A mistake, a murder and a marriage
This could be a Shakespearean tragedy or a Tom Clancy thriller. It starts with a fateful decision by a member of one of the leading families of the area. A murder is committed, which leads to international intrigue. A trial is held, men are hung and a twist of fate brings a widow and a widower together. But unlike Shakespeare’s or Clancy’s tales, this story is true and has its roots right here in the Rio Abajo.
The first characters to cross our page are members of one of the most prominent families in the Mexican province of Nuevo Mexico. Francisco Xavier Chavez, the first governor of Nuevo Mexico after Mexican independence from Spain, his wife, Ana Maria Alvarez del Castillo, and their nine children lived in Los Padillas, a small settlement on the west bank of the Rio Grande about 10 miles south of Albuquerque.
With a series of transactions starting in about 1819, Chavez purchased a tract of land on the east side of the Rio Grande, known as Los Pinos (now Bosque Farms), from the heirs of Clemente Gutierrez, one of the original grantees. Francisco’s oldest son, Jose Mariano Chavez, built a hacienda on the Los Pinos land and moved there in 1837 or 1838 with his wife, Dolores Perea, daughter of Don Pedro Perea, the patriarch of the wealthy Bernalillo Perea family, and some or all of their four children. Like his father, Jose Mariano would also serve, for a short time, as governor of New Mexico.
The protagonist in the first part of our plot is Jose Mariano’s younger brother, Antonio Jose Chavez. He grew up in Los Padillas and married Barbara Armijo, the niece of Nuevo Mexico Gov. Manuel Armijo. The Santa Fe Trail had opened a trade route from Missouri to Santa Fe in 1821, and Antonio Jose, along with his older brother joined the lucrative trade along the famous east-west pathway.
This route of commerce ran from Independence, Mo., to Santa Fe. Trade goods flowed west from the United States, and silver, gold and furs flowed east and were used to purchase more goods to send west. Although some of the merchandise remained in Nuevo Mexico, much of it was transshipped along El Camino Real to destinations in Mexico.
Traders commonly plied the trail in the spring, summer and early fall in order to avoid the fearsome blizzards that roared down the plains during the winter months, although by choosing this time frame they did expose themselves to raiding from Plains Indians, who resented the intrusions of the Americans and Mexicans into their traditional homelands.
So, we come to the fateful year of 1843. For reasons that we will address later, Antonio Jose decided to leave in February, much earlier than the normal April departure. In addition, he took a very small train — between five and 20 men, two wagons, a carriage (for himself) and 55 mules. In late March, somewhere between the Cimarron and Arkansas Rivers, in what is now southwest Kansas, the winter weather hit with a vengeance. Mules died and men suffered from frostbite. Some men even deserted, but Chavez was determined to forge on to Independence with only one wagon and five men.
Chavez’s mistake was to leave so early — but why? Did he hope to be the first trader of the year to reach the merchandise in the east? Did he worry more about the Indians who were still in their winter camps than he did about the weather? Was he concerned about the rumors of Texas raiders along the trail and hoping to get to Missouri before they started their raiding? Or was it simply a case of hubris — a belief in his own invincibility? We will never know the reason, but we do know the tragedy that unfolded as a result.
In 1836, the Republic of Texas won its independence from Mexico with stated (but not accepted) boundaries of the Rio Grande on the west and the Arkansas River on the north, thus claiming parts of Nuevo Mexico, Colorado, Oklahoma and Kansas.
An abortive 321-man expedition in 1841 attempted to solidify the Texan claims to Nuevo Mexico east of the Rio Grande and to divert some of the lucrative Santa Fe Trail commerce south into the Republic. However, a 1,500-man Mexican army captured the ill-equipped Texans, put them in chains and forced them to march 2,000 miles to imprisonment in Mexico City.
