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gaden de mesquite - Las Cruces Founding
A History of the Las Cruces Area


Las Cruces is located in the verdant Mesilla Valley in south-central New Mexico, a growing community with a bright future. Las Cruces is the fastest growing city in New Mexico and the 11th fastest growing in the nation. The Mesilla Valley has been "home" to people for at least 4,000 years, and that's no surprise to anyone who has seen Las Cruces. The Rio Grande flows through the middle of the valley with the majestic Organ Mountains rising to the east. The surrounding agricultural land yields pecans, onions, cotton and other produce, but it is renowned for growing the best-tasting green chile in the world.

New residents to Las Cruces and the Mesilla Valley (or even long-time residents) can savor in this region's fascinating and sweeping historical story. It is one that chronicles civilizations, from pre-historic to contemporary.


Millions of years before the dinosaurs, Las Cruces teemed with reptiles and amphibians that have left us with  "the world's best-fossilized footprints from the Permian Period."

Our first human inhabitants of the area were the ancient Native Americans - The Mogollon. Over time, the Mogollon disappeared, leaving only traces of their existence etched in rocks and canyon walls. Situated on the banks of the Rio Grande, or "Rio Bravo", the Mesilla Valley was the only natural pathway through a landscape of mountains and desert for the early hunter gatherers who crossed this land 20,000 years ago.

The first European explorers and colonizers seeking fortune and souls to convert to the Catholic faith came this way in the 1500s, and encountered the descendents of the indigenous population, some peaceful and helpful, others disposed to war and thievery. The Spanish called the peaceful  Indians - "Pueblos" because of the villages of multi-storied adobe "pueblos" where they lived. The famed explorer Coronado, received assistance and friendship from Tigua Pueblos on the Rio Grande and made one of their long-vanished villages his headquarters for a year and a half.

A new generation of New Mexicans lead by Don Juan de Oñate  sometimes called  "The Father of New Mexico." Oñate came from Mexico through the Great Pass of the North (modern day El Paso) on the Camino Real (Royal through the Mesilla Valley in route to what was soon to become Santa Fe. Don Juan de Oñate and his colonizing party of 400 men (130 having families), 83 wagons and nearly 7,000 head of livestock were attacked by Apache warriors. Their war parties preyed on peaceful Pueblos as well as Spanish settlers.as they struggled up the Rio Grande and across the Jornado del Muerto, or Journey of Death, north of Las Cruces in 1598. And, an Apache ambush in the Mesilla Valley in 1830 was to ultimately provide the name for New Mexico's second largest city.

 

Travelers from Taos were killed here along the El Camino Real (the royal road established by Oñate) and the grieving survivors marked the graves with crosses. At least this is the story accepted my most historians. Whether it was the result of this single massacre or other fatal ambushes marked with a simple cross, henceforth the region was known as La Placita de Las Cruces (the Place of the Crosses).

 Oñate's expedition marked the first major European colonization of North America, and the Camino Real helped establish southern New Mexico.

Las Cruces and Southern New Mexico soon became a stop for travel both west to the coast and south to Mexico. At the end of the Mexican American War in 1848, the United States took control of southern New Mexico. Las Cruces was developed and designed by Army Lt. Delos Bennett Sackett. He used rawhide rope and stakes to plot out 84 city blocks. Las Cruces was on its way. No one knows exactly how  the name Las Cruces originated, but most historians conclude it was derived from the Spanish translation for "the crosses," after the many Mexicans that died on the Camino Real, or after the many crosses erected in memory of those killed during Apache raids, but some people feel that the name is simply the Spanish translation for "crossing" or "crossroads."

A pause in the history of Las Cruces and its growth occurred in 1850 when more than 60 families with allegiance to Mexico packed up and moved across the Rio Grande to Mesilla, a newly created village on the Mexican side of the river.  The small community quickly became a haven for families and individuals who preferred living their lives under Mexican rule rather than U.S.

 La Mesilla's history changed significantly with the close of the Mexican American War, with the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe in 1848, followed by the Gadsden Purchase in 1854 . This gave the United States control over Texas, New Mexico, and Upper California, setting the Mexican-American border at Rio Grande River, and the residents of Mesilla became US citizens again.

The sleepy border town now established itself as an instrumental town in the transportation of passengers and goods around the Southwest. The "Mexican Town" prospered as it became one of the only places travelers could stop rest and get supplies, no matter which direction they were heading. By the mid-1800s, Mesilla's population had reached 3,000, making it the largest town and trade center between San Antonio and San Diego, and an important stop for both the Butterfield Stage Line and the San Antonio-San Diego Mail Lines.  Around the plaza, fine hotels and restaurants were built to accommodate the influx of travelers and new residents. Drove muleteers and miners traveling between El Paso, Santa Fe, and mining companies in the Gila and San Andres Mountains, regularly purchased supplies in Mesilla, prompting wholesalers from as far away as San Antonio and St. Louis to advertise in Mesilla newspapers.


