The small town of St. John’s in east-central Arizona is not very different than the small towns, villages and pueblo land just across the border in west-central New Mexico. The landscape is similar – remote and barren, but striking at the same time. The Little Colorado river in Arizona, like the Rio Puerco in New Mexico, was the lifeblood in the desert that produced just enough vegetation to attract settlers and their sheep and livestock in the territorial days of the 19th Century.
The biggest similarity is the family names and connections. Many of the families that settled in St. Johns in the 1870s and 1880s were the children and grandchildren of the same New Mexico families that ventured west in the early 1800s from the Rio Grande Valley to settle western New Mexico villages like Cubero, Cebolleta, San Mateo and San Rafael.
My paternal Chavez ancestors were among the settlers in most of those villages, and they were there with their neighbors and primos during the early years of San Juan – before the name was changed to St. John’s, before the Arizona territorial legislature made it the seat of Apache County, and before Mormon settlers moved in.
San Juan was settled in the early 1870s as a stopping point on the route to Fort Apache. Legend has it that one of the early merchants, Solomon Barth, named the town after the first woman, Maria San Juan de Baca, who settled there. Sol Barth and his brother Morris Barth would become familiar merchants in St. Johns, as well western New Mexico.
It’s not clear when my Chavez ancestors first arrived in San Juan. They were identified in the first census of the town, in 1880. My third-great Grandfather Diego Antonio Chavez was listed as being 50 years old, living with his wife, Juana Sisneros. His daughter, Librada Chavez was living next door with her husband, Jose Torres, and their two children. A few dwellings away, Diego Antonio’s son, Preciliano Chavez (my second-Great Grandfather) was living with siblings, Ysidro and Patricia.
The 1880 Census lists fewer than 140 families in “St. John’s Village.” The vast majority, with names like Chavez, Candelaria, Baca, Romero, Garcia and Jaramillo, said they were born in New Mexico. As you get toward the end of the census, many families with Anglo surnames are listed as being from the Utah territory – presumably Mormon settlers who staked a claim to the area just a year or two before. Not listed in the census is David King Udall, who would arrive later that year with his wife Luella, to serve as the Mormon Church’s first bishop of St. John’s. Udall would serve in the Arizona territorial legislature, and he would become the patriarch of a political family that included children and grandchildren who served as legislators, judges, and members of the U.S. Congress, U.S. Senate and U.S. Department of Interior. New Mexico’s current U.S. Senator, Tom Udall, is a descendent of David King Udall.
The presence of the Mormons caused immediate tension, starting with the change of the name of the town to St. John’s. But the Mormons would become an integral part of the community.
I had read different historical accounts of St. John’s, written from the perspectives of the Hispanic settlers, the Mormon settlers, and their descendants. As I prepared for a quick day trip to St. John’s earlier this summer, I was disappointed, but not surprised, to only find the names of Anglo families buried at the St. John’s cemetery. It wasn’t until I got to St. John’s that I learned of the separate Catholic cemetery outside of town. I didn’t find the grave site for Diego Antonio Chavez. But I know he was buried there from records detailing Juana’s application for a pension based on his service during the Civil War.
While my ancestors were only in St. John’s for a few decades, it was a significant period in our Chavez family history. Juan Diego’s son, Preciliano, built his own family during much of those two decades. Preciliano left St. John’s and married Telesfora Duran in Albuquerque in 1882. He returned to St. John’s and fathered 9 of his 12 children between 1883 and 1898, including my Great-Grandfather, Diego Antonio Chavez. Three more children were born after Preciliano returned to Cubero in the early 1900s.
I finally made the day trip in June, making my way west from Albuquerque, along I-40, to an exit just north of Cubero. I took a winding road along the El Malpais National Conservation Area, wondering whether my ancestors took this same route in their wagons and with their horses and possessions back in the late 1870s.
My Great-Uncle Lalo Chavez likes to joke that he pictures his grandparents and his father returning to Cubero around 1900 in their wagons as a reverse Grapes of Wrath. While many Americans were making their way west, the Chavez clan was coming home to New Mexico.
When I arrived in St. John’s from the south, I was greeted with a surprise. Driving into town, I found the main street blocked off as residents set up lawn chairs for a parade. I had arrived as the town was celebrating the feast of San Juan. Some of the residents I visited during the San Juan parade told me there is still animosity between Mormons and Hispanics. But they were more interested in the fact that I live in New Mexico. They explained that they had ties to Pojoaque and Nambé, and they travel every year to make it to the feast days.
Following the parade, I visited the Apache County Historical Society Museum. I expected to find a lot of the Mormon history, including prominent displays of the Udall family. The part-time museum director said she was in the process of trying to capture more of the history about the town’s Hispanic settlers. Dejected, I assumed I wouldn’t find any of my own family history there. Nevertheless, I enjoyed the historical artifacts and photos at the museum.
Then, to my surprise, I came across a display about “Los Vaqueros,” which included details of some Chavez, Lopez and Armijo families from Cubero who had settled in St. Johns and nearby El Tule. No doubt, the display was based on information from Pauline Chavez Bent, a distant cousin of mine whose writings about the Chavez family I had come across many times.
As I made my way through the display, I saw names I immediately recognized, starting with Preciliano Chavez, my second-Great Grandfather, and Onofre Chavez, the son of Preciliano and my two-times Great Uncle who was admired by my Grandpa Louie and Uncle Lalo.
Seeing the photos made my trip to St. John’s a major success. I haven’t even found a photo of my Great-Grandfather Diego Antonio Chavez, the grandson of his namesake, Diego Antonio who first took his family to St. John’s. To find a photo of his father, Preciliano, was amazing, to put it mildly.
During my drive home, I passed the Salt River Project power plant, just outside of town. I took a different route, choosing to return through Zuni Pueblo, Ramah and the northern side of El Malpais, through San Rafael to Grants. That’s the more likely route that my ancestors – the elder Diego Antonio Chavez and his son, Preciliano, took in the 1870s as they searched for opportunities. As my Uncle Lalo suggested, it’s probably the same route they took when they returned to Cubero, NM, their true home.
Despite the long trip, I decided to stop in Cubero before heading home. I looked at the birthplace of my Grandpa Louie in a bit of a different light, wondering why his grandfather and father returned, and how things would have been different if they had stayed in St. John's, or continued westward to California like many others.
|Old housing structure in Cubero, NM 2014|
In any case, St. John's was a temporary home for my Chavez ancestors. But they were destined to return to New Mexico.