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.
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.