New Mexico Art Tells its History

History: People, Places, and Politics

A Multicultural Society

Throughout its long history, New Mexico has meant many things to many people. The Pueblos, the Navajos, the Apaches, and the Spanish knew it as a pristine wilderness where the land was filled with mystery, unseen forces, and hidden terrors, but also, with rugged beauty which stirred the imagination. Mementos of New Mexico’s past, whether a small horseshoe nail or shard of Indian pottery, an imposing mission ruin or a crumbling cavalry fort, are plentiful – so much so that one is seldom far from some tangible reminder that history here is not remote and dead, but very close, and continue to affects us. Each group who came here aspired to preserve their unique culture.

Hispanic folk art and drama, revived and revitalized during the 1920s, continues to thrive in today’s New Mexico. Patrocinio Barela, whose santos first caught the public eye during the 1930s, created a great many wood sculptures before his death in Taos in 1964, and in the process, he helped to link the past with the present. More recently, George Lopez, in establishing himself as one of the area’s finest santeros, carried on the tradition of the Lopez family of woodcarvers in Cordova. After experiencing a revival in recent decades, Hispanic folk plays have also perpetuated New Mexico’s Hispanic heritage. At Christmas many communities stage the folk drama Las Posadas, which tells the story of Mary and Joseph seeking shelter for the birth of Jesus. Other dramas performed include Los Pastores, the story of the shepherds’ search for the infant Jesus, and Los moros y los cristianos, a recounting of the Christian victory over the Muslim Moors in Spain.

Hurd - Shamrock RanchNew Mexico during the modern period has continued to hold a special attraction for artists cross-culturally in a variety of fields. Peter Hurd emerged as one of New Mexico’s best-known modern painters. A native of Roswell, Hurd lived and worked at his ranch at San Patricio, where he painted the land and people of southern New Mexico. Pablita Velarde of Santa Clara Pueblo became famous for her paintings and murals in public buildings, while her daughter, Helen Hardin, painted in detail aspects of Pueblo life. R. C. Gorman, who was born on the Navajo reservation, likewise drew his inspiration to take up painting from his father, Carl, a World War II Navajo Code Talker.

In recent decades, many New Mexicans have campaigned vigorously to promote a variety of causes that they believe to be fundamental for the preservation of their state’s distinctive character and environment. Beginning in the 1920s, residents of Santa Fe embarked on a program to revive the use of Pueblo architecture and the old territorial building style, a movement insuring that the flavor of the past, at least in that city, would not be buried under a tasteless modernity. Throughout the northern part of the state, a clandestine group of artists, known popularly as the “Billboard Vigilantes,” periodically conducted nighttime excursions to remove highway advertising signs that sullied the landscape. In the late 1960s, when plans were announced to build a pulp mill on the Rio Grande, aroused citizens banded together in newly formed conservation organizations to protect the area’s principal water-course from pollution. After stopping construction of the proposed mill, they went on to challenge land promoters who were subdividing huge tracts of desert into “jackrabbit estates” to be sold to gullible easterners. They took on a new wave of strip miners and began working in the Four Corners to correct the hazards associated with huge power plants whose tracks spewed tons of fly ash into the clouds.

New Mexico’s Native population has entered upon a new period of activity in which, more and more, they are expanding outward and participating in city, state, and national affairs. Tribal members campaign for position on local school boards, run for legislative offices, and win appointments in state government. The Jicarilla Apaches on their capacious northern reservation and the Mescalero Apaches on their well-timbered lands in the south have demonstrated resourcefulness and initiative in developing business enterprises and sponsoring programs that promote economic self-sufficiency and foster tribal unity. The largest Indian group in America, the Navajo, occupying a far-flung reservation from New Mexico across northern Arizona and into Utah, continue to show amazing adaptability to changing conditions while maintaining, perhaps to a greater degree than any southwestern tribe, their native language and customs. The Navajo Community College, for example, helps prepare young people for life in today’s world, but at the same time it places strong emphasis on their distinct cultural heritage.

What now seems clear to all thoughtful New Mexicans is that they must continue to explore ways to preserve the old alongside the new. As they face diminishing natural resources, they also must seek to perpetuate a reverence for the land and its waters that was characteristic of the best among both Spanish and English-speaking pioneers, and among the original inhabitants.

General Population Statistics

The general population of New Mexico has increased 5000% since 1812:

Year Population
1812 40,000
1850 61,547
1900 195,310
1950   681,187
2000 1,819,046
2009   2,009,671

New Mexico; Revised Edition
Calvin & Susan Roberts
University of New Mexico Press, Albuquerque, 2006

New Mexico's Geography

Basic statistics

New Mexico is bordered by:

  • Colorado on the north,
  • on the south by Texas and Mexico,
  • by Oklahoma and Texas on the east, and
  • on the west by Arizona.

New Mexico covers 121,598 square miles, making it the 5th largest state of the 50 states.

New Mexico’s land area is 121,365 square miles.

New Mexico’s water area is 234 square miles.

According to the 2009 census New Mexico’s population is 2,000,671.

The highest point in New Mexico is Wheeler Peak at 13,161 feet above sea level. Wheeler Peak is located in the Sangre de Cristo mountain range, which is the southern most point of the Great Rocky Mountain range out of Colorado.

The lowest point in New Mexico is 2,842 feet above sea level at the Red Bluff Reservoir.

The mean elevation of the state is 5,700 feet above sea level.

The Land

The state consists of four land regions – the Great Plains, the Colorado Plateau, the Rocky Mountains, and the Basin and Range region.

The eastern third of New Mexico is covered by the Great Plains. The Great Plains run from a high plateau in the north to the Pecos River in the south . Rivers in the high plateau have cut deep canyons into the landscape. This area is used for sheep and cattle ranches. To the south dry farming and irrigated agriculture is possible. South of the Canadian River, along the eastern edge of New Mexico, the land is referred to as the High Plains or Staked Plains (Llano Estacado). Steep escarpments or rocky formations on the east, north and western boundaries of the Llano Estacado probably account for it name. The five counties the five counties included in the "High Plains" geography are:

  • Union County and the town of Clayton,
  • Quay county and Tucumcari,
  • Curry county and the town of Clovis,
  • Chaves county and the city of Roswell, and.
  • Lea County and the cities of Tatum, Lovington (the county seat), Hobbs, Eunice, and Jal.

The Colorado Plateau, to the northwest, is a rugged area of wide valleys, deep canyons, sharp cliffs, and flat-topped hills called mesas. The Continental Divide runs through the Colorado Plateau. Streams west of the Divide drain into the Pacific Ocean. Those to the east run to the Gulf of Mexico.

Bones - Rainbow, Sangre de Cristo Mountains, Tesuque, NM The north central section of New Mexico is covered by a series of mountain ranges that are part of the Rocky Mountains. The Rio Grande River cuts through the Rocky Mountains from north to south. East of the Rio Grande, is the Sangre de Cristo (Blood of Christ) Mountain range.

Wheeler Peak, the highest point in New Mexico is found in this range. To the west of the Rio Grande are the Nacimiento and Jemez Mountain ranges. Melting snows from the Rockies provide moisture each spring for irrigated crops in the Rio Grande Valley.

Bones - Sunset, Organ MountainsThe Basin and Range Region cover about one third of the state and lies to the south of the Rocky Mountain Region. This region extends south from around Santa Fe to Mexico and west to Arizona. This area is marked by rugged mountain ranges, such as the Guadalupe, Mogollon, Organ, Sacramento, and San Andres mountain ranges, separated by desert basins. The Rio Grande River flows south to form the border between Texas and Mexico.


Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo – The 1850 Compromise

By the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo ending the Mexican War, made public in Washington on July 4, 1848, the United States achieved its principal objectives: the acquisition of New Mexico and California and recognition of the Rio Grande as Texas’ southern boundary. Along with the new territory, the nation also acquired an alien population and a basket of prickly problems.

There were even blunt spokesmen who went so far as to suggest that the United States had made a bad bargain in annexing New Mexico. Some years after the Civil War, General William T. Sherman, who heartily disliked the arid country and the people of the Southwest, was quoted as saying that “the United States ought to declare war on Mexico and make it take back New Mexico.”

One result of such hostility was that New Mexicans for more than sixty years were repeatedly checkmated in their efforts to achieve statehood. This resulted in their land remaining a US territory until 1912, with officials appointed from Washington. Upon that vexation were piled others – problems with hostile Indians and outlaws, problems of education and economics, difficulties involving land and water rights and territorial boundaries. A central issue was the uphill job of adapting to a new pace and pattern of life, one ruled by a different philosophy. A country and people so unlike the rest of the United States seemed to have a poor chance of adjusting to the militant demands of American patriotism and economic nationalism.

Yet things were not as black as they appeared. The New Mexicans, like most pioneers, were accustomed to living by luck and hope, and they possessed some firm traits of character, often overlooked by American newcomers, that promised to see them through the hard times of their territorial days.

Sheffield - Wells Fargo Stage CoachThe Anglo-Americans entering New Mexico in the late 1840s and 1850s were small in numbers but large in influence. New merchants came, as establishment of regular stagecoach and freight service with the East stimulated business. The ranks of the military swelled with the construction of Fort Union (1851) and Fort Stanton (1855) on the Indian frontier.

Besides the merchants and soldiers, there were the lawyers in frock coats and bat-wing collars. They descended in swarms, after the conquest, eager for political power and a slice of New Mexico’s vast real estate, which represented the country’s most visible wealth. The influential Padre Antonio Jose Martinez of Taos, a man of great intellectual gifts and social consciousness, likened the hastily contrived American government in New Mexico to a burro, adding ruefully “on this burro lawyers will ride, not priests.”

The state of New Mexican politics in the period following the Mexican War was ready-made for lawyers and opportunists of all sorts to jockey for advantage. The assassination of Governor Charles Bent and the collapse in 1847 of the civil government created by Kearny left the area under virtual military rule. That situation continued over the next several years, while Congress debated New Mexico’s future political status. In the meanwhile, persons on the Rio Grande broke into two opposing camps: the supporters of a territorial form of government, and the advocates of immediate statehood. In the main, Anglo-Americans, being in the minority, favored the territorial system. If New Mexico stayed a territory, its principal officials would be appointed in Washington. For that reason, the Hispanic majority tended to lean toward statehood; with the right to elect their own officials, they could easily put native New Mexicans into the highest offices.

Establishing Borders

The Compromise of 1850, among other things provided for the organization of New Mexico as a territory. The Compromise also resolved another complicated matter – an old Texas claim to that portion of New Mexico lying east of the Rio Grande. For ten million dollars’ compensation provided by the United States government, Texas relinquished her claim, thus paving the way for establishment of a permanent boundary with New Mexico. The Territory, as organized in 1850, included the New Mexico and Arizona of later years, and a part of southern Colorado.

