I often wonder why U.S. schools ignore so much that is important when teaching history. It’s a strange thing for a patriotic people, but much of mainstream history is unknown, leaving students ignorant of the foundations of the country. “Minority” history, of course, is almost a complete blank. The Southwest, in particular, is ignored. I tell anybody who will listen that history is important, but as a young man once said to me, “I don’t need to know that because it happened before I was born.” In my eternal quest for enlightenment, I was in Taos last week at the annual international meeting of the Anza Society, a group devoted to research and education on the life and times of Juan Bautista de Anza, the Spanish governor of New Mexico, 1777-1787, and intrepid trailblazer who explored much of what is now the U.S. Southwest.
Anza’s main claim to fame is the campaign against the Comanche Indians, led by a chief named Cuerno Verde, who wore a buffalo headdress with green-painted horns, hence the name, Greenhorn. In 1779, Anza led a large force of Pueblo, Ute, and Apache Indians, along with presidial troops and New Mexican settlers, down Ute Pass through what is now Manitou Springs and Colorado Springs. This was a trail-blazing feat which is only poorly known. Known or not, the Spanish and Indian presence here makes me feel good. I am happy that our patch of ground was the site of events important in the history of the region. The war against the Comanches is important because it shows Anza’s genius, his ability to organize an allied expedition of Native Americans, Spanish soldiers and mestizo settlers against the destructive Comanches who were raiding in New Mexico, indiscriminately attacking indigenous people and settlers. Anza took the Comanches camped along Fountain Creek by surprise, ultimately defeating and killing Cuerno Verde near what is now Walsenburg. This victory and other battles resulted in the Anza-negotiated Comanche Peace of 1786, saving the remote colony of New Mexico from likely destruction by the fierce Comanches. This puts Anza in the same league with famous American frontiersmen, people like Daniel Boone, Kit Carson, John C. Fremont, and Lewis and Clark. Yet we never hear about him. Fortunately, a group of dedicated community leaders are planning a Colorado Springs Anza Memorial at the confluence of Monument and Fountain Creeks, possible site of the first skirmish with the Comanches as Anza descended Ute Pass.
Sometimes history can play tricks on you. I was with the Anza conference attendees when we toured Taos Pueblo. On the edge of the adobe apartments of the thousand-year-old Taos Pueblo are the ruins of the church of San Geronimo, destroyed by Colonel Sterling Price’s 2nd Regiment of Missouri Mounted Volunteers and Captain John Burgwin’s 1st U.S. Dragoons in February, 1847. The New Mexican and Taos Indian insurgents had revolted against the American occupation, killed the governor imposed on them by the U.S. Army, and were now holed up in the church. I gazed at the wooden crosses in the campo santo, the church-yard cemetery, the mounds of decomposing adobe bricks, and the bell tower that still stands, repaired just enough by the Taos people to keep alive the memory of their slain compatriots. Then I saw the dragoon captain rally his troops for a charge. He was out in front. He fell, mortally wounded. At that moment I felt that I was fated to see what once was, was not now, invisible, but yet still visible. It was real to me. I suppose the experience just came from the knowledge of history.
Joe Barrera, Ph.D., is the former director of the Ethnic Studies Program at UCCS, and a combat veteran of the Vietnam War.