It is interesting mainly as the seat of three widely differing civilizations. These, though successive, were gradually so. The last two coexist. The first projected itself in lighter and lighter shades through the second; and perhaps even yet, with a subtle pervasion through the Mexican life and character, looks about its old home and its ruined buildings, like a ghost of a shadow.
Relics found along the Santa Fe valley show that the city enjoyed its greatest prosperity and grandeur as a pre=historic Aztec pueblo. The glories, wealth, and achievements of Aztec civilization are more for imagination to outline than for history to describe. From accounts of Spanish warriors, priests, and explorers, from ruins and hieroglyphics, from Aztec language, tradition, mythology, and custom, we can gather enough to excite deep interest in and sympathy with the unhappy people of Montezuma. We know enough to induce investigators to enter the field disclosed, and by close life with the remnants of tribes to explore it more thoroughly. Spain, by virtue of gunpowder and treachery, overcame the native races, robbed them of their wealth and freedom, killed their chiefs, and stamped out their sacred fires; but we know enough of what Spain thus destroyed to doubt that the civilization that she substituted was much of an improvement.
The Indians tell a story of the birth of Montezuma near the southern extremity of the Santa Fe mountain range; of his journey southward on the back of an eagle, the people following and founding cities where the eagle had nested each night; and of the founding of the capital city of Mexico at the end of the long march. This myth suggests that New Mexico is in reality the old Mexico, and was once the centre of Aztec power and culture, and that the tribes found there by the Spanish were but the weak and unprogressive of the race. They were not of the stuff of which Argonauts are made. They had looked askance at fortune, and their faint hearts did not win her encouragement. So they had quietly stayed in the peaceful and fruitful fields of the Rio Grande, or laboured at the old turquoise mine by day, and spent the nights in their safe, rock-protected pueblos. Their prudence brought a tame prosperity, which met a common fate at Spanish hands with that of their more adventurous brethren.
About 1538, when the masts of the May flower yet grew in the forest and the Pilgrim grandfathers were in their cradles, Cabeza de Vaca, a Spanish Aeneas, led his shipwrecked party through the Rio Grande valley. Priests, chieftains, and explorers followed, each drawn by zeal in his profession, until, by 1600, the country was overrun with Spaniards. The Indians were enslaved, and toiled in the mines, that hidalgoes might wear jewels. A successful revolt in 1680 freed the Indians, until De Vargas, about a dozen years after, reconquered them.
The third civilization appeared on the scene in the first decade of the Nineteenth Century. Not conquest, not religion, but trade was the incentive; for the newcomer was a Saxon, and particularly a Yankee one. Profit multiplied his foot-steps into a well-defined trail to the Missouri River, and the waggon road that the traveller on the Atchinson, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad sees continually near the track is the same old Santa Fe trail.
The Rio Santa Fe boldly rushes through the centre of the town, putting to its left the staid old Mexican residence portion that clusters around venerable San Miguel, and re-serving to its right the blocks where American business moves on, though slowly, and weighted with Mexican conservatism.
The town, on the whole, is sleepy and ancient looking; crooked streets, too narrow for but one sidewalk, find their ways like paths among the jutting, irregular fronts of adobe buildings. Then there is the Plaza, a Spanish feature which always makes small towns look less like lively cities than ever. Around this are most of the American business buildings, but Mexican adobe structures are inserted between them. The old crooked walls of Jesus Ascencion Garcia’s Broad Gauge Saloon are buttressed by a brand new brick bank building. On the street a stylish dog-cart dashes past its original undeveloped typea great, heavy structure resting on two oxen and two thick discs of wood, which creak on wooden axles. More primitive even than that, comes a drove of small donkeys known as burros, each bearing much more than his bulk of cord-wood or hay, and all driven by an Indian from the pueblo of Tesuque or by a darker-looking Mexican.
On Sunday afternoons it has been the custom of all Santa Fé to promenade on the Plaza. Time was when the Plaza was a bare marketplace, but American innovation and improvement has made it a park. In the centre a monument commemorates the soldiers who died for the Union in New Mexico. Here are fountains supplied from the Santa Fe reservoir three miles away. A heavy growth of alfalfa covers the ground, and cottonwoods wave above. The military band plays in the pavilion, and the audience is of many nationalities and languages, drawn here by music, the language of the world. They fill the benches in the park; they throng the long veranda of the old Palace; they promenade along the paths, or drive stylish teams. There are Mexican matrons, with the indispensable mantilla, a headdress after the manner of some village gossip who is just going over to some neighbour with a bit of news. Their faces are old and wrinkled sad prophecy of the future in store for the fresh faces of the young senoritas!