New Mexico’s southern border with Mexico was less easily settled. In accordance with the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo, a joint boundary commission was organized and began (in July 1849) the task of surveying a dividing line between the two nations. The US surveyors working with the commission also had instructions to look for a practical railroad route to the Pacific, close to the boundary, and to ascertain the agricultural possibilities of the new country. In the course of the boundary work, it was discovered that the map used to establish the original treaty line had been inaccurate and that the border would in fact have to be placed thirty miles farther north. That slip meant withdrawing five or six thousand square miles from the United States and losing a potentially rich farming district in the Mesilla valley.

Before a serious dispute could develop, the American minister to Mexico, James Gadsden, negotiated in 1853 the treaty that bears his name, providing for the purchase of a large tract of desert land in southern New Mexico. The area offered an advantageous route for a transcontinental railway entirely on American soil, and its acquisition concluded the final adjustment of our border with Mexico.

The gold rush to the Rockies and the ensuing boom in population led to the formation of the Colorado Territory in 1861. As a result, New Mexico lost ground, for its northern boundary was pulled back to the parallel of 37 degrees. The reduction meant the territory was deprived of a valuable coal-mining area around Trinidad and of jurisdiction over those outermost settlements in the upper San Luis valley created by New Mexicans in the previous decade.

In these early years of adjusting to its new place in the Union, New Mexico absorbed a respectable quota of adventurers, gamblers, speculators, and renegade whiskey-peddlers from the eastern states – but it also got a share of those solid upright, intelligent citizens representing the glue that held a democratic society together and gave it its strength.

Of several newspapers that shortly began printing in the territory, one, the Weekly Gazette, called attention in 1856 to the newly formed Santa Fe Literary Club (whose president, interestingly, was a native New Mexican, Nicholas Quintana) dedicated to the expansion of knowledge and the holding of debates on burning questions of the day. Even more lustrous was the Historical Society of New Mexico, founded in 1859, probably the first such scholarly body to appear anywhere in the Far West.

One of the guiding spirits behind the launching of the Historical Society was New Mexico’s first resident bishop (later archbishop), Jean B. Lamy, a Frenchman by birth and a zealot when it came to charitable works and the mission of the Catholic Church. The new bishop, after his arrival in 1851, began a campaign to impose religious discipline upon the native clergy, whose lighthearted style of living caused him personal pain and scandalized the Americans. But Lamy did manage to begin a new era in the moral and spiritual life of New Mexico. Working with the energy of a whirlwind, he built in succeeding years forty-five new churches and a string of parochial schools.

New Mexico; An Interpretive History
Marc Simmons
New Mexico Press, Albuquerque, 1977

New Mexico; A Pageant of Three Peoples
Erna Fergusson
Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1955

Civil War (1861) – Indian Wars (1885)

Before education or the natural process of assimilation could make much headway, however, the people of the Southwest found themselves caught up in the momentous and ugly Civil War. It was an issue in which the New Mexicans felt only a small stake. The question of the expansion of slavery to the western territories, especially the New Mexico territory, dominated the debate in Congress during the 1850s.

Actually, in all the New Mexico territory, there were only twenty-one black slaves in 1861. Many politicians in Washington had long recognized New Mexico as a land unsuitable for slavery because the agriculture was small in scale and native labor was both plentiful and cheap. Territorial citizens had approved antislavery resolutions in 1848 and 1850. But a reversal in sentiment came in 1859, with adoption of a slavery code engineered by Miguel A. Otero, the New Mexican delegate to Congress. The code, designed to protect slave owners and their property, was more an expression of Otero’s own Pro-Southern sympathies than it was a sign of any fundamental shift in attitude among territorial residents. Territorial New Mexicans desired to be left alone, for they saw little to be gained by joining in the political arguments between the North and the South over slavery and the legality of secession.

When the storm broke, splitting the country in half, New Mexico unexpectedly found herself part of the theater of conflict. From the outset, the newly formed Confederacy cast covetous eyes westward, where it dreamed of creating an empire that would reach the Pacific. Winning the West became a crucial aspect of winning the war for the Confederacy. The grand strategy developed by Southern leaders showed plainly that as a first step toward westward expansion, New Mexico must be brought into the Confederacy.

At the outbreak of the Civil War the affairs of the upper Rio Grande made it appear that Confederate annexation of New Mexico could be accomplished with relative ease. In the lower part of the territory there existed a hard core of Southern sympathizers – mainly ranchers out of Texas, who had settled in the Mesilla district. Most of the ranking officers serving in the New Mexico military defected to the South, bringing with them precious information on war material stored at several territorial forts. Added to those considerations, the territory’s long eastern border with Texas and the vast distances separating her from the northern states would prevent help from arriving should New Mexicans try to avoid the inevitable take over.

The Rio Grande, for centuries the scene of fierce struggles between the Spanish and Native Americans now experienced the violence between Northerners and Southerners. Brigadier General Henry H. Sibley of the Confederate army and Colonel Edward R.S. Canby, commander of Federal forces in New Mexico first clashed at the Battle of Valverde. The Battle of Valverde involved the bloodiest kind of tough, stand-up fighting. At the end of the day Col. Canby’s men retreated toward Fort Craig. The laurels, however, were anything but clearly won. Sibley’s brigade held the fort and that, together with a lift in morale, was about all that had been gained.

One fly in the ointment of General Sibley’s plan to conquer New Mexico territory was the fact that he had counted on winning over the Hispanic population, but he had failed to reckon with the New Mexicans’ antipathy toward Texans, an outgrowth in part, of the Texas invasion of 1841, and more recent boundary disputes. General Sibley seriously miscalculated the strength of Union arms opposing him in the north.

The Civil War in the Southwest was indeed moving toward a climax. On March 27 and 28, 1862, regular troops from Fort Union, supported by the Colorado Volunteers, met the Rebels at
Glorieta, in what would become known as the Gettysburg of the West. Victory was snatched from the Rebels’ hands when Major John M. Chivington of the volunteers delivered a wholly unexpected thunderbolt. The debacle at Glorieta and the retreat to Texas scuttled for all time Confederate hopes for an empire in western America.

One consequence of the Civil War in the Southwest was that the U.S. Congress finally turned its attention to the creating of another territory. Arizona was carved from the western half of New Mexico in 1863.

Another outcome was that it left the frontier open to attack by hostile Indians. It was not lost on the tribes seeking plunder or bearing old grudges that the white men were fighting among themselves, abandoning forts, and withdrawing troops for duty in the East. The ensuing bloodshed brought nightmare days to New Mexico.

Brigadier General James Carleton, a Californian, assumed command of the Military Department of New Mexico. His troops were ready for acting and he had fixed notions about how to deal with hostile tribes. “Wage merciless war against all hostile tribes, force them to their knees, and then confine them to reservations where they could be Christianized and instructed in agriculture.”

The Mescalero Apaches of southern New Mexico were first to feel the effect of Carlton’s strategy. Placing Militia Colonel Kit Carson in charge of troops in the field, the general sent his men to harry the tribe into submission. By March 1863, Carson brought four hundred warriors with their families to the new Bosque Redondo Reservation on the Pecos River in southeastern New Mexico. Here Fort Sumner, constructed by Carleton, stood guard.

The "Long Walk"

Next it was the turn of the Navajo, a people numbering at that time some ten thousand and inhabiting the crumpled and rock-strewn lands of western New Mexico. For years, Spanish and Mexican expeditions had tried to bring them to bay, but the Navajo proved too nimble, fading into the remote canyon lands whenever their enemies gave chase. During the last half of 1863, government troops marched and countermarched through Navajo land, destroying crops and orchards and capturing livestock. They fought no major battles, but their campaigning left the Navajo economy in ruins. In January of 1864, Kit Carson led his men into the depths of CanBlumenschein - The Long Walk of the Navajosyon de Chelly, where, for the first time, he encountered a large body of Navajo. They were exhausted and starving, and at that point disposed to listen to a man who was known to be trustworthy. The tribe would have to emigrate to a government reservation at Bosque Redondo, Carson told them, but that was preferable to annihilation. Under the circumstances, the majority of the Navajo agreed, and they surrendered. That trip into exile, remembered in Navajo tribal history as the “Long Walk,” had a parallel in the tragic Trail of Tears, when Indians in the southeastern United States during the 1830s were obliged to give up their homes and move west of the Mississippi.

For General Carleton confining the Mescalero Apache and the Navajo people at the Bosque Redondo Reservation was the best way to keep the peace. But the reservation turned out to be an abject failure. The barren land in the Pecos valley could not support the nine thousand Indians crowded there, most of whom were not interested in farming, anyway. The drinking water turned out to be disagreeably rich in alkali, having a stronger effect on the stomach than castor oil, as one soldier stationed at Fort Sumner wrote his wife. The federal government failed to provide adequate supplies to support the Indians during the period that they were getting established. And putting the Mescalero and Navajo – traditional enemies- together on the same reservation was soon recognized as a colossal blunder.

Haozous - Apache SkullWith an end of hostilities and the virtual extermination of the buffalo, which quickly followed, the vast grasslands of eastern New Mexico were suddenly thrown open for settlement. Only some stray Apache bands in southwestern New Mexico had to be dealt with, but defeating them proved to be the most difficult of all. In 1879, Chief Victorio and some of his warriors bolted from their reservation and cut a bloody path across the Rio Grande and into Arizona. Their rampage lasted until Victorio’s death in 1881. His son-in-law, Nana, half-blind and crippled by rheumatism, but still capable of riding seventy miles a day, then took up the hatchet and continued the war. Nana fought eight battles against the Americans and won them all, before coming into the San Carlos Reservation in eastern Arizona. In 1885, Nana escaped with Geronimo and raided until the final Apache surrender the following year. The most troublesome Indians were placed on a train and sent to Fort Marion, Florida, as prisoners of war.

A Campaign from Santa Fe to the Mississippi
Theodore Noel
Stagecoach Press, Houston, 1961

New Mexico, Revised Edition
Calvin & Susan Roberts
University of New Mexico Press, Albuquerque, 2006

New Mexico; an Interpretive History
Marc Simmons
New Mexico Press, Albuquerque, 1977

“A Soldier’s Experience in New Mexico”
John Ayres
New Mexico Historical Review 24, October 1949

Pueblo Land Grants: Confirmed by Congress (1854)

While the nomad tribes were suffering defeat and confinement on the reservations, the Pueblo people were preoccupied with adjusting to life under American rule. Mexico had recognized them as citizens and had provided special attorneys to protect their property rights, but it appeared that the United States was unprepared to grant them these privileges and unwilling to make any legal distinction between Pueblos and the warlike nomads.

