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 (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:

Celebration and Reflection at Doña Ana — May 15, 1845

It was a special occasion: women, men and children abruptly leaving their work in the fields or the shade of their jacales[1] and adobe homes to greet the Bishop; the Bishop who months earlier left Durango with his companions to travel on a multi-stop tour of Chihuahua and New Mexico, who reached this humble place called Doña Ana, between the river and the mountain ranges, a place he journeyed through several years before[2] when it was just a dangerous camp site — and now was a place where crops were growing and where pobladores[3] offered him water, food and smiles — basic human comfort.

The pobladores later gathered for Mass and Confirmation to be officiated by the Bishop, on May 15, 1845. Blessings, prayers and readings, signs of peace, wine and bread, blood and body.  Some of the pobladores were not in attendance, having been killed or taken captive by Apaches.  For them, more prayers.

Either the bishop or one of the priests wrote down on a sheet of paper the names of the confirmed, their parents and padrinos, then tucked the paper into a notebook, where it would remain for generations.

This record faded over time, yet some names still remain: Montoya being the most common.[4] 

[1] Jacales (jacal, singular) were homes made of poles, sticks, mud, grasses, hides — whatever could be found and used to create shelter. The word jacal is derived from the Nahuatl word Xacalli. See Nahuatl Dictionary at   The historical record reflects the use of jacales as homes by the indigenous and mestizos in Chihuahua and New Mexico.  See, e.g., search results for the word “jacal” within the Cibola Project.

[2] Bishop José Antonio Laureano de Zubiría y Escalante first traveled to New Mexico in 1833.  See Andrés Resendez, Changing National Identities at the Frontier: Texas and New Mexico, 1800-1850, at pp. 74-76, Kindle edition, (Cambridge University Press, 2004), 74-76.

[3] Pobladores (poblador or pobladora singular) means inhabitants or settlers in Spanish (Diccionario de la Lengua Española), and was the word used in historical records to describe the early inhabitants of Doña Ana.  See e.g., Transcription of records within the Report of the Surveyor-General of New Mexico regarding the Doña Ana land grant in New Mexico, in Senate Documents, Otherwise Publ. as Public Documents and Executive Documents: 14th Congress, 1st Session-48th Congress, 2nd Session and Special Session. United States, n.p, 1874., 3-87. 

[4] Record of Confirmations officiated by Bishop José Antonio Laureano de Zubiría y Escalante at (the place he called) Colonia de Santa Maria de Doña Ana, May 15, 1845, within records at the Church of Nuestra Señora de la Guadalupe, Paso del Norte (now Juarez), Chihuahua.  See photographs of documents above.)

The Río Bravo at Paso del Norte

More than a few times, the Río Bravo (Rio Grande) shifted dramatically at Paso del Norte, especially at the Partido de Chamisal. Due to flooding, many families of Chamisal moved north to Doña Ana in the 1840s. The river continued to change course after it became a section of the boundary between Mexico and the United States.

The map above illustrates the river’s movement between the late 1820 and late 1890s. (Map courtesy of the Mapoteca Manuel Orozco y Berra — click map to enlarge).

East Bajada of the Doña Ana Mountains

East bajada of the Doña Ana Mountains
South end of the Jornada del Muerto Plain on the bajada of the Doña Ana Mountains, 2.9 miles east-northeast of Doña Ana Peak, 5.2 miles southeast of the peak of Summerford Mountain, 32.4725 -106.7449, Doña Ana County, New Mexico, 18 Dec 2012. Creosote shrubland with Acourtia nana, Flourensia cernua, Gutierrezia microcephala, Zinnia acerosa, Cylindropuntia leptocaulis, Dalea formosa, Prosopis glandulosa, Dasyochloa pulchella, Muhlenbergia porteri, Eriogonum trichopes, Larrea tridentata, etc. (Photo and description by Patrick Alexander.)

New Mexico and/or Chihuahua

In early July of 1845, Felipe Sena, on behalf of the Departmental Assembly of New Mexico, complained about the granting of land in Doña Ana.  He argued that Doña Ana was in New Mexico (not Chihuahua), and proposed that the titles to land in Doña Ana be suspended pending re-granting of the lands by New Mexican authorities.   (The Spanish Archives of New Mexico  Vol. I, No. 257.)

A month later, U.S troops invaded New Mexico.