A Historical Perspective
For thousands of years, the Mesilla Valley was inhabited by ancient Native Americans like the Mogollon. The warm climate was ideal for survival and the river provided a steady supply of food and water. But over time, the Mogollons disappeared, leaving only traces of their existence etched in rocks and canyon walls. Their culture was replaced by a new generation of New Mexicans lead by Don Juan de Oñate.
In 1598, working on behalf of the King of Spain, Oñate and his men made their way up from Mexico through the Great Pass of the North (modern day El Paso) and through the Mesilla Valley in route to what was soon to become Santa Fe. Their route became known as the Camino Real and it quickly became the preferred way to travel between Mexico and Santa Fe. Oñate’s expedition marked the first major European colonization of North America, and the Camino Real helped establish southern New Mexico.
By the mid-19th century, southern New Mexico was becoming a popular stop for travelers on their way to the west coast and Mexico. At the end of the Mexican American War in 1848, the United States took control of southern New Mexico. A rush of settlers looking to claim a portion of the undeeded land poured into the new territory forcing local leaders to call upon the U.S. Army for assistance. The Army sent Lt. Delos Bennett Sackett and a team of men to help protect and organize the emerging communities. Sackett and his men used rawhide rope and stakes to plot out 84 city blocks. Each block contained four plots of land and residents were required to draw for their new home site; Las Cruces was on its way.
As the town grew, so did the need for a name. No one knows exactly how Las Cruces was selected, but most historians conclude it was derived from the Spanish translation for “the crosses,” after the many crosses erected in memory of those killed during Apache raids.
While newly created Las Cruces brought order to the area, it did little to ease the anti-U. S. feelings harbored by some residents. In 1850, more than 60 families 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. But in 1854, the United States purchased a 30,000 square-mile strip of land along the U.S./Mexican border known as the Gadsden Purchase. Mesilla and its residents were again U.S. citizens.
Nevertheless, as part of the United States, both Las Cruces and Mesilla would enjoy great prosperity. Mesilla was the largest town and trade center between San Antonio and San Diego, and was a major stop for the Butterfield Stagecoach. Mesilla’s popularity also grew when western outlaw Billy the Kid was convicted of murder in the town’s courtroom.
But when the Santa Fe Railroad approached Mesilla about running their new railway through the border town, local officials took too long to respond, allowing Las Cruces to step in and convince the railroad giant to build in their town instead. In April 1881, the first train arrived in Las Cruces, and by 1900, the town population had tripled to nearly 3,000 residents. Mesilla would never be the same. What was once a popular western town, was now passed over for its now larger neighbor, Las Cruces. Today, Mesilla’s size and population are much the same as they were 150 years ago.
In 1890, the New Mexico College of Agriculture & Mechanic Arts opened its doors, and in 1893, graduated its first class, five students.
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.
By the 1920s, Las Cruces’ population was close to 4,000 residents, and by 1940, it was almost 9,000. But the United States’ involvement in World War II dramatically affected life in Las Cruces. Over 2,000 New Mexicans died in the war, many of them on the Bataan Death March and many of them were from southern New Mexico.
Another consequence of the war was a shortage of farm labor, leading to the establishment of the Emergency Farm Labor Program which brought more than 900 German and Italian POWs to New Mexico to help farmers battle the labor shortage.
Ultimately, Las Cruces benefited from the war. 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.
Today, both New Mexico State University (formerly) New Mexico College of Agriculture & Mechanic Arts) and White Sands Testing Facilities are key components of southern New Mexico’s economy. Both facilities have helped make Las Cruces the city it is today, and will hopefully continue to be a source of security and stability for the area’s future