Special History Study
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Está algo enredado, pero así se hace dinero. [1]

Damaso Robledo, 1846

Damaso Robledo, an agent for Manuel Alvarez, was scouting the New Mexican territory buying grains and legumes from small farmers and selling merchandise Alvarez had purchased in the eastern United States. His activities were typical of the commercial system which had developed in New Mexico by the time of the Mexican war, and illustrate how New Mexican merchants took advantage of the economic opportunity their territory offered. Like Manuel Alvarez they had established stores throughout the countryside where the local population could buy the merchandise they had imported. Since most New Mexicans had no cash, they paid for these purchases with sheep or crops, which often they mortgaged years in advance. Robledo's comment also indicates that Hispanos understood the need to engage in complex transactions to make a profit.

It took time for the New Mexican mercantile system to mature. For almost two decades after the "opening" of the Santa Fe Trail in 1821 local merchants did not participate in any direct large-scale commercial activities with United States firms. By the end of the 1830s, however, they ventured east to New York, Baltimore, Philadelphia, and Pittsburgh, where they invested sizable assets. Slowly they became part of a widespread commercial network, which offered them substantial returns. Their complex transactions came to include merchants in the United States, Europe, and Mexico. Far from ending hispano involvement, the changes which resulted from the Mexican War appear to have strengthened the economic relations between New Mexico's comerciantes (merchants) and their counterparts in the United States.

By the mid-19th century New Mexicans regularly arranged for substantial purchases in the major commercial centers in the eastern United States, including European merchandise from Ireland, Great Britain, France, and Italy. American businesses and newspapers in Kansas, Missouri, and New York acknowledged the presence of large parties of Hispanos and, realizing their likely impact in the local economies, they published advertisements intended exclusively to attract their attention. The announcement of Francisco B. Rhodes & Co. provides an excellent idea of the variety of items New Mexicans purchased in the United States (see Figure 6). [2]

Figure 6. Major Destinations of Hispano Merchants Traveling to the Mexican Territory. (click on image for an enlargement in a new window)

Hispano merchants might not have dominated the trade, but they owned a significant portion of the goods hauled across the prairies. For example, out of the 402 wagons traveling to Santa Fe in 1859, almost half (197) belonged to Hispanos. It is not possible to determine the value of the merchandise carried by each ethnic group, but it is likely that it paralleled the volume. Records of caravans during the 1850s and 1860s indicate no major changes in this pattern and inscriptions in Oklahoma corroborate the presence of large numbers of New Mexican traders until the 1880s. [3]

During those four decades (1839-1880) the nature of the enterprise evolved. Hispano merchants, like their American and European counterparts, stopped making yearly trips east to arrange orders of merchandise, but used the services of commission merchants, such as Peter Harmony, to manage their transactions in the United States. They designated trusted mayordomos to travel east and make the final purchases and freighting arrangements. They obtained goods from a variety of sources in an attempt to get the best prices.

Unfortunately only sporadic sets of personal papers survive that directly document their activities. Enough evidence exists, however, on the Chávez family to describe the operation and evolution of their businesses. [4] Census data from 1860 and 1870 and scattered correspondence from Manuel Alvarez, the Delgado family, and others confirm its operation and success.

Hispanos began to trade sporadically in the United States in the early 1820s. The first to do so were the Escuderos, a couple of Chihuahuan traders. In 1824 Governor Bartolomé Baca selected José Escudero to travel to Council Bluffs (present-day Iowa) with a delegation of 26 Spaniards. His primary purpose was to conclude a treaty with the Pawnees. There is no evidence that Escudero purchased any merchandise in the United States. [5]

Figure 7. Spanish Leaflet Advertising Merchandise Available in New York. Courtesy of New Mexico State Records Center and Archives.

Another Escudero, Manuel Simón, a deputy to the Mexican Congress, journeyed east the following year. Commissioned by Governor Baca as well, his task was to visit the United States in the interest of international commerce and to seek protection from the Indians. Manuel Escudero stopped at St. Louis, Washington, and Franklin, Missouri. [6] His stay in the United States received considerable attention. The Franklin Intelligencer reported that Escudero had arrived with "six or seven new and substantial built waggons [sic]. . .heavily laden with merchandise." The article added that Escudero had expended a very large sum in the purchase of goods, wagons, and equipment, and concluded that the trip "may be considered as a new era in the commerce between Mexico and this country, and it is probable the example of Mr. Escudero will be followed by others of his rich countrymen who will bring hither large portions of their surplus wealth for the same purpose." [7]

The Escuderos made at least one more trip. In July 1827 Manuel received a guía that listed him as the owner of a modest amount of foreign merchandise (346 pesos five reales six granos) with destination Chihuahua. Luis Escudero was the recipient of the effects and another Escudero, José Agustín, was the conductor of the load. [8]

