Sam and the Adams Family

An African American Civil War veteran and his New Mexican life

Sam Adams, Civil War pensioner, and an unidentified boy, at what is now Pecos National Historic Park, near Pecos, New Mexico, 1915. Photograph by Jesse Nusbaum. Courtesy Palace of the Governors Photo Archives (NMHM/DCA), neg. no. 013498.
By Hannah Abelbeck

As a New Mexican, Samuel Adams stands out. Of African American heritage, Adams arrived in Colorado as a young man, one of a generation of freeborn and formerly enslaved people who courted new opportunities in the American West during an era of rigid, oppressive racism and rapid territorial expansion. He enlisted in the Civil War, serving the Union with the Colorado Volunteers, perhaps as their only African American recruit. By the late 1870s, he had settled in New Mexico, married a local Hispanic woman, and started a large, complex family. He lived fifty to sixty years of his life in rural communities, working as a farmer and laborer, through New Mexico’s transition from a U.S. territory into statehood. As a veteran, he was buried in the Santa Fe National Cemetery after his death in 1927.

Despite this atypical biography, Adams is like many relatively anonymous historical figures whose presence has been overlooked and forgotten. Details about his life are hard to track down and are enigmatic and inconclusive when found. His contemporaries include well-documented Buffalo soldiers who crossed over the Santa Fe Trail in 1866 and enslaved people brought into the territory by white, Southern political appointees. He was followed by other African American settlers who used photography to document their striving and their successes, including communities of exoduster utopianists like the pioneers of Blackdom, and prominent local families like the Slaughters of Santa Fe, whose specialized occupations allowed them to carve out niches in local economies.

However, beyond recent reclamation of legacies like those of Black cowboys, there isn’t much writing about Sam Adams and laboring men like him—maybe because research on their lives proves so difficult. Yet, Adams’s story may illuminate questions historians have had about frontiers of the African American experience, about overlooked Afro-Latine histories and possibilities, and about racial identity in nuevomexicano families. His life spans the reconfiguration of racial and ethnic identities in the Southwest between 1880 and 1930, which were under pressure from American racial politics and an influx of white colonists.


The photo archives at the New Mexico History Museum is stuffed with photographs collected as historical, artistic, and socio-cultural documents. Although researchers often query the department looking for photographs to illustrate what they have written, the broad photographic collections also function as a pool of information about what people in the past were interested in. This corpus does not capture the past itself; instead, it reflects what people chose to record and reproduce with photographic processes, and what from those efforts was kept by design or by accident.

In digging for interesting but neglected material worth digitizing, the five glass plate negatives with portraits of Samuel Adams seemed notable for both their quality and for their very presence, among the general lack of images—particularly captioned ones—showing African Americans in territorial and early-statehood New Mexico.

Many historic photographs lack records documenting their creation and context, and it takes diligence and happenstance to interpret decontextualized images more fully. Although he was not recorded as the photographer, Jesse Nusbaum likely took the series of portraits of Adams. Nusbaum worked for the Museum of New Mexico and School of American Archaeology. He had a keen eye, great technique, and a sense both for whimsy and for historical significance. In 1915, Nusbaum was often out at the Pecos Ruins for the excavation and restoration of the pueblo and mission church there. He brought a camera on more than one occasion, and some of his photographs of the site, excavations, and archaeological work appeared in El Palacio at the time. While the photo archives has a large body of Nusbaum’s documentary, archaeological, and ethnographic photographs from this work-for-hire, these five glass plates featuring Adams came to the museum’s collections directly or indirectly from New Mexico historian Ralph Emerson Twitchell.

Reference copies of the photograph mentioned that Adams was a “Civil War prisoner.” New Mexico History Museum staff considered the portrait for an exhibit about personal memories and the Civil War, but couldn’t confirm the story. However, evidence suggests a cataloguer in the past incorrectly transcribed the word “pensioner” as “prisoner” on a copy.

Adams was definitely a Civil War pensioner. One of the original sleeves from an old glass negative had a longer note on it, with only the barest biographical sketch of Adams. It also mentioned that Mrs. Dendahl, a prominent local white woman, was assisting Adams, helping him manage his finances, navigate federal bureaucracies, and secure his pension. Based on this note, perhaps the Dendahls spoke with Twitchell or Nusbaum about Adams and his Civil War service. Maybe as a result of such a conversation or at the urging of Twitchell, Nusbaum then made an effort to seek out Adams and photograph him at the Pecos site. Certainly the Civil War engagements near Glorieta Pass were on Nusbaum’s mind during the dig. Nusbaum isn’t the only option for the originator of the images: Henry Dendahl and Twitchell’s son Waldo were also capable photographers.

