Essay: William H. Wroth
Image: Governor Manuel Armijo, by Maximiliano Salazar. Ray John de Aragon Collection. Courtesy of Ray John de Aragon
by William H. Wroth
Manuel Armijo was the last governor of New Mexico under the Mexican Republic, serving in that office three times. He was born in the Albuquerque area, probably in Belen, in 1793, the son of Vicente Ferrer Armijo and María Bárbara Chávez. The Armijos in 1790 were living in the Plaza de San Antonio de Belen, and Vicente was a stockman and lieutenant in the militia. Governor Armijo was later portrayed by George Wilkins Kendall as having been an uneducated man from a poor family who worked his way up by stealing. This gross caricature was Kendall’s way of vilifying Armijo due to his perception that the Governor had treated him unfairly in 1841 in the capture of the disastrous Texas Santa Fe expedition. The falsity has been repeated by many writers and historians over the years. In fact the Armijos and Chavezes were among the ricos of the Rio Abajo region, exemplifying the wealthiest Hispanos who were mostly ranchers with large herds of livestock and large land holdings. Manuel Armijo himself was already a landowner at age seventeen when in 1807 he sold a piece of land in Albuquerque. In 1813 he sold more land in Albuquerque in the settlement of his father’s estate. In 1819 Manuel Armijo married María Trinidad Gabaldón. They apparently had no children of their own but later adopted a daughter named Ramona.
The Armijo family played a large role in the public life of Albuquerque. Manuel served as alcalde of Albuquerque in 1822 when he led an attack against the Apache Indians, and he served again as alcalde in1824-1825 and in 1830. His brother Francisco was alcalde in 1820, his brother Juan in 1823, brother Vicente in 1827, and Ambrosio in 1828, 1831, and 1834. In 1824 while serving as alcalde, Manuel Armijo was elected as alternate deputy to the congress in Chihuahua.
His first term as governor of New Mexico began in May 1827 and lasted until March 1829. As governor, Armijo was concerned with the poverty of many New Mexicans, caused in part by the concentration of arable lands in the hands of a few people and by drought conditions and poor crops. In January 1828 he sent two reports to the central government on the poverty and hunger of the people. He was also concerned with the smuggling of goods by American traders into New Mexico and with the illegal trapping of beaver by American trappers who caught large quantities of the animal to the point of possibly driving it to extinction. He attempted to impose tariffs and impound illegal furs, but had little success due to the difficulty of policing the large frontier territory of New Mexico. He petitioned the central government for money and soldiers to deal with these problems, but no help was forthcoming. His efforts only served to turn the Americans against him. Armijo was also involved in a power struggle with the alcalde of Santa Fe, Juan Bautista Vigil, which may have caused his resignation as governor in 1829. He was succeeded by José Antonio Chávez who served until 1832.
After his term as governor, Armijo served as alcalde of Albuquerque in 1830 and he became a successful entrepreneur, trading textiles and sheep in Mexico. For the next six years he lived in Albuquerque and was appointed as subcomisario to raise funds for New Mexico but the Rebellion of 1837 put Armijo back into the center of territorial politics. The appointed governor from central Mexico, Albino Perez, was murdered by the rebels in August 1837 and one of their leaders, José Gonzalez from Taos, was placed in power. Members of the merchant and landowning classes came together to oppose Gonzalez and the rebels with a troop of some 600 volunteers organized in Santa Fe under Captain José Caballero and another 400 men from the Rio Abajo. All of the volunteer troops were put under the leadership of Manuel Armijo. They received considerable material support from the American traders in Santa Fe and also from wealthy Hispanos.
Armijo’s troops met a disorderly and probably insufficiently armed troop of some 3000 rebels under the leadership of Pablo Montoya near Santa Fe, and Armijo was successful in getting Montoya to agree to a truce in exchange for turning over the original fomenters of the rebellion, Juan José Esquibel and three others, who were then jailed in Santa Fe. In January 1838 a proclamation issued by Antonio Vigil of Truchas was intended to rally rebel forces to march on Santa Fe in order to free the four jailed leaders. In response, Armijo had the four prisoners executed on January 24. He then encountered the rebels near Pojoaque and in a short battle they were dispersed, with twenty rebels killed and eight captured. Armijo then took possession of Santa Cruz de la Cañada, imprisoned rebel governor José Gonzalez, and had him immediately executed.
In response to his victory over the rebels the central government of Mexico again appointed Armijo governor but failed to provide the necessary resources to fund his administration. Armijo at first provided minimal services by imposing tariffs on both American and New Mexican traders who brought goods from the United States into New Mexico over the Santa Fe Trail. He attempted to purge corrupt customs agents who took bribes from the traders, encouraged more trade, and changed the system of tariffs to a flat fee of $500 per wagon, thus replacing the complicated system of inventorying each wagon for its value. In contradiction to all the negative depictions of him by American writers, Armijo generally had a favorable attitude toward incoming Americans, based on pragmatic concerns. He approved several large land grants to Americans, but in the most important case, the Beaubien-Miranda grant, he required New Mexicans to be part owners. In January 1841, Guadalupe Miranda of Santa Fe and Charles Beaubien of Taos petitioned Armijo for possession of a large tract of land east of Taos along the Cimarron and Canadian Rivers. Miranda, born in Chihuahua, had held several important positions in New Mexico, including Governor Armijo’s private secretary. In February 1843 Beaubien and Miranda took official possession of the grant and immediately deeded Armijo one-fourth interest in the land, which insured the latter’s support against future conflicting claims. They also deeded one-fourth interest to Taos trader Charles Bent in exchange for his supervising colonization efforts on the grant. Armijo’s interest in awarding the grant, besides the personal one of enriching himself, was to attempt to develop the territory by drawing settlers from both Mexico and the United States to colonize the lands. He could not foresee that after the American occupation of 1846, many of the grants would fall into the hands of greedy American and even European entrepreneurs, to the great detriment of New Mexicans.
