Desperately Seeking Carmel
BY FRANCES LEVINE
The Santa Fe Trail is not often associated with stories of frontier women, although there are several well-known published diaries and collections of letters written by Anglo-American women who traveled from the East to the far end of the trail in New Mexico and beyond. It’s challenging to find biographical details and, rarer still, autobiographical accounts of Hispanic, French, African American, and Native American women who traveled the trail in the nineteenth century.
Trade between Santa Fe and the Missouri frontier is often said to have begun with the expedition made by William Becknell and a small mercantile caravan from Boonslick, near Franklin, Missouri, in the fall of 1821. The two frontier areas became a nexus between nations and cultures. I have previously written in El Palacio about the antecedents of this trade, and the importance of the exchange to communities at both ends of the trail [“Trading Places: Seeing the Santa Fe Trail from the Flip Side,” Spring 2017]. Within a generation, the Santa Fe Trail had become more than a road of commerce. It became the route of an expanding empire as American politicians and merchants promoted the policies of Manifest Destiny. The United States military and then territorial government officials traveled this same trail, pushing farther into Mexico to eventually annex territory for the United States.
As in many other situations, women played an important role in linking people of different cultures along the Santa Fe Trail. They often negotiated the social fabric of cross-cultural customs by accepting newcomers as partners. Native American women played a key role in the economics of the fur trade, which was central to the impetus for westward expansion. As consorts and wives to mountain men and traders, they processed furs and hides, contributing enormous labor and value. How were they compensated? That depended on many factors, principally time, location, and the men with whom they were allied. Many of these assignations and marriages gave rise to families that spanned the continent and extended trade networks internationally into Mexico and Canada.
The social history of the multicultural families that developed in these frontier regions is a fascinating but little-studied topic. Historian Anne Hyde writes extensively about eighteenth- and nineteenth-century intercultural families that blended Native American, French, Hispano, Anglo American, and African American members. Hyde attributes the paucity of historical inquiry focusing on multicultural families to the historiography of earlier generations of historians who idealized notions of racial purity and the promotion of elite bloodlines. Perhaps the myth of the national melting pot that characterized Americans as culturally and racially neutralized through a voluntary mixing, blending, and blurring of genetic diversity played a role. But at least part of this erasure was also, until more recently, a failure to identify families as integral to and worthy of analysis in scholarly history. While the histories of these families are remarkable in their geographic range and intersecting family lines, researching the lives of specific women is difficult. Except in the cases of elite and well-educated women who kept diaries, or wrote letters, or who were involved directly in commerce or social enterprises, we are unable to have an intimate understanding of the lives of the vast majority of women in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
One woman who crossed the Santa Fe Trail from Santa Fe to St. Louis and back to Santa Fe multiple times is María de la Cruz Carmen Benavides, often called Carmel. Secondary accounts and unsubstantiated sources relating to the trail report that she may have made as many as six trips between 1828 and 1888, when she died in southern Colorado. The historical context of her life spans an era of enormous social change, but the details of her position and thoughts were elusive in many frustrating ways. I have spent a great deal of time looking at documents and sources where she might logically have been, but was not found, yet several key documents helped to place her in Santa Fe until the early 1840s, and then in various locations in Missouri until 1860, when she returned to Santa Fe. At the end of her life, she lived with her granddaughter and her grandson-in-law on the edge of the Ute frontier in southern Colorado.
Carmel was born in Santa Fe in 1811, to a prominent New Mexican family with deep roots in the Spanish and Mexican history of the region. At age seventeen, she began her association with Antoine Robidoux, who had arrived in New Mexico in the early years of the Santa Fe trade, in about 1823. He and his five brothers were born into a large French fur-trapping and trading family from Florissant, Missouri.
Despite her life in the multi-lingual Spanish, French, English, and Native American center of the continent, Carmel left no evidence of being literate in any language. Apparently, she spoke the European languages that surrounded her, and may have been familiar with Ute, given that she was godmother to a Ute child that Antoine presented for baptism in the church in Santa Fe in 1841. When she sold her centuries-old ancestral home in New Mexico in 1879, she signed with an “X” on an English language deed. To date, neither I nor other researchers have found an image, letter, diary entry, or public statement that captures her thoughts or her emotions. We can only imagine how she might have navigated the changing social milieu of Santa Fe, St. Louis, and other places along the trail.
