New Mexico’s journey from colony to statehood
Contested Territory: New Mexico’s Long, Twisted Path from Colony to Statehood
When New Mexico became the 47th state of the Union on January 6, 1912, it already had been a European/American settlement for 314 years. Over that long history, New Mexico’s borders changed repeatedly as Spain, France, Britain, United States, Mexico, Texas, and the Confederate States of America vied for control of, what was to all those nations, a distant frontier. Even after its acquisition by the United States, New Mexico was carved up and rearranged as admission to the Union repeatedly was denied. No other state worked so hard or waited so long for the right to statehood as New Mexico.
Spain and France
When Spain established its New World empire in the 16th century, it laid claim to a vast area of North America including most of what is now the central and western United States, all of which was loosely known as New Mexico.
Spain focused its settlements in Mexico and South America, however, leaving the north unexplored and its boundaries undefined.
Without settlements, there was no practical way to make good on the land claims, so in the 1580s, King Felipe II recruited Juan de Onate and a band of soldier/settlers and their families to establish a colony on the upper reaches of the Rio Grande in the middle of New Mexico. Their mission was to pacify and convert the Indians and to discourage other European settlements in the northern territories.
The French explorers Joliet and Marquette began mapping the upper Mississippi River valley – the northeastern corner of New Mexico – in the 1670s, and French fur traders established posts in the Illinois country just as the Pueblo Revolt of 1680 drove the Spanish out of the Rio Grande settlements.
The Spanish rebuilt those settlements after 1692, but the French continued to encroach on Spain’s northern and eastern claims with the founding of New Orleans in 1718 and subsequent control of the entire Mississippi and its tributaries. Spain bitterly contested France’s domination of what became known as Upper Louisiana, but did not have the military power in the north to repel the French.
In the spring of 1720, New Mexico’s Governor Antonio Valverde sent an expedition of about 100 soldiers and Pueblo Indians to confront the growing French threat. Valverde had intelligence that French traders were gaining influence among the Pawnee, a powerful plains tribe that would make a formidable enemy if allied with France. Led by Pedro de Villasur, the expedition encountered a large Pawnee village on the Platte River in present-day Nebraska.
Villasur attempted to open communication, but the Indians attacked, killing all but perhaps ten of the New Mexico soldiers, including their leader. The Viceroy of New Spain fined and reprimanded Valverde for sending out such a small, unprepared force, and New Mexico never again attempted any major confrontations with the French. (A spectacular visual record of the Villasur expedition appears on the Segesser Hide Paintings, on display at the New Mexico History Museum.)
In an attempt to keep the French out of the remote eastern stretches of New Mexico – later known as Texas – the Viceroy planted settlements there after 1700. However, the territory was vast and the small population could do little to keep French traders from occasionally passing through.
What eventually drove the French government and military out of the Mississippi Valley was not New Mexico and New Spain, but Britain and its American colonies. After France’s defeat in the Seven Years War (also known as the French & Indian Wars), Louis XV realized he could no longer hold most of his North American claims, and ceded the Louisiana territory (except New Orleans) to Spain in 1762.
After the Louisiana Purchase
Spain’s possession of Texas was uncontested until the United States purchased the Louisiana Territory in 1803. Pressured by Napoleon, Spain had returned Upper Louisiana to France in 1800 with the assurance it would never be passed to a third party, but Napoleon started negotiating a sale to the U.S. the very next year.
The resulting Louisiana Purchase consisted of 828,000 square miles, with its eastern boundary at the Mississippi River. However, its northern and western boundaries were not delineated. The U.S. claimed the Purchase included all the land between New Orleans and the Rio Grande including most of the New Mexico settlements, while Spain claimed that New Mexico and Texas extended to the Missouri River, encompassing land all the way to present day Montana.
When the Viceroy learned of the Lewis and Clark expedition on the Missouri, he ordered New Mexico Governor Fernando Chacon to forcibly repel the American invasion, but hostile plains Indians turned back his war parties.
