THE MESILLA VALLEY
An Oasis in the Desert
A Brief History of an Oasis in the Desert
Near the border of the United States and Mexico exists a place considered by many as one of New Mexico’s best-kept secrets, a fertile river valley where the Rio Grande bends and cuts into a long sloping mesa before heading south to El Paso and Mexico. The Mesilla Valley is thirty miles long and thirty miles wide, running from the Leasburg-Ft. Selden area in the north to the small town of Anthony, N.M. in the south and from the humble Robledo and Doña Ana mountains on the northwest to the spectacularly jagged peaks of the Organ Mountains that stretch like a spine along the valley’s eastern rim.
Sprinkled along the river’s banks and throughout the valley floor exist two dozen communities, from sparsely-populated rural hamlets and colonias to the second largest city in the state, Las Cruces (2007 pop. 90,000), the urban heart of the Mesilla Valley. No other feature has defined the Mesilla Valley more than the river that runs through it, the Rio Grande, a once free-running body of water prone to widespread, unpredictable flooding and changes in course. For almost a century, the Elephant Butte, Caballo, Leasburg, and Mesilla dams have regulated the natural flows and rhythms of the Rio Grande, enabling dependable irrigation and agriculture, as well as commercial and residential development of the valley.
The vast majority of human settlement of the valley is fairly recent, occurring over the past 150 years; however, archeological evidence indicates that for thousands of years small bands of American Indians, mostly Mogollon, their descendents the Mansos and the Tiwas, and later the Apaches, lived in the valley growing crops while subsisting on the hearty flora and fauna surrounding the Rio Grande. For various reasons, settlement of the Mesilla Valley in large numbers did not begin until the later half of the 19th century. While established as part of Mexico’s most northern territory since the late 16th century, the Mesilla Valley largely escaped Spanish settlement and colonization. In short, the Mesilla Valley was merely another stopover, or paraje, along the Camino Real de Tierra Adentro (The Royal Road to the Interior Lands). This trade route extended from Mexico City to Santa Fe from 1598 to 1881.
Spanish conquistador Don Juan De Oñate, for whom a Las Cruces high school is named, was one of the first documented European explorers to see the Mesilla Valley, when his party passed through in 1598. The Robledo Mountains, the rolling range that shoulders the valley at its north end, are named for one of Oñate’s party who died near the site. Only after the independence of Mexico in 1821 did the newly established Mexican government approve the first major land grants in the valley, and opened the Camino Real for the first time to Anglo traders.
This led in 1842 to the valley’s first major settlement of Doña Ana (2007 pop. 1,400), the oldest continuously inhabited community along the Rio Grande in southern New Mexico. The Village of Doña Ana recently finished renovation of its historic Our Lady of Purification Catholic Church, an adobe structure noted as the oldest church in southern New Mexico. The town served as a foothold in the valley for future settlement, which increased when New Mexico was acquired by the United States in 1848 after the war with Mexico, and the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo ceded all the land from Texas and California to the United States.
Las Cruces, founded on the site where crosses were erected for slain travelers, was plotted in 1849. It became the county seat of Doña Ana County, a pivotal railroad stop in 1881 and ultimately the Mesilla Valley’s largest city. Nestled under the towering Organ Mountains, Las Cruces is also the geographic center of the valley, and one of its most picturesque and commanding locations.
The village of Mesilla (2007 pop. 2,200), which once sat on the west side of the Rio Grande in what was then Mexico, was founded in 1849 by several groups of Mexicans who did not wish to be part of the United States after the Mexican-War. A regular stop on the Butterfield Overland Trail, Mesilla became part of the United States when an American flag was raised over its plaza in 1854 upon the ratification of the Gadsden Purchase. In the first years of the Civil War, the village was the capital of the Confederate Territory of Arizona.
Other valley communities, like La Mesa, La Union, Chamberino, Leasburg, and Picacho began popping up at the same time as Mesilla and Las Cruces. Promises of mineral wealth in the Organ Mountains drew thousands to the Mesilla Valley, and by the 1870s the scrappy town of Organ was one of the valley’s fastest growing areas; however, soon after the turn of the century, the mines and the town were in decline. Several post-Civil War-era army forts, including Ft. Selden at the base of the Jornada del Muerto near Leasburg Dam, were built to secure the area from Indian attacks and bandit raids. Now a New Mexico State Monument, the fort’s crumbling adobe walls still evokes the Wild West past.
Efforts to control the Rio Grande, which repeatedly flooded the valley’s communities, began in the late 19th century, culminating in 1916 with the completion of the Elephant Butte Dam. Although the dam lies to the north, it forever affected the future of the Mesilla Valley, opening hundreds of thousands of acres to agricultural and urban development, as well as providing water in times of drought from one of the largest man-made reservoirs in the country.
An oasis in the desert, the Mesilla Valley contains much of the geographic diversity that defines the rest of New Mexico; rolling desert hills dotted with mesquite, yuccas, and creosote; lush valley floors teeming with acequia-fed fields and orchards, rocky mountain peaks stretching 9,000 feet into the air, myriad of domestic and wild animals, as well as more pecan trees per square mile than almost anywhere else on earth.
The Mesilla Valley also contains human stories that are, as area historian Mary Taylor said of her beloved Mesilla in her book, “As Wild as the West Ever Was.” Its history is of intrepid pioneers and blindly ambitious capitalists, of famous lawmen and infamous outlaws, of Civil War battles and struggles for statehood, of railroads and mining towns, of first generation immigrants searching for prosperity in various trades and businesses or for security in orchards, vineyards, and fields. Every story of the Old West is represented in the Mesilla Valley.
So too are stories of modernization, education, and economic progress. By the turn of the 20th century, the New Mexico College of Agricultural and Mechanic Arts, now New Mexico State University, was located three miles south of Las Cruces, earning the valley a reputation for agricultural and engineering studies. Home to the first radio station in New Mexico, the university is one of the oldest and most successful land grant colleges in the country, and serves more than 16,000 students from around the world.
At the turn of the 21st century more than 175,000 people of various cultures call the Mesilla Valley home. With a rich history to tell, the photographs in this book offer a glimpse, albeit a satisfying and fascinating one, into the interaction of multiple cultures, from Spanish and Mexican to Anglo and American Indian, and into the people and places that have defined the Mesilla Valley.
--Christopher Schurtz, Department of History
New Mexico State University, August 2007