The little town of San Mateo, population roughly 200, lies at the end of New Mexico State Road 605, some 22 miles north of Grants. It is a historic place, nestled in a secluded pocket of a valley almost in the shadow of 11,300-foot Mount Taylor.
On a recent Saturday, San Mateo hummed with activity as it prepared to honor one of its most illustrious citizens from the past, Lt. Col. Manuel Antonio Chaves (1818-1889).
In the course of time; thelocation of the old soldier’s grave in the local cemetery had become lost. Phillip Marquez, a collateral descendant, some years ago set out to pinpoint the burial plot known to contain the remains of Manuel and his wife, Vicenta.
The task proved to be not an easy one, but at last a cement cross, which had originally held an inset bronze medallion reading “Veteran of the Indian Wars,” was discovered in a clump of chamisa.
That and additional diligent research by Marquez’s cousin Estevan Mirabal produced an identification acceptable to the Office of United States Veterans Affairs, which commissioned a standard marble gravestone with an incised inscription. The placement and dedication of that handsome military marker led to the May celebration by San Mateo residents and guests, many of whom could claim some ancestral connection to Lt. Col. Chaves’s family tree.
So who was this man, nicknamed in his day El Leoncito, meaning “The Little Lion”? Well, for starters, his life spanned the last years of the Spanish colonial period, the quarter century of Mexico’s rule and the first two-thirds of New Mexico as a U.S. Territory.
Manuel Chaves’s career, mainly as a frontiersman, soldier and rancher, touched practically every major historical event during the era in which he lived. He was born at Atrisco on the Rio Grande opposite Albuquerque. He went, at age 9, with his family when it moved to Cebolleta, a walled town 40 miles to the west on the edge of hostile Navajo and Ute country.
At that farming outpost, Chaves learned with other boys how to handle weapons of all kinds, preparing him for a future filled with armed conflict.
Later, he returned to the Rio Grande Valley and remained there for several years, obtaining a rudimentary education. By 1846, he was a well-known figure living in Santa Fe.
Subsequently, Manuel Antonio Chaves played a role in the Mexican War that led to New Mexico’s acquisition by the United States. Following hostilities, he acquired a home behind the Guadalupe Chapel, from which he was often summoned to lead military expeditions north and south against Indian raiders.
By the late 1850s, he had moved his wife and children to a large ranch, called Ojuelos, on the western flank of the Manzano Mountains. Some of his most phenomenal exploits occurred while there, in protecting his property from plundering war parties.
In 1862, Lt. Col. Manuel Chaves, commanding the 2nd Regiment of New Mexican Volunteers at the Civil War battle of Valverde, behaved gallantly.
He is best known, though, for guiding Union troops behind enemy lines at the battle of Glorieta, resulting in their destruction of the supply train that forced a Confederate withdrawal from New Mexico. In 1876, Manuel moved the family again, this time to the western village of San Mateo founded by his half-brother Roman Baca shortly after the war.
Here he went to sheep ranching and built a spacious adobe house still standing, and there he died in January 1889. Upon the placing of the official government gravestone in the San Mateo cemetery in 2012, Phillip Marquez and Estevan Mirabal, with descendants and town’s folk assisting, presided over a burial ceremony that was long overdue.
In attendance was Amado Chaves Summers, 80, of Ribera, the oldest living direct descendant of Manuel. Amado, accompanied by his family, had brought El Leoncito’s sword, a spur and other artifacts to reunite them briefly with the spirit of his great-grandfather.
Marquez read a stirring eulogy. Amado Summers spoke briefly, thanking the hospitable people of San Mateo for turning out in support of the day’s commemorative events.
In concluding activities, the groups Veterans Helping Veterans of Gallup, American Legion Post No. 8 and the Patriots Guard participated in a 21-gun salute and the ritual folding of the American flag that was presented to Amado.
On Manuel’s death in 1889, a journalist referred to him thus: “He was brave as a lion, spotless of honor, and modest as heroic.”