Apparently the Escuderos' trading did not ignite the imagination of New Mexican merchants, as it would be more than 10 years before the province's ricos decided to bring "large portions of their surplus wealth" to the United States. [9] It is possible that José Ignacio Ortiz, the alcalde of Santa Fe, might have traveled to Philadelphia in 1830 to arrange for the purchase of merchandise. Only one document records his stay; unfortunately it does not reveal the purpose of his trip. [10]

New Mexicans continued to acquire large shipments of foreign goods from their traditional Mexican suppliers at least until 1837, when José Chávez purchased 7,680 pesos worth of merchandise from Durango. [11] But commercial opportunities in Mexico appeared to be declining. A June 1838 letter from José Cordero to Manuel Armijo suggested the need to look for markets elsewhere. Cordero informed Armijo that it would be difficult to sell sheep in the Mexican territory and that prices would be lower than usual. He notified his business associate that he was thinking of leaving Chihuahua since it was no longer possible to make a good living there. [12]

It is unclear if and how Cordero's assessment relates to the change in New Mexican patterns of trade which took place in 1839. It is possible that Cordero and his New Mexican counterparts realized that in order to satisfy the growing demand for foreign goods they would have to acquire merchandise elsewhere. It is also difficult to ascertain the accuracy of Cordero's appraisal of the situation in Mexico, since an April 1840 report by Mariano de Valois (in response to a letter from U.S. Representative Edward Cross) indicated that Chihuahua, with a population of 140,000 and a consumption of $2.5 to $3 million a year, continued to be an ideal market for foreign goods. [13]

Why didn't New Mexicans trade directly with American wholesalers until the late 1830s? There are several possible explanations. First, New Mexicans might not have had enough cash on hand in the 1820s to get favorable credit terms. Second, as foreigners, they might not have been able to get loans to purchase merchandise in the eastern cities. Third, local New Mexican authorities might have imposed unofficial restrictions on their commercial activities in a foreign country. After all, the governor of the province (Baca) had to personally authorize Escudero's trip. Fourth, a dramatic change in economic conditions within the Mexican territory in the late 1830s might have made such trips profitable. Fifth, wealthy New Mexicans might have decided to stop paying substantial mark ups on foreign products. Although it was cheaper to buy foreign merchandise in Santa Fe than from Mexican merchants, surcharges were still high. In 1834 local storekeepers Santiago and Ramón Abreu bought goods from Manuel Alvarez. They paid surcharges of 100 and 120 percent on most items. Such practices continued to be the norm as late as April 1845 when Juan Otero paid similar surcharges on the 7,800 pesos worth of goods he purchased from Manuel Alvarez at Santa Fe. [14]

Regardless of the reasons, 1839 witnessed a dramatic change in the direction of trade from New Mexico. Although Cordero did not leave Chihuahua in 1838, the following year he was among the first Hispanos who traveled east to establish direct commercial relations with commission merchants and suppliers of needed efectos extranjeros. Cordero was identified as one of the prominent "Mexicans" who were part of a large trading caravan of more than 100 wagons crossing present-day Kansas en route to Santa Fe. The size of his shipment was substantial although the official assessment of its total value, if it ever existed, has not survived. A manifest of the property he declared at the New Mexican customs house at Santa Fe indicates that he imported 42,000 yards of cotton textiles for which he paid more than 10,000 pesos in duties. He received two guías, a small one for 280 pesos of merchandise and a much larger one including 42 bundles, for which no value was indicated. It is not clear if he carried back to Chihuahua all he purchased in the United States. [15]

Cordero traveled with José Olivares, another Mexican merchant, who bought a smaller amount of merchandise. They were the earliest merchants, but not the only ones, who went east that year. José Chávez and other Mexican merchants left San Miguel del Vado, New Mexico on September 23 and reached Independence, Missouri, on October 30. Theirs was a five-wagon caravan, apparently composed entirely of New Mexicans. According to the Niles' National Register the members of the group traveled again to St. Louis on November 11 carrying $60,000 in specie. [16] These merchants spent the winter in the United States and left in May for Santa Fe where they arrived in July. Both official documents from the aduana at Santa Fe and American newspaper reports concur that these entrepreneurs freighted 11 wagons of merchandise back to New Mexico.