New Mexico’s first Indian agent, James S. Calhoun, recognized the special problem as early as 1849. He informed Washington that the industrious Pueblos were model subjects and urged that they be extended voting rights and that their land grants, given by Spain, be protected. The last point was particularly important, because the Indians, holding some of the best-irrigated agricultural lands in the territory, were constantly bothered by trespassers and squatters. The U.S. Surveyor General did confirm original Pueblo grants after 1854, a ruling reaffirmed by Congress. But the duty of the federal government to intervene actively to protect Pueblo Indian lands from encroachment, the policy Spain had pursued, would not be recognized until 1913.

By and large, the Pueblos had to wait until the opening decades of the twentieth century before much notice was taken of them, but Abraham Lincoln offered one small gesture acknowledging their existence in 1863. As early as 1620, the Spanish government had presented silver-tipped canes, or staffs of justice, to the Pueblo Indian governors as a symbol of authority. The canes, carefully preserved, continued to be passed down from one official to another long after Spain had given up her hold on New Mexico. President Lincoln, hearing of the custom and wishing to honor the Pueblos for remaining neutral during the Civil War, prepared a new set of canes, each with a silver crown upon which was engraved the name of the pueblo, the date of 1863, and the signature A. Lincoln. These gifts were honored alongside the original Spanish staffs; even today, when the Pueblos inaugurate their governors each January 1, both canes are ceremoniously conveyed to the new officials.

Period of Growth and Development (1868 – 1880)

Throughout the Southwest, railroad promotion was in the air, and in New Mexico’s rugged mountain ranges, prospectors with picks and hammers were beginning to uncover deposits of gold, silver, copper, and other minerals. For those men for whom railroading or mining held little attraction, the territory’s plains and basins, from which the last hostile Indians were then being cleared, provided abundant room for staking out a princely sheep or cattle ranch.

The Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe, besting it rival, the Denver and Rio Grande Western, for possession of Raton Pass, became the first to lay rails into New Mexico from the east. Following the heavy ruts of the Santa Fe Trail, it reached Las Vegas early in 1879. Continuing westward, the railroad bypassed Santa Fe and curved down the Rio Grande valley to Albuquerque. It reached south to a division point at Rincon. There, one branch was extended to El Paso, while the other ran to Deming, where, in 1881, it forged a transcontinental link with the Southern Pacific that was building eastward from California.

Logsdon - Water - Chino Mine, Santa Rita, NMNew Mexico at that time already possessed one of the oldest mining industries in America. In the Cerrillos Hills south of Santa Fe, Pueblo Indians for centuries had worked open-pit turquoise mines, removing some one hundred thousand tons of waste rock, with nothing more than muscle and primitive tools. The Spanish showed little interest in turquoise, but they did extract lead, coal, and considerable copper from the Santa Rita del Cobre Mines near Silver City. During the Mexican period, a short-lived gold rush drew fortune seekers to the Ortiz Mountains south of the Galisteo Basin.

The crescendo of New Mexico’s mining boom had passed by the early 1890s, but while it was in its noisy prime, it pumped much-needed wealth into the territorial economy. The wealth proved real enough, just not large enough to fulfill the extravagant dreams of those who pegged their hopes on a never-ending supply of precious metal. In the wake of the bust, the high country was littered with ghost towns and abandoned tunnels whose only occupants were swarms of shrieking bats.

As early as 1865, beef contractors for the Bosque Redondo Reservation were encouraging stockmen to drive cattle from the plains of west Texas up the valley of the Pecos River to feed the captive Navajo. Charles Goodnight and Oliver Loving, among the early participants in that activity, took their first herd of longhorns to New Mexico in the summer of 1866. Even though others had blazed their route up the Pecos, it soon became known as the Goodnight-Loving Trail, and when in succeeding years it was extended to Colorado and beyond, it came to rank with the Sedalia and the Chisholm trails as one of the great cattle thoroughfares of the American West.

Early Railroad Days in New Mexico, 1880
Henry Allen Tice
Stagecoach Press, Santa Fe, 1965

Las Vegas Gazette
November 25, 1875

Period of Lawlessness (1875 – 1916)

With improved communication and promotion of New Mexico’s bountiful resources, more and more people from the far corners of the nation began arriving to stake out and claim a piece of the territory for their own. Among them, inevitably, came the lawless preying on the settlers in the mining camps, railroad towns, and cattle ranches. From the end of the Civil War to the end of the century, most men wore a gun belted to the waist, and dance hall keepers installed signs that read, “Don’t shoot the musicians, they are doing the best they can.”

The Colfax County War (1875 – 1878), one of the more prominent disturbances, pitted claimants of the nearly two-million-acre Maxwell Land Grant against squatters who had settled on what they regarded as public domain.

Mayhew -  LincolnThe bloody disorders in southern New Mexico that came to be known as the Lincoln County War (1878 – 1881) attracted even greater attention. There, within the 27,000 square miles embracing the largest county in the United States, rival factions composed of merchants and cattlemen fell to feuding. Complete lawlessness soon reigned, as rustlers and gunfighters arrived from all parts of the Southwest to take advantage of the turmoil. Among them was the young William Bonney, alias Billy the Kid. By the summer of 1881 the Lincoln County War was burning itself out. The last phase came to an end when Sheriff Pat Garrett shot down Billy the Kid at Fort Sumner.

History and Government of New Mexico
John H. Vaughan
Privately printed, Las Cruces, 1931

The Dream of Statehood is Realized

Even in the midst of civil strife and political storms, New Mexico was edging toward a social and cultural transformation. But the changes beginning to take place and the society that was emerging showed only marginal similarities with the development then going on in other areas of American’s West. New Mexico, despite immigration from the eastern United States, steady economic growth, and a gradual increase in educational institutions, all of which drew the territory closer to the mainstream of national life, still remained a land apart.

Much of the reason resided in the continuing dominance of the Hispanic population. Throughout territorial days, and indeed until the 1940s, descendants of the colonial Spanish constituted a majority of New Mexico’s people. In the other borderland provinces acquired from Mexico in 1848, Texas, Arizona, and California, the original inhabitants, by contrast, had quickly been swamped by incoming Anglo-Americans and their Hispanic culture was either buried or relegated to small, isolated islands within the new English-speaking society.

Cassidy - Sketch for Spanish Dance Scene For a long time in the nineteenth century, New Mexicans were allowed to move along at an unhurried pace, and to follow their Old World customs without interference because other Americans were hardly aware of their existence. Gradually, of course, by a process of accretion, American ways made inroads. Yet the framework of Hispanic culture was kept intact and continued to serve as the principal point of reference by which the people viewed their past and measured the future.

Some Americans remained skeptical that New Mexicans were loyal and worthy American citizens. At the outbreak of the Spanish-American War in 1898, President William McKinley sent a telegram to Governor Miguel A. Otero, Jr., at Santa Fe, asking him to assist in recruiting stalwart young men who were good shots and good riders. Otero, the first Hispanic governor of the territory, knew he was on the spot. “Many newspapers in the East,” he later told an interviewer, “were dubious about our loyalty we having such a large Mexican population.” Hoping to lay suspicions to rest, Governor Otero issued a call to every town and ranch in the territory for volunteers and offered his own services, if needed. The response from both Hispanics and Anglos was so generous that afterward Theodore Roosevelt would claim that half the officers and men of his famous Rough Riders Regiment came from New Mexico.

In 1898 Congress passed the Fergusson Act providing for the foundation of a public school system in the territory.

In 1910 Congress passed the Enabling Act, signed by President William Howard Taft. It provided for the calling of a constitutional convention in New Mexico. The conservative document that body drafted was ratified by voters early the following year, and on January 6, 1912, New Mexico became the forty-seventh state in the Union.

“New Mexico’s Fight for Statehood, 1895 – 1912”
Marion Dargan
New Mexico Historical Review 14 (January 1939): 11

New Mexico’s Quest for Statehood, 1846 – 1912
Robert W. Larson
University of New Mexico Press, Albuquerque, 1968

Statehood: Unresolved Questions of Spanish Land Grants and New Settlers

With the growth of New Mexico’s population, land values rose and attracted investment capital into the territory. Many newcomers found that millions of acres of the best land for farming, ranching, and logging lay beyond their grasp. The 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo had promised to protect the ownership rights of the heirs of land grants. The difficulty of fulfilling that promise became apparent only later, as differences in Spanish and Anglo concepts of law and land tenure began to raise complex legal questions. The most flammable of these involved the old community land grants, which had been made by Spain and Mexico. Originally, under terms of such grants, settlers had received individual title to the small amount of farmland available along the irrigation ditches, while the remainder of the grant was held in common for purposes of grazing and wood gathering. The boundaries of the community holdings, in the absence of surveyors, were inexactly delineated, using such natural landmarks as large rocks, prominent trees, springs and arroyos. Within a short time after establishment of the American legal system, complications arising from these Hispanic practices produced a tangled web of claims and counterclaims and opened the way for speculators to obtain, often through deceit and fraud, a controlling interest in some of the most valuable grants.

Congress took a sidelong look at the problem and handed it to the Office of the Surveyor-General, which was created in 1854 for the specific purpose of adjudicating Spanish and Mexican land titles. At the time, New Mexico had more than one thousand claims awaiting settlement, some of them dealing with the community grants and others with large private grants that had once been allotted to individual Spanish families. The first surveys showed that many of the old boundaries could no longer be accurately defined and that often the grants had overlapping claims. Legitimate descendants of grantees seldom possessed their original papers, and some of those who did, through fear or distrust of the alien legal procedures now imposed upon them, failed to bring the documents forward to receive new patents for their lands.

In the forefront of those who profited from such a situation were the lawyers – the class of men who Father Martinez had predicted in the 1850s would supplant priests as the real power in New Mexico. For clearing titles, they exacted huge fees. These fees were usually paid in land from that held in common, so that, within time, as seemingly endless litigation over titles continued, sharp-eyed American lawyers and their associates acquired possession of prodigious sections of the Spanish grants. One Santa Fe attorney, for example, was reported by a local newspaper in 1894 to have an interest in seventy-five grants and to own outright nearly two million acres.

One of New Mexico’s leading land grant authorities commented, “Only a few claims were confirmed and patented under the Surveyor-General, and by the 1880s speculation in the grants had reached the point of national scandal.” As a result, a Court of Private Land Claims was established in 1891 in a bid to settle the many controversies by judicial means. Although that body succeeded in adjudicating all claims by 1903, it sowed the seeds of future discord by accepting and continuing a precedent regarding community grants that had been laid down by earlier courts.

