Sitting in the shadow of the majestic Sangre de Cristo Mountains in Northeast New Mexico, once stood Turley’s Mill, a favorite stop for trappers and traders traveling along the Taos Trail. It was established by Simeon Turley in about 1830 in Arroyo Hondo Valley on the Rio Hondo about ten miles north of Taos.
“On the other bank of the stream was situated a mill and distillery belonging to an American by the name of Turley, who had quite a thriving establishment. Sheep and goats, and innumerable hogs ran about the corral; his barns were filled with grain of all kinds, his mill with flour, and his cellars with whiskey ‘in galore.’ Everything about the place betokened prosperity. Rosy children, uniting the fair complexions of the Anglo-Saxon with the dark tint of the Mexican, gamboled before the door. The Mexicans and Indians at work in the yard were stout, well-fed fellows, looking happy and contented; as well they might, for no one in the country paid so well, and fed so well, as Turley, who bore the reputation, far and near, of being as generous and kind-hearted as he was reported to be rich. In times of scarcity no Mexican ever besought his assistance and went away empty-handed. His granaries were always open to the hungry, and his purse to the poor.“
— George F. Ruxton, English explorer and travel writer a few days before the Taos Revolt of 1847
Simeon Turley was born on the family farm in Madison County, Kentucky in 1806, the youngest of nine children of Benjamin and Nancy Ann Noland Turley. In 1811, his two older brothers, Stephen and Samuel, left Kentucky and settled in the Boone’s Lick area of Howard County, Missouri. In 1911 Lindsay Carson, the father of famed mountain man, Kit Carson, who had also lived in Madison County, Kentucky moved to the Boone’s Lick area.
When Simeon’s father Benjamin died in 1812, his brother, Samuel went back to Kentucky to settle the estate. After the War of 1812 ended, Samuel returned to Boone’s Lick bringing along his younger siblings, including Simeon, where they grew up.
While they were just children Simeon Turley and Kit Carson became close friends, an association that lasted throughout Simeon’s lifetime.
Also living there was William Becknell who would blaze the Santa Fe Trail in 1821. When Becknell returned, the news of his prosperous trip attracted wide attention and the new community of Franklin, Missouri, near Boone’s Lick, became the birthplace of the Santa Fe Trail. It was not long before a number of area families, including some of the Turleys, were represented in the growing number of caravans heading for Santa Fe and Taos.
Following in the footsteps of his older brothers, Simeon Turley left for New Mexico in about 1829 where he first set up a store in Taos. However, the next year, he purchased land on the Arroyo Hondo Land Grant from Juan deJesus Valdes and David Waldo for forty reales.
On the land, located about ten miles north of Taos, he built a store, a two-story grist mill and a distillery. Approximately 100 yards downstream from the mill, a dam was constructed in the narrow canyon of the Rio Hondo. Although it was only 30 feet across, it was adequate to assure the water supply necessary to power the mill.
The two-story adobe main building which housed the mill, distillery, and granaries faced on a plaza which was partially enclosed by stables and dwellings with the open sections blocked by fences and a large gate. Corrals to hold Turley’s various livestock extended south from the complex towards the river. On the north, there was a small vegetable garden.
The distillery was a great success, drawing large numbers of mountain men who came to trade furs for his famous “Taos Lightning” whiskey. Simeon’s 188 proof whiskey was flavored with chili powder, gunpowder, and tobacco.
He hired French-Canadian mountain man Charles Autobees to act as the firm’s traveling salesman. Autobees loaded pack mules with flour and whiskey destined for the trading posts along the Arkansas and Platte Rivers to the north and returned to the Rio Hondo with furs and buffalo robes.
In partnership with his brother Jesse, Turley also imported American made yard goods for sale at Taos and Santa Fe.
Somewhere along the line, Simeon took a common-law wife named Marfa Rosita Vigil y Romero and the couple would have seven children.
In 1841, in letters to Missouri, Turley complained of business conditions in general and also of the competition of the rival firm of Rowland and Workman who was sharply cutting flour and whiskey prices to sell their inventory, as they wanted to leave for California. After their departure in, however, Turley’s affairs greatly improved. This was also due to the strict enforcement of U.S. regulations which forbade importation of whiskey into Indian country. Because Turley’s distillery was located on Mexican soil, area traders sought him out.
He was soon doing so well that he opened a store at the new trade fort of El Pueblo at the junction of the Arkansas and Fountain Creek in present-day Colorado which was used as a collection point for the furs and robes gathered by Autobees. Thus, it became unnecessary to haul these commodities to Arroyo Hondo; instead, they were loaded on Turley’s new wagon at Pueblo for delivery direct to Missouri warehouses and the wagon brought back merchandise for the store.
By 1846, Turley’s business was flourishing as traders made their way south to Taos and Santa Fe or north to the Colorado trading posts. That same year, while United States troops were involved in the Mexican-American War, General Stephen Watts Kearny took charge of Santa Fe in August 1846. He soon appointed a civilian government with famed trader Charles Bent as governor and left Colonel Sterling Price in command of U.S. forces as he with his troops for California.
Though the surrender of Santa Fe occurred without a shot being fired, there were many New Mexicans who were unhappy with the change.