The Chávez brothers and the other merchants were wealthy and carried substantial cash on their trips to the United States. It seems, however, that American newspapers might have exaggerated the amount and value of the specie New Mexicans took. If we believe The Weekly Picayune, Chávez and his party managed to make a substantial profit in those five months. According to the above newspaper the "Mexican" merchants carried back merchandise valued at $75,000, five times more than the $15,000 reported in November. The manifests for these goods survive and it is unlikely that all the assessments together could have reached even the lower alleged sum. [17]

Nevertheless, the 1839 trip must have been successful because thereafter increasing numbers of New Mexican merchants traveled east every year to arrange for commercial transactions in the United States. They quickly adopted regular trading patterns. In general, their caravans departed Santa Fe during April or the early part of May, reached Independence or St. Louis, Missouri, and then continued on to eastern industrial centers, like Pittsburgh, Baltimore, Philadelphia, and New York. Sometime in June they started on the trip home. Weather sometimes delayed their activities and they did not return until September or October. [18] Many probably followed the example of Gaspar Ortiz and José Chávez who added foreign goods to the merchandise they had been sending to the interior of Mexico for years. They both came back from the United States on July 27, 1843. Less than a month later, on August 17, Ortiz sent two loads to Chihuahua and Sonora. Chávez postponed the shipment of his merchandise to Mexico until August 25. [19]

Manifests for caravans entering New Mexico in theory had to account for all packages, their certified value, the persons to whom they were consigned, the destination, and the value of the goods. Historians agree, however, that the declared value of the merchandise bore little relation to what the owner had paid or even to what tariff the local officials collected. According to Moorhead the customs records merely justified the amount of revenue actually sent to the national treasury, and the true value of the Santa Fe trade was never accurately reported. [20]

Gregg and other foreign merchants complained that unfair import duties favored New Mexicans, but the surviving documents reveal no special treatment from the authorities at the customs house in Santa Fe. In 1839 Cordero paid 7,897.48 pesos of derecho de internación, 459 pesos of derecho de consumo, and in addition 1,673.52 pesos on a special fee placed on cotton textiles—four cents on each square vara (.84 yards). And he was not the exception. Another Mexican merchant who traveled with Cordero, José Olivares paid similar dues. [21]

In July 1840 two American traders, in addition to three New Mexicans, introduced merchandise into the territory. The locals paid a substantial share of the import duties—4,647.72 pesos for derecho de internación, 895.98 pesos for derecho de consumo, and 955.52 pesos for a special temporary surcharge on cotton textiles. Their total amounted to 6,499.21 pesos. Americans did not pay the derecho de consumo, so their duties were relatively lower than those paid by the locals—3,413 pesos. New Mexicans contributed 61 percent of the derecho de internación, but only 38.7 percent of the derecho de consumo. It is difficult to generalize on the basis of these figures because they included only merchandise introduced during the month of July, and unfortunately no additional records survive for that year. Undoubtedly rumors about the Texan Santa Fe expedition contributed to a temporary decreased interest in the trade. [22]

The following spring (May 1841) the Chávezes, the Armijos, possibly the Oteros, and others traveled east in the company of American traders. The Daily Missouri Republican noted that the caravan had 22 wagons, a large number of mules, and $180,000 to $200,000 in specie. A witness saw "about 20 Spanish Mexicans. . .led by Chávez." The New Mexicans apparently did not winter in the United States that year. Newspapers reported that by early October Armijo and Chávez left Independence, Missouri, headed west with 30 wagons, 72 tons of merchandise, and around 350 mules. The majority of the official customs documents for 1841 have been lost and it is not possible to learn much more about this trip. Gregg listed 15 merchants carrying $150,000 in goods for that year. [23]

During the early 1840s the size of New Mexican purchases in the United States increased dramatically. Webb believed that, "the [American] traders had some hand in deterring the Mexicans from going in for goods by exaggerating the danger and reporting rumors of a large expedition from Texas being organized for the purpose of making a raid upon the prairies and taking every Mexican train that should attempt to cross the plains that year." [24] Local merchants, however, were undeterred by the failed Texan Santa Fe expedition. [25] In June 1842 Juan Perea introduced 70 bultos. Among them he brought 30,129.5 yards of fabrics, different types of sewing threads, ribbons, cotton socks, and 100 hats. The most interesting aspect of this shipment, however, is the lack of variety—only 12 different types of goods. Four of these were fabrics, but most of the shipment (26,589 yards—88 percent) consisted of lienzo. Perea paid 4,910.10 pesos in duties. Lienzo was inexpensive and it only required one real per vara in import duties. Other fabrics paid higher tariffs—pano was 12 reales per vara, woolen knittings 15 reales per vara. Luxury items were subject to more substantial duties—silk thread and ribbons two dollars per pound, socks two and a half dollars per dozen, hats three dollars each. [26]

Perea was not the only merchant who introduced large shipments with little variety. Antonio José Otero's purchases for 1842 included almost twice as much cloth as Perea's and showed the same lack of variety. Otero paid 9,321.90 pesos in import duties reflecting the substantial size of his purchase. [27] New Mexican merchants were following the example of some foreign merchants, who since the early 1830s, had been introducing large quantities of selected items. But not all traders relied on this strategy. For example, in 1843 Spanish-born Manuel Alvarez introduced a much more varied assortment than those of Perea and Otero, a larger number of items paying higher import duties; John McKnight followed the pattern adopted by the Spaniard, while James Magoffin took a middle-course—his manifest reflected less variety than Alvarez's but a lot more than either Perea's or Otero's. [28]