Unfamiliar with Spanish law protecting and preserving village commons, American judges had ruled that the ancient common lands could be partitioned and divided among the numerous grant-claimants. That meant that vast areas of upland pastures and mountain woods, of which villagers had made free use for generations, were now allotted to individuals who could put them up for sale if they chose. Not surprisingly, surrounding lands soon slipped from the grasp of community members and passed to the control of outsiders, often cattlemen from Texas, or into the public domain, where much of it was placed under the National Forest Service. A similar pattern of land loss was experienced by a number of American Indian tribes in the twentieth century, when by Congressional Act their reservations were broken up and the land granted in severalty, thereby destroying the common-property base of community existence.

The Far Southwest, 1846-1912
Howard Roberts Lamar
Yale University Press, New Haven, 1966

A Brief History of New Mexico
Myra Ellen Jenkins and Albert H. Schroeder
University of New Mexico Press, Albuquerque, 1974

The Bursum Bill

Politics divided many New Mexicans during the 1920s, however New Mexico’s Pueblo Indians united in a common cause, for the first time since the Pueblo Revolt of 1680, against government actions that they perceived as threatening their land and way of life. Although the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo had promised that New Mexico’s Native Americans would retain their land and the Office of the Surveyor-General had confirmed Pueblo land titles, the U.S. Government had generally ignored the Pueblo peoples. In 1876, however, the U.S. Supreme Court handed down a decision that eventually threatened Pueblo lands. In reaching the conclusion that the Pueblo peoples were more advanced culturally than other Indian groups, the court declared that they were not dependents of the federal government and therefore had the authority to handle their own lands as they saw fit. The result of this decision was that individual Indians sold 30% or more of Pueblo lands to non-Indians during ensuing decades. Then, in 1913, the high court again spoke on the issue of Pueblo lands by reversing its earlier decision and declaring that the Pueblo peoples were indeed dependents of the federal government and that non-Indian claims to Pueblo lands were consequently illegal.

This new ruling created the immediate problem of what to do about the three thousand non-Indians who owned Pueblo land, especially since some of those families had lived on this land for two or more generations. In 1921 Albert Fall, as Secretary of the Interior, sought a solution to the problem by asking his successor in the U.S. Senate, Holm O. Bursum, to draft an Indian land bill. Bursum’s bill gave non-Indians ownership of Pueblo lands they had acquired before 1920, and it permitted the state courts, long unsympathetic to Indians, to settle all future disputes over Pueblo land titles. If it had passed, this bill would have spelled disaster for the Pueblo peoples because it would have meant the permanent loss of some of their best, irrigated land.

Support for the Pueblo cause in response to the Bursum Bill came from a group of artists and writers who had settled in Taos. John Collier, the young poet invited to New Mexico by Mable Dodge Luhan, took it upon himself to travel with Tony Luhan from pueblo to pueblo to let the Indians leaders know what was being proposed for them. When the Indians learned of the contents of the bill, they were stunned. No federal or state leader had even informed them that an Indian land bill was being considered. As Collier rallied support for the Pueblo peoples among his artist and writer friends’ throughout the country, the Indians themselves began to unite. Pueblo leaders traveled to Washington, D.C., to appear before Congress. Widespread support for the Pueblo cause drew national attention, and the immediate result was the defeat of the Bursum Bill.

The attention aroused by the furor over the Bursum Bill also brought improvements in federal Indian policy. In 1924 Congress passed the Pueblo Lands Act, which recognized once and for all the land rights of the Pueblo peoples and provided compensation for the property, which under the law, non-Indians were to give up to the Pueblos. In the same year, Congress passed a second act that addressed the rights of Indians; this law provided American citizenship for Indians born in the United States. Arizona and New Mexico, however, did not allow Indians to vote in national and state elections until 1948, when a federal court ruled that all states had to give Indian peoples the right to vote.

New Mexico, Revised Edition
Calvin & Susan Roberts
University of New Mexico Press, Albuquerque, 2006

John Prather’s Rebellion: A Fight for Individual Rights (1957)

John Prather’s name is not one generally found in formal history books, but his story is both compelling and inspiring.In 1883, John Prather and his brother Owen came to New Mexico on horseback, from Texas. As part of the last wave of the western movement, they were seeking free land at a time when most of the prime land had already been claimed. The Prathers were stockmen, and as they rode, they looked with admiration upon the grassy plains of southeastern New Mexico. Having no desire to compete with either the established ranchers or the encroaching sodbusters, they kept moving. Beyond the Pecos, they followed a pass through a ridge of mountains and emerged upon the western slope to see, dipping before them, the shimmering expanse of the Tularosa Basin and the distant dark ridge of the San Andres Range.

Gilpin - The White SandsWhat they had entered, after their trip over the plains and through the cool mountain forest, was a different world – a kingdom whose pebbly soil could support only a thin mantle of grass and scattered clumps of yucca and greasewood. Gypsum flats, and lava beds covered great sections of the land, and summer’s blazing light and dry heat shriveled every living thing. The White Sands, a lake of shifting, glittering gypsum dunes, reached fifty miles north and south down the center of the basin and served as a playground for little whirlwinds, called dust devils, whose antics could be followed by anyone with a perch in the mountains fifty miles away.

Such hard, inhospitable country – much of it then in Lincoln County – attracted a certain breed of men. Restless and roistering men were drawn to it, especially those who felt uncomfortable in crowds, shunned society’s constraints, and were at ease with solitude. In those early days, almost everyone else was prepared to leave the Tularosa kingdom to the Apaches and the jackrabbits; and they joked, after seeing natives grubbing roots for fuel and bringing water on burros from the mountains, that this was the only place on the continent where men, reversing the usual order of things, dug for firewood and climbed for water.

But is was here that John Prather, after some shifting about, settled on a spot with fair grass below the Sacramento Mountains and went to raising cattle. Owen, nearby, began developing a sheep ranch. Decades crept by, wars and depression bedeviled the outside world, and all the while under the flaming New Mexican sun, John Prather worked his stock and continued to improve his property of some four thousand deeded acres and an additional twenty thousand acres leased from the government.

Then World War II changed all that for the Tularosa country and for all the off-the-path pockets in New Mexico that had kept one foot planted in the nineteenth century. It had its beginning on the pine-clad summit of the Pajarito Plateau west of Santa Fe. Upon the plateau in 1943, the U.S. government sealed off a tract of land and built the secret city of Los Alamos around an atomic energy laboratory. Scientists living with their families in almost complete seclusion soon produced the first atomic bomb and tested it on July 16, 1945, at the Trinity Site in the desolate White Sands of southern New Mexico.

Brixner - First Atomic Explosion at a Distance of About Five MilesThe explosion of the atomic bomb at the White Sands Proving Ground (now the White Sands Missile Range) was felt over much of New Mexico in that summer of 1945. But it was what followed that proved more disturbing to the residents of the Tularosa Basin. The military was in need of land, a great deal of it, for the testing of rockets and the training of their crews, a program deemed crucial for national defense. To expand the range, hundreds of thousands of acres were ordered withdrawn from the public domain and from private ownership, which meant condemnation proceedings were instituted against surrounding ranchers. Many of these people waged fierce court battles and appeared at congressional hearings in a bid to keep their land, but one by one, over succeeding years, they lost out and were displaced.

Then, in 1955, the government, as it crept eastward toward the Sacramento Mountains swallowing up chunks of ground, ran straight into eighty-two-year-old John Prather. His land, which he had held and worked for fifty years, was not for sale, Prather announced. Anyone who tried to put him off might get hurt. In the U.S. District Court at Albuquerque, a condemnation suit resulted in a ninety-day eviction notice for John Prather and his neighbors. The old man’s response to that was to issue a public statement: “I’m going to die at home.”

By now, August 1957, the episode was spread across the front pages of the nation’s leading dailies, and reporters were pouring into El Paso, where they looked for transportation northward to the Tularosa Basin. At the ranch, Prather’s kin had arrived, twenty-five in all, and they joined in fortifying the main house in preparation for a siege. As jeeps brought in army officers and newsmen over a dusty, washboard road, it appeared the basin’s first battle since the days of the Apache wars was about to be fought.

Officials, however, had had enough. Public opinion was clearly swinging to the side of the courageous old rancher, and since he could not be moved, short of force, a directive from Washington ordered military personnel to withdraw from the Prather Ranch. The army then went back to court and obtained a new writ exempting the ranch house and fifteen surrounding acres from confiscation; the remainder of the land was forthwith annexed to the military reservation. If John Prather raised no further fuss, he would be left alone.

That ended the matter. Prather had lost his ranch, but he had also won a victory of sorts. Standing firm, he had forced the U.S. government to compromise and in so doing had chiseled himself a niche in the history of southern New Mexico. As one writer later explained it, John Prather reacted as his forebears had reacted against invasion of their independence and property rights. His was the code and psychology of the eighties, and he was the last of his kind.

New Mexico An Interpretive History
Marc Simmons
University of New Mexico Press, Albuquerque, 1977

Tularosa, Last of the Frontier West
C.L. Sonnichsen
The Devin-Adair Co., Old Greenwich, Conn., 1972

The Great Depression and World War II

Farming was one of the hardest hit segments of the New Mexico economy during the Great Depression. In 1931, the state’s most important crops were only worth about half of their 1929 value. Dry farmers were especially devastated as they suffered from both continually high operating costs and a prolonged drought that dried up portions of New Mexico so badly that they became part of the Dust Bowl. From Oklahoma to eastern New Mexico, winds picked up the dry topsoil, forming great clouds of dust so thick that it filled the air. On May 28, 1937, one dust cloud, or “black roller,” measuring fifteen hundred feet high and a mile across, descended upon the farming and ranching community of Clayton, New Mexico. The dust blew for hours and was so thick that electric lights could not be seen across the street. Everywhere they hit, the dust storms killed livestock and destroyed crops. In the Estancia Valley entire crops of pinto beans were killed, and that once productive area was transformed into what author John L. Sinclair has called “the valley of broken hearts.”

In all of New Mexico, farmland dropped in value until it bottomed out at an average of $4.95 an acre, the lowest value per acre of land in the United States. Many New Mexico farmers had few or no crops to sell and eventually, they were forced to sell their land contributing in the process to the overall decline in farmland values.

The Depression also hurt New Mexico’s cattle ranchers, for they suffered from both drought and a shrinking marketplace. As grasslands dried up, they raised fewer cattle; and as the demand for beef declined, so did the value of the cattle on New Mexico’s rangelands. Like the farmers, many ranchers fell behind in their taxes and were forced to sell their land, which was bought by large ranchers.

