As a child I idolised the US Cavalry in movies and TV shows – I wanted to be Rusty from Rin Tin Tin, ably assisting the heroic Lt Rip Masters … or even one of F-Troop – who were bumbling, but always good-hearted.
Of course, as I grew older, I recognised that the “heroes” in the American west were mostly people doing the best they could, often with feet of clay.
And I also recognised that there were some utter, utter mongrels, on all sides of every conflict.
The history of the Taos Pueblo is a perfect example.
The Puebloans has begun construction of what became the Taos Pueblo around 1000 years ago – and they lived in conflict with others in the region, including the Navajo, who would often raid the village.
Then after the Spaniards arrived in the mid 1500s, there was more conflict – the Spaniards built a church to spread their Catholicism. The Puebloans resisted – by 1660, they had destroyed the church and killed the resident priest. The church was rebuilt – and again destroyed in the Pueblo Revolt of 1680.
Eventually, by the end of the 18th century, the church had been rebuilt for a third time – and this time, relations between the Taos Pueblo residents and the Spaniards had become amicable.
But peace wasn’t to last.
The US annexed New Mexico in 1847 – but the Cavalry which had been sent to support the new governor were, by most accounts, brutal, rapacious, and undisciplined.
So unpopular were they, and the new Governor, that there was yet another uprising: this time leading to the assassination of Governor Bent.
The Cavalry, rightly blaming the Taos and their Mexican allies of leading the rebellion, tried to take the Pueblo.
The story visitors to the Pueblo are told goes like this: The adobe walls of the Pueblo proved impenetrable – and the able-bodied men of the village took up defensive positions to hold off the Cavalry.
Meantime the old, the infirm, the mothers and the young were all placed into the church, to give them sanctuary from the expected fighting.
In what today would be called a war-crime, the soldiers of the US army aimed their cannons at the walls of the church, probably the weakest part of the Adobe wall – and killed everyone inside.
The ‘official’ version is that the church was filled with insurgents. The Puebloan version is that it was filled with non-combatants.
But in any case, the original church was never rebuilt – because it could never again be considered a place of peace, or spiritual strength.
Instead its forecourt became a graveyard where the remains of the massacre victims were placed – along with the soldiers also killed in the uprising, and generations of Taos Pueblo residents who followed.
Today, the cemetery is full, and is no longer in use .. but it (and the remnants of the church behind) remain a stark reminder of a bloody past.