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. Las Cruces history dates back to 1598, when Don Juan de Onate led the first colonists to the area. In 1848 the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo was signed. In 1854, the Gadsden Purchase was ratified in the historic village of Old Mesilla. In 1881, the infamous William H. Bonney, better known as "Billy the Kid" was tried and sentenced for murder here, but later escaped. 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. Today, Las Cruces offers a vast selection of annual events and attractions, great weather-an average of 350 days of sunshine a year-and without a doubt, the people of Las Cruces are the greatest asset. Las Cruces invites everyone to "Come for the History, Stay for the Fun!"
For more information on Las Cruces and New Mexico, visit the links on the right. We have compiled many resources for every area of interest that a newcomer to Las Cruces, or just someone interested in purchasing or building a new home, could want.
Las Cruces rich in history and culture
Curious new residents to Las Cruces and the Mesilla Valley (or even long-time residents) can savor in this region one of the most fascinating and sweeping historical stories of any spot in the country. There is here a vivid chronicle of civilizations, pre-historic to contemporary, that have the flavor of legend and the panache of power and world influence.
Like a riddle or secret code, the culturally diverse and violent early history of Las Cruces is locked within its name. Las Cruces is a Spanish word. It means “the crosses.” Crosses symbolize pathways that intersect, and as emblematic of the Christian faith, a commemoration of death. This legacy of location-the crossing of pathways both geographically and culturally-and violence, the result of conflicts of cultures, has set its stamp indelibly on this community and region.
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 (for a time) Indians - “Pueblos” because of the villages of multi-storied adobe “pueblos” where they lived. The famed explorer Coronado, who passed into the Albuquerque area from Arizona in 1540, 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 chronicler of the exploration wrote: “the natives seem to be good people, more devoted to agriculture than war.”
The Apaches were a different story. Their war parties preyed on peaceful Pueblos as well as Spanish settlers. Don Juan de Onate and his colonizing party of 400 men (130 having families), 83 wagons and nearly 7,000 head of livestock were attacked 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 Onate) 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).
In 1849 the memorialized spot on the east bank of the Rio Grande became the frontier settlement of Las Cruces when a contingent of U.S. soldiers used rawhide rope and stakes to plot out 84 city blocks in what was now the United States.
Each block contained four plots of land, and new settlers were required to draw for their new home site. Across the river, another small community named Mesilla was still a part of Mexico.
This confusion of jurisdictions was an on-going motif in the history of the Rio Grande Valley for centuries, from the Spanish Entrada of Onate, to the Gadsden Purchase of 1854 which handed over a key portion of Mexico’s northern land to the United States.
During the Pueblo Revolt of 1680, the “peaceful” Pueblo Indians under the leadership of a firebrand religious man from Taos Pueblo named Pope (or sometimes Popay) rose up against their Spanish oppressors.
Secretly Pope plotted with more than 70 Indian communities to attack the Spanish on a single night – August 10, 1680. The 2500 Indian warriors killed more than 400 Spanish soldiers and civilians, plus two thirds of the Catholic priests, and drove the surviving Europeans back to El Paso del Norte (Juarez). A few of the formerly “friendly” Pueblo Indians also chose to flee with the Spanish, and their descendents now live in the El Paso area and the Mesilla Valley. They are the Tiguas in Isleta near El Paso and the Tortugas just south of Mesilla. Their Pueblo culture is still celebrated in festivals and religious observances throughout the year.
The Pueblo Indians maintained autonomy over their ancestral lands for twelve years, restoring their religious practices and cultural observances, until the Spanish regained control in 1692. Henceforth, New Mexico remained a Spanish colony where authorities employed a more tolerant approach to their Indian subjects, until Mexican revolutionaries overthrew Spanish rule and established the Republic of Mexico in 1821. But Mexican control was short-lived. Within 25 years, America’s push for western expansion prompted a war with Mexico which ended with the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. This treaty gave most of New Mexico territory to the United States, but not Mesilla and a strip of land running westward along our present day international border.
Right before the onset of the Civil War, there was a great push in the country for a trans-continental railroad. Political factions vied over the appropriate route, some favoring a northern one and others a southern one. The well-located City of the Crosses provided an ideal route west as it always had, for Indian hunters and traders, the Forty Niners, the Butterfield Stagecoach, but not without access to land still belonging to Mexico. Those sponsoring the southern option dispatched James Gadsden, a railroad agent and promoter, to negotiate a land purchase from then Mexican president Antonio Lopes de Santa Anna (of The Alamo fame). Santa Anna, in desperate need of funds, agreed to sell the United States 30,000 square miles of land south of the Gila River for $10 million. Congress finally ratified the purchase, but narrowly. The Gadsden Purchase was signed in Mesilla, in the same courthouse on the Plaza that twenty seven years later would be the scene of Billy the Kid’s trial for murder.