1843 was a banner year for the Santa Fe Trail. Gregg reported 30 traders with 230 wagons carrying almost $500,000 in merchandise. [29] In spite of the murder of Antonio José Chávez, which took place in April, increasing numbers of New Mexicans began trading directly with United States wholesalers. In April, 180 men, 42 wagons and 1,200 mules left Santa Fe for Independence, where they arrived by mid-May. Most were identified as Mexicans who carried between $250,000 and $300,000 in bullion and a substantial amount of furs. Witnesses reported that 11 traders continued to New York to make purchases. An account indicates that it was during this trip that Juan and José Leandro Perea and José Chávez brought young Francisco and Joaquin Perea and J. Francisco Chávez to be registered as students in a Jesuit college. [30]

By late June the merchants were back in Santa Fe. The manifests for the year (1843) document an expanding New Mexican presence and changes in the composition of the caravans. New families joined the trade for the first time as it became possible even for those with limited capital to participate in direct trade with the United States. Tomás González, for example, brought a modest load consisting of four different kinds of fabrics—500 yards of lienzo, 45 yards of manta, 330 yards of indiana, and 120 yards of mahon (nankeen). Customs officials charged him 150 pesos in tariffs. [31] Juan Nepomuceno and José Mariano Gutiérrez returned with 13 bundles of foreign merchandise. Together they paid 2,626.22 pesos in duties. Their goods included little variety and no luxury items. Juan introduced 2,817 yards of linen, 1,792 yards of calico, 450 yards of assorted fabrics, nine dozen knives, 12 dozen cotton socks, three dozen scissors, six dozen locks, and four dozen pocket knives. José Mariano's manifest showed even less variety, but large quantities—3,100 yards of linen, 2,500 yards of nankeen, 3,300 yards of calico, 250 yards of other textiles, 25 dozen cotton socks, and 16 pieces of handkerchief cloth. [32]

In general the economic resources of the owner determined the size, composition, and value of the shipments. The wealthier merchants introduced larger quantities of merchandise, but did not import a greater variety of items than those of more limited means. They concentrated instead on finer and more expensive merchandise. For example, Gaspar Ortiz introduced French and British calicos, top quality cashmere, corduroy, velvet, silk gloves, and others. Mariano Chávez brought in close to 40,000 yards of textiles and among these he included European luxury goods, such as cashmeres, velvet, linens, calicos, flannels, fancy shawls, satins, and silk ribbons. [33]

The manifests for 1844 suggest that each year New Mexican traders imported larger quantities and more expensive foreign merchandise. Although the size of the shipments increased, their composition did not change. Juan C. Armijo, Antonio José Otero, Juan and José Perea, and Mariano Chávez together introduced close to $75,000 in merchandise. Shipments were composed almost exclusively of fabrics. In addition Armijo's goods included combs, cotton socks, and handkerchiefs. Otero and the Pereas purchased the same kinds of effects, except no combs. Chávez's loads also included fur hats and scarfs. [34]

The records for 1845 appear incomplete, but possibly reflect uncertainty as the clash between the United States and Mexico became inevitable. No manifests survive for this year and the New Mexican shipments to the interior of Mexico were insignificant compared to the loads foreigners carried. For example, the guías indicate that James Magoffin hauled 176 piezas assessed at $26,000. The merchandise belonged to Kerford and Jenkin, who also sent more than 100,000 yards of various fabrics to the interior of Mexico under the care of other freighters. Albert Speyer dispatched 601 tercios valued at $68,948. [35]

The Mexican War did not stop commerce for long and appears to have had limited short-term detrimental impact on New Mexican commercial interests since merchants did not allow the armed confrontation to affect their economic transactions in the United States. [36] The Armijos, at least, seemed unconcerned and New York newspapers recorded their presence late in 1845 "to purchase their winter outfit." [37] The following spring New Mexican merchants traveled east again to "acquire goods for the trade and Pittsburgh manufactures." [38]