Her partner, Antoine Robidoux, was literate, and we can encounter his voice in letters, reports, and newspaper articles written by him and published during and after his lifetime. Additionally, several books were written about Antoine Robidoux and his extended family. To find Carmel and to understand when she might have lived in Missouri or New Mexico, we can only examine the historical records of Antoine’s trade and travels, and then interpolate whether she was residing in the same place at the same time. His name was spelled inconsistently, phonetically rendered at times through the ears of French, Spanish, English, and German speakers in written documents. This made the search for Antonio in Spanish records, Antoine in French, and even Anthony in some American period documents challenging. On occasion, a record is not even definitive about which of the six Robidoux brothers it describes.
Santa Fe-Raised, Missouri Bound
The Santa Fe Trail itself ended on the Plaza, not far from the rambling home on Calle del Granero (or Granary Street) where Carmel was brought up. It housed generations of her maternal family. The street ran east of the Palace of the Governors complex on the north side of the Santa Fe Plaza. Carmel received the home as a bequest from her mother. It was part of a colonial property with a distinguished lineage in its own right. It descended from the eighteenth-century owner, Diego Arias de Quiros, through marriages and several generations to Carmel’s maternal grandmother, Ana Gertrudis Ortiz, then to her daughter María Gertrudis Baca, Carmel’s mother, who then left it to Carmel and her two siblings. Carmel inherited the westernmost part of the colonial property, and held its title even when she was not living in New Mexico.
In 1879, Carmel sold the property to former New Mexico Governor L. Bradford Prince, who sold it to others, until it came to be owned in 1942 by Martha Field and her children. During World War II, the property earned a legendary status as the recruitment office of the then-secret Manhattan Project. The church where María de la Cruz Carmen Benavides was baptized at two days old on November 22, 1811, stood a short block away from the Baca family home. In the cathedral church records, her parents are identified as María Guadalupe Baca and José Pablo Benavides. The prominent Baca family’s ancestors led the settlement of New Mexico during the Spanish Colonial Period.
The year after Carmel was born, her maternal uncle, the well-regarded merchant Pedro Bautista Pino, presented a detailed report on conditions in New Mexico to the Spanish court meeting in Cadiz, Spain. In his description of the economy, he noted the lack of sufficient markets and trades, the absence of schools, as well as essential support required for the church. He outlined the insufficiency of the military due to chronic shortages of arms and soldiers, and the depredations of nomadic tribes. His list of needs was compelling, but he would return with few of the requests met by Spain, as it was stretched beyond its capacity. He speculated that Americans could easily conquer this weak outpost. Within a decade, those same Americans would indeed take over the markets and the governance of New Mexico. Even his niece would be won over by an American.
One Among the Robidoux Brothers
Antoine Robidoux was the third of six sons and two daughters of Joseph Robidoux and his wife, Catherine Rolet. Born on September 22, 1794, he was raised in the Florissant area of St. Louis, where Spanish and French roots suffused the Creole culture. Father Joseph Robidoux and his sons Joseph, François, Isadore, Antoine, Louis, and Michel, was prominent in the fur trade in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The Robidoux brothers and other French men trapped furs and traded with Native American peoples across a wide swath of the intermountain West from St. Louis, north on the Missouri River to the Black Hills of the Dakotas, and then west to the Rocky Mountains and into the Great Basin.
In many cases, these French fur traders left Missouri and Upper Louisiana in response to the stresses of a growing frontier in Missouri and the near collapse of the economy that came with bank failures in 1819. The merchants and profiteers of the trade surely felt the pull of new Southwest markets.
The brothers may have been in New Mexico as early as 1822 or 1823, according to their later obituaries and recollections of other fur traders. Antoine was spending so little time in Missouri that the St. Louis Enquirer published a notice on April 27, 1822 concerning his accumulating mail. No doubt among them were notices of several trespass suits, debt calls, and breech of promise notices filed by creditors in St. Louis Circuit Court against Antoine and other family members. At least four suits were filed between 1820 and 1823 against Antoine and his brothers or business partners in the St. Louis Circuit Court, and filed in the Missouri Judicial Records Historical Database.
On February 19, 1824, Antoine, along with his brothers François and Michel, received permits from authorities in Santa Fe to cross New Mexico to the Indian country. They were reported to be living in Taos in the same month. Antoine, Michel, Isadore, and occasionally Louis traded between New Mexico and the Great Basin tribes for hides and furs that they would sell in Missouri. Their travels are difficult to track, and the logistical challenges they faced nearly unimaginable. By 1826, they were well established in Taos and Santa Fe, where Louis had already taken Guadalupe Garcia as his common-law wife. The two brothers’ liaisons with Carmel and Guadalupe, daughters of prestigious families, gave them enormous advantages in business and local politics.
