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.