There has been a lot of controversy regarding economic control of the Santa Fe trade before and after the Mexican War. Unfortunately the lack of systematic information regarding ownership, the value and amount of merchandise, and its origin and final destination prevents a definitive analysis of the trade between New Mexico and the United States during the 19th century. Estimates of the value of the merchandise invested in the Santa Fe trade are crude and incomplete. Gregg provides the most often cited and possibly most reliable assessment prior to the Mexican war. With a few fluctuations he identified a fairly steady increase in the value and volume of merchandise that culminated in 1843 with 230 men carrying $450,000 in merchandise in 230 wagons. [39] Later appraisals included fair indicators of volume, but the assessment of overall value is questionable. The reported average figure for the overland trade with Mexico for 1848 to 1858 was $1,138,000, nearly a quarter of the total American trade with Mexico. In 1858 S. M. Hayes & Company, located at Council Grove, recorded 2,440 men, 1,827 wagons, 429 horses, 15,714 oxen, 5,316 mules, 67 carriages, and 9,608 tons of goods for a total investment capital of $2,627,300. In 1859 the Missouri Republican reported that the trade had risen to $10 million annually as 2,300 men, 1,970 wagons, 840 horses, 4,000 mules, 15,000 oxen, 73 carriages, and over 1,900 tons of freight left for New Mexico. According to T. B. Mills in 1860 even higher numbers of men (5,948), wagons (2,170), mules (5,933), and oxen (17,836) were carrying merchandise across the plains. A decade later it was estimated that the trade amounted to over $5 million. [40]

Gregg claimed that by the 1840s Mexicans monopolized the trade. Much has been made of Cooke's statement in 1843 that, "of about 200 wagon loads which I have escorted this year, I do not believe 10 have belonged to Americans who were resident citizens." [41] Part of the difficulty stems from the incomplete nature of the records. Irregularities in record keeping by customs officials at Santa Fe also cast a doubt on the nature of the transactions recorded. For example, Missouri newspapers and witnesses agreed that Manuel Armijo procured considerable merchandise in the United States. However, no manifests identify such purchases, and even though the Customs House records at Santa Fe showed that Armijo received 14 guías between 1835 and 1845, none of them declared foreign merchandise. [42]

Official records roughly agree with the number of shipments Gregg reported, but his estimate of the value of the merchandise might be questionable. Any visual assessment of the value of the loads would have been subjective. Reporters referred to a wagon-load as the standard unit of shipment, but carts were not necessarily the same size and were laden with different kinds of goods. Those carrying bulky, coarser textiles, such as bolts of lienzo and manta, paid lower duties than those carrying finer fabrics, such as silk or lace, or luxury items. In addition during certain years some merchandise was exempt from import duties. For example, José Chávez and Antonio José Otero paid no duties on iron tools and coarse linens. [43] Assessments of the value of the trade were often based on newspaper accounts and eyewitnesses reports. While these might be adequate indicators of the numbers of men, wagons, mules, and oxen, they should be considered only rough estimates of the actual value of the merchandise hauled across the plains.

Furthermore, witnesses like Cooke were unlikely to have identified with certainty the owners of the merchandise since those who traveled with the goods did not necessarily own them. As the documents indicate and Gregg's figures suggest, by the 1840s foreign merchants not always accompanied their shipments. Furthermore their reliance on the superior freighting skills of New Mexicans probably accounts for the large number of Hispanos accompanying the caravans to the United States during the 1840s. The information American newspapers presented regarding ownership was inconsistent. Sometimes it listed the real owner, even if he had not traveled east. Sometimes the reported owner was the mayordomo in charge of organizing purchases and freighting the goods back home. [44]

Surviving documents, such as manifests and guías, do not allow an accurate and systematic comparison between American and New Mexican shipments. It is also impossible to establish the size and value of the merchandise that remained in the territory. Guiás often do not provide information on the value of the goods. Customs officials seldom prepared complete manifests for an entire year and, as Moorhead noted, these documents bore little relation either to the amount or the assessment of the imports. Although it is not possible to assert that New Mexicans controlled the trade on the eve of the Mexican War, it is accurate to maintain that during this period New Mexicans were the majority of the traders traveling down the Royal Road to the interior of Mexico. In 1843 New Mexicans received 70 guías to only 21 for Americans. However, only in 10 cases did New Mexicans haul foreign goods. The other shipments included sheep and efectos del país. They were bulky and, in general, of much smaller value than the shipments foreigners sent. New Mexican merchants were trading alongside Albert Speyer, Henry Connelly, Louis Robidoux, George East, and other wealthy entrepreneurs who controlled sizable capital and had important commercial relations with major American financial institutions. It is not possible to establish who controlled the trade, but after 1839 New Mexicans played a major role in the commerce between Mexico and the United States. [45]

Control of the trade is an issue that has attracted the attention of scholars of the Santa Fe Trail; however, there are neither descriptions nor analyses of the economic system that developed in New Mexico as a result. D. Sandoval concludes that the changes following the Mexican War had an immediate detrimental impact on New Mexico. [46] But documents indicate that wealthy New Mexican merchants profited substantially from the trade in the decades immediately after the American occupation as they continued to make large duty-free purchases in the United States. The evidence also indicates that New Mexicans further developed mercantile capitalism in the territory at least until 1880, when the railroad finally reached Santa Fe.

