Donaciano Vigil (1802-1877)
by Maurilio E. Vigil*
John Kennedy wrote in his book Profiles in Courage of historical figures who had exhibited courage by making unpopular decisions in the face of overwhelming opposition. Donaciano Vigil, would have been a good subject for that book. Vigil was the first native New Mexican Hispano to serve as New Mexico Governor under American administration; as such, he was undoubtedly the most important native Hispanic leader in the transition of the Territory from Mexican to American government. His decision to support the American annexation of the New Mexico territory and join the new American sponsored government in 1847 helped ensure the status of New Mexico in the American nation and to assure the participation of Hispanos in that system.
Donaciano Vigil has been an enigma, largely ignored by New Mexico history. He was born in Santa Fe in 1802 and as a child he was tutored at home by his father. In 1823, at the age of 21, he enlisted in the local Santa Fe militia and embarked on a long military career that would see him advance in rank from Private to Captain and Commander of the company of militia in San Miguel del Bado. In the 25 years of his enlistment, he participated in numerous Indian campaigns, a major internal rebellion (1837) and two foreign invasions: by Texans in 1841 and the American Army in 1846. At various times, he also held the joint civilian/military position of Territorial Secretary under Governor Manuel Armijo. In 1846 he wrote a report “Arms, Indians and Mismanagement of New Mexico” which was critical of the state of political, economic and military affairs in the territory, a condition which he maintained, was prompted by the chronic neglect and mismanagement of the province by the central government in Mexico, and the corrupt and inept officials appointed to govern the territory. In 1846 when the American Army of the West under General Stephen W. Kearny invaded New Mexico, Captain Donaciano Vigil and his men answered the call for the mobilization of troops issued by Governor and Military Commander in Chief, Manuel Armijo. The troops were positioned in Apache Canyon to halt the advance of the American Army into the Capital of Santa Fe, when Governor Armijo ordered the troops to disband. Vigil objected strenuously against unchallenged capitulation to the invading force. Nevertheless, he complied with the order and Kearny and his troops entered Santa Fe and completed the occupation of New Mexico.
General Kearny then sought able and respected native New Mexicans to serve in the new interim civil government. Their help would lend legitimacy to the new government, ease the transition, and help direct affairs in the territory. Kearny offered Vigil the position of Secretary of the Territorial Civil Government, essentially second in command to the newly appointed Governor, Charles Bent. Donaciano Vigil knew the profound implications of the choice before him. He knew that he would be called a traitor (as he was) by Mexican Officials and those who remained loyal to the Mexican government. Technically, in Mexico, he could have been tried as a traitor and possibly hanged. On the other hand, the United Sates offered new promise for progress, change, commercial and economic development, new technology, a public educational system and perhaps, more importantly democratic and liberal ideals that were the foundation of a popularly elected government. Donaciano Vigil could only visualize that such progress would come to pass for New Mexico, but it was enough for him to step forward and commit to the American cause. Vigil also realized that he would have to participate in the new government to assure that the interests of the native population were protected and that the new government would always be inclusive of the native population. When an insurrection against the new government erupted in Taos, Governor Charles Bent tried to intervene in his home town and was assassinated.
General Sterling Price called on Vigil to assume the governorship. Among his first actions was to call for an end to hostilities and to calm the population. His words were somber and prophetic:
. . . whether this country has to belong to the government of the United States or return to its native Mexico, is it not a gross absurdity to foment rancorous feelings toward people with whom we are either to compose one family, or to continue our commercial relations? Unquestionably it is . . .
When peace was restored, within a few weeks, Vigil saw the urgency to legitimize the status of New Mexico as a territory of the United States. He issued a call for the first elections under the American government. Vigil urged:
Compatriots… the most important acts in a republic are voting and elections in which the people, en mass, unite to exercise their power and to confer their destinies on those persons whose talents, patriotism and virtues appeal to their constituents… my heart rejoices in contemplating the start pf a new era of progress and fortune that shall be advanced as the prompt mandates of elections are implemented.
In the fall of 1847, Governor Vigil called for the convening of the first Territorial Legislature. In his first message as Governor, noting that there was only one school in the Territory, he declared the importance of education and called for the establishment of a public school system as follows:
When there are no schools or academies, it must be evident that the means of obtaining an education are exceedingly limited…these facilities would be greatly increased…[and] opportunities for learning should be given to all… the poor as well as the rich…and if possible to place the schools in every town, village and neighborhood in the territory… if our government here is to be republican… if it is to be based upon democratic republican principles…it is most important for this will to be properly exercised… the people must be enlightened and instructed…every man should be able to read, to inform him of passing events and of matters important to his country and government.
Accordingly, when the legislature passed a resolution for the creation and support of a public university in the Territory, Governor Vigil endorsed the measure. Governor Vigil similarly endorsed the Territorial Legislature’s call for a Territorial Convention to convene in 1848 to explore the formalization of New Mexico in the American community of states by exploring either statehood or territorial status in the American system of government. Donaciano Vigil was a true New Mexico patriot because he chose to lead New Mexico toward membership in the American community because he knew New Mexico and its people’s fortunes would not improve under Mexico. He risked personal disrepute and dishonor in the interest of pursuing the higher ideal for New Mexico and its people. Perhaps the eminent New Mexico historian, Ralph Emerson Twitchell best characterized the role and legacy of Donaciano Vigil when he wrote in his book, The Leading Facts of New Mexican History:
The history of the career of Donaciano Vigil, the firm friend of liberty and humanity, belongs to the people of New Mexico. His is a record which all lovers of free overnment will more delight to honor as time elapses and his distinguished merits are best understood. It is a record which the native son of New Mexico should ever try to emulate.
*Maurilio E. Vigil is a Professor Emeritus at New Mexico Highlands University.
Ritch, William C. Biographical Sketch of Donaciano Vigil, in Donaciano Vigil Papers. Santa Fe: New Mexico State Records Center and Archives.
Stanley, F. Giant In Lilliput: The Story of Donaciano Vigil. Pampa, Texas: Pampa Print Shop, 1963.
Twitchell, Ralph Emerson. The History of the Military Occupation of New Mexico. Denver: The Smith-Brooks Company, 1909.
Twitchell, Ralph Emerson. The Leading Facts of New Mexican History. Cedar Rapids, Iowa: The Torch Press, 1925.
Vigil, Maurilio E. Los Patrones: Profiles of Hispanic Political Leaders in New Mexico History. Washington, D. C.: University Press of America, 1980.
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