Here carefully steps an invalid, watchful of his small reserve of strength, and enjoying the air which he came so far to breathe. Yonder are negroes, in conspicuous spirits and health, delighting in bright colours. A party of tourists pass the monument, and read every inscription, because it is their duty to. They are here but two days, and must see everything. Who can learn about three centuries in two days? A glimpse of a switching cue shows that Santa Fe is not unblessed with Chinese. On a bench near by, three or four soldiers from the military quarter, in bright uniform, lounge and gaze at the passing senoritas. These Mexican maidens have discarded the mantilla for the nonce, and in Sunday bonnets and ribbons suited to their dark faces, move gaily past, ” with all their bravery on, and tackle trim.” A representative of the wealthiest and most influential class of Santa Fé passes in the contented-looking per-son of a Jew with his wife; they are followed by an unmistakable Bridget with their little Jewish baby.
Pueblo Indians attract attention amid the crowd by the profusion of red colour in their principal garment. This blanket is thrown loosely about the body, and seems always about to fall to the ground. They wear white leggins, looking as if cut when loose trousers were in vogue, and since then made tight and stylish by an extra seam. The red paint on their cheeks is so blended with their bronze colour as to produce a by no means bad effect. The hair is black, and too coarse to seem human. It reaches everywhere down from the crown like a thatch on a hay-stack, and in front is cut off square with the eyebrows, banged, without a doubt, and we were centuries behind when we adopted the style. The beauty of this coiffure, though sometimes adorned on state occasions by a feather or two, is always unconcealed. Whether the Indian is selling fish in the streets, or ploughing behind his black and white oxen with a stick for a plough-share, or making Aztec pottery in front of the laddered en-trance to his house, he is bareheaded.
Castilian ladies, though rarely seen in public, appear on these Sunday afternoons. The quiet dress and demeanour, and the intelligence seen in the countenances, give evidence of the advantages of families of long-continued wealth, power and culture. But the power was hereditary; the culture was made possible by leisure afforded by wealth; and the wealth came as large land-grants, gifts of a government ever partial to its nobility ; a government possessed of land undiminished by any homestead laws for the benefit of its common people.
To this bright-coloured crowd of human contrasts, thus moving among themselves, the long, one-story palace is a background. Its stirring history comes to the mind in pictures quickened and made vivid by the heroic music of the bands, a background to the thought. The park is gone; Indians are toiling with huge blocks of adobe, building thick walls for the palace that will stand so long. Now comes the resplendent Spanish armythey enter in triumphthey christen with the new name Santa Fe. Many affairs of state follow; decorations and costumes brighten the scenes.
Now it is dark and still; a light from the palace window aids the Captain-General within to plan his battles from the surrounding maps. Troops gather on the Plaza by early morning. When they return, they lead captives within those gloomy walls. Some are led out again to be shot; others remaintheir fate, quien sabe? All is again changed; Indians supplant the native Spaniards; heathen rites and the cachina dance celebrate success. Now, between lines of men on the one hand and women on the other, De Vargas and his band make their triumphal entry; Te Deum laudamus, sing the priests. The man of the palace is again a Spaniard. Now more familiar faces appearsun-browned, but shrewd. They come with long waggon trains and mule teams and cracking whips; the town gathers to receive them as to a great event long looked for. Another rebellion, and a turbulent crowd follows a man carrying a human headthat of Governor Perez. With Mexican suddenness, change again occurs, and the Plaza is again the scene of the customary wholesale execution of gentlemen with political tastes.
Now appear the Stars and Stripes, and soldiers in our uniform of the Mexican War. Rebels succeed and tear down the flag, but the reign of the Stars and Bars is soon over.
What unknown scenes and events those thick palace walls have concealed! How well they have kept their secrets; like Hamlet’s friends, they disclose nothing in their dull looksnot even a wise ” we could an’ if we would.” Santa Fe is full of churches, cathedrals, and religious schools. Everyone has heard of San Miguel, part of whose adobe walls have been standing for nearly three hundred years, and which has stood in its entirety as at present since 1710. The visitor is directed by a notice that he is to pull a cord three times; a deep-toned bell solemnly responds to the action, and this somewhat mysterious preliminary brings to the door a boyish-looking ” brother,” who repays one’s entrance fee with a description of the objects of interest. The old, clear-toned bell is of pure copper; the carved vigas are quaint and curious; the paintings are the same sort of works of early Spanish-American art (it is a pity to apply that word to them) that is to be found in all the old churches of New Mexico. Opposite San Miguel is an old pueblo house, apparently used by several Mexican families. It is the oldest house in this old town.
( Originally Published 1907 )