Territory Fever: An Albuquerque Family’s Story
Part I: An Irishman Arrives in ABQ
My great grandfather Bernard Shandon Rodey stood in the swaying passenger car of a train traveling across New Mexico Territory to Albuquerque. It was the autumn of 1881 and he was excited. After he and his parents came through immigration at L’Isle du Quebec in 1867, an eventful boyhood to do with certain hoodlum Irish boys and political clashes around the French and Irish Catholic Churches, followed by the quick capture of a J.D. at Harvard Law, he felt armed for his future.
Even in boyhood, he had poured over brochures urging young immigrants to come to the western U.S. territories and although he was disappointed that the family had settled in Montreal rather than New York City, as far north as one could be, he had dreamed of one day setting out for the American West.
After all, he had braved rough seas in his journey from his family home in County Mayo, Ireland where poverty had threatened to overwhelm them all and work in the mines had begun to erode his family with black lung, putting them in bread lines, challenging their very faith in God and time. He felt it somehow miraculous to have escaped it all, letting spray from the steamer’s wake wash over him, with stars in his eyes.
He had been jammed onboard with émigrés from all over the world including little Sicilian boys with their names and birthdates pinned to rough-made wool coats and who gathered in the shadows of the cabin murmuring in a thick dialect. He had wondered for years what had become of them, their faces streaked with grime and tears, and he had urged his father, as destitute as they were on the journey, to buy them ices with his dwindling pocket change. He was eminently distressed that they were so young and alone, learning that they might be met by relatives their parents had never met. He had to tear himself away.
Rodey was classically Irish handsome, young and sported a brogue barely modulated from his time at Cambridge. His mother had wept as the family gathered on the pier at Halifax where he would board a ferry into New England. He himself had choked back tears, sensing that he would never see his parents and sisters again. But he couldn’t stay. He had read too of the first Americans, their journey away from oppression and George whose despotic reach had extended to his homeland, years earlier, of the early pioneers, and how Mexico had ceded NM Territory to the US after a time of tumult. He had an indomitable pioneer spirit, down to the very bone.
Because of his connections to an obscure landed cousin, his resourceful father had kept the family going even during the potato famine and the first wave of Irish immigrants that like living skeletons clutching what they could carry, had overloaded ships bound for the Eastern Canadian seaboard in the mid nineteenth century, many drowning at sea, and then sickened by the journey, dying by the droves. He remembered that a mass grave had been found of 7000 Irish beneath a bridge near Montreal, typhoid victims all. The luck of the Irish had struck him time and again as an ironic phrase, something that people shouldn’t say at all.
Now he peered into a tin mirror hanging on a nail on a string in the train’s tiny water closet. He dipped his pocket comb in erratic and tepid water from a primitive spigot jutting from the compartment wall, and slicked back and re-parted his hair, noting that it was already growing out from the quick cheap haircut he had grabbed in Manhattan after toast and coffee at Grand Central. The long and compelling whistle of the glistening black locomotive, the hissing steam of the engine, the calling of all aboard to all destinations West, had sent chills down his spine.
He rubbed a little pomade from the tin in his tweed jacket pocket into his mustache and his hair, and parted it again. He frowned down at his fingernails that he had erased of residual dirt from the journey and even farther back, crumbs of loam from the family garden.
His hands were strong and his fingers shapely. He clenched and unclenched his fists, crumpling a thin sheet he had mindlessly scrawled on across the hours, jotting down fragments of dream and homesickness. He had questioned himself: what would befall him in the Territory?
He had heard of a lawman named Pat Garrett, that Garrett had caught up with an outlaw named Billy the Kid at Fort Sumner, NM Territory. He had read news traveling as far as the bold italic in the New York Times, which had already inaugurated its formal reference to one Mr. Kid, of the moment that rewrote Territorial history, how Mr. Garrett had lain in wait for the Kid, coming into his bedroom in the deeps of night, how the Kid had wakened, sleepily, Garrett’s gun glinting in the moonlight, saying, “Quien es,” in a quiet Spanish, before Garrett drew and fired, eliciting a shocked and agonized scream from the Mexican woman hiding beneath the serapes on the bed.. He had wondered what had become of her. He considered himself a pragmatic idealist, but he was a romantic at heart. He suspected that the story had many versions, but he didn’t care.
