By Marc Simmons

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The history of public lodging in Santa Fe is a subject that has not received much attention. I can find practically no reference to roadhouses and hotels existing anywhere in New Mexico during the colonial period. Such places, of course, were common in Mother Spain. One has only to read "Don Quixote" to find vivid descriptions of rural inns and urban hotels.

An old tradition claims that in Spanish times Santa Fe had a single hostelry, La Fonda ("The Inn"), at the same location as the present-day La Fonda. However, no documents have been found to confirm that. Local historian Marian Meyer has reported that an American couple, William and Mary Donoho, operated the place from 1833 to 1837. That seems to be the earliest definite information that we have about La Fonda.

By that time Francisco Perea had recorded in his memoirs that the capital had several mesones, or primitive lodgings. They served tasty food with plenty of chile and native wine. Each room had a corner fireplace (not yet called by the silly name of "kiva fireplace").

With the American conquest in 1846, La Fonda was still the only real hotel in town. One guest complained that "it was so badly kept and supplied that few people paid it a second visit." Entrance to the lobby was on the corner, and an inside door gave access to the hotel's saloon. There was a long placita, or interior courtyard, and a high-walled corral attached to the north for patrons' horses. Cockfights were regularly held there.

One guest was found stiff in his bed and thought to be dead. Ill for several days, he had been ignored by the staff. When his belongings were searched, it was discovered that he was a wealthy man. At once the hotel arranged for an elaborate funeral. But then the deceased suddenly returned to life, having only been in a coma. When asked to tell what happened while he was dead, he replied: "I went straight to heaven and met St. Peter. He asked where I'd died and I replied Santa Fe, New Mexico. He said he'd never heard of it and was sure it didn't exist.

"An atlas was produced, and St. Peter was shown Santa Fe on a map. Astonished, he exclaimed to the newcomer, 'I'l be darned if you aren't the first man ever to come here from that place!'"

By 1847 other hotels had sprouted, giving the inhospitable la Fonda some serious competition. Among them were the Missouri House (on what Americans were calling Main Street; that is, San Francisco Street), Beck & Redmans Hotel, the Santa Fe House and the German Hotel.

In 1847, Mrs. G. de Habile, recently arrived from New Orleans, opened the first private boarding house, a few doors from the Missouri House. A newspaper notice said that she would be pleased to receive Gentlemen as boarders, and "she flattered herself that her business would succeed." In those days, running a boarding house was one of the few commercial opportunities open to women. Several such lodgings could be seen in Santa Fe of the 1850s. They had a reputation for serving fine noon meals, which attracted other Santa Fe residents.

In 1852, the widow Eliza Sloan rented the abandoned Spanish military barracks at the corner of today's Palace and Lincoln avenues (on the site of the Fine Arts Museum). She and her two small children, Marian and Will, went to work with brooms and mops, cleaned up the building, and soon opened the doors as the Sloan Boarding House. Archbishop Jean-Baptiste Lamy (immortalized in Willa Cather's "Death Comes for the Archbishop") became a regular guest for lunch, as did Kit Carson whenever he was down from Taos on Indian Agency business. In 1936, at age 90, Marian Sloan recalled that Carson, after his meal, would take her by the hand and walk her around the Santa Fe Plaza.

Probably no full history of early-day Santa Fe lodgings can be written now. But numerous anecdotes exist that impart the flavor of life in those old establishments that sheltered frontier travelers.

Read Marc Simmons's "Coronado Land: Daily Life in Colonial New Mexico" (University of New Mexico Press).

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