Santiago Street in Albuquerque
Santiago Street, Old Town Albuquerque, c. 1880

Women of the West

The women who settled the west were formidable. Survival required that characteristic. Whereas many women migrated west with their families, others traveled alone, often fleeing hardship, abuse, or scandal. Some, like their male counterparts, were seeking fortune in the boom-towns of the American West. However, there weren’t many lucrative financial opportunities for women at the time. Those without husbands, or male relatives, were often forced into sex work to survive.

Prostitutes provided female companionship, entertainment, and salacious services to a flood of miners, soldiers, and settlers moving into the territory during the 1800s. Though sex work was considered scandalous, it was legal. In fact, brothels were a ubiquitous part of the American West, as integral to the western mythos as gunslingers and outlaws.

Many of these women experienced tragedies; physical abuse, drug addiction, unwanted pregnancies, and hazardous abortions. The fortunate ones worked in brothels and parlor houses where they could make more money in a day than teachers made in a year and potentially turn that cash into other options. Ultimately, the carnal career path provided a source of income and a level of independence that was otherwise out of reach to most women. In fact, many the most entrepreneurial women became quite wealthy and influential in their communities.

Though there were many notorious madams in New Mexico in the 1800s and early decades of the 1900s, there are a few who exemplify the impact and influence these women had on their communities. I honed my list to three for the sake of writing a blog rather than a novel.

Madams of New Mexico | Maria Gertrudis “Doña Tules” Barceló (1805 – 1852) | Santa Fe

Maria Gertrudis “Doña Tules” Barceló was a well-known hotelier, saloon owner, trader, and master gambler in the New Mexico Territory before, during, and after the Mexican-American War (1846-1848). Over the span of her life, she was a citizen of New Spain, Mexico, and the United States. She amassed a small fortune catering to the steady flow of American and Mexican soldiers and traders traveling the Santa Fe Trail during the 1830s and 1840s. She became an influential member of Santa Fe’s elite and a local legend. Governor Manuel Armijo was the godfather of one of her adopted daughters. General Stephen Kearny escorted her to a ball at the La Fonda Hotel in 1847. Archbishop Jean-Baptiste Lamy presided over her funeral.

Her friends and acquaintances described her as charming, intelligent, resourceful, supportive, and generous, with shrewd business instincts. Ultimately, her business acumen became the boon and bane of her existence. As an intelligent, independent, Latino woman, her financial success and social status was admired by some and resented by many.

Over a Century of Slander

Due to her wealth and prominence in the community, Doña Tules was both admired and maligned throughout her life. The stark difference in opinion was directly correlated to the escalating conflict between the United States and Mexico, with the most lurid accusations concocted by American journalists and novelists. The attacks on her character began before the war and continued well into the 20th century.

At the time, the U.S. was trying to justify the unprovoked invasion of Mexico. The depiction of Doña Tules was a crude caricature meant to symbolize the wanton nature of the local Mexican population. A series of American books and newspaper articles depicted her as the Mexican “Queen of Sin,” describing her as an unattractive courtesan, an amoral madam, a lowly gambler, and/or a wanton woman. Over a century later, in 1948, Ruth Laughlin wrote the novel The Wind Leaves No Shadow featuring Doña Tules as the protagonist. She was also a central character in a 1962 episode of the tv series Death Valley Days.

Doña Tules didn’t read or speak English, which was fortunate for those defaming her. She was known to aggressively defend her reputation. On two occasions in the 1830s, she challenged similarly salacious accusations in court, winning both cases. Furthermore, there is no evidence that she was a prostitute. Her money came from the card tables, though she eventually became a madam when she added a bordello to her suite of Santa Fe businesses.

Santa Fe PlazaFrom Sonora to Tome

Details of Barceló’s early life are scant, a mix of fact and fiction; however, most sources reference Sonora, Mexico as her birthplace. Based on her obituary, she was born around 1805, the daughter of Juan Ignacio Barceló and Dolores Herrero. She had two siblings, one brother and one sister. Her family moved to Tome, New Mexico shortly after Mexico won its independence from Spain in 1821.

She married Manuel Sisneros on June 20, 1823. The couple was referred to as Don and Doña in the church records, which suggests that one or both came from respected families. However, the union was considered scandalous in tiny Tome, because Barceló was a few years older than her husband and 4-5 months pregnant when they got married. Furthermore, she retained her maiden name and sole rights to her property and assets.

