Did Teddy Roosevelt visit Isleta?
(La Historia del Rio Abajo is a regular column about Valencia County history written by members of the Valencia County Historical Society.
The author of this month’s column is a professor of history at the University of New Mexico-Valencia Campus and a past president of both the Valencia County Historical Society and the Historical Society of New Mexico. He is the author of 16 books on the history of New Mexico.
Information for this column was drawn from newspaper accounts and works by historians Patty Guggino and Marc Simmons.
Opinions expressed in this and all columns of La Historia del Rio Abajo are the author’s only and not necessarily those of the Valencia County Historical Society or any other group or individual.)
Thousands of men and women have visited Isleta Pueblo. Many have come to see the Native dances, tour the mission church or shop at local craft stores. Some visitors have been quite famous, including the king and queen of Belgium in 1919.
According to some sources, Teddy Roosevelt was the first and only U.S. president to ever visit the pueblo, if only briefly and in secret on May 5, 1903.
Teddy Roosevelt had visited New Mexico once before. As the most famous Rough Rider in the Spanish-American War of 1898, he had attended his regiment’s first reunion, held in Las Vegas, N.M., in June 1899.
Thousands of well-wishers welcomed Roosevelt to Las Vegas, including Valencia County’s most honored Rough Rider, Captain Maximiliano Luna, and many fellow war veterans. No less than a third of all Rough Riders had been recruited from New Mexico.
The Rough Rider reunion drew newspaper coverage from across the country. Always eager for attention, Roosevelt enjoyed his stay in the territory, even promising to support New Mexico’s goal of statehood in every way possible.
The following year, Roosevelt used his wartime fame to secure the Republican Party’s vice-presidential nomination on a ticket led by incumbent president William McKinley. Tragically, an assassin shot McKinley on Sept. 6, 1901.
A grieving Roosevelt was sworn into office within hours of the president’s death. Roosevelt had been in office for two years when he ventured to New Mexico a second time.
Roosevelt’s western tour
Teddy Roosevelt visited New Mexico on Tuesday, May 5, 1903, as part of an extensive Western tour that took him to 25 states and territories, covering 14,000 miles in just nine weeks and three days. No president had ever attempted such an extensive tour of the country in a non-election year.
Greeted by large crowds wherever he went, Roosevelt made 262 speeches, averaging about four a day, undoubtedly a record in American history.
The people of New Mexico were excited to be included on the tour because Roosevelt and his Rough Riders remained enormously popular in the territory. In fact, a new county on the east side of the territory had just been named after the president on Feb. 28, 1903, about two months prior to his arrival in New Mexico.
On the 35th day of his tour, the president’s special six-car train pulled into Santa Fe, where Roosevelt addressed a crowd estimated at 10,000. Although in town for less than four hours, Roosevelt found time to visit San Miguel Church, the oldest church in the United States, and attend the baptism of the month-old son of one of his favorite fellow Rough Riders, George Washington Armijo, at St. Francis Cathedral.
Showing his admiration for his former commander and following his parents’ example of naming their son after a patriotic American, Armijo had named his son Theodore Roosevelt Armijo.
The president met local dignitaries at the Governor’s Mansion, where newspapers reported that “several bottles of champagne were served to cool the parched throats of the party.” Gov. Miguel Otero gave Roosevelt the unusual gift of a rifle once owned by the notorious New Mexico train robber, “Black Jack” Ketchum.
Another huge crowd greeted Roosevelt in Albuquerque later that same day. City leaders had declared a holiday to roll out the red carpet for their famous guest. A towering arch inscribed with Roosevelt’s name stretched across Railroad Avenue (now Central) near Second Street.
Historian Marc Simmons writes that “young ladies clinging precariously to the top of the arch showered the president with flowers as he passed underneath.”
American flags and patriotic bunting adorned homes and businesses throughout the city. A military band escorted the chief executive on a tour of the town, with stops at the Albuquerque Indian School, the Commercial Club and the newly opened Alvarado Hotel, where Roosevelt gave a five-minute speech to a crowd of 15,000 admirers. It might well have been the shortest speech of his entire tour.
To remind the president of his earlier promise to support New Mexico statehood, 46 little girls, representing the nation’s 46 states, stood before Roosevelt, while a 47th girl, representing New Mexico, appeared in the foreground pleading for the territory’s admission to the Union. Some wondered if begging was the best tactic to use in the statehood campaign.
