by Mary Lowers
The role of women in the American west was vital to our development. Records and traces of this contribution are vague and often difficult to unearth primarily due to laws and social norms that made women second-class citizens within the dominate white male culture until the twentieth century. I have researched the stories of different women from different time periods and cultural backgrounds whose experiences illustrate what life was like for them in our region of the world. Their contributions, while not as well known or documented as their male counterparts’, are equally important in creating the west we live in today.
Northern New Mexico in 1861 was a hard place. The former Mexican territory had become part of the US just a few years earlier under the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo (1846) and the Civil War had just begun. Society was shaken up. Confederate troops from Texas were encroaching on eastern NM. The only battle of the war fought in NM, the Battle of Glorieta Pass called “The Gettysburg of the West” took place about a year later in 1862.
On April 26, 1861 a woman from the community of Loma Parda in San Miguel County on the northeast side of the Sangre de Cristo Mtns, Paula Angel, became the only female in the state’s history executed for murder. Paula, whose age is given as either 19 or 26, was brought to trial in Las Vegas, NM. Judge Kirby Benedict sentenced her to death for stabbing her married lover Miguel Martin, a Las Vegas man with five children, when he met with her to break off their affair. Despite compelling arguments from her lawyer Spruce M. Baird, who addressed the jury saying, “Do not be so cold in soul as to demand death of this fair maiden who has been wronged by an uncaring adulterer.” Angel was sentenced to death in a trial that lasted only five days.
Court records, which now reside at the Huntington Library in California, contain the original warrant written in Spanish from Gov. Abraham Rencher to Sheriff Antonio Abad Herrera. It says, “With this you are ordered that on the 26th day of April 1861, you take said Paula Angel from the jail, in which she now finds herself incarcerated, to some appropriate place within the limits of said county, and within a distance of one mile from the seat of that county, and that between the hours of ten in the morning and four in the afternoon of said day, you then and there hang the said Paula Angel by the neck until she is dead, dead, dead and may God have mercy on her soul.”
Sheriff Herrera, who only served in that office for a year, badly bungled the execution. On the morning of April 26, Herrera escorted Paula Angel from her jail cell and set her atop her coffin in wagon which wound its way out of town to a large cottonwood tree he’d chosen to hang her from. Records indicate the sheriff “covered her neck with hemp rope” but neglected to tie her hands. As the cart and coffin drove out from under her, Angel managed to get her fingers under the rope around her neck. The crowd, horrified by this spectacle, rushed forward and cut her down. Many felt she had after all been hung and should after this ordeal be set free. Col. JD Sena of Santa Fe, a “prominent and forceful man”, read the warrant of execution to the crowd and pointed out the sentence required “death by hanging.” The second execution of Paula Angel then proceeded successfully.
The death of Paula Angel is immortalized in a folk ballad written by her cousin Juan Angel. Many questions still surround her execution. In the nineteenth century the execution of women was frowned upon. The speed of the trial and verdict show the court of public opinion was stacked against Paula Angel. Was it because she and her family were from Loma Parda, a community known as the Sodom of Mora, because of services it provided the soldiers at nearby Fort Union supplying them with liquor, gambling and prostitutes? Was it due to the power and position of her lover Miguel Martin? We will probably never know as publicity with the looming Civil War was scant as far as this case is concerned. The swift finality of western “justice” is the one clear conclusion of the sad story of Paula Angel.
Lozen and Dahteste were two Apache women who fought alongside the famous warrior Geronimo (“Goyatla: one who yawns” was his Apache name) in the so-called Indian Wars of the 1870s and 1880s which followed the Civil War and large mineral discoveries in the American west. As with many Native Americans, the various Apache bands were fighting out-and-out war against the US. In addition the Apache, whose territory crossed the imaginary line dividing the US from Mexico, also fought the Mexican army. Apache boys and girls are taught identical life skills, leaving what profession the individual chooses up to talent and predilection, not sex.
