Celebrating 100 years of New Mexico statehood


New Mexico is celebrating its centennial birthday, but its more than six decade journey to statehood was long and often a bit treacherous.

Courtesy of Palace of the Governors Photo Archives, Negative No. 23027: United States President William Howard Taft finally signed New Mexico into statehood at 1:36 p.m. on Jan. 6, 1912.

Richard Melzer, Ph.D., a University of New Mexico-Valencia Campus professor, New Mexico historian and author, presented a history of New Mexico’s pursuit to become a state at the annual meeting of the Valencia County Historical Society held at the Los Lunas Museum of Heritage and Arts.

In its 62-year-pursuit, from 1850 to 1912, New Mexico’s application for statehood was rejected or ignored more than 50 times, Melzer said.

“There were only three things you needed to become a state. First, a territory needed a population of more than 60,000,” Melzer said. “We had more than 60,000 as early as 1850.

“The second thing needed was a constitution, and the very first time we applied for statehood in 1850, we wrote a constitution,” he said.

New Mexico wrote four constitutions, but the only one that was accepted was, of course, the last one, written in 1910.

“The last requirement was huge: Congress, including the House of Representatives and the Senate, had to approve statehood,” Melzer said.

State leaders even thought of changing the territory’s name, the local historian said, because some Easterners confused New Mexico with Mexico. Some New Mexican leaders came up with patriotic names such as Jefferson, while others thought of changing the name to Acoma. Melzer explained Acoma was considered because Congress calls roll in alphabetical order. Congress had made New Mexico be last to become a state, but as Acoma it would always be the first to be called.

(After New Mexico became a state, it was the only state in the nation to have “USA” on its license plate because of this confusion with Mexico.)

Why did it take so long for New Mexico to become a state? Melzer pointed to five main reasons: We were considered to be a “violent wasteland,” religion, racism, national politics and internal politics.

When New Mexico first applied for statehood, its status among decision makers back East and in other parts of the country was not very desirable. Melzer said the territory was known as a “violent wasteland.”

“Every time Easterners read about New Mexico in newspapers, magazines or dime novels, they heard about this violent place,” he said. “Half of the population seemed to be Billy the Kid or his relatives and the other half seemed to be Geronimo and his relatives. Half the population was thought to be Indian warriors, while the other half was thought to be gunslingers.”

Melzer said the powers-that-be also didn’t identify anything of great value in New Mexico. Although there was plenty of gold, silver and coal, New Mexico didn’t have the means to develop mining and other industrial enterprises as they did in the East and elsewhere in the country.

The vast majority of people living in the New Mexico territory while its leaders pursued statehood were Catholic.

Melzer said that while this shouldn’t have been a problem based on our guaranteed freedom of religion, many Easterners couldn’t understand how there might be a state in the Union where the majority of people weren’t Protestant like them.

“This is an extended prejudice because they weren’t just prejudiced against Catholics in New Mexico, but against Catholic immigrants who were coming by the millions from countries like Ireland and Italy,” Melzer said. “Their fear was that if we ultimately became a state, who would ultimately rule New Mexico? The archbishop? The Pope?”

Melzer said many Anglo Protestants living back East were often racist, creating a third reason why it took so long for New Mexico’s statehood to be accomplished.

“There were many dimensions of this issue, including language,” Melzer said. “How could there be a state where the majority of people didn’t speak English? Everything official had to be translated into Spanish. They said New Mexico might as well be Mexico.”

There was also fear, or wonder, about New Mexico’s allegiance. Melzer said that many Easterners wondered what would happen if the United States went to war with Spain.

Would New Mexicans be loyal to Spain? After all, we had been a part of Spain for more than two centuries.

“This was all absurd, of course,” Melzer said. “New Mexicans were very loyal to the United States. But back then, this was a huge question.”

In the many years that New Mexico was applying for statehood, Melzer said one national issue after another, from slavery to the tariff, would get in the way. As a result, New Mexico was either simply ignored, or we were often caught in the middle of the issue one way or another.

One of the most famous stories happened in 1876 when our national delegate, Steven Elkins, thought he had lined up enough votes for New Mexico statehood in both the House of Representatives and the Senate.

Melzer said Elkins had done such a good job of getting the needed votes that he was celebrating in the lobby while the issue of the already completed Civil War was being discussed on the House floor.

“If Elkins would have been paying attention, he would have heard a Northerner, Julias Ceaser Burrows, giving a speech blaming the South for causing the Civil War, the misery of the Civil War, and the problems of reconstruction after the war.”

After he finished his speech, Northerners lined up to shake Burrows’ hand, to the dismay of Southern congressmen. It was at that moment that Elkins walked in, and unwittingly shook Burrows’ hand.

As soon as the Southern congressmen saw what Elkins had done, they assumed that New Mexico would side with the North against the South if New Mexico became a state.

Southern congressmen, along with their counterparts in the Senate, immediately withdrew their support for New Mexico statehood. A national issue, the Civil War, had once more prevented New Mexico from becoming a state.

Elkins ultimately left New Mexico and moved to West Virginia, where he helped found Elkins, W.V., and became a U.S. senator. As a senator, Melzer said, he did help us become a state, but never returned to live in New Mexico.

Internal politics in New Mexico didn’t help our chances in becoming a state either, Melzer said.