By 1842, the Republic of Texas was struggling financially and still felt the sting of embarrassment for their inglorious attempt to reach the Rio Grande. Texas Gov. Sam Houston was approached by a friend, who suggested that Houston authorize another attempt to overthrow the provisional governments in both Santa Fe and Chihuahua, bringing Nuevo Mexico and its lucrative trade into Texas and avenging the treatment of the members of the 1841 expedition.
Houston agreed and authorized Col. Charles Warfield to recruit an army to conduct the operation. Among the early recruits were two Missouri brothers, John and David McDaniel, who were reputed to be outlaws and perhaps even murderers. John McDaniel, the elder of the two, was commissioned as a captain in the service of Texas.
McDaniel and his brother were directed to continue recruiting efforts in and around Westport, Mo., and to meet Warfield in western Kansas on May 15, 1843, to begin the invasion of Nuevo Mexico.
The McDaniels did not have much luck recruiting soldiers, but did manage to find 13 men who were ready for an adventure in the west. While one could argue that the effort authorized by Houston could be thought of as “patriotic” from a Texas point of view, there was no such thought in the mind of the McDaniels and their crew. They were out for booty, and their plan was to intercept Mexican wagon trains heading for Independence as they passed through the area of Oklahoma and Kansas claimed by Texas. On April 1, 1843, their 15-man contingent headed west from Westport, Mo., looking for victims along the Santa Fe Trail.
It is not clear whether or not the McDaniels knew in advance that Don Antonio Jose was undermanned and in dire straits heading east, but sometime between April 7 and April 10, the two parties “collided” north of the Arkansas River near a small gully called Owl Creek (now named Jarvis Creek — an Anglo misrendering of Chavez). The international implications were significant — a group of Republic of Texas mercenaries encountering a Mexican citizen in land that belonged to the United States.
Chavez and his five men were bound while their wagon was ransacked. The furs and gold in the wagon were divided among the men, but a debate ensued about what to do with Chavez and his retainers. After three days, it was decided that the retainers would be released and sent west, presumably to die in the wilderness, but Chavez would have to be killed.
Half of McDaniel’s crew objected and headed east toward Independence with their loot. Meanwhile, the remaining men drew lots and five of them — the McDaniel brothers, Joseph Brown, Thomas Mason and Thomas Towson — took Chavez off, allegedly to relieve himself.
Several gunshots were heard, and the five men returned, carrying only a money belt stuffed with silver coins that they removed from the body before unceremoniously throwing it into a gully.
It didn’t take long for the word to spread about the murder and robbery. Tavern braggadocio, reports by the men who had left the McDaniels before the murder and by the four retainers who had been rescued by another wagon train, and reports by other travelers soon reached Westport and Independence. The murder of Chavez and the theft of his money took on real significance.
Not only was this a potential international incident involving three countries, but it challenged the entire Santa Fe Trail trading model. Mexico threatened to stop all American traders from entering New Mexico, thereby strangling the trade which the residents of western Missouri had come to depend on. In addition, theft of goods or money that were destined to move along the trail was almost unheard of.
Traders would leave their valuables essentially unprotected on loading docks or wagons while they took care of other business. Thus, the incident at Owl Creek got the attention of merchants and bureaucrats from Washington to Santa Fe to Mexico City.
Posses were assembled and the miscreants were rounded up a few at a time. By mid-May, most of the gang was incarcerated, and most of the stolen furs, money, gold dust and specie had been recovered. The abandoned wagon was found but was severely damaged, so only the cargo trunk was returned as evidence. All that was left of Chavez’s body was a few tufts of hair, and it was assumed that wolves had disposed of the rest.
There would seem to be no honor or loyalty among thieves because soon all of the prisoners were telling their own stories and pointing fingers of blame at their erstwhile friends. Arguments were made that the killing was not murder but some sort of justified reprisal (read vengeance) for the treatment of the men from the abortive Santa Fe Texas expedition.
It was also claimed that the U.S. courts did not have jurisdiction. However, confessions were taken, plea deals were made and indictments handed down. Finally, on April 1, 1844, just one year after the murder and robbery, the trial of the main perpetrators began.
