You know how sometimes you’re looking for one thing, but you end up finding something else? It’s usually that way when I’m looking for batteries around my house. When I’m looking for the AAs, I find the 9 volts. When I need a 9 volt, I only find the AAAs. But on some rare occasions you find what you’re looking for AND something completely unexpected. That’s what happened to me the other day, and the unexpected thing I found took my breath away. I was answering a reference question that came to us via email that took me to the Freudenthal family papers in our Rio Grande Historical Collections. The Freudenthals were a pioneer Jewish family with very early ties to Las Cruces. You can read more about them in Jennifer Olguin’s post in The Open Stacks from last May. After locating the items requested by the researcher, a folder in the box I was holding caught my attention. It read, “Legal documents, deeds, 1849-1888.” I expected any documents in this collection dating to 1849 to be in German and to relate to the Freudenthals before their emigration from the Old World. But I was wrong.
As I opened the folder, the first thing I noticed was that the documents weren’t written in German, but in Spanish! This was exciting for two reasons – first, it meant that they likely pertained to this area’s earliest history, and second, I might be able to read them (which I certainly could not if they were in German). The next thing I saw caused my jaw to drop. The documents were written and signed by Father Ramón Ortíz, one of our region’s most important historical figures during the tumultuous times of the Mexican–American War.
In 1935, Fidelia Miller Puckett, of El Paso, Texas, wrote a short biographical sketch titled Ramón Ortíz, Priest and Patriot. The title sums up the two salient aspects of Ortíz’ life. Born to a prominent New Mexican family in Santa Fe in 1814, Jose Ramón Ortíz y Mier seemed destined for a life as a soldier or government official like his father, Don Antonio Ortíz, and his elder sister’s husband, Lt. Col. José Antonio Vizcarra, who became governor of New Mexico in 1823. However, Ramón’s mother had other plans. She desired a life in the priesthood for her son, and her wishes won out. In 1829, at the age of 15, Ramón came under the tutelage of the priest Juan Rafael Rascón in Santa Fe, and in 1833 he followed Rascón to Durango, Mexico, where he entered the seminary. He was ordained in 1837 and named cura, or priest, of the church of Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe in Paso del Norte, current day Ciudad Juárez.
This isn’t the place to try to recount the full biography of Ramón Ortíz. There are some good published accounts of his life – Puckett’s 1935 article was mentioned above and Mesilla historian Mary Daniels Taylor studied Ortíz’ life extensively, tracking down unknown primary source documentation, publishing articles, and devoting a couple of chapters to Ortíz in her book A Place as Wild as the West Ever Was: Mesilla, New Mexico 1848-1872. More can, and should, be written about the life of this remarkable person, who was largely responsible for the creation and settlement of Mesilla in the years following the Mexican–American War.
By the time that conflict started, Ortíz already had established a reputation as a compassionate caretaker of his parishioner’s spiritual needs, as well as a passionate defender of their rights. Mary Taylor says, “He cared for them during disasters of flood, famine, cholera, and he defended them in the despair brought on by centuries of despotism in Spanish and Mexican government…He served as buffer between residents of the Pass and tyranny. Self–doubt assailed him constantly regarding his priestly vows of humility and obedience which, more often than not, conflicted with his passionate defense of justice and an eloquent spirit quick to defend his people.” (A Place as Wild as the West Ever Was, 18) When Col. Alexander Doniphan invaded Paso del Norte, following the December 1846 Battle of Brazito, he suspected Father Ortíz of sending messages south with strategic information about the American army. When accused by Doniphan, the priest replied “that he did not call the delivering his country from a foreign enemy, by any means whatever, treachery. He said he was the enemy of all Americans, and never could be otherwise; and that he should use every endeavor to free his country of them.” (A Campaign in New Mexico with Colonel Doniphan, by Frank S. Edwards, 92-93) Ortíz’s words apparently made a favorable impression on Doniphan, who must have been at a loss to argue with their logic. To be safe, Doniphan took him as a prisoner on the march to Chihuahua.
At the war’s end in 1848, Father Ortíz was sent to Mexico City as deputy to the Mexican national congress where he was present for the creation of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, ending the war but also ceding half of Mexico’s territory to the United States. Ortíz was said to have argued passionately against the terms of the treaty. The new boundary line between the United States and Mexico was to be the Rio Grande up to “the point where it strikes the southern boundary of New Mexico; thence westwardly along the whole southern boundary of New Mexico.” A difficulty arose in agreeing upon where that point was. The Bartlett-Garcia Conde Compromise of 1850 placed the southern boundary of New Mexico at the latitude of the town of Doña Ana. Everything below that line, and west of the Rio Grande, remained part of the Republic of Mexico. This is where our documents penned by Ramón Ortíz become important.
Ortíz was appointed by the state of Chihuahua to serve as the commissioner of emigration for those Mexicans living in New Mexico who wished to move south in order to remain in their homeland and retain their Mexican citizenship. He was given authority to create colonies in Chihuahua, typically along its border with the United States, and to distribute land, arms and seeds to the settlers. One of the colonies that Ortíz helped established was La Mesilla, on the western bank of the Rio Grande and therefore in the state of Chihuahua. He distributed land to settlers coming south from New Mexico and those coming north from the Paso del Norte area. This land distribution continued even while the legal status of Mesilla being on Mexican or American soil was debated in Washington D.C. and Mexico City. In 1853, New Mexico governor William Carr Lane pushed the question by coming to Doña Ana and issuing a proclamation claiming Mesilla for the United States and threatening a violent takeover. Father Ortíz allegedly rode to Doña Ana and threatened Carr’s personal safety if he were to invade Mesilla. The situation was soon resolved with the ratification of the Gadsden Purchase in early 1854, moving the international boundary line further south, to its present location, and firmly placing all of the Mesilla Valley in the United States.
So, what are the documents found in the Freudenthal family papers? They are land titles written up by Father Ortíz for some of the very early Mesilla settlers in 1851. The titles are in the names of Cristóbal Orozco, Jesús García and Teodoro Lucero. The documents describe the boundaries of the land, giving the names of the landowners on all sides, and describe how the lands will be used for building homes for their families and for the raising of crops and fruit trees. It also obligates the landowners that they will “defend the country (Mexico) from the enemies that harass them.” Aside from giving us names of some early Mesilleros, the documents allow us to see the process for establishing Mexican settlements during a most contentious time in our region. They also give us a glimpse into the character of Father Ramón Ortíz by allowing us to read his words firsthand.
Finally, you may wonder why these documents are found in the Freudenthal family papers. The Freudenthals became large landowners in the Mesilla Valley during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. These documents are accompanied by later deeds issued by the Doña Ana County Clerk’s office, and probably they describe lands in the Mesilla area subsequently owned by the Freudenthals.
Some of the biographical material on Ramón Ortíz is available to read freely online: