vigil maintained his loyalty to Mexico. On September 26, four days after his appointment as territorial secretary was announced, Vigil signed his name to a lengthy letter to the president of Mexico. Vigil and other prominent New Mexicans who signed this letter blamed Governor Manuel Armijo for their failure to fight the Americans. With proper leadership, they explained, "we would have made some kind of resistance." Armijo, whose leadership Vigil had praised when he addressed the Assembly on June 22, now became the scapegoat.
The bloody rebellion against the American occupying forces that exploded in Taos in January 1847 not only took the life of Governor Charles Bent, another Kearny appointee, but it also catapulted Vigil into prominence. As the second‑ranking civilian office holder in the territory, Vigil assumed the position of acting governor after Bent's death. Pragmatically, Vigil urged his fellow citizens not to resist. The fate of New Mexico had not yet been decided, Vigil explained, because Mexico and the United States had not signed a treaty of peace. But whether New Mexico became part of the United States or was returned to Mexico, Vigil asked his countrymen, would it not be "a gross absurdity to foment rancorous feelings toward people with whom we are either to compose one family, or to continue our commercial relations?"
After American forces crushed the rebellion, Vigil offered his resignation as acting governor in order to pave the way for a new federal appointee, but the military command in New Mexico refused to accept his resignation. Vigil continued to serve as acting governor until December 1847, when he was appointed governor. With a de facto military government operating as "the power behind his every action," as one historian has put it, Vigil worked to strengthen civil government in New Mexico and to make New Mexico a territory of the United States. He held the governorship until October 11, 1848, when Lt. Col. John M. Washington replaced him. Vigil was then reappointed Territorial Secretary, holding that office until March 1851 when the government was reorganized under the new constitution. He continued to hold public office, serving repeatedly in the territorial legislature until the end of the Civil War. In his late sixties, in 1871‑72, Vigil served a term as school commissioner of San Miguel County.
As a respected former governor and friend of influential Americans, Vigil used his knowledge of Mexican law and practice to make himself indispensable in matters involving land. Manipulating lawyers, documents, and finances with the moral abandon and skill of a Thomas Benton Catron or a Stephen Elkins, Vigil acquired a claim to two large ranches on the Pecos River in 1854. The next year he moved his family from its home near the Church of Guadalupe in Santa Fe (a home that still stands today at 518 Alto Street) to the Pecos. The Vigil ranch, located in the midst of land that once belonged to Pecos Pueblo, would be Vigil's last home. A robust man in his old age, whose feats of strength had become the stuff of legends, he rode some twenty‑five miles on horseback from Pecos to Santa Fe just a few months before his death in August 1877, at age seventy‑four.
After his death, Vigil was eulogized as a man who loved liberty, who stood for governmental and social reforms, and who forcefully advocated the improvement of public education and clerical reform. He may have been, as historian Howard R. Lamar has put it, "one of the most unusual men to ever live in New Mexico.”