Whatever the exact details, the existence and persistence of these photographs suggests an active albeit brief interest in Adams and his story, as well as an attempt, however incomplete and fragmented, to preserve that history.

More spotty records

It is not easy to trace the early life of Samuel Adams. His is a common name, and it evokes a U.S. Founding Father. The Sam Adams of these photographs was probably born between 1836 and 1843, according to estimates of his age in later census and vital records. Amid the multitudes of men who were called Sam or Samuel Adams, we don’t have confirmation of his ancestry or the names of his parents and siblings. His birthplace is listed as Illinois in the 1880 census, and Mexico or Maine in another, but he most frequently names Virginia as his birthplace. We don’t know if he was born free.

We do not know exactly how, when, or why Adams ended up in the West. In fact, it is a great question, but maybe not one that’s answerable with any precision—not yet, anyway, and perhaps maybe it won’t ever be. Census records indicate Adams was not literate, so Adams did not write down his thoughts, and, as far as we know, no one recorded them. Even when traces of his life appear in written sources, he was forced to rely on others to transcribe information about him accurately, and it was usually for their purposes, not his.

Records regarding Adams’s military enlistment are inconsistent. Although biographical hints linked him to the Colorado Volunteers, early in our searching, one Colorado historian expressed skepticism that a Black man would have served with the “all-white” Volunteers. Although African Americans were not allowed to formally join the Colorado Volunteers in 1862 when New Mexico battles from Valverde to Glorieta took place, nineteenth-century military encampments were supported by non-enlisted people—laundresses, traders, photographers—that either supported military activities or catered to enlisted men. Theoretically, federal rules changed with the Emancipation Proclamation, and African Americans should have been able to enlist after that, certainly by 1863. But it is unclear if other African American men in addition to Adams attempted to enlist in Colorado.

While the records are spotty, Adams shows up regularly in enlistment records and post returns near Denver. He was possibly officially serving as early as February of 1863, and definitely was by May of 1864. His heritage was not a secret. One record notes he was “mustered as under cook of African descent.” As Colorado units weren’t integrated and no separate “colored” regiment existed, Adams probably only had the option to serve in a support role of some kind. In fact, a number of documents indicate that he was valued as a cook and sometimes tended animals.

Another muster roll for January and February 1865 documents that he was actively laboring with his unit. Yet, a later hand noted with a bright red scrawl, “Name not borne on sub. rolls of Co,” which might indicate a gap between on-the-ground records and how officers listed him in full reports about the unit.

Many African American men who volunteered for military service during the Civil War tolerated unequal treatment and racism from white officers and fellow soldiers because the cause, and the opportunity, was so important to them. As Joseph T. Glatthaar observed in Forged in Battle: The Civil War Alliance of Black Soldiers and White Officers, one formerly enslaved man thought serving in uniform “was the biggest thing that ever happened in my life.” Glatthaar further documents a white officer of the United States Colored Troops echoing the sentiment, writing that “[o]ne of the greatest incentives in fitting [a Black man] for a soldier was the inspiration of his being an American citizen, and of being recognized as a soldier in the same uniform that white soldiers wear.” A Black sergeant in the USCT put it this way: “We are fighting for liberty and right, and we intend to follow the old flag while there is a man left to hold it up to the breeze of heaven. Slavery must and shall pass away.”

In narratives about this period, Union soldiers are often commemorated as “the good guys.” However, even beyond the unequal treatment of Black servicemen, Union actions in the West deserve more scrutiny. Union officers and soldiers spent more time on territorial expansion, control of resources, and subjugation of Indigenous peoples than they did fighting pro-slavery forces. These activities are central to omitted stories of the Civil War era. Dual faces of anti-Confederate and anti-Indigenous conflict are memorialized in the (as of this writing) partially disassembled “Soldier’s Monument” obelisk, which has stood at the center of the Santa Fe Plaza since 1867.

Like the Genízaro communities at the northern edge of Spanish colonies, Black soldiers on the American frontier were often agents and allies of an empire who treated them as second-class citizens. Adams was probably enlisted while the troops he was serving massacred Cheyenne and Arapaho people at Sand Creek in southeast Colorado on November 29, 1864. Jim Beckwourth, a well-known frontiersman of African American heritage, was at Sand Creek that day. A generation older than Adams, he was born to an enslaved woman in Virginia and freed by his father (and owner) in Missouri. Despite working as a scout and translator for the Colorado infantry, Beckwourth later expressed regret for the role he played at Sand Creek, and testified against Colonel John M. Chivington during a congressional inquiry in 1865.

