In 1852, Taos and other counties in New Mexico were redefined from an earlier division made in 1846 which was based on an old Mexican government partido, and made Taos the county seat of Taos County.
Taos Valley flourished during this period as other cultures found their way into the territory. Taos was a very solid trade center for the region but, with honest merchants and families, also came criminals and prior to the Civil War, it became a hotbed of many of the early conspiracies against the American government. After the Civil War most criminals moved on and the city of Taos was mostly peaceful. There was one great exception in a notorious character who went by the name of “Colonel” Thomas Means. A surveyor by profession, he came to New Mexico Territory soon after the inauguration of civil government by the Americans. He lived in Colfax County for some time, and for years was more or less identified with the tragic episodes which marked the early history of the infamous Maxwell Land Grant. He finally settled down in Taos, where he made life one continuous round of misery for all who were forced into contact with him. He exhibited an insolence and confrontational disposition that constantly precipitated him into trouble until he became such a nuisance to the more peaceably inclined inhabitants as to render drastic measures necessary. He would not only grossly insult and frequently attack anybody who came within his reach, but he beat his wife so badly on innumerable occasions that her life was in jeopardy. Finding that their appeals to courts of justice were to no avail, in 1868 a number of citizens decided to organize that common frontier institution known as a Vigilance Committee and put an end to “Colonel” Means and all his meanness. Though the vigilantes warned him of his inevitable fate if he continued in his violent actions, Means ignored the threat and on January 2, 1867, when he drew his knife, fired his pistol at several people, assaulted and nearly killed his wife following a “big spree”, he was soon arrested. That night, a group of 15-20 heavily armed men “in disguise” entered the room where Means was being held and forcibly removed him from the custody of his guards. The vigilantes then carried him to an adjoining room, which served as the county courthouse and hanged him from a heavy rafter. The coroner’s jury described Means as “not deserving of the sympathy of anyone, being as he was altogether a dangerous character, continually threatening the lives of peaceable citizens, without distinction and even the lives of members of his own family and innocent children.” The conclusion was that Means had died at the hands of “persons unknown”. The next day was one of general rejoicing that the community had been summarily rid of one of its most disagreeable and dangerous factors. Thus ended the career of one of the most widely known, and at one time, one of the most influential men of northern New Mexico.
The 1880’s brought a different type of newcomer to the Taos Valley when gold, and rumors of gold, silver and copper spread throughout the region. In 1866, gold had been found in Elizabethtown, New Mexico, some 30 miles northeast of Taos and in the 1870’s, miners began searching for gold in the Red River area. The fever spread and from 1880 to 1895 the Rio Hondo, which begins high in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains near what is now Taos Ski Valley, was actively searched by placer miners. Mining, however, was not productive in the Taos area.
In 1898, two young artists from the East named Ernest Blumenschein and Bert Phillips discovered the valley after their wagon broke down north of Taos. They decided to stay, captivated by the beauty of the area. As word of their discovery spread throughout the art community, they were joined by other associates. This was the start of Taos’ history and reputation as an artist’s community. But, all would not be peaceful for one of the new residents. On December 12, 1898, an event occurred that involved Bert Phillips. That particular day was a celebrated holiday of the native inhabitants, known as Saint Guadalupe Day, in honor of one of their most honored patron saints. Most all the Mexican inhabitants of Taos and the surrounding country, most of whom were members of the order of Penitentes, were parading the streets of the village carrying an image of Our Lady of Guadalupe. Bert Phillips and another man named Mr. Myers were standing upon the sidewalk watching the procession, unaware of the significance and customs of the superstitious Penitentes.
An official who accompanied the procession stepped up to them and ordered them in Spanish to remove their hats out of respect to the saint. As they did not understand the Spanish tongue they did not comply with the request, whereupon the man attempted to pull their hats off. At this, Myers promptly knocked the man down. Soon afterward both Phillips and Myers were arrested and placed in the wretched building which served the purposes of a jail. Bail was immediately offered for their release pending a hearing, but the sheriff, Luciano Trujillo, who had been drinking heavily and had become ugly, refused to accept bail, declaring that the two men must stay in jail and freeze to death, for all he cared. Later, however, he consented to allow them their freedom on bail.
Early that evening Sheriff Trujillo, who had been making dire threats against Phillips, Myers, and Americans in general, entered a saloon where a number of Americans were congregated. Among them was a youth named Albert Gifford, aged 19, who had armed himself with a revolver in anticipation of trouble. Most of the Americans present had similarly prepared themselves for protection, for it was generally believed that Trujillo intended to kill upon the slightest provocation. Hardly had the drunken sheriff entered the room when somebody fired a shot. In an instant, the room was a blaze of pistol shots, and when the smoke cleared Trujillo was found dead.
The dead sheriff was one of the recognized leaders of the Penitentes, and the news of his death aroused a strong feeling of revenge. Young Gifford, who was known to have been armed and who was a comparative stranger in Taos, was at once selected as the person upon whom their revenge should find an outlet, and a hunt for him was begun at once. Immediately after the shooting, he fled the scene, and the chase proved fruitless, as he was hidden by faithful friends. The entire American community, which was less than a dozen adults, became alarmed at the aspect of affairs and stood on guard all that night in zero weather, fully armed and determined to shoot upon the first indication of a desire for a fight upon the part of the Mexicans. For two or three days a united attack on the part of the natives was feared, as open threats of revenge were made by the Penitentes. But Gifford soon made his escape and the trouble quieted down. At no time since the uprising of 1847 had the American inhabitants of any portion of northern New Mexico stood in such fear of an organized native outbreak as on the night of December 12. 1898.