Tragedy and violence, murder and retribution. Those tend to be the hallmarks of 19th century western life, a legacy that on the one hand is romanticized for the way it reduced conflict to black and white, good vs. bad, and on the other illustrates a startling level of bigotry, brutality and ignorance that was the rule of the day for many.

One particular incident that highlights both viewpoints happened on Feb. 4, 166 years ago, here in Taos.

Earlier, on Feb. 9, 1847, a group of Taos Indians and Hispanos, who some say were crazy drunk on Taos Lightning, got whipped into a frenzy after word that this land had been seized by the United States. The news had been building for some time, but now Gen. Stephen W. Kearney had taken Santa Fe and raised the American flag, thereby confirming for many that the U.S. would soon take their land and property.

Newly named Territorial Gov. Charles Bent, a well known trader who lived in Taos, returned home for a visit from Santa Fe, only to be met by the angry crowd. Bent was attacked and murdered in front of his family at his home on what is now Bent Street. Several other Americans also met similar fates that day. Turley Mill, north of town, was also attacked.

The boldness of the revolt sparked others in Northern New Mexico to feed fuel to the flame, which caused Kearny and U.S. government officials to immediately retaliate in order to quash the movement. U.S. Col. Sterling Price and his men rode north to put down the rebellion in Taos. Along the way they met and overcame resistance at Embudo. Upon arrival in Taos on Feb. 3, they learned that the rebels had taken refuge at Taos Pueblo, which townsfolk had been known to do during occasional raids by nomadic tribes.

It is said that the rebels sent women and children, Indian and Hispanic, to hide in the San Geronimo Church because they had been told that the church had always represented sanctuary. They believed the soldiers would respect this. In the meantime, many of the other rebels hid in the hills above the village as the soldiers arrived on Feb. 4.

What ensued is difficult to imagine as soldiers attacked the church with cannon fire and indiscriminate horrific violence in the same place that today tourists from throughout the U.S. and the world pay homage, perhaps not knowing how the church was reduced to ruins. Not knowing that over 150 people — from both the town of Taos and Taos Pueblo — were killed on this site. The blood and carnage no longer remains, but what happened there should never be forgotten. It was in every respect a massacre, pure and simple.

I suppose there are some who would like for this chapter to be set aside, characterizing this as so many other similar incidents as an act of retaliation for the assassination of a territorial governor and perfectly justified to maintain order in the realm. I say we must not.

As painful as it may seem, I believe we should set aside this day for remembrance. We must never forget what happened.

Welcome to the discussion.

Keep it Clean. Please avoid obscene, vulgar, lewd, racist or sexually-oriented language.
PLEASE TURN OFF YOUR CAPS LOCK.
Don't Threaten. Threats of harming another person will not be tolerated.
Be Truthful. Don't knowingly lie about anyone or anything.
Be Nice. No racism, sexism or any sort of -ism that is degrading to another person.
Be Proactive. Use the 'Report' link on each comment to let us know of abusive posts.
Share with Us. We'd love to hear eyewitness accounts, the history behind an article.

Post a comment

kttaos
kttaos

Thankyou for taking the time to publicly remember what happened at Taos Pueblo in that time.
Regarding that Taos Lightning may have played a part, I say that it most likely only intensified the feelings that native people already had towards another invader with whom the embodiment was Charles Bent.
Taos Pueblo situated where we are, certainly already had prior knowledge of the American methods of occupation to the east, no different than several hundred years earlier by the Spanish.
Post Traumatic Stress Symdrome altered by Taos Lightning at that time was probably as horrific as if the atrocious acts by the Spanish.were imminent.

I applaud and support that you have taken the time in your position to educate the dominant consciousness. So often, the Taos area only attracts those enamored with oppurtunity to make a buck. not understanding what makes up those who are native.
When speaking of oppurtunity as native, we have to look at our contribution to our own daily lives based on the decisions we choose. One decision that takes as much effect as the events that occurred that short time ago is if we choose to glorify war and those who wage war while claiming our self defense.

Countless millions have been duped in the name of patriotism to serve as the tools to accumulate for those in power, only to die or be maimed needlessly. So, perhaps that is the lesson to be learned from that short time ago.

fitz
fitz

Rick, I'm going to ask you to reconsider the use of the word "massacre" here. The historical record (written, I admit, by the victors) makes no reference that I can find to non-combatants in the church. The reports of the event (always described as a "battle") clearly refer to armed insurgents. If the disparity of forces, and the totality of the outcome amount to a "massacre," then the 7th Cavalry was "massacred" at the LBH. On a second point, I find no mention of alcohol being a factor in the "massacre" of Anglo-Americans during the Revolt (the term "Taos Lightning" doesn't appear for another decade). I agree with all my heart that this moment in our shared past should be remembered, not as a means of fostering communal grievance, but as a warning to honor our common bonds.

fitz
fitz

Ah, third point: Charles Bent died on January 19,1847(but you knew that).

grace
grace

It’s true that armed men were mostly likely the vast majority of the people in the church. All the same, we see a highly trained military force attacking a bunch of farmers. Even though they might have had quite a few guns, the locals weren’t a formidable military force (as also shown at Embudo where 300 Americans routed 1500 locals in excellent defensive positions.) The force used at the church seemed excessive against untrained farmers. In that sense, it might still be termed a massacre. What would have been the proper rules of engagement?

The bigger question for me is how history is written and how it affects people. What happens when history is seemingly tweaked to make it more inflammatory than it already is? What do inaccurate histories by both the oppressed and oppressors do to a community?

ElJefe
ElJefe

Too often the history of the West is told in fables/myths or in history books cleansed of the truth.
When we question the actions of those early settlers from the East who took advantage of a lawless society that favored the white settler, we are quickly reminded of the actions of early Spanish settlers as if that justifies their actions against Native Americans, Spanish settlers and Mother Earth and her bounty
A massacre of innocent women and children in Taos, only allows the government to justify their immoral massacre at Sand Creek against women and children, and we must never allow anyone to forget both were the acts of a corrupt government mislead by Manifest Destiny.
It is only proper and just for all to know as we admire the Taos Pueblo Church, that this was the scene of a terrible act against humanity by an American army whose sole mission was to eliminate the Red and Spanish threat.

brian
brian

Rick: its about time you brought forth this discussion. Everything you said is true and backed by historical fact. You may also want to tell people that the massacre didn't end there. It continued all through 1847 complete with illegal hangings of many local defenders, hispanic and native americans based on testimony of trapper and trader relatives. These illegal hangings are even more atrocious as those hanged were found guilty by a trappers and traders court whose juries composed of french and english ignorant of hispanic and native american customs and traditions.

As for Governor Bent, his death and other French and English deaths were the result of land theft.