The governor did win a small victory over the Americans in 1806, when his troops captured the band of explorers led by Lieutenant Zebulon Pike, in what is now southwestern Colorado. Pike and his men were treated cordially by the New Mexicans, and after lengthy interrogation were released at New Orleans the next year.
Clearly, the ambitions of both Spain and the United States over the Louisiana Territory were unrealistic. The U.S. had no presence on the Rio Grande and Spain had none along the Missouri; therefore neither had any practical way of enforcing their dubious claims.
The balance in that stand-off began to tip towards the U.S., however, after Mexico declared independence from Spain in 1821. Two policies of the young Mexican government inadvertently increased American influence it its own northern territories.
The Spanish crown always had forbidden New Mexico to trade with its neighbors to the east as a way of preventing foreign incursions into the territory. Able only to trade with far off cities in Mexico, citizens of the remote little colony were starved for all types of manufactured goods.
After independence, the new federal government immediately responded to the clamor for trade by allowing enterprising Americans to bring wagon trains full of goods and supplies from depots in Missouri to long-isolated New Mexico.
Anglo-American merchants soon relocated to New Mexico and became highly influential in local society and politics by virtue of their wealth and control of the trade. Several Hispanic entrepreneurs also entered the eastern trade, built business and land empires, and reinforced New Mexico’s dependence on the flow of goods over the Santa Fe Trail.
Mexico or New Spain, published in London in 1777 showing New Mexico and Louisiana.
The unexplored area between the two, including much of present day Texas and Oklahoma, is identified as “Great Space of Land unknown.” Courtesy Fray Angélico Chávez History Library.
The impact of growing Texas
As business on the Santa Fe Trail burgeoned, the Mexican government decided to bolster its Texas settlements by inviting Anglo-Americans into the territory, beginning in 1824.
By the early 1830s, Americans far outnumbered Hispanics in Texas. Having never assimilated into the local culture and angered by Mexico’s abolition of slavery, Texans won their independence in 1836, forming the Republic of Texas.
Although Mexican authorities never formally acknowledged the new republic, it no longer held military or civil authority there. They blamed the Americans for stirring rebellion and the once amicable relations between the two countries, based on mutually beneficial trade, began to sour in the political arena.
Before the Spanish planted their small settlements in Texas, it had been considered (when it was considered at all) to be the desolate eastern reaches of New Mexico. Now, with a fast-growing population and newly won independence, Texans attempted to reverse that relationship. They believed the territory they captured from Mexico should comprise all the land north and east of the Rio Grande, including most of the populated areas of New Mexico.
American-made Geographical, Statistical, and Historical Map of Mexico from 1822 showing New Mexico restricted to the Rio Grande Valley and the US claiming territory deep into what is now Oklahoma.
The now smaller area between New Mexico and US-owned Louisiana still is unlabeled. Courtesy Fray Angélico Chávez History Library.
New Mexicans largely ignored the upstarts until Texas Governor Mirabeau Lamar sent an expedition toward Santa Fe in 1841. The group’s stated purpose was friendly trade with New Mexico.
However, the government at Santa Fe was skeptical, because it was widely believed that Lamar wanted to capture the lucrative Santa Fe trade by formally annexing its neighbor on the west.
New Mexico Governor Miguel Armijo led a small militia to repel the Texans, which he did without difficulty as he found the “traders” wandering ragged and half-starved in the treacherous Llano Estacado of west Texas.
Perhaps to send a message to the Texas government, Armijo’s troops cruelly abused the suffering would-be invaders before sending them back.
When the United States agreed to the annexation of Texas in 1845, Mexican-American relations hit a new low. Mexico considered the annexation an act of war and cut off diplomatic relations with the United States.
At this point, war probably was inevitable, but not just because of the dispute over Texas. The driving force behind the conflict was the desire of many American politicians and citizens to take all of the territory that lay between the southern states and the Pacific Ocean.