Scholars have ignored the contributions New Mexicans made to the development of an economic system well-suited to the special circumstances of their territory. Lewis E. Atherton's studies of Santa Fe traders include insightful observations, but concentrated exclusively on the activities of Missouri merchants before the Mexican War. [47]

Robert Parish wrote the most comprehensive study of the economic system that evolved as a result of the Santa Fe trade, yet he completely overlooked New Mexicans' contributions, focusing instead on the role of German Jews. [48] Parish identified three basic characteristics of mercantile capitalism in New Mexico. First, traveling merchants were replaced by sedentary merchants who depended on regular deliveries, and ordered ahead of time from Baltimore, Philadelphia, New York, and other eastern cities. Second, cash was a scarce commodity in a New Mexican economy that had a strongly unfavorable balance of trade. This forced merchants to establish close connections with local institutions, such as United States Army forts, which paid for their badly needed local produce with cash. This was then converted into Federal drafts on Eastern banks and deposited with wholesaling houses and commission merchants in New York City. Third, the need to gain access to the produce of the countryside encouraged the establishment of stores in small rural towns. [49]

New Mexican merchants began to implement such a system before the Mexican War, and after 1845 they were quick to acquire much-needed credit through the sale of raw materials to industrial areas and supplies to federal installations, such as United States Army posts, and possibly Indian reservations.

Parish's failure to examine Mexican documents accounts for his assessment that, "He [the German Jewish merchant] had found the Mexican merchants, with few exceptions, to possess little drive for material productiveness." [50] Parish did not realize that wealthy New Mexicans shared many of the characteristics of their German counterparts, and like them, did not enter the trade for speculative reasons, but sought to build a thriving and permanent business enterprise.

It is not possible to ascertain who was the first individual to implement mercantile capitalism in New Mexico. It is clear, however, that Hispanos had developed a fairly sophisticated system before the Mexican War. Manuel Alvarez was not a native New Mexican, but should share at least partial credit for introducing mercantile capitalism in the province. Parish dismissed him as a minor figure because "his ledgers. . . show but three Eastern trips, some bartering in Taos and Abiquiú, but no signs of imports and exports on any scale." [51] It is unfortunate that Parish did not see how well Alvarez and other New Mexicans fit the model of the sedentary merchant, who had gone beyond petty capitalism to introduce a more sophisticated mercantile system to the territory.

Alvarez, a Spaniard who sporadically acted as American consul in New Mexico, spent close to three decades in Santa Fe. His international contacts allowed him to interact with relative ease with Europeans, Mexicans, and Americans. [52] It is true that Alvarez only made three trips east, but one of them took him to Europe from where he kept himself informed of business developments in the province and periodically forwarded instructions to his employees. [53] Alvarez was certainly not a traveling merchant. On the other hand, he seems to have matched perfectly Parish's idea of the sedentary merchant, "who sat down in administration... [and] became dependent on regular deliveries, ordered ahead of time, from distant areas." [54] Invoices from New York firms demonstrate that even though Alvarez himself did not travel east in 1845, he made substantial purchases from Alfred Edwards & Co., Francis B. Rhodes & Co., and Hyslop & Brothers. [55]

His ledgers do not reflect all his purchases, but they do show that until his death in 1856 he acted as a major wholesaler, retailer, commission merchant, and intermediary for both New Mexican merchants and their foreign counterparts. He had a large and varied clientele and by 1834 he already was wholesaling merchandise to Santiago and Ramón Abreu and lending money to a wide range of individuals. His economic operations prospered, possibly because Alvarez took advantage of the continued local demand for foreign goods. On April 24, 1845, he sold close to $8,000 worth of merchandise to Juan Otero, among them 27,000 yards of fabrics. [56]

Another characteristic of Alvarez's system was the establishment of branch stores in order to gain access to the produce of the countryside. Alvarez had stores in San Miguel del Vado, La Cañada, Mora, and El Paso. During the 1840s he employed at least two agents, Damaso and Francisco Paula de Robledo. They covered certain areas of the New Mexican territory collecting grains and legumes, and informed Alvarez of the result of their efforts and of fluctuations in local production and demand for specific merchandise. [57] In 1844 Francisco Robledo notified Alvarez that he was scouting the countryside looking for sarapes and hides as part of a scheme to introduce non-native cattle to the territory. From his official residence at San Miguel del Vado, Robledo made trips to neighboring communities where he sold the merchandise that Alvarez had ordered from the United States. As they traveled throughout the Río Arriba, the Robledos updated Don Manuel on the types of goods that would be easy to sell. In November 1846, drinking glasses and metallic beads of various colors were in demand. [58] At the same time the Robledos purchased wheat, corn, beans, and other produce which they probably sold to the United States Army, as the correspondence mentions contracts with, and payments from, the Quartermaster. [59]

