Born on June 21, 1929, in Valencia, New Mexico – what was then the first Republic of Mexico – Miguel Antonio Otero was one of the more fascinating New Mexicans. He rose to political prominence at a young age and was the second Hispanic Delegate to serve the New Mexico Territory in Congress but was ultimately undone by political decisions that have proven to be on the wrong side of history. Because of these decisions, he has kind of drifted into obscurity, but history indicates that he was influential in the early days of New Mexico. His family’s legacy can be evidenced by the creation of Otero County, which was named after his son, who was Governor of the New Mexican Territory from 1897-1906.
Miguel’s parents, Don Vicente Otero and Doña Gertrudis Aragón de Otero, were well to do New Mexicans. Don Vicente held a number of prestigious offices in both the Spanish and the Mexican Governments. This influence in the Spanish and Mexican governments – and subsequently to the United States – implies that the Oteros were easy to adapt to the frequent change in governmental influence. Prior to the Mexican-American War, the Oteros were pro-American and were well very regarded by Anglo-Americans. This shrewd pro-American sentiment made the Oteros very influential after the United States annexed the former territory of Mexico.
Miguel Antonio Otero was an Eastern educated ‘semi-aristocrat’ and was bilingual. After receiving private education locally in New Mexico, Otero enrolled in St. Louis University in Missouri in 1841, before the Mexican War. He returned in 1846, but ultimately graduated from Pingree College in Fishkill, New York. In 1851, he returned to Missouri where he was admitted to the bar in 1852.
While studying for the bar in St. Louis, Otero was introduced to his wife, Mary Josephine Blackwood, by her brother, William G. Blackwood, who later Otero would have William Blackwood appointed to the New Mexico Territorial Supreme Court. Being reared in Charleston, South Carolina, Mary Josephine presumably had southern sympathies and this Southern connection may have been influential in Miguel’s subsequent Confederate sympathies.
In 1852, Otero became secretary of Territorial Governor William Lane, a pro-slavery advocate. In September of 1852, Otero was then elected to the Legislative Assembly of the Territory of New Mexico at the age of 23. Due to his young age, Otero underwent a seemingly vicious fight within the New Mexican Territorial Legislature and was not allowed his seat. In 1854, he was appointed to be the Attorney General of New Mexico at the age of 25. On March 4, 1856, in a contested election, he was elected to be a Delegate to the United States House of Representatives as a Democrat.
His election in 1856 was particularly interesting. Otero challenged the incumbent José Manuel Gallegos, who was the first Hispanic of Mexican descent elected as a Territorial Delegate to Congress and whom only spoke Spanish. After colluding with the press to defame Gallegos because he was a defrocked Catholic priest who only spoke Spanish, Otero contested the close election that Gallegos had initially won by 99 votes. Otero challenged the vote by asserting that citizens voted illegally. The election was decided by a House Committee on Elections, which ‘elected’ Otero by a margin of 128-22.
During his national service, Otero supported Nationalistic projects focused on Westward expansion and internal improvements, like the Southern Railroad – a big justification for the Gadsden Purchase. During his time as a Territorial Delegate, he obtained money to provide for the Butterfield Overland Mail delivery service to run through the Southern portion of New Mexico, a weekly mail service between Las Cruces and Santa Fe, and a bi-weekly mail service established between Santa Fe and Independence, Missouri.
Unlike some neighboring states, Otero also supported federal government ownership over most of the land of New Mexico, probably resulting in the BLM lands we have today, but also prevented western settlers from establishing a separate territory. He also supported bringing federal Indian agents. However, what would ultimately change everyone’s calculation was the question of the South and slavery.
In order to promote internal New Mexican improvements, Otero courted Southern politicians, such as Jefferson Davis, who, as Secretary of War, promoted Transcontinental Railroads, which was a major impetus for the Gadsden Purchase (Treaty of Mesilla) in 1854. In addition to courting important national southern politicians, Otero also pressed local politicians to support national southern policy. After much lobbying, on February 3, 1859, the territorial Governor signed into law, “An Act for the Protection of Slave Property in this Territory,” after it was passed by an overwhelming majority of supporters in the Eighth Legislative Assembly.
In 1860, he served as a delegate to the Democratic National Convention in Charleston, South Carolina. After the election of Abraham Lincoln in 1860, Otero’s influenced waned though, learning from his father’s political life, for a bit it appeared he found an avenue for relevance. Though Otero promoted many policies that benefited the Southern cause, he did not believe in secession from the Union. Because of this appearance of palatability, to Lincoln appointed Otero to be the Secretary of the Territory, but was not confirmed by the US Senate due to his southern sympathies, which Otero blamed on political enemies in the territory. Though he was not done in dabbling in politics, he was never elected again to another public office.
Shortly after politics, Otero left New Mexico to pursue private business in Kansas and Missouri. He became involved in various private interests to include banking and lobbying for railroads. He returned to Las Vegas, New Mexico in the 1870s, established a bank and became a stakeholder in the Maxwell Land Grant. He attempted one last run for office to become the Delegate in the 47th Congress (1881-1883), but lost to Tranquilino Luna. He died on May 30, 1882, in Las Vegas, New Mexico, and is buried at the Riverside Cemetery in Denver, Colorado.