They felt that America’s unique experiment in democracy gave them both the right and the obligation to spread “the blessings of freedom” into new territories.
In 1845, the eastern journalist John O’Sullivan succinctly articulated the idea, “Our manifest destiny is to overspread and possess the whole continent which providence has given us for the development of the great experiment of liberty and federated self-government entrusted to us.”
Thus, America’s democratic impulse had become the land-hungry doctrine of Manifest Destiny.
War with Mexico
Politicians from the Northeast and Midwest were cool to the idea of war with Mexico, but southerners and westerners begged for the fight.
They wanted secure trade routes across New Mexico to California, and many wished to see slavery spread to these new territories. U.S. President James K. Polk of Tennessee favored aggressive western expansion and looked for opportunities to either buy or capture New Mexico and California.
He sent an emissary to Mexico City in an attempt to purchase the territory, but Mexican authorities refused to talk. In April 1846, Mexican troops entered borderlands claimed by the U.S. and, a few skirmishes later, Polk felt justified in asking Congress to declare war.
Map of Mexico, published in Philadelphia in 1847 showing Texas’ ambition to claim territory all the way to the east bank of the Rio Grande. Courtesy Fray Angélico Chávez History Library.
Polk moved quickly, sending the navy to blockade Mexican ports and an army, under General Winfield Scott, to march in Mexico City.
Polk sent a second army under General Zachary Taylor to enter Mexico though Texas, and a third under Colonel Stephen Watts Kearney across the Santa Fe Trail to take New Mexico and then proceed to California.
Poised to enter New Mexico, Kearney sent word to Governor Armijo in Santa Fe that he had been instructed to take possession of all the territories under Armijo’s jurisdiction.
On the way, Kearney stopped in the towns of Las Vegas (NM), Tecolote, and San Miguel to raise the American flag in the plazas and address the local citizens, reassuring them that his soldiers were, indeed, not barbarous murderers, rapists, and desecrators of religion as Mexican authorities and priests had warned.
As Kearney approached Santa Fe, Armijo assembled troops at Glorieta Pass, just fifteen miles southeast of the Capital. After quickly settling in, Armijo called together his officers and announced he would not fight the Americans.
The volunteers were aghast, but his army regulars mostly supported him. Armijo galloped off toward El Paso while the others returned to Santa Fe in bewilderment. Without firing a shot, Kearney’s Army of the West entered Santa Fe on August 18, 1846 and raised the United States flag over the Palace of the Governors.
Armijo’s aborted stand at Glorieta, it turned out, was just a bit of theater. In the previous weeks, he had quietly closed out his business interests in New Mexico and prepared to leave Santa Fe.
Some historians have attributed his moves to either simple cowardice or a shrewd assessment of New Mexico’s military inferiority, but others have suggested that Armijo had been bought off by the U.S. government.
Whatever the case, New Mexico now sat firmly in American hands.
The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo
The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, signed in February 1848, ended the Mexican-American War and ended any doubt about which country owned New Mexico.
Among the terms of the treaty was the cession of about 525,000 square miles of Mexican territory to the United States, including most or all of the present day states of New Mexico, Arizona, California, Nevada, Utah and part of Colorado.
Including Texas (to which Mexico also gave up any claim), the Mexicans lost about 55% of their former territory and the United States succeeded in its mission to extend its territories to the Pacific.
The Mexican government received $18,250,000 in consideration of its losses. The southern boundary of America’s new possession was the Gila River that flowed from the southwestern part of present day New Mexico through Arizona, joining the Colorado River at Yuma.
New Mexico now was free of claims from any “foreign” government, though not from its American neighbor to the east.
In 1848, the Texas legislature passed laws making the area around Santa Fe a county of Texas. New Mexicans again ignored the Texans, turning their attention to petitioning for statehood.
