Thursday, April 30, 2020

Doña Ana, Las Cruces & Mesilla

The Great Flood begat Doña Ana, whose overcrowding begat Las Cruces, whose change of citizenship begat Mesilla. The railroad triggered the growth of Las Cruces and put an end to any thoughts of Doña Ana’s or Mesilla’s expansion. International territorial squabbles both enlivened and exacerbated the situation.

But before all that the Mesilla Valley of southern New Mexico was inhabited by the Manso Indians along with the nearby Mescalero Apache dropping in periodically for an economic raid or two.
In 1598 Juan de Oñate claimed all the land north of the Rio Grande for New Spain and created what became known as El Camino Real de Tierra Adentro (Royal Road of the Interior Lands) – beginning in these southern NM lowlands, and continuing north through Santa Fe to San Juan Pueblo near Espanola.

For almost 250 years, travelers between Mexico City and Santa Fe passed through the valley along El Camino – yet other than for small isolated groups the area was never formally seZled. In 1821 Mexico took over sovereignty of the entire NM territory from the Spanish – while at the same time Texas asserted its own claim on this part of southern New Mexico. But it was not until 1843 that the valley's first permanent settlement was established – the Doña Ana Bend Colony (El Ancón del Doña Ana,).

The village’s founding was prompted by the great Rio Grande flood of 1829 – which destroyed croplands from Tomé south along the floodplain to the Mexican state of Chihuahua, displacing those working the land and shifting the river’s course for thirty miles below El Paso del Norte.

In 1839, 116 of these dislodged people petitioned the Mexican government for the rights to a stretch of unoccupied land fifty miles north of the flood area to establish what became Doña Ana Bend Colony. The north end of the proposed grant was the site of a colonial-era paraje (rest stop) on El Camino Real reported
to  have been the ranch of Doña Ana María de Córdoba – about whom not much more seems to be known.

1848 the Mexican War ended with the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo – but tensions between the Governments of Mexico and the United States continued to simmer over the next six years, with each country claiming portions of the Mesilla Valley as theirs. Mexico demanded compensation for Native American raids in the region saying the Treaty called for the U.S. to guard against such incursions. The American government refused to pay, saying that while it had agreed to protect the Mexicans, it had not commiyed to any recompensing.

Almost immediately a rush of settlers looking to claim portions of the un-deeded land poured into the new territory, forcing Doña Ana Bend Colony’s Alcalde (Prefect) Don Pablo Melendres to call upon the U.S. military to bring order – and to lay out a new town a few miles to the south.

The Army sent Lt. Delos Bennett Sackett who – with his men, and using rawhide ropes and stakes – laid out residential lots, a plaza and a church covering eighty- four city blocks, each with four plots of land. 120 residents then drew lots for their new home sites and immediately began digging up mud from the streets from to create adobe blocks for their houses – until Judge Richard Campbell ordered them to stop, and to refill the resulting holes.

Not everyone was that enthusiastic however. Sixty Mexican families, unhappy with now being in American Territory, packed up their belongings and moved west of the Rio Grande into what was then still part of their homeland, where they settled on a mesita or hill, and formed the village of Mesilla ("Little Tableland”).

The tensions between the two countries inhibited efforts to find a southern route for the new transcontinental railroad. Then in 1853, Mexican officials evicted Americans from their property in the Mesilla Valley. The U.S. Government did not react – but Governor William Lane of New Mexico countered by declaring the entire Mesilla Valley part of the U.S. territory. Mexican President Antonio de Santa Anna responded by sending troops to the area.

President Franklin Pierce then ordered James Gadsden, the new U.S. Minister to Mexico, to negotiate a solution. Santa Anna needed money to fund an army to put down ongoing rebellions. 

The U.S. needed land. The two men worked out an agreement under which the U.S. paid $15 million for 45,000 square miles south of the New Mexico territory. The treaty was signed June 8, 1854. Three decades later the railroads were expanding through the southwest and approached the now American village of Mesilla for a right of way. Fearing a change to their way of life, the town’s citizens rejected it.

So the railroads went northeast to Las Cruces bringing that town more prosperity. By 1900 the population tripled to nearly 3,000 residents and it was formally incorporated in 1907. Most historians agree that the town’s name – El Pueblo del Jardin de Las Cruces (the City of the Garden of Crosses) – came from the abundance of these death markers left along the Camino in memory of either: (1) a massacred party made up of a bishop, a priest, a Mexican Army colonel, a captain, four trappers and four choir boys; (2) a group of forty travelers from Taos, NM; (3) lots of victims of Apache raids; (4) all of the above; (5) something else entirely.

Today Las Cruces is New Mexico’s second largest city, the county seat, and home to New Mexico State University.

Doña Ana has remained a small agricultural town (2010 population of 1,211) while retaining much of its original architecture in an area now designated an Historic District.

Mesilla (2,196 in the 2010 census) likewise preserved its historic acequias and farming traditions allowing it to quietly return to its agricultural roots – while evolving into a tourist site with historical attractions, boutiques, galleries and restaurants. 


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