Webb - Ruins of the Anthracite Breaker at the Old Mining Town of MadridAgriculture’s ailing economic condition had a particularly harsh effect on New Mexico, because the state was still primarily rural during the 1930’s, with most of its people employed in raising crops and livestock. Yet farmers and ranchers were not the only ones to appear on the list of those devastated by depressed economic conditions. Indeed, high on the list were the miners, who watched their industry continue the downward slide that had begun in the 1920’s. Many mines became the property of larger companies when conditions forced many of the smaller companies out of business. The oil industry, however, remained a bright spot in an otherwise bleak economic picture, for increased oil production provided needed tax money to the state. Tourism also received a boost when the federal government released some federal relief money to create new state parks.

New Deal Programs and the Beginnings of Public Art

Taking office in March 1933, President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal relief measures were sent to Congress and within months, most of the acts the president wanted were passed. New Mexicans welcomed New Deal programs of all kinds. Some of the New Deal programs, such as the Works Progress Administration (WPA), put people to work in varying jobs: writers, artists, and musicians practiced their trades as employees of WPA projects, while others who worked for the WPA built schools and other public buildings, including the library and the administration building at the University of New Mexico. By 1936 more than thirteen thousand New Mexicans had found jobs through this program.

The financial hardships of Santa Fe painter Shuster were replicated thousands of times over among artists countrywide. In early 1933 he wrote to his good friend, New York artist John Sloan:

"Dear Sloan,
…I have been able to make all told since I returned from the homestead only $75….The merchants here…are now beginning to feel the pinch and are consequently beginning to pinch the other fellow….I am trying…to meet all my current bills and letting the old ones ride until such time as I get the cash to pay them. Yesterday I had to tell the light company to turn the…electricity off…and that I would use kerosene lamps."

Shuster’s plight was shared by construction workers, clerical personnel, engineers, teachers, merchants – America’s working class – as well. His words admitted the reality of a bleak and frightening future for the U.S. community at large.

For the artist, the collapse of the stock market equated the collapse of the art market: art collectors and patrons, now without stock dividend income that provided the means for the acquisition of ‘luxury’ items, could not purchase art. The romance of the ‘starving artist’ took on urgent and less than romantic connotation – and warning.

In December,1933, Shuster wrote his friend again, but this letter was one of ebullience and optimism:Shuster - The Voice of the Earth (The Basket Dance)“The most important thing which has happened to the Shuster family is this Federal Art Project. Forty two fifty a week from the Government for painting. My God it doesn’t seem real.” (It is interesting to note that a weekly wage of $42.50 in 1933 was the equivalent of $472.00 per week in 1992.)

In the letter Shuster explained his proposal for three projects one of which Shuster ultimately painted pictures of the Carlsbad Caverns, which were acquired by the National Park Service, and presently hang in the Western Archaeological Conference Center in Tucson, Arizona. He was awarded a second Public Works of Art Project (PWAP) project: to paint murals on the wall of the enclosed patio of the Museum of Art, in Santa Fe.

The PWAP was the first federally funded art program under the Civil Works Administration (CWA) – a New Deal work-relief program created by President Roosevelt to alleviate the economic job crisis. In time, all the federal art projects have come to be generically referred to as “WPA Art,” (Works Progress Administration, or WPA).

The CWA was administered by socially conscious Harry Hopkins whose heartfelt belief was that “artists have to eat like other people.” The PWAP started in December 1933 and continued until June 1934, and was the brainchild of artist George Biddle, a former schoolmate of President Roosevelt at Groton and Harvard. An advocate of mural art in America, Biddle had studied with the Mexican muralist, Diego Rivera, and it was his belief that Rivera and others gave voice to the social ideals of the Mexican Revolution of 1910 through their vivid, colorful murals. It would follow, he believed, that murals painted by American artists in the United States would be appropriate vehicles for the expression of the ideals of Roosevelt’s New Deal. Murals painted by Biddle and New Mexico’s Emil Bisttram may be seen today in the Department of Justice Building in Washington DC.

Loeffler - UntitledBetween 1933 – 1943, in the depth of the Depression, 167 known artists lived in New Mexico, all struggling to sell art in a time when many Americans had little money available even for necessities. The New Deal’s Works Progress Administration Art Project provided an opportunity for artists to create artwork for public buildings, allowing them to remain independent, support their families, and enrich and enhance the community.

The following New Mexico artists were among the many employed in WPA projects: Pablita Velarde, Maria Martinez, Ila McAfee, Gerald Cassidy, Will Shuster, Lloyd Moylan, Gisella Loeffler, Eliseo Rodriguez, Kenneth Adams, Fremont F. Ellis and Peter Hurd. The area coordinator of the WPA’s Public Works of Art Project was woodblock printer, painter and marionette-maker Gustave Baumann, a leading member of the Santa Fe art community. More than 65 murals with varied subject materials were created in New Mexico during the Depression. In addition to these murals, the WPA sponsored more than 650 paintings, ten sculptural pieces, and numerous indigenous Hispanic Native American crafts.

Federal Art Project (FAP) and the Hispanic Community

The Works Progress Administration in New Mexico developed a strong relationship with the Hispanic Community through its conscious attempt to maintain a tangible sense of ethnic identity, community cohesiveness, and responsive training throughout their projects. The Federal Art Project (FAP) was directed by New Mexico artist R. Vernon Hunter, who believed in a broad definition of “Art” which included both the fine arts and craft arts. Hunter was dedicated to his task and encouraged his associates in all media to imbue their work with individuality and spirit.

The FAP in New Mexico promoted, initiated, and supervised all relief art activities in the state. In addition to commissioning easel work, prints, sculpture, and murals in fresco and oil for public buildings, the FAP supported programs for reviving craftwork of Spanish-Colonial origin (woodworking, embroidery, weaving, and metalwork), teaching of arts and crafts in community art centers, researching native arts for the Index of American Design (IAD), and compiling a project unique to New Mexico, the Portfolio of Spanish-Colonial Design. In particular, Hunter wished to maintain traditional art forms which were in danger of extinction from pressures for wage labor jobs in a non-Hispanic dominated culture.

Clearly Hunter viewed his program as providing more than just crucial financial reward to the artists. For him, the national exposure that he consistently sought for artists was a method of raising ethnic respect both within the state’s Hispanic communities and throughout the nation. He was sensitive to the importance of maintaining communal traditions as a way to establish a context for individuality, and he understood self-worth as a direct factor in pride of ethnic identity.

Federal Support for Hispanic Art
“Treasures on New Mexico Trails,” Chap.4
Andrew Connors

The Indian New Deal In New Mexico

President Roosevelt appointed John Collier as Commissioner of Indian Affairs (1933 – 1945). Collier took full advantage of New Deal funds to promote Indian arts and crafts, increase employment, improve infrastructure on reservations, and construct schools. Collier was an idealist who struggled to reform federal Indian policy during his twelve-year term. Years earlier, during a 1920 visit to his close friend, Taos resident and art patron Mabel Dodge Luhan, he had embraced Pueblo Indian culture as offering nothing less than salvation from the ills of Western Civilization.

Gilpin - Ambrose Roanhorse with His Class at the Fort Wingate Vocational SchoolThe headquarters of the Indian Division was at Santa Fe Indian School, where the artists took room and board. Superintendent Chester E. Faris endeavored to hire Indian artists and craftsmen and promote Indian arts as a profession that would permit students to continue living at home if they desired. The students worked under the direction of painting teacher Dorothy Dunn and crafts teacher Mabel Morrow. The artists included Pablita Velarde (Santa Clara) and Andy Tsinajinnie (Navajo), both about 16 years old at the time. They worked with established artists Velino Shije Herrera (Zia), Tonita Pena (San Ildefonso), Emiliano Abeyta (San Juan), Tony Archuleta (Taos), Jack Hokeah (Kiowa), and Calvin Tyndall (Omaha).

Velarde recalled that at SFIS (Santa Fe Indian School), Tonita Pena became her mentor. “Tonita was really a help to me in my early years at the Indian school…..She was staying at the girls’ dorm. That’s how we got acquainted. She talked Tewa, and she used to tease and laugh and joke in Indian, and that was fun. Then she would be sitting in her room in the evening, just painting for herself, and I’d watch her and talk to her.” These conversations convinced Velarde that she could overcome the difficulties of being both a Pueblo woman and an artist.

Six Navajo weavers came to the school, bringing their own wool and yarn. The school furnished additional wool, yarn, and dyes and paid each weaver a salary of $14.85 per person per week plus room and board. The weavers completed 12 rugs ranging in size from 3 ft. by 4 ft. to 4 ft. by 5 ft. 5 in. The weavers were Nellie Cowboy, Mrs. John Jim, Elizabeth Pablo, Mary Phillips, Sallie Kinlichini, and Bah Smith.

The Indian participants in the Public Works of Art Project included the leading Indian painters, potters, and sculptors of the century who created work of significant artistic and historical value under the federal sponsorship. PWAP helped establish Santa Fe as a center of Indian art patronage and Santa Fe Indian School as an institution that fostered both traditional and innovative arts.

As Franklin Roosevelt and the government were dealing with an ailing economy on one front, they were being pulled into fighting a world war on the other.

Treasures on New Mexico Trails:
Discovery of New Deal Art and Architecture

Kathryn A. Flynn and Andrew L. Connors
Sunstone Press, Santa Fe, 1994

New Mexico, Revised Edition
Calvin & Susan Roberts
University of New Mexico Press, Albuquerque, 2006

The Collector’s Guide

World War II and The Bataan Death March

Japan’s aerial assault on the U.S. Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, on December 7, 1941, brought the United States into World War II. After the U.S. declaration of war on Japan, the following day Germany and Italy declared war on the United States. The US thus joined Britain, the Soviet Union, and other nations in the Allied Powers arrayed against Germany, Italy and Japan.

Among the first Americans to see action in World War II were New Mexico National Guardsmen, who were fighting in the Pacific even before the formal declaration of war. They were members of the National Guard 111th Cavalry, which became part of the 200th Coast Artillery, Anti-Aircraft Regiment in 1940. Deployed in September 1941 to the Philippines, then a U.S. possession, the troops of the 200th were assigned the task of defending Clark Field and Fort Stotsenberg, which lay seventy-five miles north of the Philippine capital of Manila. Hundreds of New Mexicans were at Clark Field when the Japanese attacked just ten hours after the strike on Pearl Harbor. For the most part, the New Mexicans found their job frustrating because their anti-aircraft shells could not hit high-flying Japanese bombers, although the men of the 200th did shoot down some low-flying Japanese fighter planes.

