Western Trips

Sunday, April 1, 2012

The Charles Bent House and Museum in Taos New Mexico

taos new mexico
Taos New Mexico
Western Trips always enjoys visiting Taos New Mexico. There are several reasons for this and several reasons to add Taos to your vacation or trip planner.

The scenery around the Taos NM area is some of the most beautiful in the U.S. southwest. If you're looking for that just right bed and breakfast inn in Taos, you're sure to find one and perhaps enjoy that features lovely casitas. If you're in for excellent New Mexican cuisine, Taos has a restaurant just for you.

Southwestern artwork abounds in Taos and you'll have a great time browsing the galleries. One of the more obvious reasons why artists have been attracted to the town for so long is the natural beauty and inspiration provided by the landscape. If you've visited Taos NM before, you're well aware of the fine art galleries that feature many local artists. There's not s shortage of things to do in Taos.

There's another part of the Taos heritage which has to do with conquest, governments, cultures, violence and bravery. The story that follows concerns an event in the very first year of American rule in New Mexico Territory as well as the life and fate of it's very first governor.

The Different Occupiers of New Mexico

Bent House and Museum
In a way, Taos New Mexico represented a real melting pot of several different cultures. What is now the state of New Mexico went through three dramatic culture changes.

The first was when the Spaniards explored the southwest with the Coronado Expedition in 1540 and then the future settlement of Nuevo Mexico by the explorers journeying north on the Rio Grande. Santa Fe itself was settled in 1610.  All before this time the area of New Mexico was inhabited by the Pueblo Indians.

The second change two hundred years later was the Mexican Revolution which expelled Spain from the North American continent.

The third change occurred around 1846 when the United States seized control of Nuevo Mexico during the Mexican American War.

The first governor of this new American land, the Territory of New Mexico was a man named Charles Bent. The Bent brothers were well known frontier men and traders who erected a trading post and then fort in eastern Colorado. Bents Fort, located on the Santa Fe Trail, was a beacon in the wilderness of the southwest plains.

taos new mexico territorial house
Historic Taos Territorial House
It was also a lucrative trading post. Bents Fort was located near La Junta Colorado. The Bent brothers, Charles and William, were fur trappers and traders. Charles was so impressed with the trading possibilities around Taos that in the mid 1830's he relocated there, married and opened a trading post. Bents Old Fort in Colorado, built in 1833, was left to his brother.

Charles Bent not only made many friends among the people of Taos and Taos Pueblo, but had also married a woman from Spanish heritage. When Charles Bent left Bents Fort and moved to Taos, the region was ruled by Mexico. The population was comprised of Mexicans, Pueblo Indians and Americans. The Americans were tolerated by the Mexicans, Pueblo Indians and Mexican government largely because they brought in goods from the east which were needed. All three groups of inhabitants had varying degrees of loyalty toward the Mexican government. This was probably due to the mixture of cultures along with the fact that Santa Fe and Taos was a long way from Vera Cruz and Mexico City. The influences brought to the area by the Santa Fe Trail were strong. The Santa Fe Trail was the superhighway for trade.

Mexico Cedes Nuevo Mexico

bent house and museum exhibits
Frontier exhibits at Charles Bent House
Mexico of course ceded Nuevo Mexico to the American government as a result of the Mexican American War. The United States seized control of Nuevo Mexico in 1846 when General Kearny arrived in Santa Fe.

While American occupation resulted in unrest at first, most American observers in a short time felt that the uprising against the new rulers was over. The real fact was that unrest continued all around the capital city of Santa Fe and other northern areas although fairly below the surface.

Nothing serious was detected by the Americans. In the meantime, two things occurred. One was that Charles Bent was appointed Governor of the Territory of New Mexico by General Kearny. The second, was that a group of both Mexicans and Pueblo Indians were plotting a new revolution of their own to expel the Americans.

Charles Bent, Territorial Governor

Charles Bent, the new territorial governor had a home in Taos with his family while working as governor in Santa Fe.

The first serious attempt of counter revolution occurred in December 1846 and was repelled. Bent made every effort to convince the New Mexico inhabitants that there were to be benefits with U.S. citizenship and rumors that the Mexican Army was set to take back the territory was untrue. He pleaded for their help in solidifying this new U.S. territory. Meanwhile, the unrest continued to simmer among a relatively small group just below the surface.

According to the book, Tragedy in Taos, The Revolt of 1847, by author James A. Crutchfield, during 1846-47 the population of Taos was most likely no more than eight hundred people and probably less. The town was essentially a two tower church and scattered adobe homes. A short distance to the northeast was and still is Taos Pueblo. Taos Pueblos inhabitants were the Native Americans. The author also points out that one of the chief instigators of the counter revolution planned for January 1847 was a man named Tomacito. He along with others readied forces to spring another revolution during mid January. The counter revolution that occurred in December 1846 had been quelled and while Charles Bent well knew that discontent with the Americans was still strong in some quarters, he had no inclination that another very violent attempt to throw out the Americans was set to happen just one month later. This group was led by a combination of Mexican and Pueblo Indians.

piano at bent museum in taos
Charles Bent family piano
On January 14, 1847, Governor Bent set out from Santa Fe to travel to his family home in Taos. He had been away for some time and wanted to visit his family. The journey to Taos took several days especially due to the winter weather.

The story as told in the book, Tragedy in Taos, is that on the morning of January 19th, Governor Charles Bent was awakened at his Taos home.

