In 1843, the wealthy Juan Perea of Bernalillo is supposed to have said this to his young son: “Francisco, the Americans are going to occupy this country of ours one day soon, and when that happens, we will need to speak their language. So, I’m sending you to a good Catholic school in St. Louis to learn English.”
Señor Perea’s vision was right on target, and there were others among the upper class with the same idea. When the annual wagon caravan assembled that spring for the trip over the Santa Fe Trail to Missouri, many traders, besides Perea, had their sons along to be placed in St. Louis schools.
Actually, since the 1830s, some New Mexican youngsters had been sent East to obtain the kind of education not then available in their own frontier province on the Rio Grande. But now with the winds of the Mexican War beginning to blow, the need to learn about the United States seemed all the more necessary.
Some years ago, I met at a land grant conference the late Professor Clark Knowlton of the University of Utah. He happened to mention that on a recent research trip to St. Louis , he had combed early parochial school records, especially those of the Jesuits.
The documents yielded dozens of familiar New Mexico names, boys who had been sent there between the 1830s and the 1870s.
His statement was the first I’d heard about this phenomenon. I wondered, of course, whether we could find out more about the experiences of these youngsters, at a tender age separated from their families and dropped into a strange culture. It ought to make an interesting tale.
So far as I can tell, none of the Hispanic boys ever wrote a description of their school days in the States. Nor did their teachers record impressions of these frontier youths.
Francisco Perea, as an old man in 1913, however, dictated his memoirs, and they contain stray references to his early education. Bits of anecdotal material also come from some of his childhood companions.
When he first traveled to St. Louis with his father, to be placed in a Jesuit boarding school, Francisco was 13 years old. As it turned out, he was the only Hispanic in his class.
Afterward, he claimed that was how he learned English so fast; he had no choice. Also, he made friends with two brothers whose last name was Kerr. Their father was highly connected to the city’s leading daily, the St. Louis Republican.
The brothers received the paper free and promptly passed it on to Francisco. He read it from first page to last, thereby improving his language skills.
In late 1845, Francisco Perea returned home, catching a ride in the caravan of Francisco Elguea of Chihuahua, whose family owned the Santa Rita copper mines. Soon afterward, New Mexico was seized by the army of Gen. Stephen W. Kearny.
Francisco, now age 16, provided his own family and others valuable service as an interpreter. His education subsequently allowed him to play an important role in territorial affairs.
Historian Mark L. Gardner has brought to my attention the curious case of another student, Luis Zuloaga of Chihuahua City. Not long before the Mexican War, his father, Luis Sr., sent him to a St. Louis school to get him out of harm’s way.
Señor Zuloaga asked his friend, St. Louis wholesaler William Glasgow Sr., to keep an eye on the boy and sent him money for his expenses.
Glasgow fulfilled his trust faithfully and, when hostilities were over, arranged for young Luis to get home. Once back in Chihuahua City, the boy began tale-telling, in a bid to paint himself as a victim of the hated gringos.
According to his own statements, he had been “hooted at in the streets and once was compelled to hide two days in the woods for fear of being murdered. And he was turned away from the schools because he was a Mexican.” No evidence can be found these things actually occurred.
John Coulligan of Las Cruces and Mary Jean Cook of Santa Fe recently compiled a list of 118 names they had discovered of New Mexican youths who had followed the Santa Fe Trail back to St. Louis schools.
I have several more names, and there are probably others that will never be known. This subject can remind us that the old trails were arteries for cultural exchange.
Now in semi-retirement, author Marc Simmons wrote a weekly history column for more than 35 years. The New Mexican on Saturdays is publishing reprints selected from among the more than 1,800 columns he produced during his career.