In the early 1840s Armijo’s major concern was not the Americans but the Texans. The expansionist policies of the Republic of Texas culminated in the ill-fated Texas-Santa Fe expedition in 1841, in which a group of over 300 Texans marched to New Mexico with the intention of wresting that territory from Mexican sovereignty. Governor Armijo was well aware of the expedition and its intentions, and he kept in close touch with authorities in Mexico who, still smarting from the loss of Texas, gave him material aid in order to resist the invasion. He had up-to-date news on the progress of the Texans, thanks to the arrival in Taos in early September 1841, of two guides who had deserted the expedition.
In Santa Fe his main concern was the sympathy and possible support of the American merchants for the Texans. The Americans on their part were afraid of violence against them, and through the United States consul in Santa Fe, Manuel Alvarez, they appealed to Armijo for protection. Tensions rose to such an extent that on September 16, while Armijo was in San Miguel dealing with the Texans, a group led by his nephew Tomás Martín attacked the residence of Alvarez and almost killed him. His life was saved only by the intervention of Armijo’s secretary Guadalupe Miranda, whereupon the merchants appealed to the United States government for protection. The Texans, misjudging the route and the distance to New Mexico, arrived in the eastern settlements half-starved and in desperate condition. Armijo met them with a large force of well-armed soldiers, and quickly they were persuaded to surrender, a cause for much rejoicing throughout the territory. Armijo sent the Texans, under guard, on the long journey to Mexico City and then on to Veracruz. Most of the Texans were incarcerated in the Perote prison until the United States government negotiated their release.
In March 1844 Armijo resigned as governor and returned to Albuquerque. Succeeding governors caused much discontent among both the Americans and Hispanos in New Mexico by raising tariffs on the goods of the traders and attempting to tax the populace. In July 1845 Armijo was re-appointed to his third and final term as governor. Armijo was welcomed back into office because his policies were more lenient and enlightened than those of his predecessors, and his relations with the Americans had become quite friendly. But, with the beginning of the Mexican-American War in May 1846, Armijo attempted to rally the populace to resist the coming American invasion. He also requested and was promised troops from Mexico though none arrived before the threatened invasion. Armijo’s call to arms brought an enthusiastic but completely untrained crowd of New Mexicans to Santa Fe to volunteer for the defense of the territory. General Stephen Kearny commanding 1750 United States troops arrived east of Glorieta Pass in early August. Captain Philip St. George Cooke, U. S. consul Manuel Alvarez, and merchants James Magoffin and Henry Connelly then met with Armijo to urge him not to fight. On August 14 Armijo ordered the volunteers to Apache Canyon but when he arrived there himself on the 16th, he decided not to oppose Kearny and sent the volunteers home. Armijo with 75 dragoons then retreated to Chihuahua, Mexico. On August 18 General Kearny and his troops took possession of Santa Fe without a battle.
Armijo was accused of cowardice and treason; American writers, in their negative depiction of Armijo, have suggested that he accepted a bribe from the Americans for not opposing Kearny, but there is no concrete evidence that he did. The most generous explanation of his actions is that he realized there was little chance of defeating the Americans who were better armed and better provisioned. His volunteers did not have adequate weapons or food supplies and lacked professional leaders or any military training, and he knew from experience that support from Mexico would be minimal if there was any at all. When met by English trader George Ruxton in Chihuahua shortly after his retreat, Armijo said to him: “I had but seventy-five men to fight three thousand. What could I do?” While this is somewhat of a self-justifying exaggeration, it does express Armijo’s view that resistance against the superior forces of the United States was hopeless. Armijo went first to Chihuahua and then to Mexico City where he was tried on charges of treason. He returned to Chihuahua in October 1849 and was jailed by General Angel Trias, but the Mexican Supreme Court and the Congress found that there was not enough evidence to convict him, and he was released in January 1850. Armijo moved back to New Mexico and died at his home in Lemitar in January 1854.
Bloom, Lansing Bartlett. New Mexico Under Mexican Administration, 1821-1846. Santa Fe: Old Santa Fe Press, 1913-1914.
Chávez, Fray Angélico. Origins of New Mexico Families. Santa Fe: Historical Society of New Mexico, 1954.
Gregg, Josiah. Commerce of the Prairies. New York: Henry G. Langley, 1844. Reprined with introduction by Max L. Moorhead, University of Oklahoma Press, 1954.
Kendall, George Wilkins. Narrative of the Texan Santa Fe Expedition. New York: Harper, 1844.
Lecompte, Janet. “Manuel Armijo and the Americans,” Journal of the West, July 1980.
Lecompte, Janet. “Manuel Armijo’s Family History,” New Mexico Historical Review, Vol. 45, No. 1, January 1970.
Lecompte, Janet. Rebellion in Río Arriba, 1837. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1985.
Daniel Tyler. “Governor Armijo’s Moment of Truth,” Journal of the West, April 1972.
Portrait of Armijo by Alfred S. Waugh
Gringo Views of Governor Manuel Armijo
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