After the 1846 occupation and annexation, New Mexico was brought under the civil law of the United States (Kearny Code), and government officials for New Mexico were immediately appointed by Gen. Kearny. Thereafter, New Mexico was governed by civil and military officials who received their appointments from Washington.
Thus began New Mexico’s territorial period, which lasted 66 years, until our old and venerable Nuevo Mexico, long a Spanish and Mexican province, was admitted to the Union as the 47th state in 1912.
After Kearny marched into our town in 1846, Las Vegas was under military occupation and was designated as Post Las Vegas, serving as the U. S. military post for northeastern New Mexico until 1851, when Fort Union was established to protect trade caravans along the Santa Fe Trail.
The U.S. occupation and annexation of New Mexico, first announced by Kearny in Las Vegas, was obviously momentous. Our laws and governance changed overnight, and Americanos were immediately appointed to all positions of authority.
But life continued otherwise uninterrupted in Las Vegas, and sweeping change would not occur here for another three decades, when the railroad arrived in 1879, and East Las Vegas was established. Until then, Las Vegas remained west of the Gallinas River. (The area east of the river was used only for farming and grazing livestock, with scant habitation).
Annexation did, however, immediately increase trade along the booming Santa Fe Trail, from a trickle to a flood, and during the 33 years between Kearny and the arrival of the railroad, Las Vegas became one of the principal locations along the famous Trail. During this period, three remarkable developments would transform Las Vegas and chart our future for several generations.
First was the initial influx of Americanos, who would transform the old town area of Las Vegas from a locale of adobe laden houses and portals, into a business mecca with the first of its kind territorial-style appearance, which soon spread to other parts of New Mexico.
Second, Miguel Romero and his five sons would begin transporting goods as freighters along the Santa Fe Trail, and would quickly dominate all areas of business in Las Vegas, including mercantile, ranching, timber and other enterprises. They would amass incredible wealth and power, and establish a family dynasty which ruled Las Vegas and San Miguel County for more than half a century, often impacting all of New Mexico.
And third, during this post-Kearny/pre-railroad period, Charles Ilfeld and other pioneer Jewish merchants would make their way here, and Las Vegas would become the foremost Jewish enclave in the Southwest. Here they would erect their first synagogue, and here the Jewish merchants would get their start with and among the Hispanic people.
These transformative developments will be the subject of our next several columns.
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In last week’s column I related that Kearny’s march into Las Vegas was tranquil and continued without incident through his entry into Santa Fe. The American occupation was by no means peaceful, however, and within months there was formidable resistance in many areas, resulting in great loss of life and devastation.
One of the first rebellions was mounted in Taos on Jan. 19, 1847, when Native Americans and Hispanos joined forces and attacked the headquarters of Gov. Charles Bent, who had been appointed governor of New Mexico by Kearny. Bent and four others were killed in the revolt. On Feb. 4, 1847, after a day of fierce fighting, the U.S. army recaptured Taos. Some 150 Native Americans lost their lives in the battle for Taos, while seven American soldiers died and 45 were wounded, many of them fatally.
In the beautiful Mora valley, several hundred Hispanos mounted a brave insurgency on Jan. 24. 1847. A great battle ensued and 30 resistance fighters were killed. The Americans also suffered casualties, including the army captain who led the attack on Mora. Mora was decimated by cannon fire, and the people temporarily scattered into the mountains.
As late as June 1847, fearing a new revolt, the U.S. army invaded Las Vegas, captured the town, sent some 50 prisoners to Santa Fe, and charged our mayor with complicity, burning his sawmill to the ground. Juan de Dios was later exonerated, but throughout this period following Kearny’s occupation, scores of New Mexicans were accused of treason against the United States and executed, either by hanging or firing squad.
Many other battles, acts of resistance and loss of life occurred throughout New Mexico in the year following Kearny’s occupation. Suffice it to say that other than his initial march into Las Vegas and Santa Fe, Kearny’s occupation of New Mexico was not peaceful.
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Next: The Americanos arrive and transform the old town plaza.
Jesus L. Lopez is a native of Las Vegas and a local historian. He may be reached at 425-3730.