Friday, December 22, 2023

Something is Mssing


Shortly before we relocated to Santa Fe, New Mexico Jim was discussing our impending move with one of the members of our Newington, CT health club. “Do they have supermarkets out there?” he asked in all seriousness. Jim assured him that they did – with paved parking lots even.

Although at the time we were quite surprised by the question we’ve since come to realize that New Mexico is, to put it mildly, not a “known quantity” to a good portion of those who live outside of our country’s 47th state.

Something residents of the “Land of Enchantment” have become used to – and bemused by.  New Mexico Magazine – the nation’s first state magazine (1923) and published monthly in print, online and via an iOS app (yeah we have that out here also) – has a regular column called “One of Our 50 is Missing” wherein readers submit their own “missing moments.”

Some are probably because people just don’t listen carefully or mis-hear what is being said, e.g. – a resident of Rio Rancho, NM tried to refill a prescription while vacationing on Cape Cod, MA to be told by the pharmacist that they had no idea how to process an order from a foreign country.

Others are clearly a lack of knowledge – an article in a London England newspaper showing a map of a new luxury railroad in Utah placed New Mexico east of Colorado.

A few simply defy explanation – at Texas Christian University, in Fort Worth one Santa Fean was asked if we have different stars in New Mexico. “Probably because they only have one in Texas,” the magazine opined.

And our own personal “missing moment,” which was more disconcerting than humorous. We were on the computer updating one of our financial accounts to our new New Mexico home address. The change was processed without a hitch. But we were re-classified us a “foreign investors.” We turned the problem over to our investment advisor.

And then there’s New Mexico’s imaginary cactus. Residents of Arizona are rightfully proud of their Saguaros, tree-like cacti that can grow to be between 40-60 feet tall – but only in their part of the Sonoran Desert plus the Mexican state of Sonora and California’s Whipple Mountains and Imperial County. NOT New Mexico!

That doesn’t prevent it from being used as NM imagery. Grammy-winning country musician Kacey Musgraves’ song “Dime Store Cowgirl,” includes the line “I’ve driven through New Mexico, where the saguaro cactus grow.”

Even Progressive Insurance’s ever-cheerful spokesperson Flo is featured on a mail-offer envelope amid images of a saguaro cacti and the invitation to “Enjoy Big Savings in the Land of Enchantment.”

Or maybe New Mexico actually is “missing.” Jim was explaining to guests at El Rancho de las Golondrinas that its big grist mill (Molino Grande) was once a commercial business from the 1880s through the 1920s. (It was moved from Las Vegas, NM to the museum in the 1970s.) It was unusual he said that the machinery remained intact through 50 years of non-use, especially during WWII when the U.S. was looking for scrap metal for the war effort. One visitor, clearly a local, commented, “nobody knew where we were then either.”

And truth be told we did not know much at all about New Mexico before we landed here in September 1992 looking to celebrate our 25th wedding anniversary in an exotic but stateside locale. Our interest was piqued by a retrospective of the New Mexican artist Georgia O’Keeffe’s works at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City – super-arid deserts, psychedelic colored mountains, floating desiccated cow skulls, stark wooden crosses in the middle of nowhere – those sorts of things. We immediately knew we wanted to see the surreal environment inspired these crazily abstract paintings.

Other than that, our knowledge of the Land of Enchantment was pretty much based upon Jim’s dim recollection of a turquoise stone in a collection of “Gemstones by State” given to him as a child (his favorite of the set of then 48.) And what we got from the novel “The Milagro Beanfield War” by John Nichols and its eponymous movie adaptation – “the book all newcomers to New Mexico should read, offering the flavor of this place with its competing cultures and values,” according to the Santa Fe New Mexican.  Set in the fictional Chicano village of Milagro the “War” is a folklore fable in the Latin American magical realism tradition (daily earthly meetups with heavenly angels) where a small-time farmer is struggling to defend his modest beanfield and community against larger business and state political interests. An “earthily naturalistic, often highly romanticized, blend of the supernatural and whimsical” per movie critic Richard Scheib. (Sadly, while this essay was being composed author John Nichols died at the age of 83.)

An impressionistic landscape, out-of-the ordinary gemology and magical elements as a normal part of life – that was enough for us. So off we went with no fixed agenda other than four nights in Santa Fe and three in Taos. (We had not much vacation time available then. And weren’t totally sure we would like it enough to spend more than week there anyway.)

