Written March 13, 2016
When Mexico gained its independence in 1821, Mexico’s northern frontier floundered in the vacuum left by the absence of Spanish troops, money, and governance. The Mexican frontier became a convenient and increasingly lucrative target for the expanding United States. The region was poorly defended, poorly managed, disenchanted with its federal government, and the site of the Santa Fe trade, as well as a potential land route to California’s profitable hide-and-tallow trade. It took twenty-five years for the United States to officially begin its conquest of Mexico’s Far North, with the Mexican-American War in 1846, but the process of incorporation began much earlier.
With Spain gone, the fledgling Mexican state had to maintain the army and the alliances they had worked for as a colony, but not previously paid for. The transition from Spanish colony to independent nation reduced region’s military coordination, supplies, and training. The new government could not actually afford to stand an army; the effort to do so resulted in an army which only the desperate or the coerced would enter. Historian David Weber notes that the military’s poor provisions led to a decline in “morale, dignity, and discipline,” making military service a recourse only chosen by those who were already impoverished, or by convicts who were given no choice at all. Weber further points out that “under these circumstances, soldiers drained the frontier economy rather than contributing to it.” Of perhaps equal importance was that the poverty of the frontier’s military was highlighted by the relative high status of the Mexican army in “centers of power – Mexico City and Veracruz.” Frontier officials might have been somewhat less alienated by the federal government’s mishandling of military provisioning, had the impoverishment been evenly distributed; the difference only heightened the discontent of the frontier.
With their army weakened, Mexico – especially officials charged with the management of the frontier – might have leaned more on their alliances with some Native American tribes to defend their northern frontier from encroachment by Americans. Imperialism by the United States – a country which had already demonstrated a successful western expansion, right up to Mexico’s border – was certainly of some concern. However, many of those alliances had depended on the Spanish rationing system, in which the tribes were provided with certain quantities of rations – food, clothing, even ammunition – on a regular basis. Independent Mexico could not afford to continue providing rations for their own troops, much less for Native Americans who weren’t even considered Mexican citizens. When rations were no longer forthcoming, the tribes that had been allied through the rationing system fell away from the alliance. While some local officials were able to make alliances with some tribes, raiding by Apaches, Utes, and Comanches increased in the region as many tribes returned to raiding to make up for the economic difference left by the lack of rations. The region destabilized, and seemed as removed from ‘civilization’ – and as indefensible – as ever.
Yet, Mexico’s Far North was still enticing real estate for those who had capital to invest. The Santa Fe trade in New Mexico and the Hide and Tallow trade in California made these areas, and the land route between them, economically valuable to the early industrial economy of the United States. And, American settlers had long since pushed their way into New Mexico. Mexican colonization of the region, however, was not well supported by the Mexican government, an issue that added to the alienation of the frontier from the central government both politically and logistically as Mexican colonists became immersed in American settlers. “The American frontier had literally spilled over onto the Mexican frontier and forged new economic, demographic, and cultural links to the United States.”
Fear of raids by Native Americans didn’t deter either settlers or the US government. In fact, the raiding economy of the plains tribes, combined with the influx of settlers from the US, contributed to the destabilization of the Mexican frontier. While the new settlers increased the availability of guns and ammunition to the plains tribes, increasing these tribes’ ability to raid, the settlers also provided a new outlet for trade of stolen livestock, which increased the motivation to raid. This effect also shifted the economy of the region, by dispersing economic events from a two-group model to a three-group model, one which included the Americans. Native Americans participating in the raiding economy weren’t the only benefactors of this shift; American settlers provided a new trade opportunity for Mexicans, too, reducing the importance of trade with the more populated, but progressively less popular, central Mexico.
Trade in Mexico’s frontier was profitable for American merchants, too. William Becknell, the first American merchant to trade in Santa Fe wrote in his journal that he had returned from his first expedition to Santa Fe with more than 10,000 dollars, presumably in profit. American trade was welcomed in the early days of Mexican independence from Spain, and the economic boon it represented likely accounts for the region’s positive feelings toward the United States by New Mexico’s frontier inhabitants.
Whether or not Mexicans wanted them, Americans were rushing the frontier, and to protect their profits, American merchants may have been willing to insert themselves into Mexico’s power vacuum. In 1837, unrest in the Far North became revolt. Persistent poverty and an out-of-touch central government meant that the region was perpetually “ripe for insurrection.” The situation climaxed when President Antonio Lopez de Santa Ana reorganized the country into departments, each to be led by an administrator of the president’s choosing, and tasked the department administrators with collecting taxes. Colonel Albino Perez had the misfortune of being selected to govern New Mexico. He began his administration as an untrusted outsider to the region; his steady efforts to consolidate the federal government’s power – as he had been tasked to do by President Santa Ana – provided the evidence that served to solidify New Mexican’s idea of Perez as a threat to their autonomy. Perez’s administration’s enforcement of departmental taxation, and new regulations limiting trade by American merchants, threatened the strained economy as well as individual pocketbooks. The final straw was the wrongful imprisonment of a locally popular mayor, Juan Jose Esquivel. Acting in his purview, Esquivel had stood as judge for a local case. The case was reviewed by Ramon Abreu, a higher judge in Perez’s administration, who overturned Esquivel’s judgement. When Esquivel did not cooperate with Abreu’s judgement, Abreu had Esquivel arrested.