Lozen was a Chiricahua Apache warrior born in the 1840s. Younger sister to the famous warrior leader Victorio, she was a gifted horsewoman from the age of seven and learned the art of war from her brother. She fought with other Apache warriors in battles in NM, AZ and Chihuahua, Mexico. She never married or showed interest in traditional female roles. Respected as an athlete, Lozen was described by Victorio as “my right hand” and as a “shield to her people”. Renowned as a medicine woman, Lozen could detect the whereabouts and size of an enemy force through ritual means. She reportedly moved in a circle with her arms in the air until her palms tingled indicating the location and number of enemies.
Lozen is a heroine to her people. James Kaywaykla, a child at the time, recalled how Lozen saved many women and children as the Apache retreated in the late 1870s from the US Calvary. Encouraging the women and children to cross the surging Rio Grande, Kaywaykla remembered seeing Lozen riding in front of his grandmother as they fled in fear. “High above her head she held her rifle. There was a glitter as her right foot lifted and struck the shoulder of her horse. He reared and they plunged into the torrent. She turned his head upstream and he began swimming. This encouraged the women and children who followed her into the torrent. She told my grandmother, you take charge now, I must return to the warriors.” Upon the death of her brother Victorio she joined Apache resistance leader Geronimo fighting next to her warrior comrade Dahteste, a Mescalero Apache.
Lozen eluded capture many times until she was surrounded with Geronimo by US Calvary in 1886. It was a brutal summer with little water or grass and heat often hitting 120°. This moved the worn out Apache to surrender at Skeleton Canyon near Douglas, AZ after a rough three-year campaign. Taken to a prison in Mobile, Alabama, Lozen died of tuberculosis at the age of fifty. She never saw her homeland, family or warrior companions again. Her commitment to her ways and her people remain a powerful example today.
Beautiful and feminine Dahteste rode and fought as well as Lozen. She was married with children but chose the life of a warrior. An expert horsewoman and crack shot, she excelled in her chosen profession. Before joining Geronimo’s band of resisters Dahteste, as a fluent English-speaker, became a mediator and scout for the US Calvary. Her first loyalty remained with her people. After fighting for many years beside Lozen with Geronimo, Dahteste tried to help negotiate peace with the US. Despite her work she was arrested at Skeleton Canyon along with Lozen, Geronimo and many other warriors. in 1886.
As a prisoner of war in St. Augustine, FL for eighteen years she survived pneumonia and tuberculosis. After being transferred
to Ft. Sill, OK for nineteen years she was freed and joined the Mescalero Apache in NM. Eve Ball, who interviewed Dahteste in NM as a very old woman said, “Dahteste to the end of her life mourned Lozen.” The resistance of these women and other brave Apache warriors prevented what would have otherwise been cultural genocide for the Apache.
San Luis Valley daughter Anne Ellis is the last western woman we will take into consideration. Born in MO in 1875 Anne traveled by oxcart with her family to Bonanza. “Our little family drove into Bonanza in the fall of 1882. The camp was discovered in 1880, following the Leadville boom. Men were wild with silver fever and the mountains were full of prospectors,” Ellis recalled. Her father, hoping to strike it rich but unable to support his family, deserted Anne and her six siblings. Anne helped the family survive by working hard.
When her first husband George Fleming left Anne broke in Denver with two children, Anne followed him up to Cripple Creek where he was killed in a mine explosion. Anne kept the family afloat by baking pies and running a boardinghouse. Her second husband, Herbert Ellis, who moved the family back to Saguache County, was a good man who died during surgery.
Anne kept on reinventing herself. She raised three children mostly on her own and sent them to college. She cooked all over the valley in mining camps and for construction crews. She was the only woman on crews installing telephone lines and building roads in the San Luis Valley. She ran for and won the position of Treasurer of Saguache County.
Living in Albuerqueque, NM to help her life-threatening asthma, Anne began to write. Her accounts of life in the expanding west are fascinating. In 1938 Anne received an honorary degree from the University of Colorado. She died in Denver at the age of sixty-three. Anne Ellis is buried in the cemetery at Exchequer south of Bonanza.
Anne Ellis represents the spirit of women who braved the odds in new territory. They, without drama, kept their families warm and dry. They were never afraid of work. They raised children who learned to love their home and care for it.