Stephen Watts Kearny was promoted to Brigadier General when the Mexican-American War broke out. He had been serving as military governor in California for a few months, but upon his promotion he gathered a force of 2,500 men and led them from Fort Leavenworth in the Kansas territory to the town of Santa Fe, New Mexico. Kearny was a handsome,serious and youthful 52 years old at the time. He had been well-liked during his governorship, and Kearny Street in San Francisco was named for him.

The Mexican soldiers stationed in Santa Fe scattered when they heard he was coming leaving Kearny to take control of the territory. He appointed Charles Bent, an American trader living in Taos, as governor, and left for California with 300 men. He left 800 soldiers in Santa Few and sent another 800 to capture El Paso

However there was a minor problem. The payroll for the U.S. soldiers was late in arriving in Santa fe, and the soldiers weren’t getting paid.

At the same time, there was in Santa Fe a successful madam, who ran a gambling house that the American soldiers patronized. Maria Gertrudis Barcelo realized that Santa Fe under the Americans would be very good for her business.

madam 2

Her saloon, with sparkling crystal chandeliers and floors covered with European carpets, was described as running the length of a block in the center of town. Barcelo, known as La Tules, was very good at gambling. According to reports, she was always richly dressed and covered with jewelry. Some said she was beautiful, others reported that she was not so good looking, but everyone agreed there was no one better at the card game monte than she was, dealing night after night often until dawn.

She was well-known and politically connected in Santa Fe, and it was said that Kearny gave her a military escort to the Victory Ball at La Fonda Hotel. It was also said that she was the one who persuaded the Mexican governor of Santa Fe to leave and let the Americans take over the place.

When La Tules heard that the American soldiers weren’t getting paid, she lent the U.S. Army the money to take care of the payroll.

Because she heard gossip in her saloon by highly placed political figures of every make, she could also pass valuable information on to the U.S. Army. In December, 1846, she warned the Army of a Mexican-Indian conspiracy that threatened the Americans.

La Tules died a very wealthy woman and left a good part of her fortune to the church, ensuring an impressive funeral presided over by Archbishop Jean Baptiste Lamy, whom you will remember from Willa Cather’s fine book “Death Comes To the Archbishop.”


A few years later, in the 1960’s, Dr. Advice with a group of colleagues, stayed at the La Fonda for two or three weeks. Twenty years later, on another visit to Santa Fe, he asked if the owner was still living, and was assured that she was on the premises and would be glad to see him. A very elderly lady emerged from the back office, and after being introduced she smiled and said “Oh you’re part of those troublemakers who stayed here twenty years ago! Of course I remember you.” She graciously paid our room tab and supplied a delicious dinner. The La Fonda is still a fine historic hotel in the middle of the Plaza. I never found out exactly what that group of youngish “troublemakers’ had done to warrant her remembrance.

Author: kaytisweetlandrasmussen83

I am a retired fine arts teacher, sculptor/painter, writer, and a native Californian. I love my family,dogs, horses, movies, reading and music, probably in that order. I have been married forever to a very nice man who is nice to old ladies, dogs and children.


  1. I learned a good bit about Kearny when I was writing about Kansas, but I had no idea Kearny street in SF was named for him. I didn’t know about the lovely Maria Gertrudis Barcelo, either. It’s interesting – there was a Sarah Bowman in Texas at the same time, equally involved in politics, “entrepreneurship”, and military campaigns. She supposedly accompanied Zachary Taylor during the Seminole War in Florida, in 1837.

    But – back to La Tules. It’s such fun to learn about the movers and shakers who didn’t show up in our history books. And it’s also fun to dig about in my dad’s stamp collection as I learn, sometimes finding little treasures like this. If you or Dr. Advice would like a block of those Santa Fe stamps, I can provide them. I’ve got a couple of sheets, and they need to go somewhere. I’ve been doling them out here and there over the past couple of years.


    1. It seems our Sarah was large and powerful—6’1-2″ and 200 #. Large even for today. Still she had multiple marriages, so she couldn’t have been too bad looking!

      I’m fascinated with all the information out there we never learned. And schools still don’t teach all the good stuff. We went to Normandy on the 50th anniv of D Day, and when I told the teenager who was watching our dogs where we were going, he had never heard of it! Shameful.

      It’s sweet and generous of you to offer your stamps, but it’s enough for me to see what it looked like from your link. Thanks anyway. Kayti


  2. Love this one, Kayti. I do know and admire Willa Cather’s atmospheric novels like “Death Comes for the Archibishop” and “The Professor’s House”. La Tules really knew how to make friends, didn’t she? Fancy paying their wages. Very smart; no-one would ever forget that kindness and generosity. I wonder if the elderly lady of Dr Advice’s visits might be related to her. Seems she too understands making people feel special.


  3. Yes, if more people spent time trying to make other people feel special it would be a better world.

    My favorite Cather book is “My Antonia”. Another is “One of our own”.

    Shoreacres mention of Sarah Bowman shows the same type of woman. Yesterday’s CEO’s in the making. who says there is a glass ceiling? It just needs a dust off!

    Liked by 1 person

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