We may never know what Adams’s service meant to him, how he dealt with the monotony and challenges of camp life, or how he responded to the significant events and changes he may have witnessed. What Adams did between 1865 and 1878 is unclear, although he may have married Eva Martín from Taos in 1868. If Adams married at Taos, it seems like connections made during his service might have provided a reason to move to Taos or an introduction into social networks. Biographically, he seems to have developed deep ties in New Mexico, which probably felt like borderlands between northern Mexico, Indigenous territories, and the metastasizing U.S. empire. Adams then cemented ties to New Mexico with his 1878 marriage to Timotea Chaves of Galisteo.

Afro-Nuevomexicano identities and New Mexico’s racial politics

The rest of this piece will take a deeper look at questions of family dynamics, genealogy, and heritage in Adams’s New Mexico family. Centering these questions is not meant to imply that genealogy is inherently important. Inheritances exceed genetics, some family relationships are legal ones, and other kinship is more than biological. We have many ancestors and many relations. Yet, it is interesting which inheritances get claimed and why.

New Mexico’s “tri-cultural myth,” the simplistic idea that our culture is comprised of three distinct Indigenous, Spanish, and white cultures, has downsides, including a lack of engagement with regional stories about African American history. It renders invisible Afro-nuevomexicano pasts and possibilities. And it obscures the alignment of some Hispano identities with legal and racial whiteness.

The fact that Timotea Chaves and Samuel Adams were married in Peña Blanca in January 1878, and that by the 1880 census they were living together in Galisteo as a newly married couple, indicates that Adams may have been visually able to blend in or pass as a darker-skinned Latino. Or it could show that nuevomexicano communities were willing to absorb community and family members with identifiable African descent, which happened in similar communities in Mexico proper. In the second case, perhaps Hispano identification with whiteness was less rigid in some communities and in some decades than it seems to have become across many communities in Northern New Mexico in the early twentieth century.

Even without knowing any nuances—how they met, what they thought of one another, or even whether their marriage was arranged or not—Sam and Timotea’s union was a viable social choice. Both African Americans and Mexican-Americans in the U.S. Southwest shared some commonalities in this time of great change. Both chattel slavery and Indian slavery had ended, at least legally. African Americans and Hispanos were granted status as American citizens in a way that Indigenous peoples of the Southwest weren’t: African Americans as a result of the Civil War, and some Hispanic people after the Mexican-American War. Although citizens legally, their status as full citizens in parity with white Americans was viewed grudgingly by those who believed in a white racial version of manifest destiny. And in many cases, neither group was treated as fully equal under American law or by white arbiters of that law—so their equality was increasingly socially, if not also legally, circumscribed. Anglos pouring into Texas, New Mexico, Colorado, Arizona, and California may have had one vision of the future, while Samuel and Timotea may have had a different set of assumptions about potential futures in the borderlands.

At the same time, legacy Spanish colonial frameworks centering blood and heredity were not egalitarian and depended on distinctions around caste and class. Any potential opening of possibilities for those with African heritage, starting with Mexico’s abolition of slavery in 1829, may have become foreclosed again as U.S. leaders gave up on Reconstruction and reified the relationship between whiteness and citizenship. Reconstruction ended in 1877, Samuel and Timotea married in 1878, and the railroad arrived in 1880.

It is unclear whether, or to what degree, this may have become a problem for the family.

In “Becoming Spanish-American,” published in the Journal of American Ethnic History, Charles Montgomery argues that strategic investment in Spanish-American identity and the erasure of mestizo identity that followed was “the product of an entrenched racial confrontation, the standoff of ‘Americans’ and ‘Mexicans’ in the four decades after 1880.” Pablo Mitchell also focuses on this period in Coyote Nation, noting that although the identifiable African American population in 1880 New Mexico may have been only around 1,000 people, they “were absolutely central in symbolic terms and played prominent roles in New Mexico’s multiple and multi-layered racialization projects.”

“Races” are a biological fiction, but they are a biological fiction with the ability to create social realities. By the time of this 1915 speech, New Mexico politician Antonio Lucero boasted about the Spanish American heritage of nuevomexicanos with rhetoric typical of the time:

If there is a trace of the Indian among us, it is so slight and so rare as to prove the exception rather than the rule. We are not only Caucasians, but we belong to that branch of the white race, the Aryan, which, more than all the other, has made the history of the world. … Ours is a past that can take its place in that grand procession of greatness that is no more—a past to be admired, honored, and reverenced.

This speech was given the same year that the photographs of Adams were taken at Pecos, when Adams was probably in his seventies, during a decade when social and cultural institutions in New Mexico invested deeply in the tricultural myth.

