Sunday, February 19, 2017
New Mexico has a blacksmithing legacy
In 1980, the noted Santa Fe blacksmith Frank Turley and I published our book Southwestern Colonial Ironwork. It represented the culmination of ten years of research and writing.
The work proved to be one of the most difficult projects I’d ever tackled, but also the most challenging and pleasurable. For background on Hispanic blacksmithing in New Mexico, I traveled to Spain to observe and interview modern craftsmen who still followed many of the old traditions. Along the way, I had some unforgettable experiences.
One branch or specialty of ironworking is farriery that is, horseshoeing. Since I’d done a lot of that myself in the 1970s, I made a point of talking with horseshoers while in Spain.
Once at a cavalry remount station in the village of Benavente, I was lucky enough to catch a master shoer and his assistant at work.
The latter, called a mozo, picked up the horse’s foot and held it, so that the master could remove the old shoe, trim the hoof, and nail on a new shoe. That’s the way it had been done in colonial New Mexico.
In Spanish, I explained to the two men and a crowd of on-lookers that in the United States horseshoers worked under the animal alone. The master declared indignantly that the job couldn’t be performed without a mozo.
To prove him wrong, I asked to borrow his tools and for permission to take off the rear shoes on his next horse. In short order, I lifted a hind foot, braced it against my upper leg, cut the old nail clinches, and jerked off the shoe with pullers. The appreciative audience gave me a round of applause; partly because I was the only foreigner in a business suit they had ever seen work on a horse. The master farrier, however, was anything but happy with my performance, so I made a quick exit. During research in New Mexico’s Spanish Archives preserved in Santa Fe, I first came across the history of the Sena Family who had been blacksmiths in the capital and elsewhere for more than 200 years.
Founder of this smithing dynasty was Bernardino de Sena who at age nine in 1693 first came to New Mexico from Mexico City. That was during the reconquest by Gen. Diego de Vargas.
Bernardino’s parents settled on a ranch near Pojoaque. At 18 the young man went to Santa Fe and was soon blacksmithing, probably having learned the trade through an apprenticeship.
He prospered, invested in real estate, and became one of the city’s most prominent citizens. Upon his death in 1765, he was buried in a place of honor inside San Miguel Chapel, now sometimes referred to as the oldest church in the U.S.A. Generations of Bernardino’s descendants continued working at smithcraft. One of note was Ramon Sena whose Santa Fe forge turned out all sorts of ranch hardware in the 1830s. Several Navajos who wanted to learn ironworking so that they could make their own horse bits hired him to come to their camp below Mt. Taylor.
Sena went, with another smith named Jose Castillo, and taught the Indians what they needed to know. Then their hosts escorted them back to Santa Fe for protection, since word had reached camp that other Navajos were out raiding.
After Sena and Castillo’s instruction, the art of blacksmithing spread rapidly among the Navajo tribe. Using the same techniques of metal working, the Indians soon graduated to making silver jewelry. Today Navajo jewelry is one of the most famous and sought after of native crafts.
The last of the long line of Sena blacksmiths was Abran Sena who was forging and shoeing horses in Santa Fe as late as the 1920s. When he closed his shop across from Guadalupe Church in the latter part of the decade, a tradition that had begun more than 200 years before with Bernardino de Sena came to an end.
Marc Simmons is a retired historian and award winning author of 35 books