History Talk: The Pueblos of Paso del Norte and the Doña Ana Sphere

Saturday, October 21, 2023 at 1:30 p.m., Village of Doña Ana, NM, De La O Visitors Centers, 135 Jose Gutierrez Street (at corner of Cristo Rey Street.)  This talk will not be live-streamed.

My aim is to reframe and reinterpret the history of our country by studying the inter-relationships between and amongst the Indigenous nations, Spanish and African peoples of the region of New Mexico.  For this talk, I will focus on the Pueblos of Paso del Norte and the Doña Ana Sphere.

Alejandro de la O

Alejandro de la O, the son of Severo de la O and Nestora Apodaca, was born in 1880 at the Pueblo of Doña Ana, New Mexico.    He was my great-uncle.

Alejandro’s maternal grandmother Rita Pedrasa, an “adoptiva” from Paso del Norte, lived to a very old age in Doña Ana.

The de la O family moved to Doña Ana from the Pueblo of Senecú del Sur in the early 1850s.  Alejandro’s grandfather (Pascual de la O) and uncles were musicians by profession and brought their music to Doña Ana.

Alejandro’s family is still active in taking care of the historical village of Doña Ana; more than a few of them are talented musicians.

The Old Church in Doña Ana, New Mexico

Church, Doña Ana, New Mexico, Sonja Sonnenburg 2018

In 1911, a Catholic priest at Doña Ana, New Mexico took an inventory of church property at Nuestra Señora de la Candelaria.[1]  He started his list:

1 adobe church with tower.

2 tower bells

one ladder. 

He noted a four-room adobe home at the rear of the church, and another adobe home once owned by a priest.

He listed handmade furniture in the church: an altar, benches, and a communion rail.

The priest described some objects in the adobe church and the rear residence as “cheap” or “Not in good order.” Yet, these objects were precious.  

One of these objects in the church — as described by the priest — was a “3 ft. statue of blessed virgin, indian stile, in dresses.”[2]  Yes, precious. 

Today, Nuestra Señora de la Candelaria still stands because of the skilled work and dedication of many people of the Doña Ana community, generation after generation.[3]  The church is the people. 


[1] The church was built in the mid-1800s.  For background on the Candelaria tradition, see Sonja Sonnenburg de Chávez, The Candelaria Tradition in Doña Ana, New Mexico, Linealist: New Mexico History and Archive Projects, https://wordpress.com/post/linealist.wordpress.com/91862

[2] Rev. M. Gerey, Inventory, Doña Ana, July 1911, within Registra Baptismorum, Matrimoniorum et Defuntctorum, Doña Ana, New Mexico

[3] See About Nuestra Señora de la Candelaria, https://www.ourladyofpurification.org/history-1; Nuestra Señora de la Purification, https://www.cstones.org/past-projects-3/2017/9/1/nuestra-senora-de-la-candelaria-dona-ana-nm


December 1846. U.S. Troops Invade the Pueblo of Doña Ana

In the late morning of December 16, 1846, United States military troops began arriving at Doña Ana, a small pueblo located in the Apachería, 50 miles north of Paso del Norte, Chihuahua.[1]  Although the arrival of the troops was imminent, it must have been shocking to the villagers.

Jose Maria Garcia, who had been watching the troop movement from afar, left Doña Ana in the early afternoon for Paso del Norte to alert authorities of the troops’ arrival.  Garcia reached Paso del Norte before 7 at night.[2]    

Garcia reported that 250 U.S. troops had arrived at Doña Ana, and more were on the way.  Sebastian Bermudes, the Prefect for Paso del Norte, immediately sent a letter to the Governor of Chihuahua, reporting the news.[3] 

A few days before, Commander Gabino Cuilty had sent an advance squad consisting of 6 soldiers and 24 residents of Paso del Norte in search of U.S. troops.  Now he wondered about the squad’s whereabouts.[4] 

By December 19, 1846, a Doña Ana resident safely reached Paso del Norte to report that now an estimated 800 U.S. troops were at Doña Ana.  In light of this, Commander Cuilty sent an urgent communique to Chihuahua asking that soldiers in Santa Rosalia be quickly sent North to reinforce the rear-guard of Paso del Norte.[5] 

On December 21, 1846, Luis Vidal took charge of the estimated 1000 member “vanguard section” of Paso del Norte, when Cuilty fell gravely ill.  Commander Vidal placed Paso del Norte in a state of siege or war (“estado de sitio”), and proclaimed, inter alia, that any citizen who sells food or goods to the enemy would be punished with the death penalty.   The same day, members of the advance squad returned to Paso del Norte to report that U.S. troops were shooting live fire at El Alamo Limon, south of Doña Ana.[6]   The U.S. troops were headed toward Paso del Norte. 