It is possible that Parish might have overlooked New Mexican merchants because he focused on those who operated out of Santa Fe and San Miguel del Vado. [60] These were important ports of entry for the trade caravans and attracted influential foreigners. The wealthiest New Mexican merchants (Oteros, Pereas, Armijos, Yrizarris, Lunas, and Chávezes), however, did not reside in that area, but at the time lived in Bernalillo and Valencia counties (see Table 6). These astute entrepreneurs took advantage of the opportunities the Santa Fe trade offered to develop a widespread network of commercial establishments, which by the 1850s allowed them to solidify their control of the provincial economy.

Hispano Merchants 1860-1870
Reported Wealth and Residency

Area County Number of Merchants in 1860 Total Assets in 1860 Number of merchants in 1870 Total Assets in 1870
Río Abajo Bernalillo 24 $1,025,375 10 $714,500
Valencia 31 $542,930 5 $321,976
Socorro 20 $239,100 27 $148,200
Doña Ana 20 $150,725 9 $36,775
Lincoln [63]

Totals Río Abajo
95 $1,958,130 53 $1,224,126
Río Arriba Río Arriba 1 $3,059 9 $24,160
San Miguel 23 $93,295 13 $34,111
Santa Fe 25 $261,700 25 $125,125
Taos 5 $26,700 6 $30,900
Santa Ana 1 $2,500 2 $3,797
Mora 4 $12,129 4 $9,082
Total Río Abajo
59 $399,383 59 $227,175
Total for the Territory
154 $2,357,513 112 $1,451,301

An analysis of the 1860 census reveals the geographical concentration of New Mexican merchants in the Río Abajo (see Table 6). Out of 154 individuals who listed themselves as comerciantes, 95 lived south of Santa Fe—in Valencia, Bernalillo, Socorro, and Doña Ana counties. The remaining 59 were in the northern jurisdictions of Río Arriba, San Miguel, Santa Ana, Santa Fe, and Taos. During the next decade the number of listed merchants declined to 112. Among those residing in the Río Abajo the decrease was from 95 to 53. The number of those from the Río Arriba counties remained the same (see Table 6). Some counties witnessed dramatic decreases in the number of merchants. In San Miguel they went down from 23 to 13, in Bernalillo from 24 to 10, and in Valencia they experienced the sharpest decline from 31 to 5. Río Arriba was the only county to experience a sharp increase from 1 to 9. The reasons for the decline are not clear. In some cases the 1870 census listed former 1860 merchants as farmers although the reported value of their personal property suggests that they continued their mercantile activities. For example, Mariano Yrizarri, the second wealthiest merchant in 1860 was listed as a farmer in 1870. His assets however, increased to $215,000 with most of it ($210,000) in personal property. In other instances the head of the family retired or died and the property was split among children who apparently did not continue the family business. In many instances the female children of leading New Mexican families married American or European entrepreneurs. [61]

An analysis of the reported wealth in personal and real estate reveals that in 1860 Hispano merchants residing in the Río Abajo controlled a disproportionate share—83 percent of all declared assets. Those living in two counties, Bernalillo and Valencia, accounted for 66.5 percent of all assessed wealth. Even though their numbers declined dramatically Río Abajo merchants continued their economic dominance through the next decade. In 1870 their share had increased to 84.34 percent. Those who resided in Bernalillo and Valencia counties, which witnessed the sharpest decline in the number of merchants, still controlled 71.4 percent of all the assets reported (see Tables 6 and 7). [62]

Distribution of Wealth Among Merchants in New Mexico, 1860-1870

Percentile Assets Reported in 1860 (N = 154) Percentage of Wealth Assets Reported in 1870 (N = 112) Percentage of Wealth
Top 20 percent $1,845,685 78.28 $1,256,700 86.59
Second 20 percent $338,345 14.35 $101,483 6.99
Third 20 percent $120,579 5.11 $51,192 3.52
Fourth 20 percent $43,820 1.85 $29,635 2.04
Bottom 20 percent $9,084 .38 $12,291 .84
Totals 2,357,513 99.97 1,451,301 99.98

Top 20 percent $1,381,300 65.88 $1,768,149 70.22
Second 20 percent $408,525 19.48 $484,897 19.25
Third 20 percent $213,350 10.17 $173,850 6.9
Fourth 20 percent $73,910 3.52 $74,705 2.96
Bottom 20 percent $19,650 .94 16,200 .64
Totals 2,096,735 99.99 2,517,801 99.97

