Doña Gertrudis Barceló - Gambling Queen of Santa Fe
known as Madame La Tules, Maria Gertrudis "Tules" Barceló was a prominent
saloon owner and professional gambler in
during the heydays of the
Santa Fe Trail.
She is thought to have been born in the state of Sonora, Mexico around
1800 to prosperous Spanish ranchers. Little is known about her early life,
but she was well educated -- learning to read and write.
Shortly after Mexico won its independence from Spain in 1821, Maria, along
with her parents, a brother, and two sisters moved from Mexico to New
Mexico territory, settling in Toma, a small village about 30 miles south
of Albuquerque. Fiercely independent, she waited until she was 23 years
old to marry, which was not usual for Spanish girls of the time who
generally married in their teens. On June 23, 1823 she was wed to a
prominent man named Manuel Sisneros in Tome, New Mexico. During the
ceremony the couple was referred to her as Don and Doña, titles given to
men and women of quality and high social standing. Continuing to maintain
her independence Barceló retained her dowry, her own property, and her
maiden name. Much attention would later be given to the fact that she was
four years older than her groom and four or five months pregnant at the
time. The couple would soon have two sons, Jose Pedro and Miguel Antonio
Sisneros, both of whom died in infancy. Maria would make up for this by
later adopting two daughters.
1825 the couple relocated to the Santa Fe area, where Maria's mother was
living, and soon established a gambling hall at a mining camp in the Ortiz
Mountains. That same year, Barceló was fined by Mexican authorities for
operating an illegal gambling operation. That however did not stop her.
Dealing Monte, she became an extremely efficient and skilled dealer and
picked up the nickname of "tules", meaning "reeds", probably referring to
her curvaceous figure or diminutive size.
Keeping her earnings and her winnings, she moved to Santa Fe in 1835,
where she opened her own hotel and casino, signing the deed with her own
name and excluding her husband from the transaction.
The building was a block long located on Burro Alley between Palace Avenue
and San Francisco Street. Decorated opulently, the interior featured
floors that were covered with the finest European carpets and brick, the
ceiling was illuminated with etched glass mirrors, the games were lit by
crystal chandeliers, rich drapery lined the walls, and customers were
seated on expensive imported furnishings. For additional entertainment
Spanish men made their way about the casino singing melodies and fandangos
were held regularly for visitors. The luxurious casino quickly became a
favorite of Santa Fe's socialites as well as the many travelers making
their way to the city along the Santa Fe Trail. All were welcome -- the
upper class, traders, soldiers, priests, and immigrants.
Madame La Tules was extremely skilled in dealing Monte, named from the
mountain of cards left after a certain number had been dealt, as well as
reading the players and never revealing her own emotions. She knew the
betting habits of regular players and many who didn't know how to play
would try their luck just to be near her. Stakes on the tables were said
to have been as much as $50,000. As Santa Fe was a trade hub, Doña Tules
further increased her wealth and status through shrewd trade deals and
investments. In addition to her profits from the hotel and casino, she
also made money from real estate, gold ventures, and trading. But she was
also very giving woman - providing money and gifts to the Catholic Church,
needy families, and contributed more than her share of taxes to keep the
government functioning during budget shortfalls.
After 1841 her husband's name -- Manuel Sisneros -- stopped appearing in
written records. Whether he died or simply left remains unknown.
By 1846 when the
Mexican-American War erupted, La Tules was at the peak
of her career. She was well known and respected for her shrewdness, charm,
and business skills, and was an influential and respected member of the
social elite in Santa Fe. She was personal friends with Governor Manuel
Armijo, who was the godfather of one of her adopted daughters.
When the troops came to Santa Fe, she welcomed them, not as invaders,
but as customers and "friends." When an American civilian government
established itself in Santa Fe, she maneuvered her standing in the new
society by helping the Americans, passing on information,
uncovering a conspiracy and reporting it to officials, and even
loaning money to the army to cover payroll and buy provisions. She
invited officers and their staff to lavish dinners in her home,
furnished lodging to some American troops, and was escorted to a ball
at the La Fonda Hotel by General Kearny.
Her success yielded both admirers and detractors. During her lifetime she
was labeled a courtesan, a madam, a monte dealer, and an expert mule
trader. She was called the Mexican "Queen of Sin" through a series of
American newspaper articles before, during, and after the war.
Gregg in his book Commerce of the Prairies, published in 1844, described her as
having "very loose habits" and "richly, but tastelessly dressed", and
later -- "She is openly received in the first circles of society: I
doubt, in truth, whether there is to be found in the city a lady of more
fashionable reputation ..."
Susan Magoffin, granddaughter of Kentucky's first governor and the bride
of an American trader, was perhaps one of
Doña Barceló's greatest critics.
The Magoffins had traveled to Santa Fe in 1846 and quickly became part of
the "high society" of the town. Of La Tules she would say that she "made
her living by running a house where open gambling, drinking, and smoking
were enjoyed by all...with no thought of being socially degraded," and
described her as "the principal monte-bank keeper in Santa Fé, a stately
dame of a certain age, the possessor of a portion of that shrewd sense and
fascinating manner necessary to allure the wayward, inexperienced youth to
the hall of final ruin."
Others would say that she had an illicit affair with Manuel Armijo, the
Governor of New Mexico and that she was often romantically involved with
U.S. Army officers.
Many of these depictions were written to explain why the United States had
invaded Mexico and that Doña Barceló represented the immoral nature of the
Mexican population. They also represented the narrow-minded and prudish
views of the time.
La Tules, who could only speak and read Spanish, was probably unaware of
the American publications, as she was known to carefully guard her good
name in Santa Fe. In fact, on several occasions when locals had spoken
against her, she had taken them to court to defend herself against
slanderous comments. In court, she usually won the lawsuits or the
allegations were recanted.
Of these accusations, the truth will never be known. But, what is known is
that she was a fashionable, shrewd, and brilliant entrepreneur who was the
confidante to some of New Mexico's most powerful political, military, and
When the Mexican-American War was over in 1848, present day New Mexico became a part
of the United States. Though Maria continued operating her gambling hall
and hotel for a time, it would never be the social center of
that it had once been. She continued to operate her casino and hotel until at
least 1849, the same year that she became a U.S. Citizen. Afterwards her
health declined and she made her will in 1850.
After having received the Sacraments of Penance, Extreme Unction, and
Eucharist, by the priest Don José de Jesus Lujan, she died on January 17,
1852 at the age of 47. She left her residence, property, and some $10,000
to her brother, sister, and two adopted daughters; as well as setting
aside a contribution to the church and city officials to be used for
charitable purposes. She was given an elaborate church funeral that was
attended by politicians, military leaders, and most of the residents of
the city. She was one of the last people to be buried in the south chapel
of La Parroquia, the Santa Fe parish church -- the St. Francis Cathedral
of America, updated July, 2017.
Etulainm, Richard W.; Western Lives: A Biographical History of the
American West; University of New Mexico Press, 2004
Museum of New Mexico
New Mexico History
Williamson, G.R.; Frontier Gambling; Create Space, 2011.
Women on the Santa Fe Trail
The Vice-Laden American West
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