Maria and Manuel had two sons, Jose Pedro and Miguel Antonio Sisneros. Neither survived infancy. To assuage the pain of that loss, she adopted two daughters, one in 1826 and one in 1832, Maria del Refugio and María Guadalupé de Altagracia. She also opened her home to a foster child, Petra Gutierrez. When Petra got pregnant out of wedlock at 14, Barceló raised the baby. When Barceló died, her will provided support for the unmarried women in her care.

Church in Golden, NM

Becoming a Monte Master

Barceló moved to Real de Dolores with her husband in 1825. Located near present-day Golden, New Mexico, the mining camp was the site of the first gold rush in the region. She established a gambling hall, honing her skills as a dealer and picking up her nickname, Doña Tules. Her game of choice was three-card Monte, also known as Find the Lady. It is a card “game” where people bet money based on finding the “money card” among three face-down playing cards. She saved enough money to set up a hotel and sala (gambling hall/salon) in Santa Fe by 1836.

Located in Burro Alley, her hotel and casino became a hub for Santa Fe’s most affluent citizens and the many travelers arriving daily on the Santa Fe trail. The luxurious establishment encompassed an entire city block between Palace Avenue and San Francisco Street. It was extravagantly decorated with opulent furnishings, crystal chandeliers, carpets imported from Europe, and etched glass mirrors.

Santa Fe High  Society

Doña Tules catered to an elite clientele, presiding over one of the monte tables. She developed relationships with some of the most powerful men in the territory. She was a smart, charming businesswoman, with a keen eye for opportunity. Through her contacts, she expanded her business to include investments and lucrative trade deals. Her growing affluence paved the way for influence with the male political and social elite of the city.

When the U.S. invaded Mexico in 1846, they set up a civilian government in Santa Fe. Doña Tules tried to diplomatically navigate the transition, welcoming American officers, soldiers into her casino, often providing them with their first taste of Mexican culture. On a more pragmatic level, she exposed a violent conspiracy against the U.S. Army, which saved the lives of many U.S. soldiers.

Old Burro Alley, Santa FeTerritorial Transition

Doña Tules accumulated an enormous amount of wealth, steadily leveraging her economic and political sway to increase her influence within the community. However, her personal life didn’t fare as well. Manuel lived in a separate house on the same street from 1836 to about 1841. After 1841, his name vanishes entirely, though it isn’t clear if they divorced or he died.

For the next five years, Doña Tules focused on her businesses and surviving the war. She supported families in need, various charitable organizations, as well as the Catholic church. Whereas the Americans treated her with disdain outwardly, they recognized her status in Santa Fe’s social circles and they were more than willing to accept her financial assistance after the war. She provided loans to the U.S. Army to cover payroll and to buy provisions and contributed more than her share of taxes to keep the government functioning during budget shortfalls.

Though business waned after the war, Doña Tules kept the gambling hall open until 1849, the same year she officially became an American under the terms of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. However, her tenure as an American citizen was brief. She fell ill in 1850. She died on January 17, 1852, at the age of 47.

Though there were rumors of affairs, her personal life fell by the wayside until 1846 when she fell in love with Augustus de Marle, a Prussian officer in the U.S. Army. He provided security for her casino and represented her in court during at least one debt collection. Whereas they never married, they remained together until her death, with Augustus serving as the executor of her will.

A Generous Legacy

When Doña Tules died, she was a local legend AND the wealthiest Latino in Santa Fe. She left several residences, property, and $10,000 to her siblings and adopted daughters. She also made substantial donations to the Catholic Church and the city of Santa Fe, earmarked for charitable endeavors. Her funeral was a major event, with Archbishop Lamy presiding. The city’s luminaries attended, from politicians to military leaders, as well as most of the town’s residents.

Madams of New Mexico | Sadie Orchard (1860 1943)

Sadie Orchard was the reigning madam of the Black Range during the silver and gold mining boom in the late 1800s. The details of her life are a mix of fact and imaginative fantasy, due in part to Sadie’s tendency to embellish her personal mythos. Several versions of her life story claim she was born in London, but she eventually cited Mills County, Iowa as her birthplace on the 1940 census. Many “working girls” created elaborate back stories and pseudonyms in those days.

