by Don Bullis
New Mexico’s Old Times & Old Timers
“William Pelham: Little Appreciated New Mexico Governor”
William Pelham (1803-1879) is one of those characters in New Mexico history who is little known, even to ardent historians, and those who do mention him rarely agree on some of the details of his life and adventures.
Of English stock, Pelham was born on a farm near Marysville, Kentucky, along the Ohio River, according to surveying historian Fred Roeder. His ancestors fought in the American Revolutionary War for which service they received grants of land. He was the eighth of eleven children, and three of his five brothers became surveyors. It appears to have been a profession in some demand by the United States government and therefore lucrative for contract work. William Pelham’s first contract was in Arkansas where he also served as territorial auditor. He farmed near Bentonville and is reported to have owned six to eight slaves at various times in his life.
Pelham was a Whig early in his career, but when Democrat James K. Polk was elected President in 1844, he accordingly changed his registration and was promptly appointed Surveyor General of Arkansas. That lasted until Whig Zachery Taylor was elected president in 1848. After that, Pelham had the resources to purchase farmland in Texas, a short distance south of Austin, which remained his home of record for the rest of his life.
In 1854, President Franklin Pierce, another Democrat, appointed Pelham the first Surveyor General of the relatively new Territory of New Mexico.
While en route to begin his new duties, he established a base point near Acacia, north of Socorro, from which all New Mexico surveys would be run. Noted New Mexico historian Marc Simmons located and visited that point in the early 21st century. Pelham arrived in Santa Fe in December 1854 and began the work of surveying the territory. His efforts received mixed reviews.
Fred Roeder wrote, “Almost three decades of experience as a federal surveyor made Pelham seem a good choice for his office. Although he spoke no Spanish and was not an attorney he had a basic understanding of Spanish and Mexican land laws. He soon realized that with the resources that were made available to him he could not properly do both sift his way through the 168,000 documents he found ‘jumbled together with wanton carelessness’ in the archives to adjudicate private land claims, and at the same time survey the public lands . . . [That] set the stage for that unhappy chain of events that plagues New Mexico land titles to this very day.”
El Democrata, a short-lived (April to July, 1857) Santa Fe bilingual newspaper, was not receptive to Pelham’s problems. Editor Miguel E. Pino (a prominent New Mexican to be sure), wrote that Pelham’s office was the most expensive in the entire country, and the least productive, not offering a single plot of land for sale. That was not an entirely fair criticism since the Land Office in Santa Fe did not open for business until late the following year. Pino also accused Pelham of “. . . employing his great energy in playing billiards and electioneering” and of nepotism in hiring his brother-in-law to do much of the surveying work. The charges seem to have had some foundation.
New Mexico historian Victor Westphall wrote some years later, “Pelham capably established the public surveying system in frontier New Mexico.”
Pelham resigned in August 1860. He very shortly had a surveying contract in Las Vegas, New Mexico, which kept him busy until early the following year.
The Civil War changed everything for Pelham; an overt Southern sympathizer. Soon after the Confederate army fired on Fort Sumter, South Carolina (April 12, 1861), New Mexico’s Union Colonel Edward R. S. Canby arrested Pelham as a “rank secessionist” and charged him with “treasonable correspondence”. The surveyor was held in the guardhouse at Fort Marcy in Santa Fe and might have stayed there had it not been for the Texas Confederate invasion of New Mexico in March 1862.
When Confederate General Henry Hopkins Sibley reached Santa Fe in early April 1862 (the city capitol had been captured earlier, but Sibley had remained in Albuquerque, drinking heavily, according to most historians), he appointed Pelham Governor of Confederate New Mexico. By then, the Texas Confederates had been defeated at Glorieta and were in retreat.
Note that historian John Taylor suggested that the appointment might not actually have been made at all, but Sibley biographer Jerry Thompson reported that it was indeed. It didn’t matter much anyway. After the Confederate retreat in late March and early April, there was no Confederate New Mexico, and Pelham found it prudent to retreat south along with Sibley’s army.
Pelham didn’t get to Texas immediately, however. He surrendered to Colonel Canby near Polvadera and was sent to Fort Union in northeast New Mexico. As a civilian, however, he was only held until the following year when he was allowed to go home. He returned to Texas where he farmed and raised livestock for the remainder of his life. He died in June 1879. The Mesilla Valley Independent wrote: “His duties as Surveyor General of New Mexico were difficult [but] he was regarded as a man of integrity and up-right dealing and ever will be remembered as such.”
Perhaps, but he is only remembered by a few. No list of New Mexico governors contains an entry for William Pelham.
SELECTED SOURCES: Edrington & Taylor, The Battle of Glorieta Pass: A Gettysburg in the West, March 26-28, 1862
New Mexico Newspaper Project, 1995
Fred Roeder, The American Surveyor, April 11, 2009
Sánchez, Spude & Gómez, New Mexico: A History
Marc Simmons, “A Forgotten Confederate
Governor,” Prime Time, October 2013
Thompson, Henry Hopkins Sibley, Confederate
General of the West
Twitchell, Leading Facts of N.M. History, Vol. II
Twitchell, Old Santa Fe: The Story of New Mexico Ancient Capital
Joe S. Sando, Pueblo Nations
Marc Simmons, “The Enchanted Mesa: myth or true tale?” The New Mexican, May 20, 2006
Don Bullis’ newest book, Unsolved: New Mexico’s American Valley Ranch Murders & Other Mysteries, was published in early October. It may be ordered from Rio Grande Books at www.LPDPress.com