Friday, 16 October 2020 16:01

Tomás Chacón, Frontier Scout and Pioneer

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One of the tragedies and ironies of the way history is written is that we seldom hear much about the real frontiersmen who did so much to make New Mexico the fascinating place it is today. If you look through the shelves of books and articles on scouts and so called frontiersmen, you will probably not find the name of Tomás Chacón. Yet, numerous documents and reports of the period show that for more than tree decades, he was one of northern New Mexico's most sought after interpreters and guides.

We know little about Chacóns early life. The records of Abiquiu baptisms show one Tomás de Jesus Chacón was baptized on December 23, 1793, the son of Jose Antonio Chacón and Maria Juana Guadalupe Archuleta. If this baptismal record is the correct one, for the Tomás Chacón of frontier New Mexico fame, then it is likely he is the same person listed in the 1850 United States census for Rio Arriba County at age 59 with his wife Maria and three children.

During his life along the rugged frontier of northwestern New Mexico, Tomás Chacón developed an intimate relationship with the Utes of that region. That relationship and his role in society is reflected in the baptismal records of Santo Tomás Apostol de Abiquiú. Between 1832 and 1841, there are at least eight baptisms of Ute children listed as "servants of Tomás Chacón." This clearly indicates that he, like many of his time, was deeply involved in the trade and raising of cautivos (captive Indian children), that was so prevalent in New Mexico at the time.

Chacón begins to show up frequently in contemporary historical records of 1850. That year he served as a guide and interpreter for the William Angny expedition that traveled to California over the Old Spanish Trail. The journal of this expedition notes that his "intimate acquaintance with the Ute Territory and it's wild inhabitants and their language was of no small service to us." Daniel Jones's book "Forty Years Among the Indians" chronicles the same journey. He credits "Old Thomas" with seeing them through close calls because he was always able to "talk the Indians into peace." Jones credits Chacón with saving his life on more than one occasion.

In 1851 Chacón is reported trading with the Indians along the San Juan River. That same year he led the pursuit of a band of Jicarilla Apaches who raided Abiquiú and El Rito. His knowledge of their language was instrumental in return of livestock the Jicarilla had taken from the settlements.

Tomás Chacón also played a prominent role in the William Arny expedition that negotiated a treaty with the Utes at the San Juan River in 1868. Chacón not only served as the guide and interpreter for the expedition, but appears as one of the witnesses and signatories of the treaty Arny negotiated with the Utes. What may be best known about this 1868 expedition is the photograph taken of Arny with a group of Ute and Jicarilla leaders. The photograph shows Chacón peering from the back row between two Ute chiefs. A woodcut of that famous photograph that appeared in the August 22, 1868 issue of Harper's Weekly illustrates the earlier story of Sobita, the Ute chief.

The final entry I have found for Tomás Chacón is the service he provided as the interpreter for the US Army when they attempted to negotiate an agreement with Sobita and his Capote band of Utes at Las Nutrias (present day Tierra Amarilla) in 1872. When negotiations broke down, the commanding officer sent Chacón to talk to Sobita and convince him to return. One report indicates that this time, Chacóns power of persuasion apparently failed. The angry Utes "horsewhipped" Chacón and sent him back to inform the troops that they wanted to fight. The pitched battle between the Utes and the US cavalry that ensued eventually led to the capitulation of the Utes and their removal to a reservation in Colorado.

Tomás Chacón disappears from the historical record after 1872. If he was in fact born in 1793, Chacón was nearly 80 years old when called into his final service for the US government. He did his duty, returned to his home in the Abiquiú region and quietly melted into undeserved anonymity. In his own time, Tomás Chacón was as well known as any of the more famous personages of frontier New Mexico. I hope his descendants (of which I am one) realize the important role he played in our history.

From the book: UFO's over Galisteo and other stories of New Mexico's History

Tomás Chacón is #12 in this photo.

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Mike Lord

4th generation Santa Fe Gringo.

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