Sons of Liberty
Las Cruces' chapter of the Sons of the American Revolution adds a Spanish accent to patriotic history.
By Jeff Berg
Did you know that silver mining in Mexico by the Spanish was instrumental in the "good guys" winning the Revolutionary War? Did you know that some smaller armed engagements in that war took place as far west (back then) as present-day Illinois and Indiana and included participation by the Spanish army?
Those are just two of the nuggets of US history that I learned from George Biles, the president of Las Cruces' newly renamed Gadsden Chapter of the New Mexico Society of the Sons of the American Revolution (SAR).
"Before I became involved in this, I thought that it all centered back east," Biles says of the American Revolution. "But it is not widely known that silver mines in Mexico developed and mined silver into ingots to help the colonists pay for the war. Had it not been for Spain, we probably never would have won."
Biles goes on to explain the consortium formed by France, another important ally, with Spain against Great Britain.
"It helped spread the British forces pretty thin, as they had to deal with the French blockading their ports and the army had to protect their people from the colonists and French."
Though less well-known than its female counterpart, the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR), the Sons of the American Revolution is not only a national organization, but an international one, with about 26,000 members worldwide. It includes affiliates in Canada, France, Switzerland, Germany and even (ironically) the UK, scattered among 500 chapters. In New Mexico, about 110 gentlemen officially claim ties to Revolutionary War participants; in Las Cruces, Biles oversees about a quarter of that number, as the Gadsden Chapter currently has 29 members.
One of three Las Cruces residents who attended the US Naval Academy, Biles found that he had 10 ancestors who were, in some way, involved in the Revolution, all on his mother's side of the family. His research has also found that he had relatives who fought on both sides of the Civil War, including one who was a captain in an Ohio Militia unit.
"He was David Henry Emery, and he was with the 37th Volunteer Militia," Biles relates, "which was referred to as the 'graybeards,' because they were all age 55-plus."
The unit was sent to guard a prison camp near Alton, Ill., but sadly, Captain Emery never returned home. "They sent his property back to his widow."
His various ancestors also participated in the War of 1812, the Spanish-American War, both world wars and the Korean clash. Biles himself is a Vietnam conflict veteran.
"I wasn't always interested in this," says Biles. "When I was a career USN officer, and about to ship out to Vietnam, my mother, who was a DAR member, encouraged me to become an SAR member."
Her motivation wasn't exactly what he expected, he recalls with a smile: "If you don't make it, you can have an SAR plaque on your gravestone, she told me."
Biles "made it" and later became active in the early 1990s when he moved to Pittsburgh, where he held various officer positions in the Pitt Chapter of the SAR. After several years in Pittsburgh and a second career as a professor of business at American University in Washington, DC, Biles retired and began "snowbirding" in Las Cruces. He moved here five years ago.
"I didn't even know there was a chapter in Las Cruces when I came here," he says, adding, "I will probably run for state president in a couple of years."
Organized in 1876, the group was originally called the Sons of Revolutionary Sires. A fraternal and civic organization, its main goal at that time was to "salute those men and women who pledged their lives, fortunes and sacred honor to the battle for independence from Great Britain."
Present-day SAR members partake in most anything that is patriotic, historical and educational. The New Mexico SAR sponsors numerous events around the state throughout the year, including, as noted on its website, "oratory and essay contests for young people (both genders!), award programs for Eagle Scouts, ROTC and JROTC members and educators and veterans." The group is also active in ceremonies involving the American flag, including programs for veterans and appropriate flag-destruction ceremonies. Biles says he is currently studying the history of the flag.
"Our awards this year went to ROTC cadets and JROTC in all of the Las Cruces high schools, Gadsden, Santa Teresa, Alamogordo and Roswell," he adds. "We feel it is really important to acknowledge these kids, because that is where the future is."
Gadsden SAR also acknowledges those who observe proper flag etiquette, Biles points out. "The big flag at the McDonald's across the way? They hoist it with all of the proper protocol, so we recognized them for that. We also mark veterans' graves with flags."
So, if the present king of Spain, Juan Carlos, and his sons are SAR members, as are the descendents of Lafayette (we are here!), how can you get in?
Well, probably not the same way that Juan Carlos did. A predecessor, Carlos III, decreed in March 1780 that his "vassals in America contribute a onetime donation of one peso per Indian and other castes and two pesos for each Spaniard and noble to sustain the present war," thus unknowingly paving his way — and that of his descendents — into the SAR.
Supposedly money was also collected from soldiers in New Mexican presidios. They gave one peso of their salary, which went to pay for the refitting of the French fleet.
Thus, if your multi-great-granddad Ferdinand helped out financially, you could be on your way — since one of the requirements to become an SAR member is that a relative of those times had to support the cause in some way.
But just a minute, Pilgrim, it might not be that easy.
"It sometimes takes laborious research," Biles says. "You have to prove there was a direct line of seven generations, from say, son of, to great-great grandson, to the seventh grandfather, and the support could be material or financial."
Biles also points out that, nationally, SAR has a number of black members, and perhaps even some American Indians.
"About 20% of the Continental line was freedmen," he offers. "And one of the first men killed in the war was a black man, Crispus Attucks, who was one of five who died at the Boston Massacre."
Biles is a wealth of information about the Revolution and SAR. He offers one last tidbit, about Spanish General Galvez, who supplied Washington's troops before war was even declared. Galvez then went on to raise an army, which drove the British out of the Gulf of Mexico, defeated them at a battle in Michigan, and captured Pensacola, which was the British capital of western Florida.
But even if your ancestry doesn't date back to General Galvez or Paul Revere, the SAR is interested in you. The organization plans a presence at swearing-in ceremonies for new citizens, in hopes that the spirit of 1776 will continue in today's Americans.
Biles says, "We are just trying to keep patriotic values alive."
For more information on the Sons of the American Revolution, check www.sar.org Locally, you can contact George Biles in Las Cruces at 312-1721 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Senior writer Jeff Berg is a relative newcomer to the US, as a third-generation citizen.
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