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'Who Killed Cock Robin?' - Historian wades into troubled waters

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By Roger Snodgrass

Local historian Paul Kraemer has not rewritten history in his new monograph, published earlier this year in the Nutshell Series by the Los Alamos Historical Society.

But he has given ample rationale for the title, “An Alternative View of New Mexico’s 1837 Rebellion.”

As he noted in the first paragraph, “Dozens of writers have raised questions about the violence that broke out in New Mexico in that year.”

The episode is sometimes called the Chimayo revolt and is generally regarded as a tax revolt against the relatively weak and needy Mexican government after gaining independence from Spain in 1821.

Kraemer’s conclusion was that several generations of historians have been, to varying degrees, on the right track but may have missed a few important clues.

The New Mexico rebellion erupted during the territory’s second decade as a department of the Republic of Mexico. Most of the action took place just down the hill in the land of Santa Fe and Santa Cruz de la Cañada, near what is now Española.

Like the Texas insurrection that led to the battle of the Alamo, this was one of several violent reactions in the northern borderlands during the tumultuous reign of Mexican President Antonio López de Santa Anna.

The local episode cost the head of Col. Albino Pérez, the man appointed by Santa Anna to govern New Mexico. Lives were lost in the revolt that also involved the Pueblos. As order was restored under a former governor Manuel Armijo of Albuquerque, heads of several rebel leaders also rolled.

One of history’s still unanswered questions is how did the affair get organized, considering that it involved the coordinated action of a couple of thousand men, early versions raised the question of a conspiracy against Pérez by Armijo, who then got rid of his own henchmen to cover his tracks.

Carefully sifting through the layers of documentation that have built up by later historians, Kraemer concluded that the idea of a “primary” conspiracy has been largely discounted. But, he wrote, “(S)everal intriguing questions persist.”

Kraemer’s research was first presented two years ago at the annual meeting of the Historical Society of New Mexico as a paper, titled “Who Killed Cock Robin – New Mexico’s 1837 Rebellion.”

The use of the title from the well-known nursery rhyme suggests not only the enduring mystery, but also a more diffuse responsibility.

Who killed Cock Robin?

I, said the Sparrow,

with my bow and arrow,

I killed Cock Robin.

Who saw him die?

I, said the Fly,

with my little eye,

I saw him die.

In Kraemer’s view there were several “persons of interest,” that “have frequently been suspected of having been involved in the instigation of the 1837 rebellion,” besides Armijo who was the ultimate beneficiary.

Examining each of them in turn, the historian was particularly fascinated with Domiciano Vigil, brother of one of the executed conspirators, who would later serve as an interim territorial governor after the assassination of Gov. Charles Bent during a rebellion in Taos in 1847.

Vigil deserves a better biography than he has gotten so far, Kraemer believes.

He also thinks that the influence of the Penitente Brotherhoods that were especially active in the villages during this time deserves a much closer look.

“We can’t identify the conspirators, but it clearly involved a conspiracy because it mobilized more than 2,000 New Mexico men into an armed force,” he said.

“The Penitente Brotherhood had to be involved,” he said. “They were the de facto social glue in Northern New Mexico.”

Kraemer first published on history in 1977, with an essay in “El Palacio” on “Ancient Salt Trade in New Mexico,” one of a dozen or so historical pieces he has published.

He is a trustee of the Museum of New Mexico, a member of the support group for the Palace of the Governors and a former officer of the Historical Society of New Mexico.

“New Mexico is a special place,” he said. I can’t imagine a more interesting place to live than New Mexico.”

In this year’s annual meeting of the historical society, Kraemer gave a paper on “The Zealot and the Politician: Two 18th Century New Mexico Franciscans.”

“I’m always working on some paper or another,” he said.

Kraemer was interviewed at his home Monday. Volumes of New Mexico history lined the walls of his study. Throughout the house were finely wrought chairs, tables, desks and many other artifacts with Spanish-colonial influences. Crafted by hand in Kraemer’s own woodworking shop, they bore evidence of a deep engagement with the culture.

One thing that makes his current research more remarkable is that his vision is severely impaired and he uses a reader that magnifies text by a factor of 60 or so.

“I’m slower,” he said. “I used to go through a book like a shot.” Now a book takes about a week to read, he said, adding, “That’s a short book.”

During his career at the laboratory, he published more than ninety papers on cell biology, biochemistry and genetics. Before retiring from the lab he was trying to understand the nature of cancer at the cellular level.