We quickly learned that (1) the super-arid deserts were not the vast expanses of sand we expected but rather vast expanses of “high desert” (ecosystems at high altitudes with little precipitation.) And the state’s geology also included snow-capped 13,000’ peaks dressed in pines and spruce, brilliant wildflower fields, forests of towering cottonwoods, white sand dunes and vast expanses of prairie. (2) The psychedelic colored mountains really did exist – in certain places, at certain times, in certain light – for example the Sangre de Cristo mountains at sunrise seen from the parking area at the Rio Grande Gorge Bridge 10 miles northwest of Taos. (3) Desiccated cow skulls are pretty commonplace, esp. in gift shops, but never hovering aloft. At least not on that trip. (4) The stark wooden crosses in the middle of nowhere are intentional, put there by a secretive Catholic lay brotherhood known as Penitentes. And (5) turquoise is anything but out-of-the ordinary here – although the jewelry into which it is incorporated definitely can be.

On our mid-vacation drive from Santa Fe to Taos we passed by the village of Truchas where the Milagro Beanfield War movie was filmed. The tiny rural township looked exactly like what it was portrayed as – a tiny rural township just trying to live its day-to-day life. We did not stop to look around. So no reports on the actuality of angels dancing out of a sunrise or into a sunset. And spent our time instead in the more tourist-oriented towns of Santa Fe, Taos and Albuquerque. All were foreign to us (as in different) – yet familiar (as if we belonged.)
Maybe it was the beige – said by some to be boring, by others neutral, calm, and relaxing.

Everything around us seemed to be a pale sandy yellowish-brown. Adobe buildings, foliage-free landscapes. All under a deep blue sky. And art was everywhere. Hispanic-Catholic folk art portrayed a comfortable, personal relationship between the artist, their religious subject matter and their faith. The hand-dug, hand-coiled, hand-painted Native American clay pottery told of their craftsperson’s connection to the land and geometric complexity of their indigenous beliefs.

With the little knowledge that we now had, we were already hooked.

On our way north from Santa Fe, driving for the first time down what we now know as Opera Hill on U.S. Route 25 we looked out on the vast expanse of Espanola Valley – beige (of course) under the boundless blue sky. No saguaro cactus for hundreds of miles. Both of our jaws dropped (at least in our minds.) Marsha thought. “this is where I belong.”
Thirty-seven years later we finally got here – and contacted our long-time homeowners and auto insurer AMICA who has a southwest office with a representative who frequents Santa Fe. It is fun to joke about living in a place that no one knows about. But not when our financial protection is involved. Sorry Flo.

Incidentally: Even Santa Claus almost “missed” New Mexico. He was not a part of Indigenous Native, Spanish or Mexican culture and probably did not arrive in any form until the late 19th century when the railroads came to town – the beginning of the end of New Mexico’s isolation. But Santa didn’t begin to catch on among the locals until post WWII, when servicemen came home inculcated with northern European influences. And not quite then even. Poet Maria Leyba remembers, “In the early 50’s we lived in Santa Fe, my Mexican mom had never heard of Santa Claus but all our vecinas [neighbors] explained to her about this tradition. Wanting to fit in she made sure we weren’t deprived of Santa. But my cousins in México celebrated the three kings and the Santo Nino, not Santa Claus!”

Nowadays Saint Nick knows the way to Santa Fe. When he looks down and sees Arizona’s saguaro forest he turns east until he comes to a cow skull floating over a Penitente cross in the high desert. That’s New Mexico.


(Found this by Google searching for “Santa Claus in New Mexico."
Apparently Santa’s Graphic Design department did not get the saguaro memo.)

The Case of the Curiously Convenient Coffin!


It was a normal trip for Kate Messervy Kingsbury – two months of dust, mud, gnats, mosquitoes and heat, plus the occasional swollen stream, wildfire, hailstorm, strong wind, blizzard and ever-present peril of Ute or Apache Indian attack. She disliked both of her previous treks, but knew that this, her third such punishing journey, offered the last, best hope for survival. Then, just east of Dodge City, Kansas her husband John opened a crate labeled “private stores” – and inside it was a zinc-lined casket.

“The Case of the Curiously Convenient Coffin!” True crime TV from CBS’s 48 Hours or NBC’s Dateline? No. Just another tale from the Santa Fe Trail – one of New Mexico’s most historic transportation avenues.

Each of New Mexico’s major eras – Pre-Columbian, Spanish Colonial, Mexican and United States – had its own major artery – the North-South Indigenous Trade Route, El Camino Real de Tierra Adentro, Santa Fe Trail and Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railway (AT&SF.)

