Charles Bent was the first civil governor of the territory of New Mexico following the Mexican War. He was appointed governor by military Governor Stephen Watts Kearny in September, 1846 and served until his assassination on January 19, 1847.
Bent was born in Virginia 1799. His family moved to Missouri in 1806. He was the son of Silas Bent, Jr. who was a land surveyor but is remembered for being a judge of the Missouri Supreme Court. Charles Bent’s brother Silas Bent III served in the United States Navy for 25 years after joining the service at age 16. Silas III became known for his skills and knowledge of oceanography. He was also involved in a number of military engagements but is primarily known for his surveys of Japanese waters. The oceanographic survey ship USNS Silas Bent was named for him in 1964.
Charles Bent attended Jefferson College in Pennsylvania, but is not known to have completed a degree. When he was in his mid 20s he began working for a fur trading company in Missouri. For a few years he continued working in the fur trade before transitioning into commerce in the general area of what is now northen New Mexico and southern Colorado. He and his brother William Bent were partners in a trading expedition along the Santa Fe Trail and into New Mexico where Charles became acquainted with another former trapper named Ceran St. Vrain, of French heritage but believed to have been born in North America. The two formed a partnership and worked together to operate a successful trading company for a number of years.
Around 1833, William Bent established a stockade near Pueblo, Colorado out of which he conducted his trading business. Charles and St. Vrain reestablished it near La Junta, Colorado and built an adobe fort where the current and reconstructed Bent’s Fort now is located. It became the center of their trading business out of which they conducted their business with the Anglo settlers as well as several Native American tribes.
Bent moved his residence to Taos and in 1835 he married a local woman, Maria Ignacio Jaramillo, whose younger sister Josefa would marry Kit Carson some years later. Bent and his partner maintained an office in Santa Fe and a trading post in Taos. Despite living in a heavily non Anglo area, then still under the political control of the Mexican government, Bent is said to have had difficult relationships with them as a group. He is known to have had a number of arguments and also to have engaged in litigation against certain of them. There was also a dispute involving a land grant from Spanish governor Armijo in which Bent received an interest, leading to yet more controversy.
Tensions were already high and then in 1846 the United States invaded New Mexico during the Mexican War, a key event being the almost bloodless conquest of Santa Fe. Many current residents were understandably unhappy about the change of political rule. Influential families openly opposed the Anglo government. Brigidier Gen. Stephen W. Kearny led the U.S. forces and was given the opportunity to appoint the territorial governor. Accordingly, on September 22 1846, Kearny appointed Bent to be the territory’s first civil governor.
Right away, there was opposition to the choice and more largely, the military occupation of the area. Bent and Colonel Sterling Price, Kearny’s immediate successor as Kearny marched on to California, became aware of a conspiracy to overturn the American rule. A certain date in December, 1846 had been chosen for the massacre of the new officials and other residents. Some leaders of the revolt were arrested though certain others, concentrated in Taos, had escaped. Bent issued a proclamation on January 8, 1847. It began by recounting some of Bent’s personal history and his affection for the area, referenced Kearny’s conquest and urged the inhabitants not to “abuse the great liberty which is vouchsafed to you” so that the citizens could enjoy the benefits which awaited them in the future. He acknowledged the revolt and named two individuals, Tomas Ortiz and Diego Archuleta, characterizing their actions as being treasonous. Bent refuted some claims of the opposition, namely that the new government was going to tax the residents and sieze their land, and attempted to clarify that the land laws were intended to protect title and that taxes were being assessed on the sale and production of liquor. Regardless of Bent’s intention, the proclamation apparently did little to defuse the situation.
On January 14, Bent set out from Santa Fe to Taos, both to visit his family and also to observe and attempt to deal with political unrest there. He traveled without a military guard, but rather with a small entourage of officials. On January 19, 1847, Bent’s residence was invaded by a small group of insurgents during the revolt. They succeeded in killing Bent, his brother in law Pablo Jaramillo, Steven Lee (the sheriff of Taos County), J. W. Leal (the circuit judge), Cornello Vigil who served as prefect and Narciso Vigil. The attackers were thought to include Mexican and Pueblo individuals. Around that same time, seven more traders and officials were attacked and killed in the Mora settlement to the east of Taos.
The killings at the Bent residence were told in chilling detail by Bent’s daughter, Mrs. Scheurich, who gave her account of the event. An angry crowd surrounded their home and when Bent asked them what they wanted, they told him that they wanted his head. She said that he tried to pacify them and offered for them to take himself as a hostage, but the mob was not deterred. The insurgents then preceded to kill everyone they could find, with Mrs. Bent, her sister Mrs. Kit Carson, a Mrs. Boggs and the children having escaped through a hole in the adobe wall, only to eventually be captured by the rebels. The women and children were held for a short time before another group of locals brought them food and clothing and released them.
These Taos and Mora events were responded to by Colonel Price who assembled a combined force of military personnel and civilians, including individuals from Bent’s and St. Vrain’s enterprise from Santa Fe and Albuquerque. They February 3, 1847, they reached Taos. They engaged the rebellious groups wherever they could be found. By July, 1847, the revolt was effectively ended. Bent was succeeded as governor by Donaciano Vigil, formerly first secretary under Bent. Bent’s wife Maria Ignacio survived him by another 36 years and both are buried in the Kit Carson Cemetery in Taos.
The Albuquerque Journal newspaper reported the day before the 100th anniversary of the Taos Rebellion, a brief ceremony was to be held in Taos to commemorate the killings of Bent and the other men. A Taos Native American named Telesfor Romero was to lower the flag to half staff as Mayor Raymond G. Hollis pays a tribute to Bent. Members of the Taos High School band were to play “Taps,” 13 drum rolls and the 1847 military salute. Descendants of Bent were to be in attendance.
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