In the fall of 1849, nineteen appointed citizens met in Santa Fe to draft a state government and elect a delegate to Congress. However, Congress had not yet passed enabling legislation for statehood and refused to seat the delegate.
In the spring of 1850, New Mexico again called for a constitutional convention. Texans were outraged by New Mexico’s attempts at statehood, but newly elected President Zachary Taylor supported its right to exist, as did most members of Congress.
Millard Fillmore, who succeeded to the presidency after Taylor’s death in July 1850, reinforced Taylor’s stance with the threat of force against Texas should it try to seize New Mexico.
That might have settled the question and paved the way to statehood had the issue not became entangled in the politics of slavery.
The admission to the Union of new states and territories in the West became highly contentious over the issue of whether slavery would be permitted within their boundaries. California (which had been settled by the Spanish independently of New Mexico in the 1700s and long considered a separate region) petitioned to be admitted to the Union in 1849, precipitating the Compromise of 1850.
In this package of five bills, California became a non-slave state, the northern reaches of New Mexico were split off as part of Utah Territory, and the remainder of New Mexico, consisting of most of the present-day state plus Arizona, the southern tip of Nevada, and southeastern Colorado, was organized as a territory rather than a state.
Both new territories had no restrictions on slavery. Texas gave up its claim to New Mexico for a payment of $10 million, and the boundary between the two was fixed at its present location.
Because the United States wanted New Mexico largely for potential trade routes to California, the army began exploring possible trails even before the conclusion of the Mexican-American War.
In 1847, the “Mormon Battalion” of Utah volunteers led by Philip St. George Crook trekked from Mesilla in southern New Mexico, across southern Arizona to San Diego, creating a wagon road on the way.
The Gasden Purchase
In July of 1849, a border commission, as required in the treaty with Mexico, began surveying the new border with instructions to also look for viable rail routes.
In the course of their work, surveyors discovered an error that put the border near El Paso 30 miles farther north than the Americans had believed it should be. The Americans also realized that “Crooks Wagon Road” built by the Mormon Battalion still lay in Mexican territory south of the Gila River.
To head off a new round of disputes, John Gadsden, President Franklin Pierce’s emissary to Mexico, began negotiations to purchase another large section of Mexican territory.
Gadsden’s initial plan was to offer Mexico $20 million for part of Chihuahua, most of Sonora, and all of Baja California. However, northern congressmen disliked the plan, because they feared the new territory would expand slavery, and they wanted the transcontinental railroad to be in the north.
In 1853, Congress finally consented to purchase a much smaller strip of land that included the Mesilla Valley in southern New Mexico west to the environs of Tucson, and on to the California border at Yuma. The Gadsden Purchase established New Mexico’s southern border at its present location.
Less than a decade after Gadsden’s deal, New Mexico’s northern and southern boundaries once again came into question. In the north, Colorado experienced a gold rush in its “front range” beginning in 1859, and the population grew so rapidly that the founders of Denver and other mining towns quickly pushed for territorial status.
Congress, wanting to protect the region’s mineral wealth, moved quickly, and in 1861, carved Colorado Territory out of parts of Utah, Kansas, Nebraska and New Mexico Territories. New Mexico lost the stretch of land from the San Luis Valley north of Taos to the coal fields of Trinidad and out to the high plains.
The Civil War Years
In the south, Texas ranchers had moved into the areas around Mesilla and Tucson, and many of them rose to political and financial prominence in their new homes.
As national tensions over slavery grew, the Texans naturally became southern sympathizers. Being so distant from territorial affairs in Santa Fe, they also felt neglected and disadvantaged by New Mexico’s government.
In 1856, southern New Mexicans made the first of several petitions to Congress to split off the lower part of New Mexico, between Texas and California, as a new territory. They went so far as to set up a provisional government in 1860, but the slavery question precluded the formation of any new territories. After Texas seceded from the Union in 1861, they again called a convention, set up a government, and petitioned to be admitted – this time to the Confederacy – as the Territory of Arizona.
