When Antonio José Martínez was thirteen years old, he entered seminary in Durango, Mexico. The young man, who was born in 1793 to a wealthy family in Santa Rosa de Abiquiú, New Mexico, had spent most of his childhood in Taos. He was ordained as a priest in 1822 and served in various parishes in New Mexico for four years before getting assigned to his hometown parish. He was keen to educate the local youth, opening an informal coeducational primary school in 1826, and in 1833 establishing a school for New Mexicans who aspired to enter seminary.

Padre Martínez is considered among the most important figures not only in the history of New Mexico Catholicism, but also in the state’s history with the printing press. The territory’s first press was a Ramage press that came to Santa Fe in 1834. It was used to print newspapers and political campaign materials. Martínez, who was involved with these efforts, purchased the machine the following year and brought it up to Taos, where he printed booklets for his students and priests, among other materials. Laurence Creider of the New Mexico State University library delivers a lecture on the topic, “Padre Martínez and New Mexico’s First Printed Publications, 1834-1846,” at the New Mexico History Museum on Wednesday, June 6.

Tom Leech, the director of the press at the Palace of the Governors, has been researching the history of the first press in New Mexico for a very long time. He cautioned that many stories about the padre and the press are mired in legend, and some are apocryphal. “There are stories that the press came up from Mexico, but it didn’t,” he said. “Someone tracked down a classified ad in a Cincinnati paper, selling a Ramage press at about the time our Ramage was purchased. The state archives has the ledger account of the arrival of a printing press and printing equipment. It’s included in the bill of lading. We know the press came with Josiah Gregg over the Santa Fe Trail.”

The press was a relatively portable machine, small enough to be hefted by two men into the back of a wagon. In her book Passions in Print: Private Press Artistry in New Mexico 1834-Present (2006), Pamela S. Smith writes that Lucian J. Eastin, a soldier under Gen. Stephen Watts Kearny, saw the wood-and-iron hand press as less than impressive. “A very small affair,” he called it. The typeface that came with the press was Bodoni, said Leech, who described the machine’s output as “fairly pedestrian.”

“There wasn’t anything fancy about it. They used what they had, so their type was all worn out. Even the papers would be varied, because just pulling enough paper together to make a book was a challenge. The binding was extremely crude — not professional at all — but there was a range of books. The padre published a book on mathematics, on law. The first book was a grammar book. He printed religious tracts. I think he even printed something that was not so much an autobiography but a philosophical treatise.”

“These guys had no clue how to be book binders,” said Tomas Jaehn, director of the Center for Southwest Research and Special Collections at the University of New Mexico. He and Leech clarified that Padre Martínez acted as writer, translator, and publisher, while a man named Jose María Baca was the printer — the person who actually set the type and turned the crank. He was from Mexico, and historians speculate that he met Martínez when Martínez was in seminary. “There is one book at the [Fray Angélico Chávez] History Library that got ripped apart because of the way they bound it. Tom Leech and I sat down with a paper conservator and we said, if we bind it the way they did, we won’t be able to open it.” The book in question, an instructional book for priests on how to perform baptisms, funerals, and other rituals, was disassembled, cleaned, and then digitized; it can be viewed at palaceofthegovernors.org/books.php.

Padre Martínez is known to historians as a controversial figure, with enemies who included Jean-Baptiste Lamy and Kit Carson. Martínez was involved in a few uprisings in Taos, one of which resulted in the killing and beheading of Gov. Albino Pérez of Santa Fe. “The part Martínez may have played in the tumult remains obscure,” historian Marc Simmons writes. Some people believe that Martínez masterminded the Taos revolt of 1847, in which Gov. Charles Bent was killed, though as Simmons writes, there are accounts that suggest otherwise: “He saved the lives of a number of people targeted for attack. When they fled to his home he sheltered every one of them. And he armed his Indian servants, instructing them to defend the house at all costs.”

Martínez was quite involved in politics. In 1851, he became the first president of the legislative assembly of the New Mexico Territory, around the same time that Lamy was named bishop of Santa Fe. The two men had an oil-and-water relationship. Bishop Lamy introduced stern reforms, including mandatory tithing for parishioners, and looked down on New Mexico priests for often breaking their vows of celibacy and even fathering children, among other activities he saw as corrupt. Though it is widely believed that Lamy got Martínez excommunicated from the church, church authorities later said the action was never formalized.

“There was a major personality clash,” Jaehn said. “It was a looking-down by Lamy — as an arrogant European guy — on the local priests. To some extent they were maybe a little corrupt, but not more so than the priests in France. Lamy had arrogant standards from a French point of view that clashed with locals and with lesser-educated priests.”

Leech had a Ramage press on display at the Palace some years ago, and many people assumed it was Padre Martínez’s press. “I don’t think we intentionally gave that impression,” he said. Unfortunately, the padre’s press seems to have gotten lost. “What we know is that after Padre Martínez died, the press passed on to William Dawson, who had it up in Cimarron, printing the Cimarron News. That was during the Colfax County War.” Supposedly Dawson published something that angered the notorious gunfighter Clay Allison and a nephew of Davy Crockett, and the men broke into the print shop. “This was probably after some drinking — that’s the sort of romance that goes with the story — and they smashed up the press and threw it in the Cimarron River,” Leech said. “To the best of anyone’s knowledge, that was the fate of the press.” A story surfaced later that the press might be buried under a creek near the high school in the northeast New Mexico town of Maxwell. Leech did some investigating, including talking to local shopkeepers, but he thinks it’s most likely that the type, not the press, ended up at Maxwell High School in the 1940s and was perhaps discarded in this curious manner.

“For a long time, Tom and I thought we should go up there with metal detectors and get into the creek,” Jaehn said. “We’ve never done it, but we always talk about it.” ◀