Ah yes Billy the Kid, a.k.a. William Henry Antrim, a.k.a. William H. Bonney, or simply “El Chivato” as the local Hispanics called him. Amazingly, this buck-toothed cowboy and sometime gun-slinger is assuredly the most famous legendary figure of the region. Why he is so, is an imponderable mystery. Maybe Pat Garrett, his one-time friend and later killer, who wrote a book about him, is to blame, or Hollywood. On April 13, 1881, an all Hispanic jury found Billy guilty of the murder of Lincoln County Sheriff William Brady. The ambush/murder was a key incident in the Lincoln County War of 1877-1878 which turned the tiny mountain community of Lincoln (near Ruidoso) into a war zone. He was handed over to then Sheriff Pat Garrett to be transported back to Lincoln, and henceforth, on May 13, to be “hanged by the neck until his body be dead.” On April 28, Billy killed both his guards (perhaps a gun had been left in the outhouse for him by a sympathizer), and fled Lincoln. No one in the town made any attempt to stop him. Midnight July 14, Pat Garrett caught up with Billy at the Maxwell compound in Fort Seldon. In Pete Maxwell’s darkened bedroom, Garrett answers Billy’s inquiry “Quien es” with two fatal shots. Or at least this is what Garrett claimed in his book. Others over the years have not agreed. For decades a man in Hico, Texas, swore he was Billy the Kid. And, just last year, two New Mexico sheriffs and the mayor of Capitan, New Mexico, sought permission to exhume the bodies of Billy’s mother Catherine Antrim buried in Silver City, the person purported to be Billy buried in Fort Seldon, and the remains of Ollie “Brushy Bill” Roberts, the Hico man. This attempt to employ DNA testing to solve the mystery of what happened to Billy and who if not he is buried in his grave, was denied after the state’s office of Medical Investigation said the results may not be conclusive, but according to those who sought exhumation, the battle to “find the truth” is on-going. Certainly the legend of Billy the Kid will never end. The exhumation story appeared on the front page of The New York Times and in some 2,000 newspapers worldwide.
Remnants of this turbulent early history remain throughout Las Cruces, in its historic sites and on-going legends, but the 20th century to the present has seen phenomenal growth and economic development. Three potent enterprises have shaped the fortunes of Las Cruces and the Mesilla Valley into the 21st century: agriculture, education, and the military/air-space industry. Often their development and influence have overlapped.
The Rio Grande valley has sustained agriculture for 3000 years and its hospitable soils have produced an amazing range of crops, from the beans and corn of the Pueblos, to the vast vineyards planted by the Padres, (ostensibly for communion wine), to the current big three of chile, cotton, and pecans. Three of the area’s most popular festivals celebrate this agricultural heritage: the Hatch Chile Festival, the Hillsboro Apple Festival, and the Whole Enchilada Fiesta, all held in September. The whole Enchilada Fiesta is like no other festival in the world. But then for the chile obsessed, enchiladas – red or green – are the holy grail of Mexican cuisine. A “good” Mexican food restaurant is often judged on the quality of its enchiladas. Highlight of the three-day extravaganza is the preparing, cooking and eating of the world’s largest enchilada – 75 gallons of red chile sauce, 175 pounds of grated cheese and 50 pounds of chopped onions weighing in at several tons and nearly ten feet in diameter!
The valley’s suitability for viniculture was proved by the Spanish Padres who produced a red that was lauded far and wide by travelers to the region in the 1700s. Not surprisingly, vineyards are reappearing in the valley; it’s possible to sample vintage varieties and blends at several local wineries: including Blue Teal in Mesilla and La Viña down the valley in La Union. The founder of Blue Teal is a fifth-generation winemaker who finds the unbeatable combination of sunshine and rich soil in the Mesilla Valley perfect for producing Chardonnay and Cabernet, just like in his native France. La Viña, New Mexico’s oldest winery, celebrates the glory of the grape twice a year, with a spring blues and jazz festival (and lots of wine tasting) and the fall La Viña Wine Festival, with food, entertainment, a grape stomp, and lots more tasting.
South of Mesilla is Stahmann Farms, the world’s largest family owned pecan orchard. It an amazing surprise, and solace for the soul, to drive the old highway, Don Juan de Onate’s royal highway, and suddenly find one’s car enveloped in the deep shade of over-arching pecan trees, mile upon mile. In the midst of the orchard is a gift store selling luscious pecan treats and Southwestern-themed gift items.
New Mexico was still a territory when Las Cruces College opened in a two-room adobe in the 1880s. The transformation from this humble beginning is an amazing success story. The school today is a major research facility with a 900-acre campus and nearly 15,000 students. Areas of widely recognized expertise include arid lands and desert ecology studies, bridge inspection and safety training, bilingual special education, artificial intelligence, optics, photonics and micro laser development. Yet even the fledgling Las Cruces College could not escape the onus of frontier violence. The first commencement would have been in 1883, but the college’s one and only senior was fatally shot, an innocent bystander during a holdup.
From the mid 20th century on, New Mexico State University has been a major player in outer space exploration, and its influence is joined by the work at White Sands Missile Range. Clyde Tombaugh, discoverer of the planet Pluto, joined the faculty in 1955 and began a research program which ranks today among the nation’s best. NMSU operates one of the world’s largest university-owned telescopes at a site in the nearby Sacramento Mountains as a consortium of universities including the University of Chicago, Princeton and others. And, under a NASA contract, the Physical Science Laboratory manages the world’s largest scientific balloon research program, launching probes from remote sites such as Antarctica and Greenland.
East of Las Cruces, just over Organ Pass on what was once the sprawling San Augustine/Cox ranch is White Sands Missile Range, one of the army’s most important weapons testing grounds and home to the Patriot Missile System. At the north end is a barren, chilling site open only twice a year: Trinity Site, where the explosion of the first atomic bomb on earth inaugurated the age of atomic warfare.
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.
Talk about sweeping historical scope! Truly this part of the Southwest is an amazing place to live.
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