The Confederate government at Richmond warmly received the idea of the new Arizona Territory. They won the opportunity to make it a reality when their forces captured Mesilla and then Fort Craig near Socorro in July 1861, during the early days of the Civil War. When Confederate Captain Sherrod Hunter entered Tucson in January of 1862, he encountered no resistance from the Texas-Anglo ranchers and their Hispanic neighbors.
However, the changing fortunes of war ended the short history of the Confederate States’ Territory of Arizona.
In March of 1862, Confederate forces easily took Albuquerque and Santa Fe, then marched toward the vital supply station of Ft. Union northeast of Las Vegas (NM).
Union volunteers from Santa Fe and Colorado met the enemy at Glorieta Pass (the same place Governor Armijo failed to make his stand) and dealt them a surprising and devastating defeat.
Their supplies destroyed, the Confederates were driven back down the Rio Grande and out of New Mexico for the duration of the war. The next month, Union Colonel James Carleton marched from California to take Tucson only to find that the Confederates already had abandoned it.
Post Civil War
The Confederate defeat restored the boundaries of New Mexico, but both the Territorial and Federal governments knew the Territory could not remain intact for long.
New Mexico simply was too large and sparsely populated to administer effectively. Southern Arizona, in which all of New Mexico’s western settlements were located, was more than 500 miles from Santa Fe via stagecoach out of Mesilla.
With the final outcome of the Civil War still unknown, Congress feared that Arizona, as drawn by the Confederates, would become a slave territory after all. As a result, Congress split off the western portion of New Mexico to create a new Arizona Territory in February of 1863. Finally, New Mexico’s boundaries were settled.
With the Civil War concluded and boundary disputes resolved, New Mexicans once again entertained hopes of statehood.
Those hopes would not soon be realized. During its 62 years of territorial status, some 50 bills for New Mexico statehood were introduced in Congress. Certainly the vagaries of national politics thwarted many attempts.
In one instance in 1875, pro-statehood politicians had convinced a majority in Congress to proceed with enabling legislation. On the eve of voting, New Mexico’s delegate, Stephen Elkins, entered the House of Representatives just after a congressman from Michigan had delivered a scathing review of Confederate misdeeds.
Knowing nothing of the Michigander’s speech, Elkins engaged him in a cordial handshake. Southern members of the House assumed the handshake to be Elkin’s endorsement of the speech, and in retaliation they tanked the statehood measure.
Thirteen years after the “Elkins Handshake,” New Mexico had once again worked its way into promising statehood legislation, this time accompanied by the Dakotas, Montana and Washington. By the time that bill passed, however, New Mexico had been dropped from it. A similar story played out the next year when Idaho and Wyoming were admitted to the Union.
New Mexico’s difficulties lay not just in political machinations, but in its cultural differences with the rest of the country. When the United States took New Mexico in 1846, it had never before subsumed such a large foreign population so quickly. And not only were they foreigners with strange customs, but they were Spanish-speaking Catholics who were generally poor, lived in mud houses, and had a reputation for lawlessness.
Several waves of anti-immigrant and anti-Catholic activism convulsed the Protestant-majority United States throughout most of the 19th century, and though not aimed specifically at the Southwest, such sentiment reinforced the negative perception of New Mexicans.
Americans also looked askance at New Mexico’s relative poverty and apparent lack of ambition. Entrepreneurs, tradesmen and farmers in the East and Midwest prospered in the decades after the Civil War, aspiring to tidy brick or clapboard houses and fashionable possessions to secure their middle class identities. New Mexicans lived in adobe houses and most engaged in subsistence farming.
What’s more, they seemed quite content with their lot, mostly rejecting outside attempts at “improvement.” New Mexico even lacked a public school system that might encourage its young citizens to strive for eastern-style self-improvement.
Racism and cultural differences aside, it probably was New Mexico’s reputation for lawless violence that most prejudiced public and political sentiment against statehood.
