A cane, as an official symbol of office, was familiar to the Pueblo people. New MexicoTerritory had previously been part of Mexico. And Spain owned Mexico. Since 1620, the King of Spain had required each Pueblo to choose, at the end of every calendar year, a governor, lieutenant governor, and other officers. Election was by popular vote. Neither Spanish officials nor Catholic church officials could interfere in the elections.
Each Pueblo had received a silver-headed cane, a vara (meaning “rod” or “pole,” an old Spanish unit of length), as symbol of office. It was passed from one governor to the next in a ceremony held during the first week of every new year.
The northern territory of Mexico became part of the United States in 1848, after the Mexican American War. Governors of the nineteen Pueblos asked help from Michael Steck, Superintendent of Indian Affairs for New Mexico Territory, in getting United States government patents (titles) to prove that they owned their land. When Steck returned from a trip to Washington City in March 1864, he brought the first batch of completed patents plus new canes as symbols of the Pueblos’ official standing with the government.
Despite some stories, President Lincoln did not come to New Mexico Territory to present the canes and the governors did not travel to Washington City to receive them from him in person.
Symbolism and Significance of the Lincoln Canes for the Pueblos of New Mexico, 1994, by Martha LaCroix Daily, available at href=”http://www.newmexicohistory.org/featured_projects/nmlincoln200/Symbolism%20and%20Significance%20of%20the%20Lincoln%20Canes.pdf”
Photo Courtesy Denver Public Library, Western History Collection