The 1870 census showed an overall decline in the wealth Hispano merchants reported, from more than two and a quarter million dollars to less than one million and a half. Although the average wealth decreased from $15,288 to $11,220, the concentration of wealth rose. In 1860 the wealthiest 20 percent of the merchants controlled 76 percent of the declared wealth; 10 years later they owned over 86 percent of the assets. José Leandro Perea and José Felipe Chávez saw a dramatic increase in real and personal property. Perea's declared wealth rose from $225,000 to $408,000; Chávez's went from $67,575 to $140,000. Together they accounted for 38 percent of all wealth New Mexican merchants declared in 1870. [64]

The economic success of the Río Abajo merchants is not difficult to explain. Most were members of wealthy families who participated in a variety of economic activities. They farmed, raised cattle and sheep, and mined. In addition they owned retail businesses and acted as local and regional banks. Information before the 1850s survives for only one property, that of José and Mariano Chávez. This family would own several of the best stores in the territory. The biggest one was probably at Belén, the earliest at San Miguel del Vado, and the most famous at Santa Fe. Visitors remarked that the Santa Fe store on the southeast corner of the plaza managed by Juan Sena was "the second best store in town. . .floored with plank—the only plank floor in New Mexico." [65]

There are no available management records for this establishment, but it probably operated like the one at San Miguel del Vado. For several years after 1840, Pablo Delgado, the youngest son of another influential merchant, Manuel Delgado, managed the Chávez store in this community. Pablo's duties and the complex transactions in which he participated resembled those of Alvarez's agents. Young Delgado was responsible for a geographic area around the store, including a variety of communities around San Miguel—Antón Chico, Tecolote, Puertecito, Cuesta, San José, and Bernal. He sold whatever the locals needed. Pablo's correspondence with his father Manuel and his brothers Simón and Felipe reveals that repayment of debts was a prime concern in operating the business. [66] Pablo accepted grains, wheat, barley, and oats as payment for debts. Although the store owned some sheep, Delgado collected carneros as reimbursement, in particular from the partidarios. [67] Most of the leading New Mexican merchants took advantage of the partido system which allowed them to increase the size of their herds without incurring much risk. [68]

The records indicate that the Chávez business at San Miguel del Vado was a diversified operation, designed to take advantage of the local shortages of cash to collect valuable local commodities—grains, aguardiente (alcoholic spirits), wine, sheep, precious metals. But they also demonstrate that mining precious minerals was a significant factor in the creation of the family wealth. A notebook started on November 20, 1841, provides an almost daily account of the weight of the gold brought to this store. The entries stopped after May 9, 1842. Although incomplete and extremely hard to read, and although it does not record who did the mining or who brought the ore to the store, the notebook shows that the province provided a significant source of the bullion wealthy merchants took to the United States. This document also demonstrates that the Chávezes, like other New Mexican ricos, relied on a variety of economic activities to support and enhance the family business. [69]

Collaboration among Hispano merchants became essential to success, particularly because of the instability characteristic of a western economy. In addition, the rugged New Mexican terrain, the long distance separating the province from American markets, and the Indian threat contributed to foster cooperation. Numerous documents testify to a willingness to help each other. [70] Information regarding demand and availability of merchandise determined the prices and the size of purchases and was essential for the success of the mercantile system Hispanos had established by the early 18408. [71] Merchants realized the importance of maintaining frequent mail service between the province and shipping points for trade goods, such as Independence, and in 1851 62 leading Hispano and non-Hispanos entrepreneurs petitioned the United States government to expand mail service between Santa Fe and Independence. [72]

Hispano merchants pioneered many of the activities Parish associated with the German Jews. They were particularly successful in securing and arranging deliveries of merchandise from eastern markets, such as Baltimore, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, New York, and, for bulkier goods, Independence and St. Louis. They were intent on building permanent businesses, and realized that it was necessary to cultivate personal associations with suppliers if they were to receive high quality merchandise at competitive prices. Initially they selected the goods personally, since the eastern wholesalers had little "feel" for southwestern markets, but later on they were content to send agents to act in their behalf. New Mexicans learned that the most consistent, reliable, and profitable method of obtaining credit in the Eastern United States was through the shipment of raw materials. Initially they carried metal ores and Mexican silver dollars and later on they freighted hides and wool. To get cash for more far-flung ventures they also furnished United States Army installations with supplies which they obtained from their regional stores. [73]

Years before the Jewish merchant Charles Ilfeld moved to Taos in 1865, New Mexican merchants had put in practice an economic system based on the model Parish so aptly described. Several wealthy entrepreneurs participated in the evolution of a form of mercantile capitalism that allowed them to control the economic life of the province. Their commercial activities foreshadowed those German Jews would carry out during the last decades of the nineteenth century. Extensive documentation appears to indicate that Felipe Chávez came to be among the most successful in implementing this economic system.

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Last Updated: 30-Sep-2005