I heard great stories while walking the streets of Santa Fe, New Mexico, last month. A favorite involved Brig. Gen. Stephen Watts Kearny and the wealthy madam who ran a gambling house in that very city.
Kearny served as military governor of California for a few months in 1847. San Francisco's Kearny Street is named after him.
It was at the outbreak of the Mexican-American War in 1846 that the 52-year-old Kearny was promoted to brigadier general. He led a force of 2,500 men from Fort Leavenworth in the Kansas territory to Santa Fe that June. The Mexican soldiers stationed in Santa Fe left when they heard he was coming, so Kearny and his men took control of the territory.
Kearny quickly established a civil and military government and appointed Charles Bent, an American trader living in Taos, governor. In September, believing that all was well in New Mexico, he left for California, blazing a new route with 300 men. He left 800 soldiers in Santa Fe; another 800 sent to capture El Paso were then to join up with another Army unit taking the Gila River trail to California.
There was a problem: The payroll for the U.S. soldiers was late in arriving in Santa Fe, and the soldiers weren't getting paid.
At the same time, there was in Santa Fe a successful madam, who ran a gambling house that the American soldiers patronized. Maria Gertrudis Barcelo realized that Santa Fe under the Americans would be very good for her business.
Her saloon, with sparkling crystal chandeliers and floors covered with European carpets, was described as running the length of a block in the center of town. Barcelo, known as La Tules, was very good at gambling. According to reports, she was always richly dressed and covered with jewelry. Some said she was beautiful, others reported she was not so good looking, but everyone agreed there was no one better at the card game monte than she was.
One visitor to her saloon reported that she dealt night after night, often until dawn.
She was well-known and politically connected in Santa Fe, and it was said that Kearny gave her a military escort to the Victory Ball at La Fonda Hotel.
There is also a story that she was the one who persuaded the Mexican governor of Santa Fe to leave and let the Americans take over the place.
When La Tules heard that the American soldiers weren't getting paid, she lent the U.S. Army the money to take care of the payroll.
Because she heard gossip in her saloon by highly placed political figures of every make, she could also pass valuable information on to the U.S. Army. In December 1846, she warned the Army of a Mexican-Indian conspiracy that threatened the Americans.
La Tules died a very wealthy woman and left a good part of her fortune to the church, ensuring an impressive funeral presided over by Archbishop Jean Baptiste Lamy.
Days Gone By appears on Sundays. Contact Nilda Rego at email@example.com.