Sadie’s Adventures in the American West

Sarah Jane Creech was born into a large family in 1860. Her mother passed away when she was 14, leaving her father to provide for eight children. Drawn to the wealth flowing out of the mines in the Black Range, she moved to Kingston in 1886. She worked as a prostitute for about a year, generating enough money to open her first brothel on Virtue Avenue in 1887. Though the irony of the brothel on Virtue Avenue is glaring, the reality is Sadie and her girls contributed enormously to their fledgling community, including raising money to build Kingston’s first church.

The old-timers who knew Sadie described her as petite and fashionable, with dark hair and blue eyes. She dressed in silk gowns, adorned in diamonds. Though she wasn’t considered conventionally attractive, she had a magnetic, commanding personality. Beneath the polished facade, she was bawdy, brazen, bold, and eloquently profane. For example, she road down Main Street Hillsboro naked to win a bet. She was also accused of trying to murder a man with a stick of dynamite. Sadly, there’s no way to corroborate Sadie’s exploits, because all parties, guilty or innocent, left this world long ago.

Black Range Museum
Sadie Orchard built the Ocean Grove Hotel in 1896. Tom Ying, a Chinese immigrant from San Francisco, ran the restaurant. His Victorian house is adjacent to the Museum. The museum houses items that belonged to Orchard and Ying, as well as local artifacts documenting the mining and ranching history of the area.

Silver Crash of 1893

“I’m a product of the ‘Old West,’ and you know in those days we didn’t have much chance to practice the refinements and niceties of high society.” ~  Sadie Orchard, WPA interview with Clay Vaden in 1936

When the silver market crashed in 1893, the impact rippled across New Mexico’s mining communities. Miners and the businesses who catered to them forced to move on. Sadie moved 8 miles down the road to Hillsboro, where the economy was more stable, anchored to gold rather than silver, with ranching in the area providing additional revenue for the community.

Hillsboro was hit by a wave of smallpox in 1893, overwhelming the local doctor. The loss of so many children weighed heavily on Sadie. She rallied her girls to help take care of the afflicted families, tending to them both physically and financially. She used silk from her dresses to line the coffins of the youngest victims.

Sadie also met her husband, Jack Orchard, in 1893. The couple got married in July, 1895, launching the Mountain Pride Stagecoach Line together. Sadie was one of the drivers, becoming the first female stagecoach driver in New Mexico. The buggies shuttled passengers, mail, and other goods between Lake Valley, Kingston, and Hillsboro for fourteen years. However, Sadie didn’t leave her prior career behind. She opened a brothel in Hillsboro in 1896, the Ocean Grove, opening the Orchard Hotel, a restaurant, and stables shortly thereafter.

The restaurant at the Orchard Hotel was one of the best in the region, featuring the culinary prowess of a Chinese chef from San Francisco, Tom Ying. Tom became one of Sadie’s closest friends and allies, though he eventually branched out on his own, opening the Chinaman’s Place down the road from the hotel. Today, the Black Range Museum is housed in the remains of the hotel.

Mountain Pride stagecoach
“Mountain Pride” stagecoach, Orchard Stage Line, Hillsboro, New Mexico
Photographer: George T. Miller, Date: 1905 – 1908

From the Wild West to the Modern World

Sadie’s fortunes waned in the 20th century. Her marriage to Jack didn’t work out, because he had a weakness for women and whiskey, compounded by disastrous business decisions. When he lost the mail contract for the stage line in 1901, Sadie filed for divorce, escorting him out of the house with a shotgun. It was a messy break up. Sadie was charged with stealing Jack’s buggy and shooting at him with a pistol (she missed). Jack eventually dropped the charges and left Hillsboro. Sadie kept his name and continued to manage the businesses, including the stageline.

Though she kept the coaches running for several years, the glory days of New Mexico’s mining towns had waned and the west was changing. The rowdy, raucous boom towns of the Black Range became quiet, peaceful villages. Trails were replaced with railroad tracks and roads, eliminating the need for long stagecoach commutes across rough terrain. Sadie relied on the hotel and restaurant to stay financially afloat after the stagecoach line went out of business, but her resources rapidly dwindled with each passing year.

Main Street Hillsboro
Hillsboro Main Street, aka Hwy 152

Woman of a Bygone Era

During World War I (1914-1918), Sadie took care of the less fortunate in her community. She spent most of 1918 fighting the ravages of Spanish flu, nursing families in the community until they recovered or died. For those who died, she salvaged silk from her dresses to line the plain coffins once again.

