Byways Issue 19-1

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Colonel Jose Francisco Chaves 1833-1904



Bust of Col. Chaves by renowned sculptor Robert Summers that resides in the newly restored historical Chaves County Courthouse


Following was published in Don Bullis’ New Mexico Historical Notebook, issue 6-21-06, reprinted herein with his permission.



Colonel J. Francisco Chaves

A True Son of New Mexico

by Don Bullis


Chaves County in southeastern New Mexico was named for Colonel José Francisco Chaves when it was created in 1989.

Or should it be Chavez?

George Curry, who would later become territorial governor of New Mexico (1907-1910), claimed that the name was deliberately misspelled to please a bunch of Texans living in the area at the time: people who did not approve of naming the county for an Hispanic, even one as prominent as this one. (Historian Leon Metz agrees with Curry.) Ralph Emerson Twitchell, in the Leading Facts of New Mexico History, does not mention the creation of the county, but throughout his book, he spells the Colonel’s name with the s. Historian Will Keleher, in The Fabulous Frontier, spells the name both ways. T. M. Pearce in New Mexico Place Names does not address any controversy over the spelling of the name. He simply points out that in old Galician Spanish and in Portuguese the name was spelled with the s. He also cites Fray Angelíco Chavez who says that Chaves is the older form.1 Obviously one can find sources to support either side of the argument.

But who was Col. Chaves? No consideration can be given to the history of New Mexico in the last half of the 19th century without attention to him. Few, if any, people living in the territory at the time had a background as broad and eclectic as his. José Francisco Chaves was born at Los Padillas in southern Bernalillo County in 1833. He was the grandson of José Francisco Xavier Chaves who’d served as the first Mexican Governor of New Mexico in 1822. His father, Mariano Chaves, was Chief of Staff under Governor Manuel Armijo. Twitchell reports that Mariano said to his son, “The heretics are going to over-run all this country. Go and learn their language and come back prepared to defend your people.” At age eight, in 1841, Francisco was enrolled in St. Louis University and completed his education with a two-year course at the college of Physicians and Surgeons in New York by the time he was 19. He returned to New Mexico in 1852.2

In both 1852 and 1853, Francisco drove sheep from New Mexico to California for sale to a burgeoning market of miners and settlers.3 Most sources also agree that he participated in military action against the Navajo in the years leading up to the Civil War when his military career really began. President Abraham Lincoln commissioned him a major in the 1st New Mexico Infantry in 1861. He was subsequently promoted to Lieutenant Colonel and participated in the Battle of Valverde in early 1862. By October of that year, he was commanding officer of Fort Wingate in western New Mexico.4

Chaves was in command of four companies but the fort didn’t amount to much as a military installation. Soft, boggy ground made construction difficult and while the vast majority of frontier forts were not surrounded by wooden stockades, Fort Wingate was. The stockade was more than 4,300 feet in length and eight feet high. And while he had to be concerned about construction, he also had to be wary of the Navajo. This was on the eve of Kit Carson’s incursions against the Diné, which resulted in the Navajo defeat and their relocation to Bosque Redondo near Fort Sumner in 1863.

Discharged from the army in 1865, he retained the title “Colonel” for the remainder of his life.

While all of this was happening, Col. Chaves was elected to the Territorial House of Representatives in 1858, and took his seat in 1860. In 1865, he was elected delegate to Congress from New Mexico and served in both the 39th and the 40th Congress. He also studied law after his release from the military and was admitted to the bar. In the late 1870s, he served as District Attorney from the 2nd District (Albuquerque and environs).

One incident serves to show how New Mexico politics worked at the time. In 1871, Jose M. Gallegos, a Democrat, opposed Col. Chaves, always a staunch Republican, in the race for congressional delegate. Supporters of Gallegos organized a rally in the village of Mesilla, near Las Cruces, for Sunday, August 21. Supporters of Col. Chaves, not to be outdone, organized their own rally at the same time, at the same place. Things went along well enough until the two events ended and the Democrats began parading around the plaza singing “Marching Through Georgia.” The Republicans then began marching in the opposite direction. Historian Gordon Owen tells what happened next. “One Apolonio Barela allegedly fired a shot into the air. Democrat leader I. N. Kelley then hit Republican leader John Lemon in the head with a club, inflicting what proved to be a fatal injury. Someone shot and killed Kelley and mayhem ensued.” When the smoke cleared, nine men were dead and at least 40 were injured. No one was ever arrested in the matter.

Chaves continued to serve in the Territorial Legislature, for years as Speaker of the House. Governor Miguel Otero appointed him Superintendent of Public Instruction in 1901 and 1903. Upon completion of that task, he began duties as the Territory’s first historian. His task was to write and publish the history of New Mexico to be used in the public schools. He was working at that task when he was assassinated in late November 1904 at Pino’s Wells in newly created Torrance County.

It was a cowardly act. Col. Chaves was having dinner with friends when a shot rang out and a bullet shattered the window before it struck the victim, killing him almost instantly. In spite of a sizeable reward, no one was ever arrested for the crime. Historian Marc Simmons says this: “This writer talked, a few years ago, with an old-timer living near Chaves’ birthplace … He declared that one of his neighbors, who had died about 1950, once confessed to him that he had been the man who shot José Francisco Chaves. For the terrible act, he had been paid by certain unscrupulous politicians. This story is as likely to be true—or untrue—as the other explanations that have been circulated from time to time. For the fact remains that … no person can say with certainty who killed the unflinching José Francisco Chaves.”


1 The confusion about the spelling has been around for years. Until a few years ago, the sign that greeted travelers to the county on U.S. Route 70, south of Kenna, was spelled with the z.

2 Many sources agree that young Chaves was educated in St. Louis and New York City, but only Twitchell reports that he began his education at the tender age of eight.

3 Many others, including “Uncle Dick” Wootton and Kit Carson, trailed herds of sheep to California in the earlyt 1850s, and made huge profits.

4 This was the first Fort Wingate, located near the present-day village of San Rafael, south of Grants. It was moved to its present location in 1868.

Additional Sources:

Niel C. Mangum. “Old Fort Wingate in the Navajo War,” New Mexico Historical Review, October 1991

Rubén Sálaz Márquez. New Mexico: A Brief Multi-History, Cosmic House, 1999

Daniel C. B. Rathbun & David V. Alexander. New Mexico Frontier Military Place Names, Yucca Tree Press, 2003

Robert J. Tórrez. UFOs Over Galisteo and Other Stories of New Mexico’s History, UNM Press, 2004