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Hispanic Americans in Congress, 1822-1995


Image of José Francisco Chaves
[Library of Congress]

Republican of the Territory of New Mexico

Thirty-ninth - Forty-first Congresses
March 4, 1865 - March 3, 1871

José Francisco Chaves, one of the most eminent New Mexicans of his time, became a powerful political personality in his county and an acknowledged leader of the Republican Party. Chaves was born June 27, 1833 in Los Padillas, Mexico, in what is now Bernalillo County, near Albuquerque, New Mexico. His parents, Mariano Chaves and Dolores Peres, both came from prominent New Mexican families. His grandfather, Francisco Xavier Chavez, was the Governor of New Mexico shortly after Mexico achieved independence from Spain in 1821.

When José Francisco was five years old, his father sent him to Chihuahua to begin his schooling. He continued his education in New Mexico until he left for St. Louis, Missouri with the following advice from his father: "The heretics are going to overrun all this country. Go and learn their language and come back prepared to defend your people" (Twitchell, 1912 p.400).

In 1841 Chaves entered St. Louis University in Missouri, which he attended until 1846, when he was forced to return to New Mexico because of the Mexican-American War. He continued his education in a private academy in New York City, and at the College of Physicians and Surgeons, where he spent two years studying medicine. At age twenty he took over the operation of the family ranch, which included driving large flocks of sheep to markets in California.

In 1859 while Chaves was serving as a soldier in a military expedition against the Navajos, he was elected to the territorial legislative assembly, but was able to serve for only part of the term. In 1861 at the onset of the Civil War, Chaves received a presidential commission with the rank of major. He served in the First New Mexico Infantry and later was promoted to Lieutenant-Colonel for "gallant and meritorious service."

After Chaves was honorably discharged from military service in 1865, he took up the study of law and was admitted to the bar. That same year he also was elected Territorial Delegate to Congress, defeating his first cousin, Francisco Perea. In 1867 Chaves contested the election of C.P. Clever as U.S. Delegate to Congress. The House Committee on Elections found the election had been fraudulent and seated Chaves.

On March 3, 1871 Chaves delivered a passionate speech on the New Mexico Enabling Act, which would grant statehood to New Mexico. He argued that a territorial government was incompatible with the principles of a republican system. Despite his impassioned plea, however, the bill did not pass the House.

Chaves used the floor of the House to argue in favor of the Indian appropriation bill, which would compensate New Mexicans for damages caused by Indians. He argued that according to the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, the people of New Mexico possessed certain rights equal to, if not superior to, those of Indians, and when Indians committed depredations upon the non-Indian citizens of New Mexico, reimbursement for those depredations should be made by the Federal Government.

He was defeated in his effort to be reelected to a fourth term in Congress, but he continued his involvement in New Mexico's politics. He served as district attorney for the Second Judicial District for two years. In 1875 he was elected to the New Mexico Territorial Legislative Council and was reelected to every succeeding legislature until his death. He was appointed superintendent of Public Instruction in 1901, and also was named New Mexico Historian in 1903. On November 26, 1904 Chaves was assassinated at Pinos Wells, New Mexico; his assassin was never found.

For further reading:
Perrigo, Lynn. Hispanos: Historic Leaders in New Mexico. Santa Fe: Sunstone Press, 1985.

Twitchell, Ralph Emerson. The Leading Facts of New Mexican History, Vol.II. Cedar Rapids: The Torch Press, 1912.

Vigil, Maurilio E. Los Patrones: Profiles of Hispanic Political Leaders In New Mexico History. Washington D.C.: University Press of America, Inc., 1980.

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