When the Japanese ground forces launched their major assault on the Philippines, New Mexicans fought as members of two regiments – the original 200th and the newly created 515th Coast Artillery Regiment. These regiments heroically covered the withdrawal of American and Filipino troops to the Bataan Peninsula and held on until April 9, 1942 when they surrendered. What followed has come to be known as the Bataan Death March, a sixty-five-mile forced march of American prisoners to trains waiting to carry them to a Japanese prison camp. The march took six days, and eleven thousand Americans, including many New Mexicans, died on the way. Those who reached the camps and survived the terrible conditions there remained prisoners of war until 1945, witnessing during their captivity the deaths of thousands of their less fortunate comrades, again including many New Mexicans. Among the eighteen hundred New Mexicans serving in the Philippines, only nine hundred returned home.

The Hispanic contributions made in World War II for America were overwhelming. The historically rich 200th Coastal Artillery was sent to the Philippines in September 1941; the 200th was born from the New Mexican Cavalry that was dispatched to Cuba to fight with Teddy Roosevelt’s “Rough Riders” in the Spanish-American War. When New Mexico became a state in 1912 several decades later, the Cavalry was federalized and the 200th became one of the most ethnically diverse National Guard battalions in the United States.

The tenacity of the 200th gave the US military time to re-fortify and plan for the European front, possibly changing the course of the war. These brave soldiers were responsible for the defense of the islands of Luzon, Corregidor and the harbor defense forts of the Philippines.

The Army ROTC Department at New Mexico State University began sponsoring the Bataan Memorial March in 1989 honor New Mexico’s 200th and 515th Coast Artilleries, the most decorated units of World War II. The annual Bataan Memorial March is held each year at White Sands Missile Range with marchers from across the United States and several foreign countries taking part in the military event.

In addition, a former state building in Santa Fe was renamed the Bataan Memorial Building. Outside the building, an eternal flame burns for those New Mexicans who did not survive the march or the Japanese POW camps.

New Mexico, Revised Edition
Calvin & Susan Roberts
University of New Mexico Press, Albuquerque, 2006

Monsters and Critics

The Navajo Code Talkers

World War II lasted nearly four years. During that time over 50,000 New Mexicans served in the armed forces. They saw action against not only Japan, but also Germany and Italy. One group from New Mexico and Arizona played a special role. These were the Navajo Code Talkers. The Marine Corps needed a way to send messages quickly by radio. They used Navajo Marines to do this.

In the early days after Pearl Harbor, Corregidor, and a series of naval disasters, not only did the Japanese have superior arms, position, and equipment, they were breaking our tightest communication codes with disastrous results for the American Armed forces.

By the time Carl Gorman Sr., the father of the Taos artist R.C. Gorman, New Mexico had reached the Marine recruiting station at Fort Defiance, a plan had already been developed that would involve him personally in one of the most important secret operations in American military history. It was to be the creation of a military code for combat and invasion purposes that the enemy would never break. The men destined for the assignment were Navajos.

Ironically, it was a white man who presented the idea for this invulnerable code. He was Philip Johnston, an American engineer who had grown up on the Navajo reservation, a missionary’s son, learning to speak Navajo fluently as a child. He proposed his idea to the Marine top brass at Camp Elliott in California. At first they thought he was insane. No cryptography, no code machines. Only a Navajo sender at one end and a Navajo receiver at the other, who translated the message into English, and it worked!

The Japanese were already on Guadalcanal in the summer of 1942, breaking all the American codes. From Marine headquarters, a guarded authorization went out for a pilot test group of thirty Navajos to develop the new code. Recruits had to be found at once who spoke Navajo and English well. The recruits came from the reservation boarding schools and from far-away hogans, too. Most had never gone more than a few miles from their native homes, and some were so young they forged their age to enlist. All were inducted at Fort Wingate, New Mexico. They had no knowledge as yet of the true nature of their mission. All they were told was that they were in special service. There were twenty-nine including Carl Gorman taken by train through the night to Camp Elliott in California.

A whole assortment of military words had to be invented for translation into Navajo. It became an exciting game, as they went on to search for the appropriate word. Airplanes became “birds”. A bomber was a “buzzard”; a fighter plane, “a hummingbird”; a patrol plane a “crow”.

The Navajo recruits were required to memorize the hundreds of words and phrases, most of them foreign to their own basic culture. Gorman explained the speed with which the Navajo boys were learning. "You have to understand that for us, everything is memory. You see it’s part of our heritage. We have no written language. Our songs, our prayers, our stories, they’re all handed down from grandfather to father to children—and we listen, we hear, we learn to remember everything. It is part of our training."

The Japanese never broke the code. Many marines owed their lives to the speedy messages sent in Navajo. It was many years after the end of WWII before the Navajo Code Talkers were recognized for their contribution to the war effort. This happened because of the value that the code still had.

The Navajo Code Talkers were also used in Korea in the 1950’s and in Vietnam in the 1960’s. This is how secure this code was. It still was not broken during these wars. It also shows how much confidence that the military had in this system of coding. The code was finally declassified in 1968 as electronic equipment was developed.

New Mexico, Revised Edition
Calvin & Susan Roberts
University of New Mexico Press, Albuquerque, 2006

Our New Mexico
Calvin A. Roberts, Ph.D.
University of New Mexico Press, Albuquerque, 2006

The Manhattan Project

At 5:29:45 a.m., Mountain War Time on July 16, 1945, the world’s first atomic bomb exploded one hundred feet over the portion of the Southern New Mexico desert known as the Jornada del Muerta – the Journey of the Dead Man. On seeing the fireball and mushroom cloud, J. Robert Oppenheimer, Scientific Director of the Manhattan Project, recalled a passage from the Bhagavad-Gita, “I am become death the destroyer of worlds.”

Brixner - First Atomic Explosion at a Distance of About Five MilesThe light that shattered the early morning darkness of the Tularosa Basin at 5:30 a.m., put New Mexico’s smallest county on the map of the world. Los Alamos (which means “the poplars”) sits on a high, gently sloping plateau. It was there that the secret atomic city for the Manhattan Project was built. From 1943 – 1945, the tiny community of Los Alamos, New Mexico, formed an unreal world, part mountain resort and part military base.

The federal government used its powers of eminent domain to take over many Hispanic homesteads for the Manhattan Project in 1942. Many owners received payment but some received nothing because they failed to make the 85-mile trek to the Sandoval County Courthouse each year to pay their property taxes. Moving swiftly the government also took over the exclusive Los Alamos Ranch School for Boys, and the lands of about twenty-six other area inhabitants. Much was already government owned and soon totaled about 9,000 acres.

In the beginning Los Alamos Laboratory, known as Project Y, was conceived during the early part of World War II. The United States wanted to build an atomic explosive to counter the threat posed by the German nuclear development program. The term Manhattan Project came about because the program began under the Manhattan Engineering District of the War Department.

Campbell - New Mexico - Robert Oppenheimer's Strange DreamGeneral Leslie Groves, military head of the project, and Robert Oppenheimer, scientific director, wanted the top secret project to take place in an isolated area yet still be accessible, a place with an adequate water supply, a readily available labor source, and a moderate climate. Oppenheimer assumed that facilities would be needed to house perhaps thirty scientists and their families. The “realists” of the time argued that they would need room for at least 500. At the end of the war, close to 6,000 people were living on the Hill and Los Alamos was born.

Oppenheimer recruited many of the top personnel himself. His job was made easier by the fact that the scientists knew they would be applying their talents for the benefit of their country. They also knew that if they succeeded, they would become a part of history..

For ordinary civilians, military security took some getting used to. Laboratory members were not allowed personal contact with relatives or permitted to travel more than 100 miles from Los Alamos. Security personnel censored outgoing mail and monitored long-distance calls. Incoming mail was addressed simply to “P.O. Box 1663, Santa Fe, New Mexico.” Birth certificates of infants born at Los Alamos during the war even listed P.O. Box 1663 as their place of birth.

The homogeneity of the community led to some interesting problems. Because so many scientist brought spouses and young children to the site, the need for a school ranked in importance with the need for a new physics laboratory. The relative youth of the inhabitants also led to a baby boom. In the first year of the project, 80 babies were born; by 1945 Los Alamos had more than 330 infants.

The successful nuclear test at Trinity Site and the subsequent use of nuclear weapons at Hiroshima and Nagasaki had a long-term effect on both the U.S. and Japan. The test at Trinity Site signaled the entrance of New Mexico into a new era and marked the integration of the oldest settled portion of the United States with industrial and urban America, for the growth of industry and cities in New Mexico really began during World War II.  Thanks to the defense industry and related enterprises, New Mexico is now a far cry from 1933 when the largest city had a population of less than 35,000 and when fewer than 3,000 people were employed in factories.

New Mexico Past and Present – A Historical Reader
Richard N. Ellis,
University of New Mexico Press, Albuquerque, 1971

Los Alamos Historical Society


New Mexico lies at the intersection of four geologic provinces: the Colorado Plateau, the Rocky Mountains, the Great Plains, and the Basin and Range Province. These regions have their own boundaries, and they exert great influence over how the inhabitants of New Mexico have lived. About one million years ago the area attained the character it retains today. Glaciers that had carved valleys and lakes that had flooded basin floors, disappeared, leaving behind alluvial fans, layers of silt, and rock terraces. Once wet and verdant, New Mexico had become a desert. This was what the first human beings who came there found, around 10,000 B.C.

From the perspective of stable human communities, New Mexico is a very dry land. In this region, water is a scarce and precious resource; this was the case with the ancestral peoples who inhabited the area, and it is still the case in the twenty-first century. Water is, perhaps, the single most important factor in the development of any human settlement, and in New Mexico there are only six moderately dependable rivers. Human beings can only survive about ten days without water; without some reliable access to water, none of the other factors on which life depends can be made use of.

For this reason, water in New Mexico has formed the underlying basis of all human activity, and its abundance or scarcity is of the utmost importance for all that happens in the state. Consequently, from prehistoric times forward, water in New Mexico has been subject to an unbroken lineage of formal organizational control.

Indigenous Water Use: Prehistory to Spanish Contact

Logsdon - Farmland - Anasazi, Farms, Jemez MountainsNew Mexico has the longest continuously traceable history of human water use in the United States. Although we probably will never understand the specific origins of irrigation and flood-control practices in North America, we do know that the organized manipulation of water resources in New Mexico spans back to at least 800 A.D. and the run-off collection systems of the Ancestral Pueblo people of the Four Corners region. By 1400, their descendants, the Pueblo people who still make New Mexico their home, had created a complete system of gravity-fed irrigations ditches on the major rivers and tributaries within the state. These early irrigation systems arose simultaneously with the development of agriculture, thus making permanent settlements a possibility in an arid land and leading to the flowering of a rich Pueblo culture.