Roosevelt also met the famous Navajo weaver Elle at the Alvarado’s Indian Building. Albuquerque’s Commercial Club had commissioned Elle to weave a Navajo saddle blanket as a special gift for Roosevelt. Although she was given less than a week to complete the job, Elle finished her beautiful red, white and blue blanket in time for the president’s arrival. The local press reported that Roosevelt gave Elle a “hearty shake and told her how much he appreciated her work.”
Visiting Isleta Pueblo
President Roosevelt hoped to visit another famous Native American during his stay in New Mexico. According to legend, President Roosevelt first met Isleta’s Pablo Abeita in Washington, D.C., during one of the pueblo leader’s 18 trips to lobby in his pueblo’s behalf in the nation’s capital.
After one long meeting with Abeita, the president reportedly declared that he would someday like to visit Abeita’s home in Isleta.
Abeita remembered the president’s interest in Isleta when he heard that Roosevelt was in Albuquerque on May 5, 1903. Knowing that it would be nearly impossible to rearrange Roosevelt’s tight schedule to allow time for a trip to Isleta, Abeita devised a plan to honor the president’s wishes.
Carrying out his plan, Pablo Abeita drove a buck wagon from Isleta to Albuquerque, tying his horses outside the Alvarado. Stepping inside the hotel, he asked to see the president. Especially cautious after President McKinley’s assassination, Roosevelt’s security guards refused the request.
But Abeita persisted, eventually drawing such a crowd that Roosevelt himself came out to see what all the commotion was about. Spotting Abeita, the president ushered his friend into his private quarters. Step one of Abeita’s plan — how to get to see the president — had worked.
The next problem was how to get Roosevelt out of the hotel and off to Isleta. Abeita reportedly asked the president to place an Indian blanket over his head and shoulders. Doing the same for himself, Abeita ushered Roosevelt down the hotel hall and through its crowded lobby.
Once outside the Alvarado, Abeita and his guest boarded Abeita’s waiting buck wagon and rode south to Isleta. The two friends enjoyed a good visit in the Abeita home. Unfortunately, we know nothing of what they discussed, ate or saw. We can only be sure that the Abeitas extended every form of Isleta hospitality to their most famous guest.
Abeita soon accompanied Roosevelt back to the Alvarado, with both men still wearing the Indian blankets they had worn to make their original escape. As they entered the hotel lobby, Abeita reportedly relished the moment by pulling off Roosevelt’s blanket and shouting a loud war cry.
Security men ran to the president’s side, not sure what to make of his sudden appearance. Roosevelt quickly reassured his guards, declaring, “Boys, I was just as safe in Pablo’s hands as I am with anybody in the world.”
Roosevelt undoubtedly described his adventure as a “bully good time,” a phrase he often used to describe his best experiences.
Roosevelt’s train departed from Albuquerque that same evening, stopping in Gallup for five minutes and reaching the Grand Canyon, which he toured for the first time the following day. His whirlwind tour continued through California and other western states before he finally returned to the White House in early June 1903.
Fact or fiction?
On the 110th anniversary of Roosevelt’s visit to New Mexico, we must wonder if the story of his trip to Isleta is true or simply a legend invented to embellish Roosevelt’s fame and popularity.
Would it have been possible to spirit the president of the United States past his guards and everyone else in a crowded hotel lobby?
Would it have been possible to drive a buck wagon to Isleta and return to Albuquerque in a few hours, before anyone noticed that the president was gone and before his train was scheduled to depart?
Teddy Roosevelt certainly craved such stories about his adventuresome spirit, independent nature and strenuous life. Stories abound regarding his driving a train in California, hunting wild game in Africa, exploring the jungles of Brazil and of course charging up San Juan Hill in the most famous battle of the Spanish-American War.
Adding, or at least not denying a story about evading his security guards (symbolizing authority) and visiting a pueblo (symbolizing adventure) was certainly in the realm of possibilities in Roosevelt lore.
And what of Pablo Abeita? Like his friend the president, Abeita enjoyed his reputation as an independent, adventurous leader who did not hesitate to defy authority or break with tradition through unconventional acts of bravery. As historian Marc Simmons has written, Abeita “loved a joke, especially if he could put one over on the Anglos.”
If the story of Roosevelt’s trip to Isleta was not true, maybe telling this tale was a joke Abeita played on Anglos gullible enough to believe him. If true, this story was only one of many famous incidents in the life of one of the most respected pueblo leaders in New Mexico history.
At one time or another, Abeita met and shook hands with every U.S. president from Grover Cleveland to Franklin D. Roosevelt, with only one exception, Calvin Coolidge. And he may or may not have taken one very willing president to his home.
There is no wonder why the people of his pueblo still refer to Pablo Abeita as the Grand Old Man of Isleta.