Since most New Mexicans lived quiet, isolated and decidedly un-sensational lives, news coming out of the far southwest focused on range wars, Indian raids, political corruption, land frauds, cattle rustling and colorful criminals.
In seemingly endless succession from Billy the Kid to Geronimo to Black Jack Ketchum, the national press treated Easterners to stories of a territory that flaunted the norms of civilized society.
New Mexico’s reputation convinced many Americans that its residents simply were incapable of self-government. Civil War hero, William T. Sherman, remarked that the United States ought to declare war on Mexico a second time and force it to take New Mexico back. (The sentiment was echoed some years later by no less than the wife of the Territorial Governor Lew Wallace.)
Each time New Mexico petitioned Congress for statehood, politicians would rise to fulminate against the “foreign” New Mexicans, questioning their patriotism as well as their ability to perform the duties of statehood.
The Rally toward statehood
It must be said that New Mexicans, themselves, were not uniformly in favor of statehood. Some wealthy merchants and large landowners feared that statehood would bring higher taxes. Some less-than-scrupulous businessmen enjoyed the lack of scrutiny and law-enforcement provided by an impoverished and often corrupt territorial government.
Very generally speaking, the Anglo population favored territorial status, because territorial officials would be Anglos appointed by the federal government. Hispanics and those with more local interests favored statehood, which offered the possibility of electing their own local officials. Supporters of statehood may, in fact, have been a minority through most of the territorial period, but they were a very vocal minority that would not give up.
With pride as well as statehood at stake, New Mexicans looked for opportunities to prove their fitness as citizens.
At the outbreak of the Spanish-American War in 1898, President McKinley asked Governor Miguel Otero to recruit soldiers for the war effort. New Mexicans responded so enthusiastically that the volunteer soldiers became the largest contingent of Theodore Roosevelt’s Rough Riders.
Their bravery helped quell the fears of many Americans that these Spanish-descended people were enemy sympathizers.
Roosevelt, himself, helped the cause when he visited Las Vegas (NM) in 1899 for a Rough Riders reunion. Praising the soldiers and citizens of New Mexico, he promised to use his influence in Washington to promote statehood.
When he became president just two years later, however, he failed to act on the promise. It may simply have been a fight he did not wish to pick, as the Senate Committee on Territories was chaired by a staunch opponent of statehood, Albert Beveridge of Indiana.
Despite Beveridge’s powerful influence, political and public sentiment gradually shifted in favor of New Mexico’s cause. Beveridge probably recognized that statehood was inevitable and in 1905, he signed on to a bill that would admit Oklahoma and the Indian Territories as one state, and New Mexico and Arizona together as another.
Unlike most other statehood measures, the bill required ratification by the population of the four territories. New Mexicans accepted it by an overwhelming margin, not so much out of nostalgia for its former western half, but as the only way to achieve statehood. Arizona with its growing Anglo majority, however, roundly rejected the prospect of re-joining Hispanic New Mexico.
Roosevelt then urged Beveridge to admit the territories separately, but the senator took no action until after Roosevelt’s successor, William H. Taft, visited New Mexico in 1909 and became a proponent of statehood.
During that visit, at a reception in the President’s honor, the prominent New Mexico judge, Albert B. Fall, sarcastically criticized Taft as the latest in a long line of politicians who failed New Mexico’s efforts toward statehood.
The crowd was appalled, but President Taft rose to the occasion stating, “Judge Fall, I have heard your argument and am for your cause in spite of it.”
Taft signed the Enabling Act paving the way for admission of New Mexico (and Arizona as a separate state) on June 20, 1910. After delegates met to draft a plan for state government at a constitutional convention in Santa Fe, Congress approved the statehood legislation.
On January 6, 1912 Taft announced the admission of New Mexico to the Union. The daily New Mexican reported that when the telegraphed news reached Santa Fe, “a large crowd assembled and cheered itself hoarse over the victory for which New Mexico had been fighting for three score years.”