Overview of New Mexico Politics, 1848–1898
The story of the 19th-century Hispanic-American Members of Congress derives largely from the history of the nuevomexicano elites and their interactions with U.S. governing officials. Throughout this era, New Mexico’s politics revolved around its territorial status and possible statehood, deferred initially because of the slavery issue and later because of longstanding prejudice against its Spanish-speaking, Roman Catholic inhabitants. New Mexico struggled for over 60 years—the longest of any contiguous state—to achieve statehood.
The U.S. military governed New Mexico until a civil territorial government was created under provisions of the Compromise of 1850. The provisions that Senator Henry Clay of Kentucky envisioned as passing in a single massive omnibus bill—the admission of California into the Union as a free state; the organization of New Mexico and Utah into territories, with no reference to their slavery status; and the resolution of the long-simmering Texas-New Mexico land disputes—passed both the Senate and the House as a series of separate measures. Part of a larger bill to settle the boundary with Texas, the New Mexico territorial measure carried the U.S. House by a tally of 108 to 97 on September 6, 1850, and was signed into law by President Millard Fillmore three days later.65
The politics of the New Mexico Territory, which developed over several decades, were driven more by local factionalism than by national issues; national political parties did not gain a toehold until after the Civil War. Historian Howard Lamar describes 1850s New Mexican politics as based on “cliques, usually led by one man and generally organized for the specific purpose of winning an election or controlling patronage.” Neither Democrats nor Whigs existed in a national or regional sense out West in New Mexico, but local parties often defined themselves in relation to the party that was in power in Washington. For instance, many of the initial occupation politicians who were loyal Whigs while Millard Fillmore was President took to calling themselves “National Democrats” when Democrat Franklin Pierce became President in 1853. Their opponents went by several names, including “States Rights” Democrats and “Regular” Democrats.66 Moreover, territorial politics were shaped by the comings and goings of federal administrators who owed their patronage positions to the majority national party in Washington, but in this fluid political environment, party affiliation was fleeting. Indeed, as Lamar observes, “Some thirty years after American conquest, New Mexican local politics were still based more on family alliance, cultural ties, anti-party principles.… The mere party labels Republican and Democrat became caricatures in this unique situation.”67
While New Mexico politics were fractious to an extreme, Delegate elections—which occurred on the first Tuesday of September of odd years from 1853 until 1875—caused the territory’s many political factions to unite around “two temporary parties” in what was then the only territory-wide election.68 Usually, the defining issue in each of these contests was the division between the “native party” and a small but powerful pro-American faction. The former group, favoring home rule and the preservation of the social status quo, comprised some of the nuevomexicano elites. Their rivals were a group of wealthy Hispanos who aligned themselves with Anglo businessmen and military officials bent on facilitating the process of Americanization to modernize the territory and enrich themselves. The office of Delegate was an extremely important position from which both these groups sought to advance their agendas. Moreover, precisely because Delegates were the only federal officials elected popularly, they held tremendous sway and a legitimacy that was not often enjoyed by the appointed officials and administrators.69
During the Civil War, New Mexico was an important battleground in the far West.70 Although allegiances were divided between the Confederacy and the Union, many nuevomexicanos remained loyal to the Union; Southern proponents suggested a pro-Confederate Arizona Territory be split from the original New Mexico Territory. Moving westward from Texas, the Confederate Army of the West occupied Santa Fe and Albuquerque in 1862, imprisoning the ardently pro-Union José Manuel Gallegos, who passed secrets to Union forces from his jail cell. Miguel Otero, though appointed secretary of the New Mexico Territory by President Abraham Lincoln, failed to receive Senate confirmation because of that chamber’s long memories of his pro-Southern leanings. Inconclusive evidence suggests that despite his public displays of support for the Union, he supplied invading Confederate forces. Fearing violent reprisals by Unionists and pursuing entrepreneurial opportunities, Otero and his family left the territory and settled in Kansas for the remainder of the decade. José Francisco Chaves served as an officer in the First New Mexico Infantry Regiment, helping to repel the Confederate Army at the Battle of Valverde in 1863. With the Confederate campaign decisively checked at Valverde and Glorieta Pass, Chaves spent the final two years of the war as a lieutenant colonel, as the U.S. Army turned its attention to pacifying Navajo and Apache Indians.
Santa Fe Ring
The Civil War created new opportunities for Anglo lawyers and businessmen who had moved into the territory to seek their fortunes. A political scene with so much active ferment provided tantalizing opportunities for enterprising Hispanos who were willing to work with U.S. officials and Anglo outsiders to acquire greater political and economic dominance in the territory.