A sad period of criminal activities began to influence the history of Southern New Mexico.  Mesilla and Las Cruces were also frequented by Apache Indians, who regularly attacked, stealing livestock, food and taking captives, and there was also spill over from end of the Lincoln County Cattle War. Gunfights often broke out in the streets of Mesilla and Las Cruces, and Billy The Kidoutlaws were regulars in both towns including          William H. Bonney, aka   who was a frequent visitor of both towns, was tried and convicted for the murder in a Mesilla courtroom. It was said that during sentencing the judge told Billy he would hang until he was "dead, dead, dead," to which Billy replied, "well you can go to hell, hell hell." Billy was later shot and killed by Lincoln County Sheriff Pat Garrett after he escaped from a Lincoln County jail cell where he was awaiting execution. The building in Mesilla that housed the jail and courtroom are still standing and the iron jail cell that held him is on display across the street in the Gadsden Museum. Another historical landmark still standing in Mesilla is the old Butterfield Stage Depot. Today it is home to La Posta, a restaurant with a worldwide reputation for its Mexican food. The criminal problems for the area came to a halt as the Army and the Railroad began to dominate the area.  

Mesilla continued to grow and prosper until the early 1880s when the Santa Fe Railroad selected Las Cruces instead of Mesilla for the location of their newest route.  With attention now focused on Las Cruces, Mesilla's appeal and importance began to disappear. To this day, Mesilla's size and population are virtually the same as they were 120 years ago.

 In April 1881, the first train arrived in Las Cruces, and by 1900, the town population had tripled to nearly 3,000 residents. In 1907, Las Cruces was officially incorporated as a town, and in 1912, New Mexico was awarded statehood, becoming the country's 47th state. By this time, the town had its first water system, electric power, an ice factory, a cold storage factory, a cannery and steam laundry. Las Cruces also had a superintendent of schools and 13 teachers. Land sold for $25 to $50 an acre.  As a sign of the importance of Las Cruces, in 1887 Hiram Hadley wanted to establish a college equal to any in the East. In 1890 the New Mexico College of Agriculture & Mechanic Arts opened its doors. The 3,000 residents in 1900 grew to 4000  in 1920, and by 1940, it was almost 9,000. 

Over 2,000 New Mexicans died in WWII, many of them from Southern New Mexico on the Bataan Death March. Ultimately, Las Cruces benefited from the war. The Emergency Farm Labor Program brought more than 900 German and Italian POWs to New Mexico to help farmers.  The Tularosa Basin, east of Las Cruces, became one of the army's most important weapons testing grounds, and the Trinity Site, located at the basin's north end, was the site of the first atomic bomb exploded on earth. By 1945, the Army Corps of Engineers declared White Sands Proving Ground an area of military necessity. 

There is a riddle indeed in this. White Sands Missile Range not only is the birthplace of the atomic age with its power of ultimate cataclysm, but also may hold an answer to the appearance of man on this continent. In a remote site on the range is Rough Canyon Cave where excavations by world-renowned archaeologist "Scotty" MacNeish in the late 1990s revealed evidence of possible human use 36,000 to 50,000 years ago. If this discovery is substantiated, it will prove the presence of man in the New World far earlier than previously believed.

 Today, both New Mexico State University (formally New Mexico College of Agriculture & Mechanic Arts) and White Sands Testing Facilities are key components of southern New Mexico's economy. 

For a look at modern Las Cruces use the Relocation Navigation button and then  go the Economy section to see the status of the economic development of the area.

A note about "OLD MESILLA":  Today, visitors won't find wild gunfights or riots on Mesilla's streets, rather they can visit a new generation of Mesilla residents. Where a stagecoach depot, saloon, courthouse and hotel once stood, you now find restaurants, art galleries, bookstores, and shops. On some weekends, the plaza plays host to festivals and events like Cinco de Mayo, Diez y Seis de Septiembre and Dia de los Muertos, all celebrating the town's heritage and colorful past. During the holiday season, the plaza is aglow with luminarias and filled with the sounds of carolers. Visitors can also see the San Albino Church, built from adobe over 100 years ago, or the Gadsden Museum, a local landmark recounting the area's rich history. And just down the street, shoppers can find the latest addition to Mesilla, the Mercado de Mesilla, featuring a range of merchants, vendors and restaurants.

Efforts to preserve the town's rich history, culture, and architecture have made Mesilla one of the best known and most visited historic community in southern New Mexico.  Year-round, you can experience all the intrigue and independence this historic village has to offer.


Las Cruces History Information Resource

As a wonderful additional resource The Branigan Cultural Center presents this online version of their Permanent Exhibit: Las Cruces: Crossroads of History exhibit.

A comprehensive look at the history of Las Cruces and the Mesilla Valley spanning the past 400 years. 

  • Photographs
  • Documents
  • Artifacts and Narrative

To learn the story of how Las Cruces crossroads developed from a dusty collection of adobe settlements to the vibrant city of today, CLICK HERE

 




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Evelyn Bruder
Evelyn Bruder Las Cruces Real Estate Dream Team
evelyn@homeslascruces.com
(575) 650-7224

141 Roadrunner Parkway Suite 141
Las Cruces, NM 88011

Steinborn & Associates Real Estate (575) 522-3698

 
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