An early glimpse of Socorro

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In the early 1850s, a temporary Army post was maintained at Socorro to help protect the important El Paso-to-Albuquerque road from hostile Apaches. The little garrison consisted of 89 soldiers and a military surgeon named John F. Hammond.

On orders from Washington, Hammond was asked in 1852 to prepare a report of health conditions at his post and in the surrounding country. On assembling the medical data requested, the doctor also included a description of the town of Socorro and its people.

His account presents an interesting glimpse of the place at that time. It was published as a small, deluxe volume in limited edition by Santa Fe’s Stagecoach Press in 1966. Today, that little book is hard to find and expensive.

“Socorro,” Hammond tells us, “is formed by a series of plazas, of which no fewer than six can be counted, illy defined (sic), but bounded on some of their sides by flat-roofed mud hovels.

“There is an irregular lane and it is pointed to as a street, but without a name. The adobe church (San Miguel), with its two turrets and a belfry, reminds one of a large-sized steamboat on the Mississippi River.”

Hammond must have had an eye for the ladies for he described some of the local señoritas as “strikingly beautiful.” However, he remarked sadly, “They are never educated, rarely taught to read, and very rarely taught to write.”

“Girls marry as early as eleven, and generally between that age and fourteen; the males as early as their sixteenth year.” That was something the physician was not used to encountering in the states.

“For a variety of reasons,” he noted, the people of Socorro were susceptible to disease. This he attributed to badly ventilated adobe houses, poor clothing, lack of variety in the diet and early marriage. Few people lived to old age.

Practically every person Hammond met in the plazas had a pocked face showing the ravages of smallpox. Vaccination was practically unknown — strangely, because it had been introduced by a Spanish doctor at the end of the colonial period. Whooping cough, he observed, was very destructive of children.

Another frequent malady was venereal disease. The universal folk remedy for that affliction was Mormon tea, a common shrub in central New Mexico. Sufferers soaked branches of the plant in a pint of water, and then downed the tea in a single dose. It is an efficient and valuable medicine, Hammond acknowledged.

The doctor had a natural curiosity about matters other than those related to health. During his stay in Socorro, he kept a weather log and daily recorded temperature extremes and rainfall.

The post was also in the midst of an earthquake zone, and over a 15-month period, he took note of 28 separate shocks, some of them severe enough to cause a loud rumbling noise.

Many members of the U.S. Army stationed in the Southwest — physicians like Dr. Hammond as well as regular officers — were men of superior intellect with a broad education.

Locked away in their official reports, now preserved in the military records of the National Archives at Washington, is much choice data on the early history of the New Mexico Territory. As it is gradually brought to view, we shall be able to fill in more and more of the gaps that now exist in the story of the Southwestern frontier.