What was so fascinating, for this young Irishman, about the young man who had gone West as a boy, naming himself William Bonney in his late teens, falling in with rustlers, breaking out of jail and eluding capture again and again? And the Sheriff, who had subsequently been shot in the back while driving his buckboard team through scenic Lincoln County home to his ranch? Perhaps it was a classic and exciting Western story, an enticing reality far better than what Hollywood would cook up in a plethora of Westerns years hence.
Rodey brought himself back to reality; he turned away from the mirror; there was nothing more to do; he was as buttoned down as he could be. What would be would be. He hoped there would still be outlaws like Billy, but not too close by. He wondered if he would wear a gun belt, trading in his fountain pen for a weapon that might do his talking for him.
The train had stopped in Topeka, a small town on the edge of the Frontier, where farmland gave way to wide prairie which would in turn as the landscape unfurled from the train’s window, become desert and red rock formations jutting into the very sky.
A family had boarded, a young couple with a willowy daughter who wore a wide hat trimmed with gauze roses. This family too was Albuquerque bound, its provider having heard of opportunities for a general mercantile in an area the Spaniards had built, near the railroad, which could bring in goods from the East Coast.
Rodey didn’t know it, but the demure Victorian beauty in the next car was Minerva Coddington, a devout, refined Anglican girl with the voice of a meadowlark.
He couldn’t know then about the abundance of meadowlarks in the bosques of the Rio Grande river valley or of the charm of “Old Town,” built during the Duke of Albuquerque’s occupation of the territory in the 1600’s, the church of San Felipe de Nieri and the haciendas around the Plaza, the principle mark the Spaniards had left upon the town.
And he couldn’t know then that shortly after he arrived, one Martin Pierre Stamm would also travel to the Territory with his wife Naomi Ruth and their three young sons who had his own brand of territory fever, a grocer bringing butter and cheese on dry ice to test the market, that the Rodeys, the Coddingtons,the colonial Jenne’s and later immigrant Swiss Stamms would in time meet; there would be salons and cotillions, and young beautiful women with heat-waved hair.
This adventurer, my great grandfather, stepped off the train to a teeming and sunny Albuquerque afternoon. As he had hoped, there were scores of men on prancing glistening horses, their tan faces shaded with Stetson precursors.
There was a market set up on the plaza with many booths and vendors calling out their wares, from sacks of corn flour for tortillas, to haunches of beef and mutton butchered that very day, around which flies buzzed in crude delight.
Under the hacienda open porches sat Hopi, Zuni and Navajo Indians, their faces characteristically implacable, yet seated before the most splendid things– jewelry and clay pots emblazoned with angular designs, rugs tightly woven of churro sheep’s wool immersed in natural dyes.
Rodey’s senses were overwhelmed with what seemed the territory’s unforeseen and inexhaustible yield. He hid his single salt-water stained suitcase with its one change of clothes and a pair of pajamas under a bench, hoping that no one would take it. It doubled as his briefcase, with his diary and inkpot double-wrapped in a few Irish linen handkerchiefs. He hoped that ink would not spill on his spare bow-tie.
Men were congregated around one booth having serious exchanges, the sun glinting off indeterminate objets d’arte they held in their hands. Rodey got a closer look and found himself looking at an array of guns. He glanced at the men’s belts; each did indeed sport a gun-belt from which the handle of a revolver glinted. His mouth watered at the sight of a Colt 45 with an opalescent handle.
That is the one, he thought to himself, jotting down the arms broker’s name. he would somehow be back to obtain this very gun. He would need a rifle for hunting, but one never knew, in such a wild place with its overlaid cultures, despite such a day’s festivities, what dark moments might befall, and if one’s life would be on the line.
On the east end of the plaza, on the other side of a stand where a Mexican band was strumming its guitars, where a statuesque woman whirled and stamped, clapping her castanets, he saw a remuda of horses for sale.
Rodey had saved ten dollars to buy a horse having little idea of what it would cost to acquire one of the stunning and neuresthentic beasts rumored to be of hardy Arabian descent, that had been introduced by the Spaniards, mingling with indigenous Mustang herds, interbreeding with Indian stock, who rode them bareback whether for buffalo or on into the woods where the smart things would stand back in fir stands while their riders crept forward in soft-moccasins and war paint, bows drawn, knives in their belts, primed for bear hunting.