[Cite this article: Sonja Sonnenburg de Chávez, December 1846, U.S. Troops Invade the Pueblo of Doña Ana, New Mexico, The Doña Ana Sphere (December 21, 2021).]


[1] Letter dated December 16, 1846 from Sebastian Bermudes to Governor of Chihuahua Joaquin Alvarez, printed in El Provisional Periodico del Gobierno del Estado Libre y Suberano de Chihuahua (“El Provisional”), Boletin N. 18 (Dec. 26, 1846).

[2] Id.

[3] Id.

[4] Id.  See also, Letter dated December 19, 1846 from Gabino Cuilty to Governor Alvarez, printed in El Provisional, Boletin N. 18. 

[5] Letter from Gabino Cuilty dated December 19, 1846, printed in El Provisional, Boletin N. 18.  See also, copy of Letters dated December 24, 1846 from Gabino Cuilty to Angel Trias and General Jose Antonio Heredia, and from General Heredia to Cuilty, Expediente 2341, at 19-20, Archivo Histórico Militar, Secretaria de la Defensa Nacional. 

[6] Letters dated December 21, 1846 from Sebastian Bermudes to Governor Alvarez, with Proclamation of Commander Luis Vidal, printed in El Provisional, Boletin No. 18.

September 1846. Villagers of Doña Ana arrest U.S. Spy James Magoffin

175 years ago, in 1846, the United States instigated a war against its neighbor, Mexico, another republic, for the purpose of acquiring land and resources, and extending slavery of African-Americans into Texas and other areas of northern Mexico.

In late September of 1846, while U.S. troops occupied a section of northern New Mexico, juez de paz Pablo Melendres and other men of the Pueblo of Doña Ana arrested James “Santiago” Magoffin, a U.S. spy and trader.  Six men from Doña Ana took Magoffin and four of his companions south to Paso del Norte. 

Sebastian Bermudes, the Prefect of Paso del Norte, reported the event to the Governor of Chihuahua.  Bermudes’ account – translated into English — is below.

It was a small world: Bermudes was the padrino to one of Melendres’s sons, Juan Antonio.


Prefecture of El Paso.

Most Excellent Sir. I send to Your Excellency by special delivery the report about the happenings and present conditions of New Mexico that Mr. Mariano Varela, coming from that Department with his family, has made known to this Prefecture, since it contains news of interest to the Nation and the State.

Mr. Santiago Magoffin, the naturalized foreigner in our Republic has also arrived in this Town coming from New Mexico with four residents of the same Department, who was sent to this Prefecture by the Juez of Doña Ana with six men. In the area of the Brazito, the Apaches attacked him and robbed him of his carriage with all his baggage and with it all his documents were lost, having presented me with only an announcement from General Kearney which he said he just happened to have in his pocket and which I include. He also declared to me in particular that he was traveling to the capital of Chihuahua only to attend to his commercial affairs and that Gen. Kearney should have left Santa Fe with two thousand men on the 29th of this month heading for California, that Kearney himself told him that although he doubted he would travel to California using the desert route or through here, but he was resolute in dropping the first option, because of its inconveniences and in favor of the second. Accordingly I am preparing an advance squad composed of seventy-five men under the command of Captain Don Jacinto Alvillar with orders to apprehend and send to this Prefecture the foreigners Mr. Samuel Oinz and Mr. Enrique Cornelly who I have on good authority are at Doña Ana and that he proceed with all the necessary precautions to investigate if the enemy forces are coming and where they are and fight them if a perfect opportunity presents itself, in such case sending me notice by special delivery so that I can immediately mobilize all the forces of the District with the goal of fighting them by all the means available to me.

In fulfillment of my duty under the supreme order issued on the 22nd of this month I will immediately have Magoffin and his companions disarmed and apprehended and I will put them at the disposal of the Judge who should judge them, and I will do the same with Cornelly and Oinz if I manage to apprehend them.