The installation of an unfamiliar governor and a political reorganization by the federal government that restricted the locals’ autonomy while increasing locals’ tax burden, fomented unrest; the insult to an established mayor by the new regime – which was also an insult to the region’s autonomy – sparked the revolt. To be clear, the rebels affirmed their loyalty to the federal government of Mexico; their revolt targeted only the governor’s limited regional administration, protesting the reorganization that had decreased their autonomy while raising their taxes. Though the revolt was successful – the governor was killed and his administration defeated – it was short-lived.
Manuel Armijo, a member of the wealthy and politically powerful ‘rico’ class Mexican citizens on the frontier, rallied a militia and routed the rebel government. The whole affair lasted about two months. However, the militia still had to be financed; the federal government did not allocate sufficient funds to maintain a relevant military. In fact, it appears that the federal government was not involved in the rebellion or its quelling, aside from the appointment of Governor Perez and the departmental mandates that triggered it. Armijo and his militia were supported and funded at a regional level, but while it’s unclear exactly who did the funding – Mexican citizens or American merchants – it does seem clear that the federal Mexican government wasn’t involved.
Weber describes the Chimayo Rebellion, as the revolt came to be known, as “a domestic affair, with foreigners playing an inconsequential role.” However, it is also true that in the midst of the rebellion, when the revolt threatened the Santa Fe trade, “Anglo-American residents of New Mexico had no difficulty in choosing sides, and some responded generously to Armijo’s request for donations to the cause of preserving order and protecting property.” There is no further explanation of how much of militia’s cost was subsidized by American merchants, and Weber’s reader is left wondering whether it’s really fair to call the contribution made by American merchants “inconsequential” – after all, we don’t know whether or not the militia would have been possible without the financial support of those merchants, and without the militia, there would not have been victory for Armijo and the central government. What Weber does correctly surmise is that “America’s political incorporation of the Mexican frontier between 1845 and 1854 represented the culmination of a process as much as the inauguration of a new era.”
Becknell, William, and Francis Asbury Sampson. “The Journals of Capt. Thomas Becknell from Boone’s Lick to Santa Fe and from Santa Cruz to Green River.” Missouri Historical Review 4, no. 2 (January 1910): 65-84.
Blythe, Lance R. Chiricahua and Janos: Communities of Violence in the Southwest Borderlands, 1680-1880. Lincoln, Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press, 2012.
Dobyns, Henry F. Spanish Colonial Tucson: A Demographic History. Tucson, Arizona: University of Arizona Press, 1976.
Reno, Philip. “Rebellion in New Mexico – 1837,” New Mexico Historical Review XL (July 1965): 197-213.
Sanchez, Joseph R. “It Happened in Old Santa Fe, The Death of Governor Albino Perez, 1835-1837.” In All Trails Lead to Santa Fe: An Anthology Commemorating the 400th Anniversary of the Founding of Santa Fe, New Mexico, 267-278. Santa Fe, New Mexico: Sunstone Press, 2010.
Weber, David J. The Mexican Frontier, 1821-1846: The American Southwest under Mexico. Albuquerque, New Mexico: University of New Mexico Press, 1982.
 David J. Weber, The Mexican Frontier, 1821-1846: The American Southwest Under Mexico (Albuquerque, New Mexico: University of New Mexico Press, 1982), 112.
 Ibid., 113-114.
 Ibid., 112.
 Weber indicates that the inequality of military provisioning between the two regions, central Mexico and the Mexican frontier, was rarely discussed in public formats such as newspapers, but asserts that the inequality did not go unnoticed by frontier inhabitants. Rather, the equity was a highly visible sore point for the frontiersmen (but it was invisible to those in charge, who were located in Veracruz and Mexico City). Ibid., 110.
 Henry F. Dobyns, Spanish Colonial Tucson: A Demographic History (Tucson, Arizona: University of Arizona Press, 1976), 98.
 Weber 1982, 110.
 Lance R. Blythe, Chiricahua and Janos: Communities of Violence in the Southwest Borderlands, 1680-1880 (Lincoln, Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press, 2012), 97.
 Weber 1982, 276.
 Ibid., 95-101.
 Ibid., 105 & 276.
 William Becknell & Francis Asbury Sampson. “The journals of Capt. Thomas Becknell from Boone’s Lick to Santa Fe and from Santa Cruz to Green River” Missouri Historical Review 4(2) January 1910: 65.
 Josiah Gregg, as quoted in Philip Reno, “Rebellion in New Mexico – 1837,” New Mexico Historical Review XL (July 1965): 199.
 Joseph R. Sanchez, “It Happened in Old Santa Fe, The Death of Governor Albino Perez, 1835-1837,” in All Trails Lead to Santa Fe: An Anthology Commemorating the 400th Anniversary of the Founding of Santa Fe, New Mexico (Santa Fe, New Mexico: Sunstone Press, 2010), 268-272.
 Reno 1965, 199.
 Weber 1982, 261.
 Weber 1982, 263.
 Ibid., 276.