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The French: A forgotten part of New Mexico’s cultural stew?

Archbishop Jean-Baptiste Lamy, whose statue is shown in front of the French-style cathedral in Santa Fe, is probably the best-known Frenchman in New Mexico history. (AP Photo/Sarah Martone)

Archbishop Jean-Baptiste Lamy, whose statue is shown in front of the French-style cathedral in Santa Fe, is probably the best-known Frenchman in New Mexico history. (AP Photo/Sarah Martone)

SANTA FE, N.M. — The often touted tri-cultural heritage of New Mexico, which names the Spanish and the Native Americans, might be missing some flavors from the full spicing that makes up the state stew by calling the remaining third Anglos.

François-Marie Patorni is looking to remedy that with a book exploring the significant presence of his French compatriots in the state’s history. After all, when he looked around for information, he could find some biographies of major figures, but nothing on the French overall. So why not write his own?

He gave a quick summary of his research to a standing-room-only audience earlier this week in the auditorium of the New Mexico History Museum.

Loretto Chapel in Santa Fe has architecture inspired by Sainte-Chapelle in Paris, according to writer/researcher François-Marie Patorni. (Albuquerque Journal File Photo)

Loretto Chapel in Santa Fe has architecture inspired by Sainte-Chapelle in Paris, according to writer/researcher François-Marie Patorni. (Albuquerque Journal File Photo)

Just think of some of the names you hear in the state: Lamy, St. Vrain, Catron, Ledoux, Girard, L’Archevêque and many more. Or place names, such as the totally obvious Frenchy’s Field in Santa Fe.

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Other connections are less obvious – you might not realize that Lucien Maxwell, who got a land grant for a chunk of northeastern New Mexico and whose dual wedding in Taos was shared with Kit Carson, was French on his mother’s side (that heritage grows clearer when you learn his middle name was Bonaparte).

French-born Patorni, who moved to Santa Fe after retiring from the World Bank in Washington, D.C., in 2004, said all he had to do was walk around downtown to be struck by the French influences.

Seeing Santa Fe’s cathedral, he said, “I thought it was really out of place to have a French church in the middle of a Spanish town.” A church in Clermont-Ferrand in France looks strikingly similar, both inside and out, especially if you take into consideration the steeples intended for, but never built on, Santa Fe’s Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi, he said.

And Loretto Chapel? Patterned on Sainte-Chapelle in Paris, Patorni said.

(By the way, he said a French carpenter, François-Jean Roches, constructed the so-called “mysterious” spiral staircase in that chapel. Then, he moved to Mud Dog Canyon and was killed in a land dispute, Patorni added.)

Credit for the Gallic ecclesiastical architecture goes to one of the most famous Frenchmen in New Mexico: Archbishop Jean-Baptiste Lamy. He not only hired French architects and artisans to construct those churches, but backed Frenchified renovations on Spanish-style churches in other parts of the state, such as Socorro – many of which have since been restored to their original style, according to Patorni.

But while most everyone has heard of Lamy, the model for Willa Cather’s “Death Comes for the Archbishop,” not everyone knows that the first five bishops in New Mexico were all French, he said. That could be because Lamy, appointed the diocese’s first bishop in 1853, recruited priests from France to come serve in New Mexico – many of them from Lamy’s own Auvergne region, suggesting an old boys’ network.

Francois-Marie Patorni.

Francois-Marie Patorni.

“By 1890, 90 percent of the priests in New Mexico were French,” Patorni said.

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Why wasn’t Lamy happy with the Spanish-heritage clergy, one audience member asked on Wednesday.

“Lamy said the Spanish priests were very corrupt. They lived with women and fathered children,” Patorni replied.

Well, that’s another story.

Les Français stepped foot in the Southwest well before Lamy spread his influence, although the very first visitor from that country still had a religious calling. Patorni identified French priest Marc de Nice, also known as Marcos de Niza – it turns out a number of French people coming here either gave themselves or were given a Spanish variation of their names – as one of the first Europeans to set foot in what is now New Mexico.

He was traveling with the Spanish in search of the Seven Cities of Cibola, arrived at Zuni, and wrote an account of the gold and emeralds he saw there, Patorni said. As it turns out, the second expedition to the area found that he was stretching the truth more than a little.

But maybe he was telling stories to convince the crown to finance many more explorations. It wouldn’t have been the only time that a story was exaggerated in a search for better funding.

The “French Frights” of the 1700s are such an example, he said. The governor of New Mexico sent repeated warnings to Spanish officials about the French “invading,” but he must not have been too worried since the trespassers were often invited to dine and chat with the governor, Patorni said.

“They (local government officials) were creating noise to get more funding for soldiers and expenses,” he concluded.

Still, in 1720, there was a battle between the Spanish and some encroaching French that was depicted among the famed Segesser Hide drawings on display in the Palace of the Governors, he added.

And from 1862-67, French soldiers did stage an invasion of Mexico following that country’s discontinuance of interest payments it owed to European governments, as well as Napoleon III’s search for silver and free trade. When those troops were withdrawn, some decided to stay behind in places such as New Mexico, Patorni said.

But France never did seek the Southwest as a colony, he said. The French who did come into the area often were adventurers (such as François-Xavier Aubrey, who set a speed record of riding the trail from Santa Fe to Independence, Mo., in five days and 15 hours), fur trappers (such as Antoine Ledoux, whose name graces a Mora County community), entrepreneurs (such as Alexander Valle, owner of Pigeon’s Ranch between Fort Union and Santa Fe, where “people would bring their mistresses,” Patorni said) and, of course, the religious communities of priests and nuns.

Patorni is looking for more stories and French connections in the state. Go to his website, newmexicofrenchhistory.com, for contact information. He said he hopes to finish his book by the end of the year.

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