The Wild West of Yester-Year

Dona Maria Barcelo
By Rachel Kovaciny

When Doña Maria Gertrudis Barcelo died in 1852, she left her surviving family members $10,000 and three houses—in today’s money, more than $330,000. This Santa Fe businesswoman amassed a considerable personal fortune, not in the usual way of the time by marrying a wealthy husband or inheriting money from a rich father.  Instead, she gained that money herself through shrewd business deals and a talent for gambling. Unlike in the United States and much of Europe, the women in Mexico enjoyed considerable independence. Mexican law granted them economic, legal, and social independence broader than that enjoyed by women living north of the border. Doña Barcelo took full advantage of these freedoms to forge her own way in the world.

Born in or near Sonora in 1800, Barcelo could read and write in a time when neither of those were skills women could take for granted.  When Mexico gained independence from Spain in 1821, her family moved to New Mexico territory. They settled in the small village of Toma, near Albuquerque. There, she met Manuel Sisneros. They married in 1823. Their marriage was unusual. First, Barcelo was considered fairly old at 23 to be only now getting married. Second, her husband was four years younger, which was uncommon in their world. Third, she kept her maiden name, and her dowry remained her own personal property instead of automatically belonging to her husband.

Others referred to the newlyweds as Don and Doña, indicating their status as respected, influential people. They had two sons, both of which died in infancy, and later adopted two daughters. A few years after their wedding, they moved to the Ortiz Mountains and opened a gambling hall at a mining camp. Gambling was technically illegal in Mexico and the government fined them several times, but they continued to operate their casino for ten years. Doña Barcelo proved to be a talented dealer, especially for a game called Monte. She soon gained the nickname “La Tules,” which means “reeds.” It’s unclear whether this meant she was a slender and willowy woman, or if she was curvaceous, and it was an ironic moniker. Either way, the name stuck. Everyone called her Doña Tules or La Tules from then on.

  In 1835, Doña Barcelo moved to Santa Fe and opened a lavish hotel and casino that occupied an entire block. Her husband’s name is not on the deed for the property—Barcelo was its sole owner. Santa Fe was an important trading hub as the endpoint of the Santa Fe Trail, the route taken by long trains of Conestoga wagons shuttling goods and money back and forth between Mexico and the United States. Doña Barcelo capitalized on the opportunity presented by all the trade money passing through the city. Her casino featured crystal chandeliers, thick carpets from Europe, and high-stakes games where $50,000 was not an unusual bid.

Doña Barcelo did not rely on gambling alone for her livelihood. She was a shrewd investor who dealt in real estate, trade goods, and mining ventures. She was also generous, giving amply to the Catholic churches in Santa Fe and helping many poor families in the area. The people of Santa Fe considered her refined and genteel, fashionable and even aristocratic. However, some patrons of her casino thought of her differently. Some Americans who came to Santa Fe on business returned to the United States with reports of a wizened crone called La Tules who lured unsuspecting innocents into her den of gambling and vice to relieve them of their hard-earned money.  That most of these reports came from people who had lost money in her casino might have something to do in the disparity of their views compared to those of Santa Fe’s citizens.

Doña Barcelo became a US citizen in 1849 after New Mexico was annexed to the US. When she died a few years later, at age 52, not only most of Santa Fe’s citizens but also various prominent politicians and US military leaders who knew her attended her funeral. She left her estate, including a 19-room house on 160 acres, to her two adopted daughters, her brother, and her sister. No one knows what became of her husband, Don Sisneros—his name ceases to appear in Santa Fe records in the 1840s. In a time that expected most women to rely on their fathers and husbands for security and support, some like Doña Barcelo used their own talents and intelligence instead. Even today, Barcelo’s career is remarkable and inspiring.