Because the event described here happened so many decades ago, there are a few different versions of what transpired in Taos. This is not uncommon with historic events of so long ago.

One version is that Tomacito, who was feared by many, and a rebel ringleader, had been thrown in the Taos jail by the sheriff for drunkenness and disturbing the peace. Word was sent to a crowd gathered at the jail that Tomacito expected them to free him. If they didn't do this they would suffer the consequences later. Reportedly the crowd or mob that gathered had also been drinking heavily. The story is that the sheriff was ultimately slain by the mob and Tomacito was freed. It was at this point that the crowd headed for the home of Governor Bent. His home was just to the north of the Taos plaza. The structure still stands today and is an interesting museum.

Governor Bent stepped outside his front door to try to calm the crowd. His efforts were unsuccessful. He was shot while in his doorway and supposedly also hit with arrows. The crowd rushed the home and Governor Charles Bent was killed and scalped. This all supposedly happened in the front room of his small adobe home.

Another version of events doesn't mention Tomacito being thrown into jail and then freed. This versions just mentions a mob gathered in front of the governors home. The mob appeared to be incited by the rhetoric of the plotters. The end results were the same with Bent being killed and scalped and with his family being spared. This version also mentions that Bents Mexican neighbors were instructed not to help the Bent family in any way. If this happened, it certainly would have been on the insistence of the revolt plotters.

The liquored up and angry mob then set out to other nearby enclaves of Americans to wreak more death and destruction. One of these sites was Turley's Mill north of Taos. Several people were killed there. Americans were killed on this day at several locations other than Taos. In addition to the killing of Governor Bent, information is that the sheriff as well as a judge were also slain by the mob. After much of the killing ended, the perpetrators fled to the Taos Pueblo to the north and dug in.

firearms exhibit at charles bent home and museum
Firearms exhibit at Bent Museum
As you might expect, the reaction of the United States government to the killing of their first New Mexico territorial governor was swift and decisive.

Word of the killings reached Colonel Sterling Price in Santa Fe the very next day. Price gathered together his Missouri Volunteers and planned an expedition up to Taos. After making certain all was secured in Santa Fe, Price set out for Taos on January 23rd with about five companies of his Missouri Volunteers along with regular army troops. The force experienced some resistance not far north of Santa Fe and shelled the rebels killing over thirty. One of the dead was reportedly one of the Taos ringleaders, Jesus Tafoya.

The U.S. Army along with the Missouri Volunteers continued to head north along the Rio Grande and continued to run into rebel resistance. Some rebel settlements were actually razed during the battles. Some of the troops finally reached Taos and Taos Pueblo about February 1st.

 Colonel Price and his command reportedly arrived around February 3rd or 4th. At this point the entire town of Taos was terrorized. First, by the uprising and killing of the governor on January 19th and then by the retaliatory raid from the Americans. There were many people in Taos who were not connected with the violence and rebellion. They had been essentially terrorized with threats of violence by the rebel ringleaders and their followers. There was a lot of innocent people caught in the middle. There were also many innocent people killed in the violence.

frontier exhibits at bent museum
Exhibits and branding iron at Bent Museum
Rebels fortified themselves inside buildings at Taos Pueblo. Price answered this with howitzers and six pound cannon. There was no question who would prevail in the battle. It was just a matter of time.

When the fighting ended it was estimated that Colonel Price lost seven troops with over forty wounded. Many of the wounded would die later. The rebel forces at Taos Pueblo numbered an estimated six to seven hundred. Out of that number, over one-hundred and fifty were killed during the fighting. In the end, there would be thirteen people hanged for their participation in this bloody uprising. This was the last significant obstacle to American rule in New Mexico Territory. The victory at Taos Pueblo by the army and Missouri mounted volunteers ended the Mexican and Indian plots against the U.S. government.

In regards to the fate of Tomacito, the head ringleader of the January 1847 rebellion, he met his end shortly after being arrested and jailed. The book, Tragedy at Taos, by author James A. Crutchfield, explains that one of the soldiers (Dragoons) entered the room where Tomacito was held in Taos just to have a look at the rebel ringleader. The soldier entered the room, had a look and just as quickly drew his gun and shot the Indian in the head killing him instantly. Tomacito most certainly would have been hung with the other thirteen ringleaders but the soldiers unexpected action meted out instant justice. The violent deaths of newly installed Governor Charles Bent, some of the American troops and the other American civilians obviously brought out strong emotions.

Two additional articles you may find interesting is the story of the Pueblo Revolt of 1680 and the story of Kit Carson of Taos New Mexico.

Another interesting site is Fort Garland located about 78 miles north of Taos in southern Colorado. The link below is to our Western Trips visit to Fort Garland.

Historic Fort Garland

Today, when you have the chance to visit Taos New Mexico, the original Charles Bent House still exists. The adobe home is a Taos museum with much information and artifacts about the Taos early years. You'll find many invaluable exhibits concerning Charles Bent, his family and his life as a trapper and trader.

A very interesting exhibit in the Bent House is a piano that was part of the Bent family possessions and was transported west over the Santa Fe Trail. The museum and home is located one block north of the Taos plaza on Bent Street. It's a very short stroll from the plaza and well worth the time to visit. The museum staff was very well informed on the home's history and eager to answer questions. The Bent Home and Museum is a Taos New Mexico treasure.

(Article and photos copyright Western Trips)