The Highly Regarded Blacksmith

The Highly Regarded Blacksmith
Henrietta Martinez Christmas

Whether in the village or the military armory, New Mexicans have traditionally relied heavily on the craftsmanship of the blacksmith. From the time Europeans first came to the Southwest, a blacksmith or armero had good job security. The craft was useful not only to the military but also to the everyday person's household.

In 1598, when Juan de Oñate entered New Mexico, he brought blacksmithing tools with him. He was not the only one; many of the soldier-settlers had brought equipment to make repairs on their wagons or horses. Juan Pérez de Bustillo and his wife, María de la Cruz, came with their two sons and seven daughters. Thought of as the grandfather of almost all New Mexicans due to his extensive family, Pérez de Bustillo brought materials worthy of any blacksmith. Noted in the inventory of his possessions were forging tools, a vise, files for repairing harquebuses (muzzle-loaded firearms), mining equipment, and tools for making nails and other things pertaining to blacksmithing.

Pérez de Bustillo brought his blacksmithing skills with him on his adventure along the Camino Real, but it’s not known whether he passed the skills down to his sons. He was the father-in-law to many noted families in New Mexico, such as Pedraza, Vásquez, Hinojos, Archuleta, Baca, and Barela; he may have taught some of them how to repair basic iron objects needed around a ranch or farm.

The military armorer would have remained busy at all times repairing horseshoes, wagons, carts, and guns and even making locks and other much-needed items-too much work for just one person. No documents have surfaced on apprenticeships in New Mexico, although in order for the settlements to survive it is apparent that there was an apprentice program of some kind. These men were tough and strong, as working with a hot fire, a hammer, and the heavy iron would not be for the weak.

The most famous blacksmith in the 18th century was Bernardino de Sena (1684-1765), an orphan who made his way to New Mexico during the colonization efforts of Don Diego de Vargas. It is unknown how Sena learned his craft, but his adoptive father may have taught him when he was a young man. As he was able to charge for his work, Sena acquired lands and livestock and married well; the ironwork done in the early colonial days is mostly attributed to him. In his lengthy will, he left his only son, Tomás, all of his equipment. When his first wife, Tomasa Gonzales, was buried, the priest wrote in the book that she was married to Bernardino Sena the syndic. Generations later, men with the surname Sena continued to be noted as blacksmiths, in Mora oand Santa Fe.

Iron was scarce in New Mexico, as mention of any type of iron, whether a lock for a chest, spurs, or a posthole digger, is highly noted. The cost to transport iron was high, and traveling with iron on the Camino Real from Zacatecas to Santa Fe made for a long journey. The iron may have been allotted out by weight per wagon so the oxen wouldn’t have such a tough burden. The long journey would have been dreadfully slow if weighted down with only iron. A blacksmith with the talent to transform old iron objects into new ones would be a necessity.

Wills are one of the most useful tools we have today to help us discover what types of items our antepasados used in their daily lives. Almost always, items that contained iron are noted, whether a comal (griddle), an iron spit, hoes, nails, and knives, and they were vital to everyday existence. Items such as branding irons were heavily used as vecinos needed to brand their animals with a registered symbol recognized by all. Elena Gallegos, one of the earliest land grantees, had her own brand, as did Juana Luján from El Rancho and Josefa Baca from Albuquerque. Josefa Baca left more than 640 cattle in her 1746 will, all of which would have needed branding. These colonial women would have paid for the branding iron that Bernardino Sena likely made for them.

The military had its own uses for an armero, with herds ranging close to 1,000 horses and daily need of their wagons, guns, lances, spurs, and other items. The armero, like the governor, was a paid employee in the early colonial days. On January 1, 1819, during the regular monthly muster roll call, Manuel Sena was present as an armero, listed right under the lieutenants and other high-ranking military officials. His expertise was highly valued. Roque Lovato, another armorer noted in 1797, was receiving a pension after having served for 19 years in that position.

Another 19th-century blacksmith, Pedro Rafael Trujillo (1863–1936) and his wife, Rebecca Valdez (1870–1918), lived a block off the main plaza in Taos. His smithy was in a prominent and easy to locate spot, right by the downtown area. Pedro’s family had migrated from Santa Cruz de la Cañada in the early 1800s. His parents, Juan Ygnacio Trujillo and Juana Trujillo, raised their family in the area known as Placitas. Oral histories from the Trujillo detail the work done in their shop as well as the fact that it was also offered as overnight accommodations for people traveling through Taos. Was he giving them posada, or did he charge? We have no records to tell us. Or did travelers want to stay close to their goods and animals? Is it possible that Bernardino de Sena also provided accommodations for out-of-town travelers at his Santa Fe shop in the early 1700s?

The mission churches were also users of iron who required the work of a blacksmith. The bells, locks, and decorations are evidence that mission priests had some need of the craft. Ornate iron pieces are scarce in New Mexico, but that isn't to say they didn't exist; they may have been transformed into something plainer.

Blacksmiths are rarely seen anymore. El Rancho de las Golondrinas in La Ciénega has one of the few working shops in New Mexico, named for blacksmith Manuel Apodaca, where visitors may actually see how the iron is worked. Unlike during the colonial period, when every village might have had a blacksmith, today we are lucky if we have one or two per county or region.

Henrietta M. Christmas is an independent historian and genealogist who has authored several books about New Mexico families. Photo taken in Panuco, Zacatecas, Mexico at the hacienda of Don Juan de Oñate.