Although norms are changing, elders in some nuevomexicano families, especially those whose attitudes were shaped between the 1920s and 1950s, overtly favor lighter skin and hold discriminatory attitudes about African Americans. Looking back at the life of Sam Adams shows particular ways that the African American pasts and possibilities in New Mexico have been forgotten.

Reconstructing family history

Timotea was born in Galisteo between 1858 and 1865 to Felipe and Francisca Chaves, and the family did and still does identify with their heritage as Chavez: a Spanish Colonial settler family. In census records, Timotea is always listed as “white,” which is uniformly the case for New Mexico Hispanics after the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. Timotea’s large and probably blended family was a Spanish-speaking household.

The descendants I’ve spoken to don’t have an active oral history about Sam Adams, and most of what they know about the couple is frequently based on genealogy research and census records. This research is difficult for them to do, as lots of the records are, quite frankly, marked by a disconnect between authorities and the family. They’re replete with reporting categories the family did not fit or which they may have wished to obscure, and garbled by census-takers seemingly baffled by Spanish names. For example, a son was born in 1882, whose baptismal record from Pecos is filed under “Juan Elias Aramas,” a mishearing of “Adams.” Daughters whose names started with “P” include Paula, Pauline, Paulita, Polita, and Pablita on the 1900 and 1910 census, which could be just one daughter.

The 1890 census records are absent, destroyed in an archival fire, but there are hints of tension in Timotea and Sam’s marriage. Timotea had a gray-eyed son, Nestor King Adams, born February 26, 1891. As an adult, Nestor appears in Madrid, Albuquerque, Van Houten, and Blossburg (the latter two mining camps in Colfax County)—probably working in mining. He moved to California, and in later records, he seems to identify as “white.” Family lore says he centered Adams as his surname after experiencing closed doors under the name Chavez. According to Nestor’s daughter, Timotea had fallen in love with a white man, a blond-haired, blue-eyed “Mr. King,” who is actually Nestor’s father, not Sam. It’s possible: in 1900, a Charles King, a blacksmith living with his wife in Galisteo, is listed on the same census page as Timotea.

King did not divorce his wife to marry Timotea. In 1900, Timotea is still listed as married to Adams and also as the head of their Galisteo household. The census reports her as the mother of eight children, just four of whom were then living. In the 1900 census, Nestor and two younger sisters are listed as “black” by a census-taker, who records all of their nuevomexicano neighbors as white. Meanwhile, Samuel appears in the 1900 census elsewhere, working as a “wood chopper” and living as a boarder in the boomtown of Bland, New Mexico. One non-specific story from descendants holds that Adams abandoned the family. And while there is evidence that Sam and Timotea had separate households in 1900 and in 1920, the couple never actually divorced.

The interpretation of these family changes is challenging 100 years in the rearview mirror. Were they having marital troubles, so Sam left before they had more children? Did he suspect at least one of the children wasn’t his, and so he left the marriage for a while? Did he leave to earn money, and did Timotea have an affair while he was away? If Timotea lost four children between 1880 and 1900, a period of drought in New Mexico, was the loss of children, combined with a tough agricultural economy, a strain on their marriage? Were they incompatible? Was one of them intolerable in the relationship? Did one give up? Was Timotea increasingly bothered by his heritage and found King a better prospect? Whether any of these is a better possibility than others is not clear.

Of the family’s children that we know about, Juan Elias Adams and Polita Chavez are the most likely to have had Adams as a biological parent. Tillie (variously Clotilda, Cleotilde), born in 1902, has no father listed on her birth certificate but lists her father as Luis Chavez on a social security application, and Sam Adams may still have been in Bland when she was conceived. Based on DNA tests taken by Tillie’s descendants, Tillie’s father was probably not Sam Adams. There are also reasons to suspect Tillie’s brother Isabel, who later married a Las Vegas restaurateur known as Mama Lucy, may also have had a different father than Samuel.

Observations about these family dynamics are not being offered up for judgment based on nineteenth-century yardsticks set by church authorities or white puritanical newcomers. Instead, they are offered to show that the past is complicated too. Professed heteropatriarchal ideals in which legal, affective, and hereditary relationships are perfectly aligned is an incomplete toolkit for figuring out what choices people made under the pressures and incentives of their particular circumstances.

Sam Adams died in 1927 and is buried in the Santa Fe National Cemetery. Timotea seems to have received his military pension until her own death in Colorado on July 31, 1931.

Hannah Abelbeck is the photo archivist in the Palace of the Governors Photo Archives at the New Mexico History Museum and is actively working to increase access to its photographic collections.

Learn more about Sam Adams, his descendants, and the Palace of the Governors Photo Archives on the third episode of Encounter Culture, a new podcast from the New Mexico Department of Cultural Affairs. Find episodes wherever you get your podcasts.