As a pioneering missionary who arrived in New Mexico in 1869, Methodist Episcopal preacher Thomas Harwood tackled his share of frontier hardships, ranging from hostile Indians to hard case gunmen.
Once, said, Rev. Will Steinsiek, archivist of the New Mexico Conference of the United Methodist Church, Harwood was surrounded near Cimarron by Indians intent on taking his blanket, something the minister, who served as a Union combat infantryman during the Civil War, was reluctant to give up. As the Indians pressed him, Steinsiek said, Harwood’s horse spooked, then bolted and the chase was on.
That’s one of the anecdotes Steinsiek may get to during an Albuquerque Historical Society program at 2 p.m. today at the Albuquerque Museum. He will put on the somber attire of a 19th-century Protestant minister and take on Harwood’s persona to tell a story of fierce determination against overwhelming odds.
“He was strong when he needed to be, compassionate when he needed and very wise,” Steinsiek said of Harwood. “Perseverance is the word that comes to mind. He had the ability to see possibilities when others didn’t.”
A fighting man
Harwood was born in 1829 and served as a sergeant with the Union Army’s 25th Wisconsin Infantry Regiment during the Civil War. In 1864, he was appointed chaplain of the regiment, but he was a sure-enough fighting man, once asking and being granted the permission to lead a charge on a Confederate position, which he and his men were able to capture.
He was wounded during the Battle of Atlanta. Steinsiek said Harwood did not refer to his wartime injury later in life, but it must have taken its toll on him at the time because when he visited his wife, Emily, while recuperating, he was so thin she did not at first recognize him.
After the war, Harwood led revivals in Wisconsin before moving to New Mexico late in 1869 and settling in Tiptonville, close to Watrous in Mora County and not far from Fort Union.
His mission was to establish Methodist Episcopal congregations in New Mexico and he went at it with fervor, riding horseback all over the territory, traveling to towns, military forts and remote mining camps.
“He estimated he rode 30,000 miles between 1869 and 1878, before the arrival of the railroad in New Mexico,” Steinsiek said. “He stayed only two days a month at his home, and he established 36 churches in New Mexico.”
At the start, Harwood’s biggest challenge was not difficult travel, harsh weather, belligerent Indians or outlaws. It was the fact that he spoke not a word of Spanish when he arrived in a territory where many people spoke only Spanish.
“One man told him he might as well be talking to telegraph poles if he did not speak Spanish,” Steinsiek said. “He began thinking he should go back to Wisconsin. Instead, he went back to that man and asked him to teach him Spanish. The first thing he learned to say in Spanish was ‘Is this the road to Cimarron?’ When he asked the first person he met that question and was able to understand the answer, he was so pleased he asked everyone he met along the way – even though he knew it was the road.”
A year after arriving in New Mexico, Harwood gave his first sermon in Spanish, Steinsiek said, and six months after that he was fluent in the language.
Steinsiek, 68, whose father served in the U.S. Army, was born in Germany and moved with his family from assignment to assignment before settling in Albuquerque in the early 1960s. Steinsiek graduated from Sandia High School and earned a degree in history from the University of New Mexico in 1973 before attending United Theological Seminary in Dayton, Ohio. He was ordained in 1978 and is now pastor of Bernalillo United Methodist Church in the town of Bernalillo. His position as archivist for the New Mexico Conference, which covers all of New Mexico and also West Texas, gives him the opportunity to meld his love of history with his religious vocation.
In his presentation, he portrays Harwood in the years after 1910, when Harwood was in his 80s and a resident of Albuquerque. Harwood died in Albuquerque in December 1916 at the age of 87 and is buried in Albuquerque’s Fairview Memorial Park.
Harwood wrote a two-volume history of New Mexico Spanish and English Methodist Episcopal missions, a fact that has helped Steinsiek hone his portrayal of the pioneer preacher.
“The way he writes helps me get a sense of how he talked,” Steinsiek said. “We might talk about the Civil War, but they called it the War of Southern Rebellion.”
Harwood’s writing also gives Steinsiek an appreciation of that minister’s sense of humor.
“They turned a henhouse in Cherry Valley (San Miguel County) into a school, and he wrote that it was something ‘we can crow about later,’ ” Steinsiek said.
Besides a henhouse school and 36 churches, Harwood was involved in starting and/or operating institutions such as the Harwood School for Girls, the Boys Biblical and Industrial School and Albuquerque College.
“The institutions came and went,” Steinsiek said. “But he would say his greatest accomplishment was the lives of the people he touched.”
By the way, Harwood won that race with the Indians who wanted to steal his blanket. He beat them into Elizabethtown, a mining camp northwest of Cimarron, only to find a couple of toughs sizing him up as he rode by the saloon. Harwood had earned the ire of powerful New Mexico land baron Lucien Maxwell by officiating at the marriage of Maxwell’s daughter Virginia to a man other than the one Maxwell had selected for her. The men outside the saloon figured they could curry favor with Maxwell by taking care of that preacher.
“But then they saw the gun on (Harwood’s) saddle and decided they should have another drink instead,” Steinsiek said.