Built on a partnership between these two groups, the Santa Fe Ring was the first and perhaps the most notable political machine in New Mexico’s history.71 This Republican-oriented group dominated territorial politics in the latter 19th century, counting among its ranks nearly every governor of the territory and most federal officials from 1865 through the late 1880s. From the mid-1860s to the early 1880s, a string of Hispanos were elected Delegate on the Republican ticket. The Ring recruited lawyers, probate judges, land surveyors, doctors, and merchants, who combined forces for profit and political power. Through appointments to key territorial offices delivered by Republicans in Washington, D.C., and the support of the business class and a pliant press, they succeeded brilliantly. “Although located on the frontier,” writes historian Howard Lamar, “the ring reflected the corporative, monopolistic, and multiple enterprise tendencies of all American business after the Civil War.” Its chief means of influence was parlaying land into economic clout by purchasing, inflating, repackaging, and marketing a score of land grants doled out by Spanish rulers, and later by the U.S. government. The Santa Fe Ring’s most grandiose venture involved its speculative promotion of the two-million-acre Maxwell Land Grant.72
Several Hispano Members of Congress were key Ring members or allies; Miguel Otero, Sr.; José Francisco Chaves; Mariano Otero; Francisco Manzanares; and the politically connected Perea family were all aligned with the Santa Fe Ring at some point in their careers. Miguel Otero, Sr., owned a piece of the sprawling Maxwell Land Grant. Chaves, despite some disagreements with the Santa Fe Ring, was particularly active as president of the territorial council after his tenure as Delegate. Mariano Otero proved useful as a longtime probate judge in Bernalillo County, and Manzanares was a partner with Stephen Elkins and Thomas Benton Catron in both the Maxwell Land Grant Company and the First National Bank of Santa Fe. Many of the Hispano Delegates who were not officially counted in its ranks sympathized with the Ring’s larger desire to corporatize the territory. Only Gallegos, consistently portrayed by Ring candidates as a throwback to the corrupt, anti-modern rule of the Mexican regime, remained unaligned with the Ring. By the early 1890s, Elkins had gone back East, New Mexico’s economy had diversified beyond the rampant land speculation of the early post-Civil War years, and the Santa Fe Ring faded in importance.
65Congressional Globe, House, 31st Cong., 1st. sess. (6 September 1850): 1762–1764.
66Lamar, The Far Southwest, 1846–1912: A Territorial History: 88; see Horsman, Race and Manifest Destiny: 236–248, for Democrats’ and Whigs’ positions regarding New Mexico’s admittance as a state.
67Lamar, The Far Southwest, 1846–1912: A Territorial History: 114–117, quotation on p. 116. Lamar divides New Mexico’s political evolution into three stages: 1) an unoccupied territory in which contending powers jockeyed for control during 1821 to 1846; 2) a frontier reliant upon the national government for defense and development from 1847 to 1864; 3) an assertion of local rights, the rise of a working political system, calculated use of outside aid for local benefit, and a growing sense of a distinct political identity from 1865 to 1912.
68The election date was changed with the passage of a 1872 law that moved the election date of Delegates to the first Tuesday of November of the even-numbered year. See Revised Statutes and Laws of the Territory of New Mexico in Force at the Close of the Session of the Legislative Assembly Ending February 2, 1865 (St. Louis: R. P. Studley & Co., 1865): 430; Compiled Laws of New Mexico. In Accordance with an Act of the Legislature, approved April 3, 1884. Including the Constitution of the United States, the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, the Gadsden Treaty: The Original Act Organizing the Territory; The Organic Acts as now in force; The Original Kearny Code; and a List of Laws Enacted Since the Compilation of 1865. (Topeka, KS: G. W. Crane & Co., 1885): 586.
69Pomeroy, The Territories and the United States, 1861–1890: 80; Larson, New Mexico’s Quest for Statehood, 1846–1912: 29–30, 36–40, 69–74; Lamar, The Far Southwest, 1846–1912: A Territorial History: 88–89. Lamar and Larson describe the political split between New Mexicans who wanted immediate statehood and those who preferred a territorial government. Pro-statehood advocates formed a faction under Richard Weightman, New Mexico’s first Territorial Delegate, while pro-territory advocates united under Judge Joab Houghton. The Weightman faction made an effort to promote nuevomexicano political candidates such as Gallegos, whereas the Houghton faction promoted primarily Anglo candidates. Larson writes that “the Spanish-speaking majority … was hurt more than any other group by the political divisions and feuds” as one faction “scornfully exploited the Hispanos, and the other patronizingly sought their votes.” The Weightman and Houghton factions fought for control of New Mexican politics through delegate elections and patronage appointments for the remainder of the 1850s. See also Ramirez, “The Hispanic Political Elite in Territorial New Mexico: A Study of Classical Colonialism”: 261.
70Larson, New Mexico’s Quest for Statehood: 85–86. Larson lists two reasons for why nuevomexicanos remained loyal to the Union. First, Confederate rule meant Texan rule. For many New Mexicans, the Sibley invasion was another attempt by Texans who tried to take the Rio Grande Valley. Secondly, Confederate supporters’ promotion of “the exclusive use of English in all legal proceedings by the Confederate Territory of Arizona … made the territory’s Spanish-speaking citizens more positive of the unsuitability of the Southern cause.” For background on the Civil War in the American West and New Mexico, see Donald S. Frazier, Blood and Treasure: Confederate Empire in the Southwest (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 1995); and Ray C. Colton, Civil War in the Western Territories: Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, and Utah (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1959). For more information about nuevomexicano experiences during the war, see Darlis A. Miller, “Hispanos and the Civil War in New Mexico: A Reconsideration,” New Mexico Historical Review 54, no. 2 (April 1979): 105–123.
71At the heart of the ring was the Santa Fe law partnership that included college friends and outsize personalities: Republicans Stephen Benton Elkins and Thomas Benton Catron. Before they joined forces, Elkins was U.S. District Attorney for New Mexico, and Catron was the territorial attorney general. Both men became successful politicians, advancing the Santa Fe Ring’s interests along the way. For more information on both men, see “Thomas Benton Catron” and “Stephen Benton Elkins,” Biographical Directory of the United States Congress, http://bioguide.congress.gov.
72For an especially useful interpretation of the Santa Fe Ring’s domination of territorial politics through land grant manipulations, see Lamar, The Far Southwest, 1846–1912: A Territorial History: 121–149. Lamar provides background on the Maxwell Land Grant (originally the Beaubien–Miranda claim), which dated to Spanish rule, on pp. 124–125. For the Santa Fe Ring’s pro-statehood position, see Larson, New Mexico’s Quest for Statehood, 1846–1912: 135–146.