A Cross-Cultural Marriage
The Missouri French and American traders who entered New Mexico in the early 1820s encountered women who were far more empowered than those at the eastern end of the trail. Along with their language, culture, and traditions, their legal status differed greatly. In contrast to American women, New Mexican women under Spanish and Mexican rule retained title to their personal and real property, and to their wages. They even retained their maiden names, adding their husbands’ names, but often continuing to use the name of their families of origin. Since Louis and Antoine were raised in the French-Spanish Creole culture of the Missouri River frontier, they might have encountered similar patterns of legal rights held by women. They also shared some cultural traditions, language, and the Catholic faith.
On July 16, 1829, Antoine and Louis appeared before the local Mexican government administrator seeking naturalization as Mexican citizens, claiming that they were residents and married in Santa Fe. As naturalized citizens, they would have secured lower taxes on goods imported from the United States for sale in Mexico, and ran less risk of having their furs confiscated in the shifting political climate of New Mexico. Marrying or affiliating with these families with deep roots and webs of kinship would have given Louis and Antoine entrée into trade networks that extended to Mexico and California’s settlements as well.
Carmel’s association with Antoine would provide her with mobility (crossing the Santa Fe Trail to Missouri) and a different life story (in a robust family that claimed distinction, as well as notoriety, on this eastern, multi-cultural frontier). She would be among the racially and culturally diverse extended Robidoux clan of French, Native American, and racially mixed women who were wives or multiple companions of the brothers.
Between Here and There
Tracing the specific wagon trains and expeditions that Antoine and Carmel shared may be a pursuit that lasts the rest of my researching life. Between the time Carmel took up with Antoine in 1828 and his death in St. Joseph, Missouri in 1860, Mary Jean Cook concluded that Carmel made five crossings of the Santa Fe Trail. This may overestimate the number of times Carmel accompanied Antoine, and underestimate Antoine’s crossings of the trail. Even with the wealth of documents and passing references to Antoine in the literature of the trail and the fur trade, tracing his comings and goings (between Santa Fe and Missouri, and between the Great Basin and Missouri in the 1820s and 1830s) is a formidable venture. David Weber, quoting other scholars of the fur trade and his own research, concludes, “the comings and goings of Robidoux parties during the 1820s and 1830s are perplexing . . . and perhaps they always will be . . . .”
Antoine, alternately referred to as Antonio Rubidu or Robidio in New Mexico documents, was active in local affairs, and was elected the head of the town council, or ayuntamiento, of Santa Fe in 1830. He would remain in New Mexico, through the turmoil of New Mexico’s growing dissatisfaction with the Mexican regime that led to a local uprising in 1837, and through the failed Texan invasion of New Mexico in 1841 that sought to open New Mexican markets to the impoverished Texas colony. Antoine’s fortunes changed rapidly between 1841 and 1843 due to livestock losses and the collapse of the fur trade in the Great Basin. He quickly exited New Mexico in 1844, following a Ute raid on Santa Fe. That raid, which included a frightening assault on the governor’s office in the Palace, was caused in part by the end of the profitable fur trade and Ute dissatisfaction with the Mexican government annuities. Antoine, as a trader with long ties to the Ute fur trade in southern Colorado and the Great Basin, was sure to be implicated in equipping them with guns—though not specifically for arming this insurgency. Carmel and Antoine may have departed together for St. Joseph, Missouri, where his brother Joseph had developed a prospering town supplying western travelers.
Antoine would not stay there for long before he began to cross the country again in search of new opportunities. In June of 1846, as the drumbeat of Manifest Destiny and war amplified on the western front of Missouri, Col. Stephen Watts Kearny, leader of the US Army of the West, tapped Antoine as his interpreter and to render “other service.” Antoine served Kearny well, but was gravely wounded at the Battle of San Pasqual in southern California on December 6, 1846. Antoine’s skill as a guide and his bravery on the battlefield are legendary, but his miraculous recovery from a serious lance wound at that battle, recorded by Lt. W.H. Emory in his fieldnotes of the battle, bears quoting.
Don Antonio Robideaux, a thin man of fifty-five, slept next to me. The loss of blood from his wounds . . . [and] the coldness of the night, made me think he would never see daylight. . . . He woke to ask me if I did not smell coffee, and expressed a belief that a cup of that beverage would save his life, and that nothing else would. Not knowing there had been any coffee in camp for many days, I supposed a dream had carried him back to the cafes of St. Louis and New Orleans, and it was with some surprise that I found my cook heating a cup of coffee over a small fire of wild sage. One of the most agreeable little offices performed in my life, and I believe in the cook’s, to whom the coffee belonged, was, to pour this precious draught into the waning body of our friend Robideaux.