In closing this note I wish to express to Your Excellency that all the towns of the District under my command: find themselves full of enthusiasm and resolved at all costs to sustain the national honor committed in the present struggle.

I proclaim to Your Excellency my respect: consideration and appreciation.

God and Liberty, El Paso, September 27, 1846 – Sebastian Bermudez


Letter dated September 27, 1846 from Sebastian Bermudez to the Governor of Chihuahua, reprinted in Jose M. Ponce de León, Reseñas Historicos del Estado de Chihuahua, 43-44 (1905).

1841, Doña Ana

In mid-May of 1841, Alvino Gonzalez and three other men left El Paso del Norte in pursuit of two youths, who fled toward New Mexico. By the 17th of May, the men reached Doña Ana at the bend at the river, twenty leagues north of Paso, where Apaches (or Comanches) ambushed the men and captured Gonzalez. The men who accompanied Gonzalez escaped; one of them hid in a bush by the river and returned to Paso the next day to report the attack. At the break of dawn on the 19th, a squad of men from Paso set out for Doña Ana, where they expected to recover dead bodies and punish the aggressors, but instead on the road they encountered Gonzalez and his companions alive. Gonzalez had suffered a slight chest wound and the loss of his weapons and saddle when he fled los indios by jumping into the river. The Prefect of Paso reported this incident (and others) to Chihuahuan authorities, who published the report in La Luna, the official newspaper of Chihuahua.

Snow covers the ancient trail

1682.  Southern New Mexico.

Snow covers the ancient trail.  Carts in the caravan are falling apart.  Mules are dying.  Men on horseback — head south on the trail — adrift without a home. They take note of the in-between places: the parajes of San Diego, Robledo, Robledo El Chico, Yerba del Manso (named after one of the plants that grows at the river bank)[1], and Doña Ana – the places where they rest and sleep in the winter cold

From Doña Ana, the men ride east toward a mountain range called Los Organos in search of trees for wood to build homes; they find only small pines.  They see signs of people living in the area, well-worn paths taken by others.  They enter a cave (perhaps, La Cueva) where Apaches have recently camped, and where others have lived in the distant past.  Campfires burn at this ranchería.   

On the tenth of February, three men sign a declaration summarizing this portion of a long expedition.[2]  It is the earliest record that references the paraje of Doña Ana and the marshy areas (charcos de Fray Blas, Estero Redondo and Estero Largo) south of Doña Ana on the way to Paso del Norte.

From this written record, we know of the river wetlands and bosques in the middle of the Chihuahuan desert of southern New Mexico.  We know that the paraje of Doña Ana was named before or during the era of the Pueblo Revolt, and that this place was in the Apachería. 

(Photo of the Organ Mountains, with La Cueva, courtesy of Patrick Alexander.)

[1] Also known as Anemopsis californica and Yerba Mansa.  The plant has medicinal qualities.  Rudolfo Anaya wrote about the healing plant in his novel Bless Me, Ultima

[2] Declaration of Luis de Quintana, Joseph de Ugarte, and Juan de Echeverria, dated February 10, 1682, from Archivo General de la Nación, Mexico ramo Provincias Internas, tomo 34, expedientes 2-3, fol. 129r/123/98, in Craddock, J. R. (2016). Antonio de Otermín’s Attempted Reconquest of New Mexico Winter 1681-1682, at 131 and 268. UC Berkeley: Research Center for Romance Studies, Cibola Project. Retrieved from https://escholarship.org/uc/item/41d6w72g (transcribing and attaching documents pertaining to an expedition into New Mexico and the taking of testimony of Pueblo witnesses of the Pueblo Revolt.)

Returning to Doña Ana — October 1845

After their visit to northern New Mexico, Bishop Zubiría and his companions journeyed back south, reaching Doña Ana by mid-October of 1845. It must have been a relief for them to be able to stop (again) at Doña Ana , especially after traveling through the Jornada del Muerto.

After resting, Eulogio Tobar, a priest traveling with the Bishop, baptized the infants Jose Dionicio Relles, Jose Juan Montoya, Maria Cristina Montoya and Juliana Ydalgo of Doña Ana. The following day, the Bishop officiated a confirmation ceremony.

On both sides of one sheet of paper — now water stained — the names of the celebrants: