Nuestra Historia - New Mexico trembled as territorial titans clashed

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Early territorial New Mexico saw the beginning of a collision which continues to this day, between a centuries-old social and cultural order, and the new American way. It would explode in an epic struggle between two priests, starting with the first elections for New Mexico’s territorial delegate to Congress.


For centuries before the American takeover, the Roman Catholic Church exerted enormous influence in New Mexico. Catholic clergy were among the most educated, and their unbounded influence over the people had long been ingrained in this northernmost outpost of the Spanish empire.

In addition to their spiritual role, many priests served as civil and political leaders, continuing through the American annexation. In 1851, seven members of the first territorial legislative assembly were Catholic priests, and as related later, the first elections to choose New Mexico’s delegate to Congress were intense contests involving the clergy.    

Since first settled in 1598, New Mexico was part of the Archdiocese of Durango, located about 900 miles south of Santa Fe. Following the early Franciscan friars who accompanied the first Spanish explorers and settlers, New Mexico priests were for the most part educated at seminaries in Durango, and ordained under the auspices of that diocese.

No other religious authority was known here for 250 years, so that when the American Catholic Church followed Kearny, and made its own ecclesiastical invasion of New Mexico, the consequences were explosive.

In 1850, the United States Catholic hierarchy created the diocese of Santa Fe, and sent French priest Jean-Baptiste Lamy to the new territory as the first American bishop. Lamy arrived here from Cincinnati in the summer of 1851, at the age of 36. (In 1875, the diocese was elevated to an archdiocese, and Lamy attained his immortal title: Archbishop of Santa Fe.)

Lamy’s arrival split asunder the fragile relations between the native Hispanic population and the Anglo newcomers, already fractured since Kearny’s invasion five years earlier. So pervasive was resistance to Lamy’s authority, that immediately after his arrival he found it necessary to make the arduous trip to Durango, to appeal to the Mexican archbishop to instruct New Mexico’s clergy to accept Lamy. (In 1853 Lamy even traveled to Rome, to seek the Pope’s support and imprimatur, returning with full authority from the Vatican.)

Leading the opposition to Lamy was the fearless (and fearsome) Padre Antonio José Martínez, the Taos parish priest since 1826. Born in 1793 in Abiquiu in Rio Arriba County, Martinez was educated and ordained in Durango. Twenty years older than Lamy, the erudite and scholarly Martinez had established a school in Taos, where he began operating the first printing press in New Mexico in 1834, using it to print textbooks and one of the first newspapers of that era, El Crepúsculo de la Libertad (the dawn of liberty).

The acknowledged leader of the common people, Martinez had been antagonistic even to Spanish and Mexican authority, before the U.S. occupation. After 1846, Martinez was openly hostile to the newcomers, and unabashedly opposed American assimilation — secular and sectarian.

Padre Martinez was long suspected by the U.S. military of complicity in the 1847 assassination in Taos of Gov. Charles Bent, just months after his appointment by Gen. Kearny. Unable to prove his involvement, the military did not charge Martinez, though some historians believe charges were not brought for fear that widespread and irrepressible rebellion would erupt in defense of the eminent priest.

Representing the new American order, Lamy was determined to establish his ecclesiastical authority alongside the Anglo-American civil rule already imposed in the new Territory. Primary for Lamy, was that all Hispanic clergy remove themselves from secular affairs. Martinez, of course, was the acknowledged political leader of the native population, even becoming president of the first territorial legislature in 1851.

(Martinez had also been president of the 1849 convention which sought an alternative to military rule.)

Under these extraordinary circumstances, each unshakable in his position, Lamy and Martinez met — like a train wreck. The confrontation came to a head in 1853, in the election of New Mexico’s territorial delegate to Congress.

Padre Martinez was determined that an Hispanic be sent to Washington, and his candidate was Fr. José Manuel Gallegos, his protégé, who was the parish priest at San Felipe de Neri in Albuquerque. Incensed, Lamy openly endorsed and actively supported the opposing Anglo-American candidate, William Carr Lane, a former mayor of St. Louis, Mo., who was just ending his term as New Mexico’s second territorial governor.

The stage was set for the first epic battle between the Bishop and the Padre. Through these early territorial titans, New Mexico would be torn asunder between the new American way, and the centuries-old traditions of its Spanish and Mexican past.

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