Born around 1800, Maria Gertrudis Barceló’s childhood years are still being debated among historical scholars but her subsequent marriage to Don Manuel Antonio Sisneros on June 23, 1823, is recorded in the registers at Tomé, a small village about 30 miles south of Albuquerque. Though married to Sisneros, a member of a prominent family, she maintained her maiden name. She preferred the attribution of Doña Barceló. As she gained popularity as a gambler, the locals began calling her “La Tules” a nickname that translates into “the reed,” referring to her diminutive thin frame.
After moving to Santa Fe, she lost two sons in infancy and adopted a daughter in 1826. During this time, La Tules decided to turn her gift for dealing cards and reading men into a career as a courtesan, Monte dealer, madam, and an expert mule trader. She knew exactly how to capitalize on the insatiable gambling habits of the traders who traveled from Missouri on the newly opened Santa Fe Trail. Working in a public gambling hall, she used her charm and beauty to separate the traders from their money. As many as 100 Monte tables operated in Santa Fe during this time, with stakes as high as $50,000. By 1838, town officials realized there was more money gained by granting gambling licenses than collecting fines, and sanctioned the formerly illegal activity.
In a few years, she had enough capital to purchase a “Sala,” or gambling house and saloon, in which she entertained her guests with dances, drinks, lavish dinners, and gambling. Over time, she amassed a fortune as Santa Fe’s most renowned Monte dealer and confidante to some of New Mexico’s most powerful political, military and religious leaders. This menagerie included Manuel Armijo, the Governor of New Mexico, with whom she carried on an illicit affair that eventually led to his downfall.
The sala of La Tules was situated on San Francisco Street at the southeast corner of Palace Avenue and Burro Alley where it extended the width of the entire block. It was a long, low adobe building that eventually sported finely carved furniture from Spain resting on exquisite Turkish carpets. The main bar wound around a gigantic room. Two additional mahogany bars connected to form a quadrangle. Large glistening mirrors adorned the walls behind the bars, but omitted from the gambling casino itself. Elaborate crystal chandeliers with rings of candles provided ample light. As a finishing touch, private card rooms stretched the length of today’s Burro Alley from San Francisco Street to Palace Avenue along the Plaza. The private card rooms were strictly for professional gamblers, important visitors, and the affluent. La Tules staffed the operation with a small army of bartenders, waiters, dealers, and female “hosts.”
There is considerable debate as to her beauty. Some accounts depict her as a stunning beauty with olive skin, radiant dark hair that poured down a slender neck, and sultry black eyes that flashed in the glitter of chandeliers. They described her as charming, beautiful, fashionable, shrewd, witty, and brilliant. One writer described her as: “… sylph-like in movement with a slender figure, finely featured face, smooth and dark of Spanish decent, thin-lined, arched eyebrows, flowing dark hair, thin lips, a beautiful woman, with steady, proud head and the demeanor of a wild cat.” On the other hand others depicted her in less glowing terms describing her garments as “Eve-like and scanty, low-cut chemises and short petticoats,” the negligé style. Another wrote, “When I saw her, she was richly, but tastelessly dressed, her fingers being literally covered with rings, while her neck was adorned with three heavy chains of gold, to the longest of which was attached a massive crucifix of the same precious metal.”
If you looked at the drawing of La Tules that appeared in the April 1854 Harper’s New Monthly Magazine you might side with her detractors. She appears as a dour, cigarette-smoking hag that surely could not warrant a description of an enticing beauty. In thinking it over you could postulate that the image depicted in the magazine was La Tules in her latter years where the wear and tear of the long hours of dealing monte had taken its toll on her looks. In all probability, she was originally a very striking young woman capable of being a superb seductress.
There is definitely no debate that La Tules was unmatched in dealing Monte in her sala. Matt Field met her in 1839 and was amazed at her genius in handling cards. He wrote: “A female was dealing and had you looked in her countenance for any symptom by which to discover how the game stood, you would have turned away unsatisfied; for calm seriousness was alone discernible and the cards fell from her fingers as steadily as though she was handling only a knitting needle.” In her book, Doña Tules, Santa Fe’s Courtesan and Gambler, Mary J. Straw Cook wrote about La Tulles. She wrote that, “She dealt night after night, often until dawn, with ‘skillful precision’ as the cards ‘slipped from her long fingers as steadily as though she were handling only a knitting needle… With feminine bravado, Tules’s deft and beringed fingers swept away piles of gold, the result of perpetual practice, as she won time and time again.”
Matt Field, while in Santa Fe one night, watched while La Tules dealt Monte to a Kentuckian whose declared goal was to break her bank. He later wrote that the drunken man was:
“… swearing that he would make or break before left his seat… and drinking to health of the Spanish lady in the again refilled glass which was at that moment handed to him… When the daylight was peeping through the door cracks, (La Tules) once more swept the table, and the reckless trader was left without a dollar.
The Senora then curtsied and disappeared though a side door with the dignity of an Empress and the same skillfully modeled smile, followed by her attendant with heavy bags of gold and Mexican dollars.”
One of the legendary tales associated with the gambling queen revolved around those bags of gold and Mexican currency. Because there were no banks in Santa Fe or Taos, La Tules periodically shipped some of her large winnings to banks in the United States. As the tale goes, she sent a 10-mule team loaded with 20 buckskin bags of gold to the U.S. with a contingent of armed guards. Somewhere in the desert, bandits attacked the mule train. Before being killed, the guards buried the cache of gold and would not divulge the location. No one ever found the gold and the legend began about the “Lost La Tules Treasure.”
La Tules was quite politically influential and though her relationship with Armijo, the last Mexican governor of New Mexico, she gained insight to the practices of the Politicos. They lived lavishly on graft and heavy taxation of the poor Mexican people and the American traders. As the conditions for war with the United States loomed she conceded that U.S. occupancy meant survival for her people. As Mexico’s power diminished and the United States took acquisition of New Mexico in 1846, Doña Tules secured her position with a loan to United States General Kearny for the purpose of paying his troops, on the condition that she have military escort to the Victory Ball at La Fonda. It was a lavish event attended by the upper echelon of Santa Fe Society.
She was also credited with alerting U.S. authorities of the Mexican-Indian conspiracy of December 1846. La Tules had plenty of opportunity to hear Mexican plotting and skullduggery in her gambling rooms. As a result, she is recognized as possibly preventing a blood bath in Santa Fe.
Doña Tules remained colorful and controversial figure in Santa Fe history up to her elaborately planned and executed funeral, presided over by the newly appointed Archbishop Jean Baptiste Lamy. Records at the Catholic Church say she was laid to rest in Santa Fe, January 17, 1852. Various reports by her biographers have described her funeral as lavish – some say $1600 for spiritual services, another $1000 paid to the candles alone. La Tules’s lifelong gifts to charity had granted her access to the highest social circles of Santa Fe and in writing her will; she stipulated a final gift to the church to amend for her questionable past. She was one of the last people buried within the adobe walls of La Parroquia, the old parish church on the Plaza that was later replaced by the St. Francis Cathedral. What became of her remains during the construction and possibly where her treasure was buried in the desert is only part of the mystery that continues to intrigue historical researchers about this fascinating “The Monte Queen of Santa Fe.”
Historical note: The popular gambling game of Monte (1800’s) is often confused with the sleight of hand swindle called “three-card Monte.” There is absolutely no connection between the two; one being a game of chance while the latter is a “sure thing” winner for the dealer.