“There was a lot of corruption,” he said. “It was controlled by an elite group of businessmen and politicians called the Santa Fe Ring.

“The rest of the country, especially the decision makers in Congress, heard about the Santa Fe Ring and concluded that the territory must not be ‘worthy’ or ‘qualified’ to become a state.”

Although much of the country was equally corrupt, Melzer said that New Mexico, as a newcomer, had to meet higher standards than everyone else.

After the turn of the century, New Mexico’s image as a violent place improved with the death of Billy the Kid, and the fact that lawmen were dealing with outlaws better and more efficiently.

New Mexico established a territorial prison and were “actually executing guilty criminals, rather than relying on vigilantes to take the law into their own hands with lynchings.”

When Geronimo and his Apache band surrendered in 1886, and the Indian Wars had ended, Easterners also looked at New Mexico as a less violent potential state.

The image of New Mexico also changed when the railroad was established in 1880. The territory was able to bring in heavy equipment to mine and develop its resources. It was getting known for its silver, gold and especially coal.

“We were fortunate because we were the bridge to California,” Melzer said. “When anyone of any importance came through on their way to California, we’d invite them off the train and we’d show them around, trying to impress them with our resources and sincere desire to become a state.”

The local historian said when President Teddy Roosevelt came through, a big reception was held in Albuquerque before he went on to Santa Fe.

At one event in Albuquerque, little girls dressed up as different states. They paraded in front of Roosevelt, and the last little girl, who represented New Mexico, dressed up in rags and begged the president to help us become a state.

Congress also began to notice a change in the population after the turn of the century, Melzer said. More Anglo Protestants were settling in the Eastern Plains as homesteaders.

“The reason they were moving here was because there was an inordinate amount of rain during that first decade of the new century,” Melzer said. “They thought that was going to be the weather from now on.

“The feeling was that even though the majority of people were Catholics, the homesteaders were mostly Protestants, and if that was the trend there may be, in the future, more of a balance between the two religions.”

The test of loyalty to the United States came in 1898 in the Spanish-American War. Melzer said it was an opportunity for New Mexicans to prove their loyalty to the United States. Hundreds rushed to Santa Fe to volunteer to fight in the war.

“More than 300 served in the most famous fighting unit in the Spanish-American War, the Rough Riders,” Melzer said. “There were about 1,000 Rough Riders, and about a third of them were from right here in New Mexico.”

The Rough Riders arrived in Florida, but because the waiting ships couldn’t carry all the supplies, horses and men, the troops were told that at least one of the four companies from New Mexico had to be left behind.

One of the companies was led by Capt. Maximiliano Luna from Los Lunas, the highest ranking Hispanic in the Spanish-American War.

“So it came down to his unit and another unit led by Capt. George Curry — Curry County was later named after him,” Melzer said. “It was between those two, so they figured the fairest thing to do was to flip a coin. This was a really important moment in New Mexico history. So they flipped a coin, it hit the dirt and Luna won.”

Melzer said Luna and his men rushed onto the ship before they could risk being left behind. Luna and the rest of the Rough Riders, including the most famous of them all, Teddy Roosevelt, fought in all the major battles in Cuba, including at San Juan Hill.

“They proved their loyalty, and they came back as heroes,” he said. “Unfortunately, Luna then went to the Philippines, where he drowned while crossing a flooded river.”

As for the hurdles of national politics getting in the way of New Mexico statehood, Melzer said that it just so happened that when Congress voted, there wasn’t a national issue that got in the way.

“It was just luck,” he said.

Political corruption within New Mexico had also declined. By this time, many leaders of the Santa Fe Ring either had retired, had passed away or had moved on, including Elkins. The group of powerful businessmen and politicians simply didn’t have as much influence as they had had before.

After all five obstacles — our reputation, religion, racism, national and internal politics — were reduced, it was finally the perfect time for New Mexico to become a state.

In June 1910, Congress passed the Enabling Act, which enabled New Mexico to write a constitution and proceed through the last stages of the process.

In the fall of 1910, New Mexico convened a Constitutional Convention in Santa Fe, where 100 delegates from across the territory met to draw up its fourth and final constitution.

The convention, Melzer said, was “absolutely dominated by one man — Soloman Luna of Los Lunas, a powerful Republican and the uncle of war hero Maximiliano Luna.

“He was the power behind everything. It was said that at the convention, he only had to wink for his fellow Republicans to do exactly as he instructed,” Melzer said. “He never made a speech or debated a single issue on the convention floor. He just had tremendous power. He was responsible for making sure that Hispanic rights like education and religious freedom were built into the constitution and guaranteed.”

Less than two years later — and after 62 years of trying — President William Howard Taft finally signed New Mexico into statehood. The date was Jan. 6, 1912. The time was 1:36 p.m.

“Well, it’s over,” Taft said at the time of the signing. “I wish you good health.”

(Richard Melzer’s new book, “New Mexico: Celebrating the Land of Enchantment,” Filled with images that document the past hundred years, “New Mexico” a photographic insight of the history of the Land of Enchantment, is available at the Harvey House Museum in Belen, Barnes and Noble at Coronado Mall, Bookworks on Rio Grande Blvd., and, of all places, Cosco in Albuquerque.)


-- Email the author at cgarcia@news-bulletin.com.