- Dianne Jennings Walker
Alvarez, Manuel (1794–05 July 1856), merchant and U.S. consul, was born in Abelgas, León, Spain, the son of Don José Alvarez and Doña María Antonia Arias. Alvarez spent his childhood in his native village in the Cantabrian Mountains. Under the care of his parents, he became proficient in both French and Spanish. As a youth he wanted to become a writer. An avid reader, he was familiar with the writings of Thomas Carlyle, Sir Walter Raleigh, and Benjamin Franklin. His private notebooks reflect his interest in history; he wrote on the American Revolution and on Hernán Cortés’s conquest of Mexico. In 1818 Alvarez left for Mexico in search of adventure. In 1823 he went to Havana, Cuba, where he received a U.S. passport. Within a year he sailed to New York, then traveled to Missouri.
From the trappers and traders who congregated in St. Louis, Alvarez learned about the recently opened Santa Fe Trail and the business opportunities available in Mexico’s northern department, New Mexico. On 30 September 1824 he and eleven companions began the journey across the plains for New Mexico. They arrived in Taos in late November. In Santa Fe Alvarez opened a store, which he built into one of the major mercantile enterprises in the Southwest. Mexico denied Alvarez’s application for citizenship because the passport papers Missouri’s governor Alexander McNair had written referred to him as a U.S. citizen. Alvarez stayed in New Mexico and became a landowner by allowing the Mexican officials to believe he was a naturalized citizen.
From 1828 to 1833 Alvarez worked as a fur trader in the central Rockies. He was one of the discoverers of the natural wonders of present-day Yellowstone National Park. In 1839 the Americans in New Mexico petitioned successfully to have Alvarez named U.S. consul to Mexico. He served in this capacity until 1846, overseeing the rights of American citizens who came into Mexico’s northern settlements. Most of them were merchants or trappers who complained of Mexico’s methods in imposing taxes. Despite his impatience with governmental red tape, Alvarez liked and admired the Mexican people.
In September 1841 Mexican authorities captured the Santa Fe expedition, a detachment of Texans who expected to be welcomed by New Mexicans anxious to join the Republic of Texas. Among those taken prisoner were several Americans, including George Wilkins Kendall, editor of the New Orleans Picayune, who had used the expedition to get to Santa Fe as a journalist. Alvarez protested that to imprison American citizens, along with the Texans, was to disgrace the U.S. government, and because of his stance, he suffered theft, physical assault, and attempted murder at the hands of the local Mexican officials. He met with Charles Bent, later governor of New Mexico, and James Magoffin, an experienced trader, to discuss extralegal means of freeing Kendall. They raised $3,000 and offered it to Governor Manuel Armijo for the release of Kendall and former Mexican senator Antonio Navarro, to show that they were not wholly partial to the Americans. Armijo rejected the offer and withheld passports from Alvarez and fifteen Americans until 25 October 1841.
By February 1842 Alvarez was in Washington, D.C., protesting to Secretary of State Daniel Webster about the injuries suffered by American citizens in New Mexico. He presented a 32-page memorial, carefully footnoted, with over sixty letters substantiating its text. The State Department replied that the new minister to Mexico, Waddy Thompson, would make proper representations to that government. Two weeks later Alvarez petitioned on his own behalf. He told of the attempt on his life, claiming that, although the Mexican government had recognized him as the U.S. consul, the local authorities had given neither reparations nor an apology. For this and for losses incurred on the trail, he asked for a total indemnity of $22,700. Webster replied that he could not request compensations from the Mexican government because Alvarez was not a U.S. citizen. Disgusted with Webster’s attitude, Alvarez became a naturalized citizen on 9 April 1842 in St. Louis. Witnesses Theodore Papin and Pascal L. Cerri lied on his behalf, certifying that he had resided in the United States for at least five years and in the state of Missouri at least one year.
On his return trip to New Mexico, Alvarez found Texans seeking to disrupt the Santa Fe trade. At the Arkansas crossing, he met Colonel Jacob Snively and 180 men waiting to ambush a westbound caravan under the protection of Captain Philip St. George Cooke of the U.S. Army. Alvarez feared that such plunder would alienate all Santa Fe Trail merchants. Therefore he and Bent had dinner with Captain Cooke on 16 June 1843 and informed him that both the Texans and Governor Armijo planned to attack the caravan. Cooke, anxious to avoid an international dispute, took his guests’ information very seriously. When he met Snively and his force, he disarmed them and announced that the Union wished to protect its trade routes.
From summer 1843 to spring 1844 Alvarez traveled throughout the United States and Europe on personal merchandising business. He returned in 1844 to Santa Fe, where he sold textiles and other goods from New York and London. In 1847 he was elected as a representative to the legislative general assembly of New Mexico during American occupation.
In 1848 Mexico ceded most of New Mexico to the United States in the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. Alvarez led the new territory’s first statehood party, a group made up primarily of Hispanic people, who petitioned Congress for statehood. He was elected lieutenant governor in the unsuccessful bid for statehood in 1850. In 1851 he was appointed a brigadier general in the New Mexico militia. He served on the Public Building Commission from 1853 to 1854.
In the early 1850s Alvarez became aware of the potential profits from herding sheep and mules to the California minefields. He played an integral role in the New Mexico–California sheep industry, helping to raise capital and to buy sheep for three major drives.
By 1854 Alvarez had retired from public life, but he kept up with current affairs. He supported southern New Mexico’s attempt to become a separate territory, suggesting it be named Cibola. He also continued to work as a business agent for others.
Alvarez traveled to Europe in 1855, perhaps to see his family. He was unable to correspond because of painful rheumatism. It is not known whether he traveled to Spain. After coming home in the late fall, he continued operating his store as usual. On 26 February 1856 Judge Miguel F. Pino named him to the Santa Fe County Board of Education.
Alvarez died in Santa Fe. He never married. Alvarez’s mercantile and diplomatic activities contributed to the economic growth and political development of the southwestern United States before the Civil War. His life and career still challenge those who would restrict immigration and foreign trade.
Papers of Alvarez are in the Mexican Archives of New Mexico, New Mexico State Records Center and Archives, Santa Fe. Additional material is in Dispatches from U.S. Consuls in Santa Fe, Mexico, Manuel Alvarez, 1839–1846, RG 59, National Archives, Washington, D.C. The History Library of the Palace of the Governors, Santa Fe, has a copy of the dispatches. Thomas E. Chávez, ed., Conflict and Acculturation: Manuel Alvarez’s 1842 Memorial (1989), is a good example of the consul’s lucid prose. Chávez is the primary authority on Alvarez, and his works include “The Life and Times of Manuel Alvarez 1794–1856” (Ph.D. diss., Univ. of New Mexico, 1980), Manuel Alvarez 1794–1856: A Southwestern Biography (1990), and “Manuel Alvarez and the Santa Fe Trail: Beyond Geographical Circumstances,” La Gaceta 9, no. 2. El Corral de Santa Fe Westerners (1985). George Kendall, Narrative of the Texan–Santa Fe Expedition (1844), portrays Alvarez as a hero.
- Franklin, Benjamin (1706-1790), natural philosopher and writer
- Kendall, George Wilkins (1809-1867), editor and journalist
- Bent, Charles (1799-1847), frontiersman, fur trapper, and Santa Fe trader
- Armijo, Manuel (1793?–09 December 1853), governor of New Mexico
- Webster, Daniel (1782-1852), politician and lawyer
- Thompson, Waddy (1798-1868), congressman and diplomat
- Cooke, Philip St. George (1809-1895), soldier and author