By the time that the Spanish explorers arrived in the 1540’s, both the Pueblo and Navajo people had developed irrigation practices that depended on centralized authority and mandatory community responsibility for the maintenance of the irrigation canals and ditches. Over the centuries, the Indigenous peoples of New Mexico had achieved an intimate adaptation to their physical environment. The Pueblo people, in particular, became master farmers able to produce “bumper crops” of corn, beans, and squash. These staple crops provided the basis of their existence.

Hispanic Water Use, 1600 – 1848

When the first Spanish settlers arrived in New Mexico in the mid-sixteenth century, many noted the similarities between the irrigation practices of the Indigenous people they encountered and the irrigation systems they remembered from their native Spain. Spanish explorers were likely to have shared a considerable understanding of the importance of irrigation. Like New Mexico, Spain is a largely arid place. For over a millennium the people living on the Iberian Peninsula had engaged in a continuous struggle to gain access to and maintain a sufficient amount of water for agriculture and domestic use. This led to centralized, community based irrigation practices, not unlike that of the Native peoples of New Mexico. Like the Pueblos and the Navajos, the Spanish recognized the primacy of community rights to water resources, and they operated a system of mandatory community responsibility for canal and ditch maintenance.

If the traditional water-control practices of the Spanish settlers and the Indigenous people resembled one another, there was one thing that the Spaniards brought with them that the Indigenous peoples did not have: a body of formal, written water law. This one fact would go far in helping to create in New Mexico a unique legal culture related to the use of water. This heritage of Spanish law was, in fact, an amalgam of ancient Roman and Islamic law, a legacy of the Iberian-Moorish culture of sixteenth century Spain. Essentially, of course, the law became one of the many weapons used by the Spanish settlers to assert dominance over the Native people. But culture does not always respect power, and Indigenous water use practices eventually became a permanent feature of Spanish and later Mexican water customs. The resulting system of community-based networks of irrigation ditches, or acequias, would remain unchallenged until the arrival of the American government in 1848.

In the early Spanish settlements, the residents usually lived clustered together in towns surrounded by cultivated fields and pasture land. Most families depended on their small, irrigated tracts of land to supply them with the necessities of life. For most communities, the irrigation system was so important it was begun even before the houses, public buildings, and churches were finished. Before the acequias were constructed, settlers had to carry heavy buckets of water hanging from yokes across their shoulders.

The success of these early settlements depended on the careful allocation of scarce water resources equitably among the colonists’ tracts of land. Tight community control over the distribution and use of the available water supply was necessary to ensure survival.

In this setting, two types of acequia, or ditch, management systems developed. The first functioned as part of a legally formed municipality or an Indian pueblo. The acequia madre was regarded as public property and its management was the responsibility of the municipal government. Early government instructions for the new town of Santa Fe in 1610, for example, gave the municipal council the power not only to distribute lands but also to apportion water for irrigation.

Daughters - Truchas RoadAnother type of management system was formed in communities that had limited or no legal status and lacked a town government. The majority of colonists lived in small rural communities of this type. Under this system, the community ditches were voluntarily developed by interested water users. The distribution of water was strictly regulated by an elected ditch boss, or mayordomo.

By 1700, an estimated 60 acequias, or ditches, were operating in New Mexico, followed by more than 100 ditches during the next century. At least 300 additional acequias were built in the 1800s. Working without the help of surveying instruments or modern machinery, the construction of these acequias required enormous physical labor. The ditches were dug with wooden spades and shaped with knives. Dirt was removed on rawhides drawn by oxen or suspended from poles carried by workers. The acequias were engineered to take advantage of gravity flow by diverting water upstream from the fields and digging the ditches around trees, large boulders and hills. This type of construction resulted in the serpentine characteristics that are common to many acequias.


Spanish law established the general principles under which irrigation was regulated in New Mexico. Government documents from Spain stated that all waters in the New World should be common to all inhabitants; that viceroys and other officials should supervise irrigable lands and protect them from livestock; that water should be distributed to colonists on the advice of municipal councils; and that local provisions regarding water distribution should promote the public welfare.

During the Mexican period of government, a series of water laws, based on existing practices, added specific penalties for various violations. For example, a person taking a bath in or otherwise polluting a public spring or well reserved for household uses would pay a fine.

When New Mexico became a territory, it continued to pass laws governing acequias. In 1851, the legislature protected acequias by prohibiting the disturbance of their sources. In 1866, the government ordered that deteriorating ditches be re-established. Acequias were recognized as community organizations in 1895, when the territorial legislature declared them public involuntary quasi-corporations with the power to sue or be sued.

Today, state statutes describe and govern many aspects of the nature, management and operation of community ditches and acequias, much as they did in the earlier years. Those statutes are found primarily in Article 2, Chapter 73, of the New Mexico statutes.

The United States’ victory in the Mexican-American War was formally recognized in the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848. This treaty, along with the peoples who wished to remain in the area, gave full retention of all property held prior to the unwritten “amalgam of Spanish and Indian (water) law and custom,” a first step toward mixing the “amalgam” with existing American law and custom. Thereafter, the new admixture was well on its way to becoming the law of the land, forming the basis on which the often-bitter fights about water use in New Mexico would be waged.

The annexation of the area now comprising New Mexico by the United States wrought changes every bit as revolutionary as those that came with the initial Native-Spanish contacts in the sixteenth century. American water law, which had been based largely on modified English Common Law practices, was developed east of the Mississippi River, where large amounts of rainfall virtually guaranteed an abundant water supply. East of the ninety-eighth meridian, agriculture could usually rely on adequate rainfall to insure sufficient crops. However, the area that the United States annexed as a result of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo was largely arid, with few perennial rivers and very little rainfall. Any agriculture developed in this region would have to rely on irrigation, a system unfamiliar to many Americans.

American political and social traditions further complicated the process. The American ideal of land distribution was deeply rooted in the belief of the sanctity of private property. This ideal celebrated the individual, independent farm and his family who cultivated the land on which they held legal ownership. At its basis, it reflected the assumption that abundant rainfall would support such independence. The belief in representative democracy as the supreme form of political organization was intimately related to this ideal. According to this perspective, independent farmers, owning their own land and free from economic servitude, voted for those leaders who they felt best represented their interests. The two credos of the United States, private property and republican democracy, deeply colored the view of those Americans who came to dominate the arid Southwest.

Not surprisingly, many public figures who lent their voice to the national dialogue about the future of the newly annexed lands expressed deep concern about the lack of water in the region. To their minds, abundant water made possible the ideal of agricultural independence. This, in turn, was the necessary condition for maintenance of a representative democracy. Fearing a loss of democratic independence, many American leaders would have agreed with the army engineer William H. Emory that any system of irrigation “involves a degree of subordination, and absolute obedience to a chief, repugnant to the habits of our people.”

But gradually the allure of potential wealth and new avenues to political power overcame this initial doubt. Thus began the long process of compromise, accommodation, and assimilation that was needed to produce a body of water policy suited to both the land and its many varied cultures. But the spirit of reluctant compromise did not completely erase the racial bigotries inherent in American culture. If white Americans in New Mexico found it necessary to incorporate aspects of the acequia system into their approach to water, they would change it to suit their worldview. One aspect of the acequia system that many white American leaders found offensive concerned the mayordomo. The mayordomo served as both local administrator and as a sort of water sheriff, whose duties included distributing water and commanding the mandatory labor of community inhabitants. To people raised on the rhetoric of independence and individualism, the mayordomo represented the worst aspects of a social system in which a few rich land owners lorded over an ignorant, dark-skinned peasantry. In 1895, the New Mexico territorial legislature dealt the traditional role of the mayordomo a deathblow by transferring his powers to ditch commissioners – a nod in the direction of science and efficiency. By the turn of the century, the entire acequia system would come under attack.

Water policy in the arid Southwest – Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Texas, and Utah—was largely shaped by the local economics particular to each place. Colorado, for example, had developed a complex body of water law in an attempt to reconcile domestic water consumption with the competing demands of the mining, livestock, and agricultural industries. Each state had to account for interstate use of shared waterways, but in general they could pursue independent water use policies. However, in the case of New Mexico, an independent policy could not be established. The reason lay with the fact that New Mexico’ largest rivers were not her own. The San Juan and the Canadian Rivers are shared with states to the north, east, and west. The Rio Grande is shared with both Colorado and the Republic of Mexico. The Gila River runs from New Mexico to Arizona, and the Pecos River flows into Texas. Thus all major decisions to be made by New Mexicans concerning their water would eventually have to accommodate the claims of competing rivals. This would be an issue that would effectively constrain New Mexico’s use of water well into the 21st century.

National Reclamation Act of 1902 (NRA)

The passage of the National Reclamation Act was a major turning point in the development of the western United States, as it fully opened the spigot of federal spending in pursuit of land development. The act created a federal agency with the power to survey, fund, and construct irrigation, water-storage, flood-control, and soil-conservation projects in the western United States. The overarching purpose of the NRA was to use federal funds to “reclaim” arid lands that were presumed useless without the development of water resources, ideally for the use of small landowners.

The first major project in the state to be seriously considered was Elephant Butte Dam and Reservoir on the Rio Grande, which entered the planning stage in 1905. This project not only catered to the large agricultural and livestock concerns in the southern part of the state, it also looked to facilitate water-appropriation agreements with Texas and the Republic of Mexico.

In 1905, territorial lawmakers formally responded to the NRA by passing a number of laws designed to ensure that New Mexico would fit all criteria necessary to meet “modern” standards and gain the much-needed federal dollars. First, the legislature passed the territory’s first comprehensive water code. This declared that “all natural waters” within the territory’s boundaries would be public property with universal access granted for beneficial use and designated the entire territory a “right-of-way” for “canals, acequias, and other water works. Second, the code of 1905 also created the Office of Territorial Engineer headed by an appointee of the territorial governor and guided by a six-member Board of Control, who were also appointees of the governor.

Ondrik - Please Add WaterThe Elephant Butte project, a three-hundred-foot-high concrete dam, with a reservoir capable of storing over two million acre-feet of water, would provide sufficient water for all downstream users, year round. The building of the Elephant Butte Project began a new era in New Mexico and the United States at large, one that would characterize national attitudes toward the conservation and management of water resources during the entire twentieth century. The days of private irrigation projects and the land monopolies that they had fostered were over. The United States government now considered the conservation and development of water resources a national responsibility. This major shift paved the way for the development of a comprehensive body of federal water law. It also meant that New Mexico now had a major financial resource from which to draw for future economic development. The next generation of New Mexico’s elected officials understood this, and they planned to take full advantage the opportunities that federal reclamation might provide.

