The entrance to El Pueblo History Museum

Women of the Borderland: Teresita Sandoval and Neomexicanos of Colorado

The word “Tejano” has slipped into the American language, meaning someone of Mexican descent living in Texas. There’s Tejano food, music and culture. But the phrase, “Neomexicanos,” not so much. For one thing, there were simply not many of these people – the Spanish and Mexican colonists who ventured into Northern New Mexico and Southern Colorado before 1848.

For much of that time, the border between the United States and Mexico was the Arkansas River, where the city of Pueblo, Colorado, sits today. Like all border areas, it could be a dangerous and bloody place. Besides being the border of nations, the Arkansas River was also the border between tribes: Comanche and Apache to the south, Arapaho, Cheyenne and Ute to the north. Small wonder that the original settlement of Pueblo was eventually wiped out in a massacre in 1854.

While not many Neomexicanos ventured into Colorado, those who did, were a colorful bunch. Mountain men, escaped African American slaves, Mexicans, and European adventurers. None of these Neomexicanos was more fascinating than Teresita Sandoval.

Born in Taos in 1811, there is no doubt she was a beauty. Even though she was a grandmother at 33, by age 40 she was still turning heads and described as being “pretty as a peach.”  She was also headstrong, jealous, argumentative, hot-tempered, intelligent and daring. It was said that she would risk living a rough live of hardship on the frontier with her man, until she found a man that she liked better.

Perhaps that’s why of all the women settlers of early Colorado, she is remembered the best, with a small memorial in Pueblo at the El Pueblo History Museum.

Teresita was 17 when she married an older man, Jose Manuel Sauso, and promptly had four babies.  After the fifth baby, it became obvious to the town that the father of the last one was not Sauso, but rather a distiller, trader, and mountain man named Mathew Kinkead. Kinkead is best known to Western history for having helped raise a young Kit Carson. But history also records, Kit never liked Kinkead very much.

Teresita and Kinkead moved in together and conveniently went north to Colorado to start a buffalo farm. Incredibly, pet buffalo had become a big thing in the East.  Teresita and Kinkead would follow the herds, catch young calves, and raise them by having the buffalo calves suckle on milk cows. The site of their farm west of Pueblo has disappeared, but much later the exact site became a ranch for the famous cattle drives of Charles Goodnight on the Goodnight-Loving Trail. There is today an 1871 historic barn used by the Texas cowboys that is being restored on the site where Teresita once lived.

In 1842, Kinkead and Teresita joined a wild group of traders, trappers, and hunters of Mexican, French, European, and African and Native American heritage in building an adobe post called El Pueblo. It was a large village enclosed by a wall at the junction of the Arkansas River and its biggest mountain tributary, Fountain Creek. Unfortunately, it was not a success and provided a hard, barely sustainable life for its 130 residents. Then into the adobe gates rode an English adventurer named Alexander Barclay. To Teresita, living a rough life on the parched high plains of Pueblo, he was a cool drink of water. Broad shouldered and well educated, the 33-year-old mountain man had bounced around the West trying, and failing, to make a fortune. When he saw a beautiful woman carrying a basket on her head, he was thunderstruck. He never forgot the moment of first seeing her and 11 years later, painted from memory a watercolor of her at that instant.

The attraction was mutual, and soon Kinkead decided it was best to leave Pueblo (possibly after challenging Barclay to a duel, and then wisely backing out). Ironically, Mathew Kinkead went to California during the Gold Rush and ended up owning ships, land, and haciendas — everything that Teresita and Barclay had desired and never achieved.

For theirs was a stormy romance. They moved a few miles west to a farm they called Hardscrabble. Of their ranch, only a historic marker just north of Wetmore, Colorado remains. Early frosts and droughts killed most of their corn, melons, pumpkins and peas, and wild turkeys ate the rest.

And then there was the war between Mexico and the United States. When it ended in 1848, New Mexico and Colorado entered the Union. Teresita, who under Mexican law could start divorce proceedings, own land, and pass on land ownership, lost all those rights as a new female American citizen.

Despondent at the failure of Hardscrabble, Barclay scraped together enough money to build one last adobe fort in New Mexico. Barclay’s Fort, as it was called, was impressive with 17-foot-high walls. But it was once again, a tough go. Teresita, after one of their many arguments and seeking better fortunes, left Barclay to live with one of her daughters. Barclay tried in desperation to sell his fort to the U.S. Army, but instead they seized it and built a bigger one (now preserved as Fort Union National Monument). Alone, destitute, and admitting in letters to his brother in England how much he missed Teresita, Barclay fell into despair. He died in his fort, where the winds of time eventually blew away its high walls and even his grave, so that nothing remains.

Teresita continued on with her daughters and outlived Barclay by 38 years. She is buried in Plaza Cemetery in Pueblo, a town she helped found. She was a woman of the border – a border that has long been forgotten. But she, and many of her sister women of the frontier are remembered at the El Pueblo Museum. Less than a two-hour drive from Denver, it is today possible near the museum to easily walk foot bridges across the Arkansas River, strolling casually from what was once Mexico to the United States and back. Crossing the river, it’s easy to understand that borders between nations are not real, but just fluid inventions. Sometimes, like a romance, they can be blown away by the wind.