Sadie Orchard died on April 3, 1943. The fortune she had amassed was gone. After her property and belongings were sold and her expenses were settled, the estate was left with $45. She was buried in a pauper’s grave in Hot Springs (now Truth or Consequences). Two siblings attended her funeral. Decades later, the Geronimo Springs Museum donated a headstone.

If you happen to visit Hillsboro or T or C, stop by her grave, The Geronimo Springs Museum, or the Black Range Museum to pay your respects to one of New Mexico’s most audacious dames.

Madams of New Mexico | Madam Millie (1906 1993)

Willette Angela Fantetti, aka Mildred Cusey, aka Madam Millie was born in Paducah, Kentucky in 1906. Her parents were immigrants from Italy. They died during the 1918 Spanish flu epidemic. Millie and her older sister, Florence, became orphans. The girls were placed with an abusive family. They ran away to Kansas City, Missouri, squatting in an abandoned tenement until the local authorities caught up with them. Judge Harry S. Truman (yes, THAT Harry Truman) placed the girls in separate foster homes.

Millie’s family starved and abused her, forcing her to find side hustles to survive. The experience introduced her to the women who worked the streets, because she made money running errands for the local prostitutes.

Eventually Millie was sent to live with Florence’s family. Unfortunately, the joyful reunion was short-lived. Florence was diagnosed with an aggressive form of tuberculosis. The foster family sent Florence to a Catholic home in Deming, New Mexico. Millie accompanied her. At 14, she had to figure out how to pay for her sister’s expensive medication and treatment.

Harvey Girl

Throughout the late 1800s and early 1900s, the Harvey Girls were synonymous with the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railway, working as waitresses at Fred Harvey’s restaurants and hotels throughout the American West. Harvey placed ads in publications throughout the Midwest and eastern seaboard, looking for women between the ages of 18-30. The ideal Harvey Girl was single, young, intelligent, and virtuous.

Millie didn’t fit the bill, but she was clever, stubborn, and resourceful. She lied about her age to get a job in Deming as a Harvey girl; however, she quickly realized that she wasn’t going to make enough money to cover Florence’s medical bills. She was turning tricks to supplement her income by the time she was 16. Though she was almost beaten to death and raped on one occasion, there was no other way to financially support her sister.

Santa Rita open pit copper mine near Silver City, New Mexico
The Santa Rita open-pit copper mine has been in operation since the early 1800s.

Silver City Legend

Silver City was one of the largest mining boom towns in the Gila in the late 1800s. Established as a Spanish settlement in 1874, Silver City became the epicenter of a mining boom, with rich deposits of gold, silver, copper, lead, and zinc in the area.

Prostitution was commonplace by 1884, with a hierarchy of options, from cat houses to extravagant bordellos. Silver City’s red-light district was home to a colorful cast of characters, with the drama that you would expect when you combine large sums of money, sex, jealousy, a lot of alcohol, opium and laudanum addiction, guns, and limited law enforcement.

When Madam Millie set up shop in the 1920s, she took over Silver City’s “scene” rapidly, setting up her first brothel on Hudson Street. She expanded her empire quickly, acquiring four brothels in southwest New Mexico and one in Laramie, Wyoming by the time she was in her 20s. Millie’s property portfolio wasn’t limited to brothels. She also owned restaurants, beauty parlors, bars, and parking lots. Eventually her expanded her operations to Ketchikan, Alaska. She became a wealthy woman in the process, which allowed her to support Florence until she passed away in 1936.

End of An Era

Madam Millie’s compassion for others went beyond her sister. She looked after her “girls” and took care of Silver City for decades, becoming a local legend over the course of her long life. She opened her doors and heart when people needed help, financially supporting the families of miners who were injured or killed, generously donating to local charities, and establishing a college scholarship for local kids. Her desire to protect the most vulnerable extended to animals as well, with numerous rescue dogs and cats finding a home with her over the years.

Millie ruled the roost in Silver City for over forty years, rubbing elbows with the famous and the infamous. When her last brothel closed in 1968, she remained in the area until her death at the age of 87 in 1993. She was buried next to her third husband, James Wendell Cusey, at the Fort Bayard National Cemetery.

Silver City Bullard StreetResources

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