Immediately a young black colt with a white star caught his eye. Everywhere he had looked he had seen horses hitched, their tails swishing under the hot sun. He wondered why such an animal hadn’t been snatched up, perhaps trained and added to a young woman’s personal livery by one of the wealthy Victorian families strolling under the high noon.
As a boy he had ridden young Connemara ponies right into the surf, his grandfather warning him of the shoals.
He was a natural, sticking to the ponies like a burr as if he had been born to ride.
Rodey’s luck had momentarily turned for the better. The Mexican wrangler who for all the world might have stolen the unbranded young stallion from someone who might have recognized him but had no means to claim him back, was happy to sell him for ten dollars U.S. The beautiful thing had sniffed Rodey’s jacket and tossed his head with a droll look in his brown eyes, as if to say, I’ll show you, buster.
Rodey was thrilled with his purchase. He knew that for a time his long legs would exceed the horse’s girth, but he could see, sizing him up, that in a few months he would be tall, tall and spectacular. No man should be without a horse, or a gun, he thought, squinting into the sun that seemed to veer down below the tree line, casting shadows over the happy throng, the vendors with their resplendent silver and pottery, the booths depleted of their dry goods and fresh vegetables.
There was a commotion and a sudden shying and whinnying of horses. Rodey had been about to make his way to a boarding house near the train station. Everyone jumped back and around a bend in the dirt road encircling Old Town, came someone in a “horseless carriage.”
Rodey frowned again. Having made arrangements for his leggy colt to be boarded with the old man on the outskirts of ABQ, he had dreaded seeing anything modern in what he already thought of as his town. He could smell pinon incense in the air from an outdoor oven, where flatbreads coated with aromatic frijole paste were toasting to be sold for pennies to the crowd. He was famished, and thought this exotic repast delicious.
This would be the first of many afternoons Rodey would spend in the plaza. On one of those afternoons he would meet Minerva Coddington and be invited to a salon in an elegant Victorian on 14th Street, where, after a repast fit for a king, she would play an upright Knabe piano the family had shipped from Boston, seducing him with her beautiful, soaring and tremulous bel canto, her downcast lashes that hid large violet pansy eyes, her auburn hair upswept from an ivory neck. The beautiful and arresting creature would be his, he knew, when he first heard her sing. He would woo her relentlessly until she assented.
They would marry in the one Episcopal Church in ABQ that would later be razed to make room for St.John’s Cathedral.
The young man who sat on a bench in Old Town, leaning back to doze in the shade after his journey, had an indomitable will to make a difference in the Territory. He would capitalize on his taste for the law as a clerk first for the Atlantic and Pacific Railroad, then for a local judge, go on to practice law, enter city politics and do any number of astounding things that would come to define the town and in turn the Territory.
Mon Lecteur, please stay tuned…
This memoir has been occasioned by the decades long homesickness I have for New Mexico having been born there in 1948 and leaving it for Colorado in 1960, and the remarkable family that has dwindled to two—I have at long last determined to unleash my imagination to tell what I know of the panoply of people standing, all of them nearly with white hair, in a photograph in my one box of archives every one of whom is now gone, but who live on in my memory, of their antecedents and descendants.
I hope that my singular great grandparents for whom I have a deep love and whom I never met, only sensing their onliving in my own genes and that of my brother, who have not been done justice by history, and who at this moment are caches of dust beneath brass name plates in adjacent graves in a family plot in Albuquerque forgive my poetic license, my voyeurism about my family history.
Nor have I told the equally singular story of our Albuquerque years and what transpired in a certain adobe I can see via Google maps, in an unaccountably thick forest leaning over Indian School Road that hides the house and the lore it carries within its thick adobe walls. The story of a postwar little girl and her parents and her brother, which is also a story of the pioneer spirit, of colonials and later immigrants and how it all began with a Dutch brewer who sailed for the New World, fleeing from King George, and how pioneers all, they keep me awake like archangels of my insomnia, begging to not be forgotten….certain tasks befall us before our own curtains close over the stage of our lives and this task it appears, falls to me.
Jenne’ Rodey Andrews
January 31, 2019