Defense attorney Edward Bates did his best for his clients by assailing the character of the witnesses, especially Thomas Mason who had turned state’s evidence, and accusing them of being “perjured villains” and “vile miscreants who unscrupulously fabricated the basest falsehoods.” Nonetheless, by the end of April, the verdicts were all in — the men were found guilty of murder and sentenced to hang. June 14, 1845, was set as the date for their executions.
The four convicted men, the two McDaniels, Joseph Brown and Thomas Towson (Thomas Mason had been spared by turning state’s evidence), appealed for clemency to President John Tyler, claiming that the court in St. Louis had no jurisdiction for a crime committed in Indian Country.
Stays were granted until August 16 for the elder McDaniel and Brown, and the younger McDaniel and Towson were pardoned, the former because of his age and the latter because he was deemed to be “mentally deficient.” However, at 2 p.m., Aug. 16, 1845, the two remaining condemned men, John McDaniel and Joseph Brown, were led to the gallows.
They protested their innocence to the assembled crowd of more than 1,000 men, women and children, but the nooses were placed around their necks, blindfolds went over their heads and the gallows trap was sprung.
This might well be the end of the story — the murderers paid for their crime and the good guys ride off into the sunset. But we are not finished. We can now introduce the last member of our cast of characters — Henry Connelly.
Connelly was born in 1800 in Kentucky and received a medical degree from Transylvania University. He practiced medicine in Missouri for a few years before giving up that profession for the more lucrative one of merchant and trader along the Santa Fe Trail. He moved to Chihuahua, Mexico, in 1828, where he bought a store and continued his mercantile endeavors.
He married a Mexican women in 1838 and had three children. His wife died just before the outbreak of the Mexican War, and after a brief imprisonment, Connelly moved to New Mexico and resumed his mercantile activities.
The money and possessions that had belonged to Don Antonio Jose Chavez had been taken to St. Louis to serve as evidence in the trials of the McDaniels and others. The county clerk, who had custody of the material and who also was a trader, asked his friend, Henry Connelly, if he would take the material back to Barbara Chavez, Antonio’s widow, on his next trip west. Connelly agreed.
Meanwhile, in May 1845, while awaiting the execution of the murderers, Antonio’s brother, Mariano, had died, leaving Dolores as a widow at the family hacienda in Los Pinos. When Connelly returned to New Mexico with the material from the trial, he was smitten by Mariano’s 34-year old widow. After a suitable courtship, they were married in the Isleta church on Jan. 1, 1849. Together, they moved into the Los Pinos estate and went on to have three children of their own.
Connelly was appointed as governor of the New Mexico Territory by President Abraham Lincoln in 1861, and led the territorial response to the Confederate invasion of 1862. He was reappointed as governor in 1864, but resigned in July 1866 due to failing health. He died of an accidental opium overdose in August 1866, and is buried at the National Cemetery in Santa Fe.
And so we come full circle — a trader, the son of a governor and brother-in-law of another, makes the dubious decision to leave the Mexican province of Nuevo Mexico during the winter. He is hit by a blizzard and is murdered in the United States by Texas mercenaries. The murderers are tried and eventually executed.
Antonio Jose’s money and other material are returned to the widow by another trader who marries the widow’s widowed sister-in-law and goes on to become governor of the United States Territory of New Mexico.
Although the body of Antonio Jose Chavez was never recovered, a marker on private property near the Jarvis Creek crossing in Rice County, Kan., marks the site where he was killed and dumped. It is a simple, rough-hewn plinth with a single word — Chavez — engraved on the side.
The Chavez-Connelly home in Los Pinos was torn down around the turn of the century and their land eventually became the village of Bosque Farms, a flourishing bedroom community for Albuquerque. The legacy of Dolores and Henry is represented by their descendants who still live in the Peralta area.
For a much more detailed account of the murder of Antonio Jose Chavez, interested readers are referred to the excellent book by Marc Simmons, “Murder on the Santa Fe Trail.”