NM's first governor was an unusual man suited for turbulent times - Albuquerque Journal

NM’s first governor was an unusual man suited for turbulent times

“James Silas Calhoun: First Governor or New Mexico Territory and First Indian Agent” by Sherry Robinson

In 2012 Sherry Robinson was searching for a topic to talk about at the annual meeting of the History Society of New Mexico.

Robinson, an Albuquerque-based historian and business journalist, ran across a mention of James Silas Calhoun, the first governor of the New Mexico Territory.

What caught her attention is that when the governor, feeble and ailing from scurvy, departed the territory for his home in Georgia, he was accompanied by a coffin.

“That started me to wonder, what kind of person does that,” Robinson said in a phone interview. Her wondering gave way to a broader curiosity: Who is James Calhoun?

Robinson supplies answers to that question in her new scholarly biography “James Silas Calhoun: First Governor of New Mexico Territory and First Indian Agent.”

Actually, Robinson learned Calhoun didn’t order the coffin. Army Maj. John H. Carleton expected Calhoun would not survive the journey. He probably consulted with Calhoun’s son-in-law William A. Love and had a coffin made to be carried on the trail with the governor.

Carleton’s expectation was accurate. Calhoun died en route to Georgia, on June 30, 1852, after serving as territorial governor for 18 months.

For the previous 22 months, Calhoun was Indian Agent for New Mexico before its designation as a territory.

Calhoun’s time as territorial governor was fraught with divisiveness manifested by such issues as partisan political infighting, religious animosity, kidnapping, enslavement, killings, cattle and sheep rustling between some Indian tribes and New Mexican ranchers, corruption, and insufficient or nonexistent federal funds for him to carry out his duties.

Calhoun seemed like a man unafraid to tackle them. He possessed the demeanor of a mediator and a diplomat. He appeared to be a man willing to meet the concerns of the territory’s diverse constituent groups.

Sherry Robinson

Born poor and orphaned in Georgia, he worked hard and prospered as an adult. He was, at various times, a prison inspector, a lawyer, a jurist, a mayor, a legislator and a businessman in multiple arenas (e.g. cotton brokering, banking, shipping, real estate). Not all of Calhoun’s business investments were on the up and up. Calhoun was an early investor in the Columbus Land Company, one of a number of Georgia firms dealing in land speculation over Creek Nation acreage they coveted.

“Speculators had a large bag of tricks and a posse of minions to secure land,” Robinson writes.

In 1834, the company began to auction 320-acre plots of Creek Territory considered valuable for growing cotton, corn and other crops; within months, the scheme unraveled, she writes.

“Calhoun obviously hoped to profit off the sale of Creek lands, had no sympathy with the plight of the Creeks, and shared some responsibility for the Creek War, but in the big picture, he was a minor player,” Robinson writes.

The sale of Creek lands was part of a grander scheme – the federal government’s plan to forcibly remove the Creek people from their vast homelands in the Southeast.

Calhoun’s strong support for William Henry Harrison as the Whig candidate for president in 1840 secured him an appointment as American consul in Havana, Cuba. At the time, Cuba was a colony of Spain.

Calhoun held the consul post for less than a year. But a source Robinson cited said he received thanks from Americans on the island for “his impartial and courteous manner” and his fairness in managing matters between American naval officers and sailors, and between Americans and Cubans. While in Havana, Calhoun learned conversational Spanish.

Subsequently, Calhoun had a role in the Mexican War. He raised one of the first volunteer companies and it elected him captain. Calhoun didn’t know the first thing about soldiering, so, as he had in Cuba, he wrote Georgia Congressman Thomas Butler King for information, Robinson writes.

Not satisfied with a captaincy, Calhoun got an appointment as lieutenant colonel of the Battalion of Georgia Mounted Volunteers.

“I have to like him at one level,” the author said of Calhoun. “To me, he was an honorable man. He told the truth. He was a person of integrity. He did what he said what he was going to do even if it was disastrous to him personally,” Robinson said. In the biography she enumerated many of Calhoun’s accomplishments in New Mexico.

As Indian agent, his early attitude of wanting to punish various tribes gradually softened. He signed treaties with the Navajo, Utes, Eastern Apaches and pueblos. He treated Apaches and Comanches fairly in negotiations. He restored a number of captives. He welcomed Archbishop Lamy and befriended the influential Padre Antonio José Martinez, who ministered to Taos and Taos Pueblo.

“His overarching contribution was his conviction that New Mexicans were capable of governing themselves and becoming good American citizens,” Robinson writes.

Not all factions agreed with that viewpoint. It took until 1912 for New Mexico to achieve statehood.

A weakness of the readable biography is that the text and its appendices have an overabundance of people entering, exiting and returning in Calhoun’s busy life. That makes it difficult to keep track of events major and minor, and the many players, whether family, friends, political allies and adversaries, business associates and others.

• • •

In February, the paperback edition of Robinson’s award-winning book “I Fought a Good Fight: A History of the Lipan Apaches” is scheduled for release.

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