‘Among the Cottonwoods’

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For nearly 2,000 miles, the Rio Grande snakes down from the Rocky Mountains, nurturing the land and the communities along its banks.

The history of the people along the river’s length is at least as old as the river is long. Author Francelle E. Alexander has written an in-depth history of the villages and its people along the section of the river we know as Bosque Farms and Peralta.

Deborah Fox-News-Bulletin photo: ‘Among the Cottonwoods: The Enduring Rio Abajo Villages of Peralta and Los Pinos, New Mexico before 1940,’ written by Francelle Alexander, will be offered at a special book signing event hosted by the Los Lunas Museum of Heritage and Art from 2 to 4 p.m., Saturday, Aug. 25.

Her book, “Among the Cottonwoods” The Enduring Rio Abajo Villages of Peralta and Los Pinos, New Mexico before 1940,” is a rich resource, heavily footnoted and documented with an excellent bibliography and appendix. It also includes genealogies of two major families.

The Los Lunas Museum of Heritage and Art will host a book signing and a presentation by the author from 2 to 4 p.m., Saturday, Aug. 25.

Alexander is a native New Mexican, born in the South Valley of Albuquerque. She is a former Albuquerque Public Schools teacher and principal, and earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of New Mexico. She has also written several articles for the News-Bulletin over the years.

Her genealogy goes back to the homesteading days of the late 1800s.

“My great-grandparents and grandparents homesteaded in New Mexico, and starved to death out on the homesteads,” Alexander said. “They moved to Albuquerque when it was a growing, developing city. One side (of the family) in Torrance County, and the other side in Union County.”

Alexander has owned property in Peralta for more than 20 years, and although she remarried and now lives in Placitas, she sold land to her children who live in Peralta.

“My only grandson is down here, so I’m down here all the time,” she said.

After she retired from APS, Alexander worked as a school principal overseas, and studied villages in Asia and Europe for nearly 10 years.

During that time, she went to Poland and worked at a teachers college west of Warsaw. She decided to go there because she wanted to study the villages of her Prussian ancestors, who came from around the Baltic Sea.

“Villages are important, because that’s the unit in society that we can really identify with,” she said. “We can identify with the village, but how can you identify with Albuquerque, much less a big city? Villages are very interesting — they’re very complex and they have a long, long history, not only here in this region, but mankind always lived in villages.”

Deborah Fox-News-Bulletin photo: Francelle E. Alexander authored the book ‘Among the Cottonwoods: The Enduring Rio Abajo Villages of Peralta and Los Pinos, New Mexico before 1940,’ which is a rich resource for local families, historians and researchers of the middle Rio Grande Valley.

Even within the metropolis, the human need for the village social unit has manifested in small villages within big cities, she said.

“I was fortunate enough to travel a lot and see villages all over the world, and come back to this village,” she said.

When Alexander received the “dusty deeds” from the purchase of her Peralta property, she was intrigued by them. It led her to study the town of Peralta, which led to the study of the village of Bosque Farms, as well.

She read Peralta historian John Taylor’s book, “Dejad a Los Niños,” and Tibo Chavez and Gilberto Espinosa’s “El Rio Abajo.”

“But you know, after that, there wasn’t much,” she said. “And the more I started digging into it, the more fascinated I became by the people, and I thought, ‘You know, you still see all these same names on the streets, the families — what’s the story here?’”

Alexander started digging through documents such as census reports, government reports, state archives, journals, old newspapers, civil war military journals, environmental records and oral histories.

“It started accumulating, and accumulating,” Alexander said. “And my husband said, ‘You know, you really ought to write this up. You’ve got so much information. You’ve really dug into this.’”

“Among the Cottonwoods” is the fruit of those efforts.

“There are two purposes of my book. One, there’s not been the in-depth studies of villages in the Rio Abajo that there have been in northern New Mexico … but hopefully it is also written as a resource for the local community, because I interviewed lots of local people as well as going into the historical records,” she said.

Los Pinos was the name of Bosque Farms before 1940, and Peralta and Los Pinos had been one village at times during the history of the area.

Photo courtesy of the Palace of the Governors photo archives (MNM/DCA) Neg. No. 001697: Soldiers’ quarters and adjutants’ office at the Los Pinos hacienda encampment was leased to the government by the Chavez-Connelly family during the Civil War. The photo was taken by U.S. Army Signal Corps.

“Los Pinos was owned by the Chavez-Connelly family — the widow Chavez married Connelly, so I refer to it as the Chavez-Connelly family, but originally, the Chavez family came in and established one large hacienda of 2,400 acres, and they owned it all,” she said.

The families farmed the river valley, had huge herds of sheep out on the mesas, and traded on the Santa Fe-Chihuahua trail, the old Camino Real.

In neighboring Peralta, the Otero family owned about a third of the village, and were also huge traders on the Santa Fe-Chihuahua trail.

“They had a huge hacienda in the middle of Peralta where the Peralta church is today,” Alexander said. “So you have these two powerful families.”

Although these two communities never grew into a major metropolis such as Albuquerque or Santa Fe, the wealthy Chavez-Connelly and Otero families, the “familias ricos,” or had a major impact on the political history of the New Mexico Territory.

“Not only were they powerful in this region, they were powerful all over the state,” she said. “Their wealth, their trading activities — they married into other prominent families in the Rio Grande Valley, and they are a fascinating story.”

Henry Connelly was the Civil War governor of New Mexico, and his wife, Dolores Perea, had been married to Mariano Chavez until his death, who had also been a governor of New Mexico when New Mexico was a part of Mexico. Perea was originally from a powerful family in Bernalillo.

The book’s focus is not just upon the wealthy families, but also documents the smaller farmers who lived in the region, particularly Peralta, because Los Pinos was one large ranch for so long.

“When the ricos leave at the end of the 19th century, it’s the small and large farmers who carry on the tradition and the history of the region,” Alexander said. “Their families are still here in the area.”

She is amazed when people ask her if there was something here before Bosque Farms, and she tells them, “Yes, quite a story, quite a story.”

In the early days, the river’s untamed course sometimes displaced villages on its banks and played havoc with the land grants.

The Chavez-Connelly family sold their property in Los Pinos in about 1917 to Ed Otero, who was part of the Luna-Otero families in the village of Los Lunas. Otero inherited a lot of money from his uncle, Solomon Luna.

“He was going to develop it as a ranch, but the land was badly water-logged by now,” she said.

So, Otero started breaking it up into parcels and sold them to local individuals, but when the Great Depression hit, many of the people couldn’t afford their payments, and the properties foreclosed and went back to Otero.

Determined to control the flooding of the land, Otero got involved with a new program being talked about at the time, called the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District.

“He really helped push that, knowing that it would make his land better, but unfortunately, he dies out on his ranch, kind of mysteriously,” said Alexander.

His heirs end up selling the land to the federal government in the mid-1930s, and that’s when it becomes Bosque Farms.

The government used the land for a New Deal program to re-locate destitute Oklahomans who had lost their farms to the panhandle dust storms, aka the Dust Bowl era.

“Among the Cottonwoods” is published by the local LPD Press, Rio Grande Books in Los Ranchos.

Alexander’s extensive research and genealogies has led to the accumulation of information on all of the middle Rio Grande valley villages, and the author is considering a second book.

“Not in the same depth, but a broader scope,” she said. “I’m working on it now to see if that’s where I’m going to go.”

“Among the Cottonwoods” can be purchased at the Los Lunas Museum of Heritage and Art, 251 Main St. SE in Los Lunas, and online at www.Amazon.com.


-- Email the author at dfox@news-bulletin.com.