Nuestra Historia - After saying no to slavery, N.M. denied statehood

-A A +A

Not to know what happened before you were born is to be forever a child. This ancient axiom is especially true about momentous historical events which shaped our destiny.

As this Centennial series continues, we hope to relate the critical moments which unfolded as New Mexico emerged from a centuries-old outpost of the Spanish empire, to become the 47th American state.

We begin with a quiet gathering of 13 men, who met in Santa Fe in October 1848, to ponder the future of their homeland, first explored by Coronado in 1541, and settled by Juan de Oñate in 1598.

The gathering was convened to deal for the first time with New Mexico’s future under American rule, and the delegates arrived in Santa Fe from throughout the province. Meeting just two years after Gen. Kearny had marched into Las Vegas and first proclaimed the occupation of New Mexico by the United States, the delegates were no doubt perplexed by the sudden events which made them strangers in a land their people had called home for 250 years.     

That first meeting in Santa Fe would have thunderous consequences, at a critical juncture in New Mexico’s future. The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo had been proclaimed in Santa Fe only two months earlier, making it finally certain that New Mexico would be forever part of the United States.

The Treaty ended the Mexican-American War, ceding to the U.S. most of the Southwest and California, and New Mexicans were given a choice of citizenship between Mexico and the United States. (About 2,000 New Mexicans chose to remain citizens of Mexico, and made their way south across the new international border.)

The delegates were welcomed to Santa Fe by Gov. Donaciano Vigil, New Mexico’s second governor after the American occupation. Vigil succeeded Charles Bent, who had been appointed governor by Gen. Kearny immediately after the occupation. (Bent was killed in Taos in January 1847, during the widespread rebellion which occurred throughout New Mexico following Kearny’s invasion.)

Though meeting in their ancient capital far removed from the rest of the country, Gov. Vigil and the assembled delegates knew the United States was then being consumed by the raging issue of slavery — they knew also the hazard of venturing a position on the invidious question of human bondage.

In a moment of profound conviction, on Oct. 14, 1848, these courageous men signed a bold declaration, informing Congress that while New Mexico sought recognition as a U.S. territory, “we do not desire to have domestic slavery within our borders.” (Though motivated by their moral aversion to slavery, their noble stand was also driven by their fear that if slavery prevailed in the U.S., the native New Mexico population might itself be enslaved.)

These first New Mexico leaders under American rule, knowing their decision could imperil New Mexico’s future with the American nation, further declared that “until the time shall arrive for admission into the Union of states, we desire to be protected by Congress against the introduction of slaves into the Territory.”

The petition was not well received in Washington, where it was read on the Senate floor on Dec. 13, 1848, causing a storm among pro-slavery senators and congressmen, who assailed the “insolence” of the people of New Mexico, for expressing a position on the burning question then dividing the nation.

At that point, New Mexico became a pawn in the struggle over slavery. Under the political machinations in Washington at the time, California was to have been admitted as a free state, to be balanced by New Mexico, which was to be accorded statehood as a slave state.
Though the prospect of immediate admission was sacrificed, the courageous and principled declaration made by our first representatives in 1848, should always be remembered as one of New Mexico’s finest hours.

So too should we always remember those valiant 13, 10 Hispanics and three Anglos, who first announced on American soil, that New Mexico would not be silent on the grave issue of slavery. They were Gov. Donaciano Vigil, Santiago Archuleta, Charles Beaubien, Ramón Luna, famed Taos cleric Antonio José Martínez, Manuel A. Otero, Juan Perea, José Pley, James Quinn, Antonio Sais, Francisco Sarracino, Elias P. West and Gregorio Vigil, the latter representing San Miguel County.

Had those first delegates declared in favor of slavery, New Mexico would have probably been admitted immediately as a state, without even a territorial transition. But it was not to be, and New Mexico’s long quest for statehood would continue to be thwarted by the slavery question, and later by racial and religious prejudice.

(Note: Gov. Donaciano Vigil was the great-great-grandfather of former longtime Las Vegas and Highlands University police chief Andy A. Vigil, and retired Highlands professor and renowned historian Maurilio E. Vigil.)

Jesus L. Lopez is a native of Las Vegas and a local historian. He may be reached at 425-3730.