He returned to Missouri in 1849, and began the long process of applying for a military pension. According to his obituary, reprinted in the Liberty Tribune on September 7, 1860, he then traveled to California, perhaps with the rush of other gold seekers. California was a place he had described as early as 1841 as an earthly paradise. Other sources place him in California, where he was discharged from the Army in April or May 1847. He sailed from there in November 1847, circled by way of South America, before he made it back to St. Joseph, Missouri. He supposedly remained in St. Joseph until 1855, then visited New Mexico with his family. Antoine’s case for infirmity pay from the U.S. dragged on, and on May 23, 1856, the House of Representatives Committee on Invalid Pensions recommended that he be compensated for his work as a Spanish-language interpreter and for the wounds sustained at the Battle of San Pasqual at the rate of $16.66 per month beginning on December 1, 1855, until his death.
Carmel’s travels during this period are not as well documented. However, on August 18, 1850, she was living in the home of Isadore and “Maltine” Barada in Washington Township, a part of Joseph City in Buchanan County, Missouri. Interestingly, Carmel is listed simply as A. Robidoux, a 38-year-old female born in Mexico. Maltine is more likely Martine (née Martina Anaya), a cousin whom she and Antoine had adopted in Santa Fe after the death of Martina’s parents. Several other Barada children and young adults who listed their place of birth as Mexico were part of the household. Ten years later, the 1860 census lists Carmel as living in the third Ward of St. Joseph. She is once again listed as A. Robidoux, age 48, born in New Mexico. This much smaller household consisted only of Carmel, a nine-year-old girl, A. Barady, born in Missouri, and a nineteen-year-old woman listed as M. Bither, from Germany. Antoine is not listed in her household, nor in any of the other Robidoux households in St. Joseph, although this is where his obituary says he died, on August 29, 1860. He was buried at the eastern end of the trail. Carmel, whom he touchingly calls his beloved wife Carmelletta in his will, was the executor of his property and his debts.
Following Antoine’s death, Carmel began again to make her own crossings from Missouri back to Santa Fe, accompanied by her granddaughter Amanda Barada. Crossing the Plains in Kansas, their wagon train was reportedly attacked by Comanches, although as I could find no specific dates for their crossing, I could not corroborate this event. Presumably Carmel and Amanda returned to the Baca family compound on Granary Street, in a community much changed from that which Carmel was born into, one she left behind in the mid-1840s.
She had been born in the waning years of Spanish Colonial rule to a family that traced their roots back centuries. Her family retained their prominence during the Mexican Period, and through her association with Robidoux, she linked the Baca and Benavides family to his French Creole family, which extended their name from Canada to Mexico, and from St. Louis to California through their vast trade network and multicultural family ties. When she returned to Santa Fe, New Mexico was a territory of the United States, and the nation was struggling to remain united. One can only imagine what Carmel felt when she saw the Confederate flag raised over the Palace of the Governors for a short month in the late winter of 1862, when Texas troops once again tried to extend their reach across the Rio Grande. Carmel and Amanda stayed in Santa Fe. At age fifteen, Amanda married a German immigrant, Christian Frederick Stollsteimer, a shopkeeper who expanded his business interest north to Colorado. The 1870 census of Conejos in Colorado Territory lists Carmel as living with the couple, their two Colorado-born young children, and a sixteen-year-old woman from New Mexico. On this census, Carmel listed her name as Carmel Robidoux, age 59, born in New Mexico. She would live out her days in Conejos County as a pioneer, and when she died on January 29, 1888, she was buried in Durango, Colorado in Greenmount Cemetery, far from Antoine. But then, they had often lived at opposite ends of the trail. n
Frances Levine is president of the Missouri Historical Society, Saint Louis, and the former director of the New Mexico History Museum and the Palace of the Governors.
Conant, Jennet. 109 East Palace: Robert Oppenheimer and the Secret City of Los Alamos. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2005.
Hyde, Anne F. Empires, Nations and Families: A New History of the North American West, 1800–1860. New York: Ecco Paperbacks, Harper Collins, 2012.
Jensen, Joan M. and Darlis A. Miller, eds. New Mexico Women; Intercultural Perspectives. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1986.
Ruminer, John. 109 East Palace Avenue; A Microcosm of Santa Fe’s Four Hundred Year History. Nutshell Series, N. 4. Lost Alamos Historical Society. Los Alamos: Bathtub Row Press, 2013.
Weber, David J. The Taos Trappers: The Fur Trade in the Far Southwest, 1540–1846. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1968.
Willoughby, Robert. The Brothers Robidoux and the Opening of the American West. Columbia and London: University of Missouri Press, 2012.