Only minutes south of Las Cruces lies one of the most historic towns in the Southwest: La Mesilla, N.M. Mesilla did not become part of the United States until the mid-1850s, but its history begins with the close of the Mexican-American War and the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe. Soon after, the sleepy border town would become one of the most important towns in the West, playing a key role in western expansion.
When the United States entered into the Treaty of Guadalupe in 1848, it gained control over Texas, New Mexico and Upper California, setting the Mexican-American border at Rio Grande River. For many people who had lived their entire lives as Mexican citizens, the idea of becoming Americans did not sit well, and many moved across the Rio Grande back into Mexico. They settled on a small hill and founded the town of La Mesilla.
By the mid-1850s, Mesilla had 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. But when the Gadsden Purchase was ratified in 1854, the small town would again fall under the authority of the United States as the U.S. gained control of nearly 30,000 square miles of northern Mexico, southern Arizona and New Mexico. 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. The town was also frequented by Apache Indians, who regularly attacked, stealing livestock and food, and taking captives.
But the Apaches were not the only ones to invade Mesilla. During the 1850s, Confederate troops invaded the small town, taking control and declaring it the capital of the Arizona Territory of the Confederate States of America. Headquarters were set up in what is currently the Fountain Theatre, and although some residents supported the Confederate cause, the town continued to celebrate its Mexican heritage. The broad mix of political views and cultures often resulted in riots and shootouts, quite a contrast to the fiestas, dances and fairs residents were accustomed to.
Mesilla continued to grow and prosper until the early 1880s, when the Santa Fe Railroad selected nearby Las Cruces instead of Mesilla for the location of its newest route. Mesilla landowners resented the railroad’s assumption that local residents would help build the line, prompting Las Cruces businessmen to persuade the railroad giant northward. With attention now focused on Las Cruces, Mesilla’s appeal and importance began to disappear. To this day, its size and population are virtually the same as they were 120 years ago.
But the coming of the railroad brought with it its own set of problems to the area. Workers consumed huge quantities of beef, placing city officials at the mercy of cattle rustlers. Gunfights often broke out in the streets of both Las Cruces and Mesilla, and criminals like Nicolas Provencio and Dutch Hubert were regulars in both towns. Even western outlaw William H. Bonney, a.k.a. Billy the Kid – a frequent visitor of both towns – was tried and convicted for 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 escaping from a Lincoln County jail cell, where he was awaiting execution.
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 more than 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 an array 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 communities in southern New Mexico. Year-round, visitors can experience all the intrigue and independence this historic village has to offer.