While prepping for an August talk, Photo Curator Daniel Kosharek and Imaging Specialist Hannah Abelbeck reached into a box and pulled out a mystery. It was a poorly documented ambrotype of a group of five men whose jackets had been painted bright red. Background details included a viga and corbel, hinting at a New Mexico provenance. Was it from one of the Civil War campaigns that occurred in New Mexico?
Mark MacKenzie, director of the Museum of New Mexico’s Conservation Lab, provided the first clues by working on the photo’s sorry condition. Abelbeck then scanned it at a high resolution, revealing even more.
She searched for information about red uniforms of the era, but found nothing. When she magnified the image, the men’s hats revealed intriguing symbols: a star, a cannon and a bucket. When she flipped the mirror image, what had seemed like Southwestern hieroglyphics turned into letters: “FFC.” Could we be looking at a fire company?
The men had an air of official business about them. One held a gavel; he and another had rolled-up documents.
We posted the image on our Facebook page and sent a query to the Historical Society of New Mexico. Soon, interested folks were weighing in with their ideas. Everyone slowly closed in on the idea of this being the early Santa Fe Fire Company, and a call to the modern-day version yielded a hopeful response.
Assistant Chief Jan Snyder said the photo looked very similar to one in the department’s mini-museum off Cerrillos Road and could depict a bucket brigade.
The Territorial Legislature created the Santa Fe Fire Company on Jan. 26, 1861. A photographer might well have captured an inaugural image, and ambrotypes were a popular medium between 1850–1865.
Abelbeck kept at it and soon spotted a similarity between the man seated on the left and one of the men in a famous portrait (left, Palace of the Governors Photo Archives 009826) of Civil War-era figures, including Kit Carson, seated in the middle. Charles P. Clever was a German immigrant and an influential businessman and trader, a mason, and the U.S. Marshal for New Mexico starting in 1857. Using Clever’s name, Abelbeck dug up the text for the fire company’s Act of Incorporation and a list of its initial participants.
She’s still working to match the other four men and thinks one may be Solomon Spiegelberg; the other seated fellow may be Charles Emil Wensche. Have a hint? Send it to Hannah.firstname.lastname@example.org.