Long before the Europeans arrived the kingdoms and tribes of northern Mexico set up the NORTH-SOUTH INDIGENOUS TRADE ROUTE into present day Colorado to swap items such as turquoise, obsidian, salt and feathers with Native Americans.

Built from this original pathway EL CAMINO REAL was a 1,600 mile long road linking Mexico City and San Juan Pueblo, 40 miles north of Santa Fe. Used as a trade route by the Spanish Colonials from 1598 to 1821 and – since the mother country forbade business dealings with anyone else – THE ONLY source of commerce and culture into New Mexico.

SANTA FE TRAIL was an 800-mile wagon route connecting Missouri and Santa Fe between 1821 and 1880. (Mexico, unlike Spain, welcomed outside trade, especially from United States.) After the U.S. - Mexico War ended in 1848, it became THE highway that connected the more settled parts of the United States to the new southwest territories – used by merchants, the military, stagecoach lines, gold seekers, adventurers, missionaries and emigrants.

In 1866 railroad expansion began in the new state of Kansas, and by 1873, two different rail lines reached from there into Colorado. Three different railroads vied to serve the New Mexico market. The ATCHISON, TOPEKA & SANTA FE got there first in February 1880.

El Rancho de las Golondrinas Living History Museum, our volunteer gig, was a working ranch and camping stop on the Camino Real beginning around 1720. Its gateway exhibit area, Golondrinas Placita, is interpreted as such. The adjacent section, Baca Placita, depicts the era of the Santa Fe Trail from 1821 to 1846. Across the creek on the “Far Side” portrays late 19th century New Mexico after the arrival of the railroad.

We are given instruction and historical information on each period. And encouraged to educate ourselves further. To that end we also belong to the End of the Trail chapter of Santa Fe Trail Association (SFTA.) (Our branch’s name refers to its position as the terminus of the trade route – not to the age of its supporters.) Its membership includes many retired educators and others with an interest in studying, documenting and sharing their findings about the Trail in person and on paper. Plus local historians and archaeologists who also bring interesting subjects to the table. Such as “The Case of the Curiously Convenient Coffin!” – actual title “Death at the End of the Trail.” (Less tabloid-y. But still informative, like the lecture itself.)

Much of the SF Trail research is based on personal accounts and diaries of those who traveled that road. Among them the roadway’s founder, Captain William Becknell – here describing his virgin voyage. “The next day, after crossing a mountainous country, we arrived at Santa Fe and were received with apparent pleasure and joy. It is situated in a valley of the mountains, on a branch of the Rio del Norte [Rio Grande] … about two miles long and one mile wide, and compactly settled.”

Most travelers were merchants seeking to quickly sell their goods and return home – “a short-term enterprise, with all the attendant hardships and exposure to harm, so it held no place or attraction for women,” according to historian and co-founder of the SFTA Marc Simmons. “Notwithstanding, there was a significant number of women who faced the westering experience with unquenchable optimism and, indeed, if diaries can be accepted as barometers of true sentiment, there were some who embarked with downright eagerness. The change of routine, the excitement of prairie travel, and life in the open air soon won over others who had started with dread and apprehension.

“Marian [Sloan] Russell, perhaps best representative of such women, discovered on the trail to New Mexico an exhilarating adventure that shaped the future course of her life,” As Mrs Russell phrased it, “this was a land of enchantment, where gods walked in the cool of the evening.” (Possibly the first usage of New Mexico’s nickname.)

Additional chroniclers were nuns like Sister Blandina Segale of the Sisters of Charity – “Trinidad [Colorado] has lost its frontier aspect … Billy the Kid’s gang is dissolved … The remaining men who were ready at the least provocation or no provocation (except that of strong drink) to raise the trigger have settled down to domestic infelicity.” (Is that disappointment in her voice?)

Another group was wives of military officers assigned to the forts being established in the southwest during 1850s and 60s. Alice Blackwood Baldwin made her trip in the fortification’s ambulance – upscaled for comfort. “Soft, upholstered seats that were extended when required and served as beds at night … The floor was covered with straw, over which rugs were laid to keep out as much of the cold as possible.”

Merchants settling in New Mexico to establish permanent shops often took their wives and families. Samuel Magoffin brought his new 18-year-old bride Susan Shelby – the “properly educated” daughter of a wealthy plantation-owning family. Like Alice Baldwin she traveled west in relative luxury – “one Dearborn with two mules (this concern carries my maid), our own carriage with two more mules.” They “glamped” (in modern lingo) in a carpeted tent with a bed and mattress, table and chairs.

