A soldier’s harsh commentary, 1872
Some 30 years ago, while researching in the Kansas State Archives at Topeka, I stumbled upon an odd article written by Lt. James W. Steele. It was titled “Among the New Mexicans” and had been published in the first issue of the Kansas Magazine (Feb. 1872).
Lt. Steele served at Fort Cummings east of today’s Deming in 1868-1869. But he must have traveled extensively through the upper Rio Grande Valley, the center of the old Hispanic culture, because that is what he attempts to describe in his piece.
Some American visitors to the territory in the same period often tried to write about the land and its people in a balanced manner. But not Lt. Steele!
His observations on the New Mexicans and their habits tended to be caustic, scornful and demeaning. In short, the lieutenant comes across as a thoroughly disagreeable person.
Fellow officers at Fort Cummings found him so, since he indulged in constant complaining about the rough adobe quarters, wind-blown sand in the food and the boredom of garrison life.
Knowing all of this, I still gained from his article insights to what he and perhaps a few other Americans thought was wrong with New Mexico and with the ways of its citizens.
Lt. Steele, for example, was not taken with adobe architecture at all, that is, the flat-roofed structures of sun-dried bricks that are so greatly admired at present.
Steele described Peralta on the river below Albuquerque as “the very dogsburg of a land of squalid towns.”
The interiors of new Mexican homes, in his words, fared no better. “The luxury of a floor, or beds, or chairs is unknown. Benches are merely banks of adobe bricks set along the walls.”
What the officer fails to tell his readers is that floors did exist, but of packed adobe earth sealed with ox blood, rather than hardwood floors of milled lumber common in the East.
And more affluent New Mexican families possessed tables, chairs, bedsteads and sometimes large mirrors, and even Brussels carpets brought over the long trail from Missouri.
“The New Mexican mode of life is agricultural,” declares our critic. He condemns the farmer because he may have to harvest grain and hay with a hoe, lacking a proper sickle. Further, he uses an ox-drawn plow or cart with a yoke tied to the animals’ horns by rawhide straps, as was once done in the days of ancient Rome.
The lieutenant disapproved, too, of “the primitive dress of the common class.” He made an exception, though, in the matter of headgear, saying that men’s hats were often adorned with gold embroidery, costing four times as much as the rest of his wardrobe.
Women wore the rebozo (shawl), sometimes elaborate and expensive, to cover the face from the sun. Steele seemed unaware that the age-old Spanish shawl is thought to derive from the medieval Moorish custom of women hiding all but the eyes.
In the matter of religion, he refers to the Penitente practice during Holy Week of going barefoot on pilgrimages and whipping one’s bare back to atone for heavy sins.
Lighter sins, he remarks, can be purged away by lying all night on a gravestone or by bumping your head a number of times on the church steps. Before I can believe that, I will need to see some proof.
In 1869, Lt. James Steele was transferred from New Mexico to Fort Concho, Texas, near modern San Angelo. That station was even more desolate than Fort Cummings.
There he fell out with his tough company commander and as a result resigned from military service.
His criticisms and distortions of New Mexican life have been buried and forgotten. That may be just as well, although the 1872 article does contain occasional fragments of information available nowhere else.