When New Mexico defeated Texas in 1841, a territory cheered | Commentary

In 1841, in the midst of New Mexico’s Mexican period, Texas made a bold attempt at a land grab, namely the territory of New Mexico.

For 20 years, New Mexico was an integral — not peripheral — part of the nation of Mexico. But an independent Texas had other ideas for the future Land of Enchantment.

Much like New Mexico, Tejas was a distant Spanish territory in the 1700s — a buffer between expanding British and French national interests to the east. Spain, at least officially, forbade its territories from trading with foreign powers and imposed closed borders in places like New Mexico, Texas and California.

But upon gaining independence from Spain in 1821, Mexico opened its borders to the United States. Only then was the development of the Santa Fe Trail possible. The trail brought enterprising Americans, who were looking for land to settle and business opportunities to exploit. At first, Mexico welcomed the Americans, as the northern Mexican lands were sparsely populated. Within a few years, acceptance turned to concern, as local officials reported to the central government in Mexico City there were too many Americans entering the Mexican nation.

The Mexican government responded by closing the northern border. In an ironic twist of history, Americans continued to pour into Mexico illegally, settling and even squatting on lands already claimed by Native Americans and Mexicans for centuries.

All of this would have been unsettling enough, until the events of 1841 unfolded.

Some maps of the time can be distressing to modern New Mexicans. They depict Texas extending as far west as the Rio Grande, encompassing more than half New Mexico’s territory and enveloping towns such as Alburquerque (its spelling at the time), Santa Fe, Taos, Picuris and Pecos. Yet, those maps were more propaganda than truth, more wishful thinking than reality. This land was never part of Texas.

Manuel Armijo, the three-term Mexican governor of New Mexico, is, along with Padre Martínez of Taos, one of the state’s more fascinating historical figures from the 1800s. Like his religious counterpart, Armijo was born in New Mexico, in the area south of Albuquerque, in the late 1700s and lived to see his homeland ruled by Spain, Mexico and the U.S.

In 1841, during his second term as governor, Armijo was tasked with confronting a threat from the east — not from the United States or France but from the Republic of Texas.

American-born Texans were in an expansionist mood that year and felt they would need room to grow their newly minted republic. New Mexico seemed ripe for the taking. Word reached Santa Fe of a contingent of Tejanos moving west toward the New Mexico border. Armijo amassed an army of Mexican New Mexicans and led them east to head off the invading army. This was the Texas-Santa Fe Expedition.

The Texans, who numbered about 300, were not prepared for the harsh terrain, nor for the vast, empty distances of western Texas and eastern New Mexico. Their miscalculations would dearly cost them dearly.

The brave contingent of New Mexicans was able to easily overtake and overcome its adversaries, who were in bad shape and half starving by the time the New Mexicans encountered them. Armijo took the Texans prisoners, and they were marched south to be imprisoned first in Mexico City, then in Veracruz, Mexico.

The surrender of the Texans to a well-armed military force from New Mexico was cause for a fiesta. Americans in the New Mexico Territory feared retribution from the New Mexicans, but none came. Mexico’s northern lands were safe for the time being.

After negotiations and international intervention, the defeated Texans were eventually set free to return to Texas. New Mexico remained New Mexico, and the Texans would lick their wounds before attempting another takeover in 1862 during the Civil War.

Rob Martínez, New Mexico’s state historian, writes a column about the state’s rich past every month in The New Mexican. View episodes of his YouTube series, New Mexico History in 10 Minutes, at tinyurl.com/NMHistoryin10.

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