Her carriage rolled over and the tent collapsed during a violent storm. Susan took ill in Bent Fort, CO and one day after her 19th birthday suffered a miscarriage. Reaching Santa Fe on August 31 they moved into “quite a nice little place.” Two months later, and once again expecting, the couple headed to Mexico on the Camino Real. “I do think a woman emberaso [pregnant] has a hard time of it, some sickness all the time, heartburn, headache, cramps etc., after all this thing of marrying is not what it is cracked up to be.”

In July 1847 she gave birth to a son, who died shortly thereafter. Her diary ends two months later. Samuel sold the Santa Fe business and the couple moved to Kirkwood, Missouri where Susan gave birth to two daughters, then died in 1855 at age 28.

All these individual stories made us wonder about journeyers on the Trail from our former home state. We found but one – a memoir-writing merchant with a serendipitous two-degrees-of-separation connection to the aforementioned occupant of the zinc-lined coffin.

Born in Warren, CT “James Josiah Webb was one of the most prominent traders on the Santa Fe Trail from the 1840s into the early 1860s. He made 18 trips to Santa Fe as well as maintaining a store there.” Among his partners were William S. Messervy and John M. Kingsbury – brother and husband of the casket’s occupant. In 1839 Webb and Messervy opened a store in Santa Fe selling fabrics, groceries, housewares, and hardware obtained in the northern marketplaces. Kingsbury joined the firm in 1849 spending the majority of his time until 1861 in Santa Fe. He married Kate in 1853.

Prior to her marriage Kate was diagnosed with tuberculosis. “One prescribed therapy for the disease … was a regimen of travel to more healthful climates, where fresh air and rest supposedly provided much of the cure”

Kate moved to Santa Fe in 1854 and gave birth to a son in January 1855. According to correspondence between the two brothers-in-law the child was “not perfect.” Kingsbury, concerned that Kate’s health and stamina “were weary” from caring for their sick child, sent them both home to her family in Massachusetts, where sadly the boy died.

Kate’s doctor advised them, “her lungs are past cure. All that remains ... is to get her back again to Santa Fe if possible. Her friends think different. They say if we start she will never reach St. Louis … What am I to do? She is willing to start & wants to leave here.”

Mid-March 1857 Kate, John, her sister Eliza Ann and Facunda (her New Mexican maid) were on their way back to Santa Fe. James Josiah Webb described her last night, June 5, 1857.

“Mrs. Kingsbury was at no time improved in health on the whole route … then just after midnight she seemed to realize the end was close. She said, ‘is it possible that I have come this far on my way and must now take leave of you all?’ She then commended with perfect composure, and took leave of her sister and John. She wished to assure them that the course they had pursued was in every respect to her satisfaction, and asked forgiveness for every hasty expression, or unkind word that had passed her lips during her illness, her every wish had been complied with, and everything in the power of man had been done to promote her comfort.”

John had anticipated this sad possibility and wanted to give his wife a proper Christian burial rather than leaving her in an unprotected grave at the side of the Trail. He knew that neither embalming nor ice would be available. So Kate’s body was placed in the tightly-sealed zinc-lined box to slow down the rate of bodily decomposition. Then he and Eliza Ann accompanied it to Santa Fe, covering the 375 miles in a record 11 days. She was interred at Masons and Odd Fellows Cemetery, the only burying ground for people not of the Catholic faith. At the end of the 19th century, several old cemeteries were “decommissioned” and new ones placed outside of town. Sometime between 1890 and 1903, Kate’s remains were exhumed and moved to the new Odd Fellows Cemetery.

James Josiah Webb provided almost 20 years of retail service to New Mexico – most while living in Connecticut. He retired from the trade business in 1861 and died in Hamden, CT 28 years later.

The Trail Association says that Webb “left a comprehensive archive … more extensive than any other trader.” So excited about the new land, culture and people he was experiencing that he just had to share it.

Some people are like that you know.

You may ask – “Any idea how many died along the trail? No clue. No records of any kind relating to that were kept. But probably not many compared to the totality of those who traveled the Trail … many were buried in unmarked graves.” (Larry D. Short, President, SFTA)

Numerous diaries and journals of the above-mentioned travelers and others are available online or through and other booksellers – e.g. William Becknell, Marian Sloan Russell, James Josiah Webb.