Another type of project conceived during the New Deal was the San Juan Trans-Mountain Diversion Project. Born out of the Colorado River Compact, the San Juan Project proved to be the most controversial, most disputed, and most difficult ever developed in New Mexico. The San Juan River runs southwesterly down the Continental Divide from southern Colorado and cuts through the northwestern corner of New Mexico. The surrounding mountains feed the river through tributaries that drain an area of about 8,000 square miles. The central aim of the San Juan Project was to divert water from the Turkey Creek tributary of the San Juan into a series of five reservoirs with respective capacities of 15,000; 50,000; 70,000; 290,000; and 500,000 acre-feet, all to be located north of Pagosa Springs, Colorado. In the end, these waters would be diverted to the Chama River in New Mexico, where they would meet the Rio Grande in the Estancia Valley. The final project was not completed until the 1960's after enduring a tortured thirty-year history.

The Conchas Dam Project

The Canadian River has its origins in the melting snows of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains of southern Colorado. Winding down mountain slopes, the Canadian carves a one-thousand-foot gorge in the Las Vegas Plateau before spilling onto the Pecos-Canadian Plain in northeastern New Mexico. Northwest of the river stand the red wall of the Canadian Escarpment. To the east sprawls the Great Plains. Passing through New Mexico, the Canadian River cuts through Texas to Oklahoma, where it runs into the Arkansas River. The Canadian River is the largest tributary of the Arkansas River, and controlling it had been the desire of Americans who settled the area since the first years of the twentieth century.

The dream was finally realized in the Conchas Dam Project. Built between 1935 and 1943, the project ended a forty-year effort to develop large-scale irrigation for the region. The quest for a dam on the Canadian River consumed the lives of many dedicated individuals and cost millions of dollars. Fittingly, the project was massive in scale, all the more so because of its remote location. Conchas Dam spans the South Canadian River, a quarter mile below its confluence with the Conchas River in San Miguel County.

Constructed of twenty-seven steel-reinforced monoliths, the grey dam is an Art Deco-style concrete mammoth, rising to a height of 235 feet. At 1,250 feet in length, the Conchas Dam spans the entire river canyon.

The reservoir created by the dam has an 800,000 acre-feet capacity, and it covers an area of about twenty-six square miles. The reservoir extends up the Conchas River Valley about nine miles, and up the Canadian River Valley about fourteen miles. Over one hundred miles of irrigation canals extend the project southeast across the surface of the land. Underground are over six miles of tunnels and three miles of siphons.

The Conchas Dam Project provides an interesting study in New Deal culture. The project brought together several strands of New Deal thought and action, and resulted in a project of great utility and beauty. While possessing a long history, the project was eventually developed under the Emergency Relief Act of 1935, for the purpose of “water conservation, trans-mountain water diversion and irrigation, and reclamation.” (H.J. Res. 117, Pub. Res. No. 11, Statutes At Large 49, Part I, 1935). Approved by President Franklin D. Roosevelt on July 29, 1935, the Conchas Dam Project became a part of the Works Relief Program, under the Emergency Relief Appropriation Act of 1935. Congress authorized funding for the project in the Flood Control Act of 1936. The original purposes of the project were to develop effective flood control for the South Canadian and Conchas rivers, to supply reliable irrigation waters to the area, and to develop electrical power. The project was placed under the jurisdiction of the War Department. Captain Hans Kramer of the Army Corps of Engineers oversaw the design and construction.

Like all large-scale water control projects in New Mexico during the 1930s, the Conchas Dam Project was important because it served as a vehicle for economic and social transformation. During the 1930s, efforts to control water emerged as the only type of projects that could sustain large influxes of federal money into New Mexico. Unlike schools or highways, dams not only took years to develop and build, they also employed hundreds, even thousands, of individuals and consumed massive amounts of supplies. The Conchas Dam was built at a cost of $12 million, an incredible sum that transformed a poor, isolated area into a regional agricultural hub. But it was more than that. The construction of the project exposed many New Mexicans to new experiences and presented opportunities to acquire new skills. Thus, the project helped to develop the state’s workforce. And like all of New Mexico’s large water projects in the 1930s, the Conchas Dam Project helped transform the state from a remote, largely rural society, to a modern urban society.

With the completion of the Conchas project, John Martin Dam at Caddoa, Colorado, became the new focal point of District activity. Tucumcari District personnel transferred to Caddoa and on December 4, 1939, the organizational name was officially changed to U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Caddoa District Work proceeded there until the dam was 85 percent complete. With the world at war, however, John Martin Dam was temporarily put on hold.

Soon after the onset of World War II, in early 1942, the District headquarters was transferred to Albuquerque and given its permanent name along with an additional mission. Switching from civil works projects to wartime activities, and with a peak workforce of 3,039 people, the Albuquerque District performed real estate and construction services in support of various military projects in the region. Among those projects was the work at Los Alamos Laboratory where scientists labored in development of atomic energy and its application to weapons.

Ranney - Cochiti Lake, New MexicoAfter the war, the District resumed civil works construction and completed John Martin Reservoir. Other major projects followed in the ensuing years. They are, in chronological order: Jemez Canyon Dam, Abiquiu Dam, Two Rivers Dam, Cochiti Dam, Trinidad Dam (in Colorado), and Santa Rosa Dam.

Today, the District continues several regional civil works projects. In addition, it now provides extensive design and construction services to three New Mexico military bases: Kirtland Air Force Base (Albuquerque), Holloman Air Force Base (Alamogordo) and Cannon Air Force Base (Clovis).

Brantley Dam of the Carlsbad Project

The settlement of the American West has long been linked to the availability of water. In eastern New Mexico, early irrigation attempts focused on the Pecos River. Extensive private ventures in the area, for all their good intent, eventually met failure. Like many irrigation projects across the West, the Carlsbad Project was resurrected by the Bureau of Reclamation. Carlsbad was one of the earliest Reclamation projects, and is one of the more significant projects in terms of surviving examples of mixed 19th- and 20th-century technology.

The Carlsbad Project is located along the Pecos River in southeastern New Mexico near the city of Carlsbad. Located in the Chihuahuan Desert, the project enjoys a number of sun-drenched days during the 212-day growing season. Temperatures sometimes reach 111 degrees at the project’s 3,100 foot elevation. Rainfall of only 12.4 inches a year forced settlers to rely on irrigation methods.

The project’s water supply derives from two river basins. The Pecos River Basin above Lake McMillan drains 16,990 square miles with annual runoff of 234,700 acre-feet. Part of the project’s water comes from diversion of the Black River, 15 miles southeast of Carlsbad, and three miles northwest of Malaga. The river basin above the diversion point drains 343 square miles generating 9,000 acre-feet.

The project included four dam sites and reservoirs, and an extensive lateral and canal network. Avalon Dam and Reservoir are located five miles north of Carlsbad on the Pecos River. McMillan Dam was breached following construction of Brantley Dam, in 1987. It was located nine miles above Avalon, and 14 miles northwest of Carlsbad. Both Avalon and McMillans represented early private irrigation ventures rehabilitated by Reclamation.

The Carlsbad Irrigation District includes 25,000 acres of irrigable land. These lands extend for 20 miles along the Pecos River, three to five miles in width. The project’s irrigation system serves more than 700 persons on 155 farms.

Most of the irrigated lands of the project lie between Avalon Dam on the north, and the mouth of the Black River near Malaga. Stretching north along the project at its inception were the towns of Malaga, Loving, Otis, Phoenix, Carlsbad, Avalon, and Lakewood, at Lake McMillan.

Native American Water Issues

The Native American Water Resources Program, created by the Governor in 1995, is aimed at promoting a spirit of coordination, communication, and good will between Tribal and State governments as separate sovereignties. Under Governor Bill Richardson’s administration, a statement of policy and process was signed with the 19 New Mexico Pueblos to work in good faith to amicably and fairly resolve issues and differences in a government-to-government relationship. This policy and process also extends to other Tribes and Nations within New Mexico.

Rights to water on Indian grant lands and reservations in New Mexico fall within one or a combination of three different doctrines: pueblo historic use water rights, federal reserve water rights, or water rights established under the laws of the State of New Mexico. Water rights administration, litigation and negotiation leading to a settlement of rights to water are exceedingly complex when Native American water rights are involved.

Navajo Nation Settlement

The State of New Mexico and the Navajo Nation on April 19, 2005, signed a water rights settlement that would resolve the claims of the Navajo Nation for the use of waters of the San Juan River Basin in northwestern New Mexico.

The settlement agreement is intended to adjudicate the Navajo Nation’s water rights and provide associated water development projects for the benefit of the Navajo Nation in exchange for a release of claims to water that could potentially displace existing non-Navajo water users in the basin and seriously impact the local economy.

The settlement agreement would establish the water rights of the Navajo Nation in the San Juan Basin in New Mexico. It would draw to a close more than 20 years of efforts to adjudicate the Navajo Nation’s water right owners, it would protect existing uses of water, it would allow for future growth, and it would do so within the amount of water apportioned to New Mexico by the Colorado River Compacts.

The Aamodt Issue

The Aamodt adjudication of the Nambe-Pojoaque-Tesuque stream system (N-P-T Basin)
Is one of the longest running federal cases in the United States. Negotiations to settle the case have resulted in the development of a revised Settlement Agreement. After the original proposed Settlement Agreement was released and presented in public meetings in 2004, representatives of non-Pueblo water users who had raised concerns about the proposed Settlement Agreement were brought into the mediation group so that their input could be better incorporated into the negotiations. Continued negotiations were designed to address concerns and objections of non-Pueblo water users. These negotiations have resulted in the formulation of the revised Settlement Agreement.

Through the mechanisms outlined in the Settlement Agreement, the parties seek to lessen impacts to the aquifer over time while providing reliability of supply and greater certainty regarding use of water in a chronically water-short basin.

Taos Pueblo Draft Water Rights Settlement Agreement

The Taos Pueblo Draft Water Rights Settlement Agreement has been developed through multi-party negotiations among the Taos Pueblo, the State of New Mexico, the Taos Valley Acequia Association, the Town of Taos, El Prado Water and Sanitation District, and the 12 Taos-area Mutual Domestic Water Consumer Associations. Collectively the parties to the Draft Settlement Agreement (DSA) represent the vast majority of water users in the Taos Valley. The United States is also an important party to these negotiations. In negotiations started in 1989 by an acequia-Pueblo Initiative, these seven parties have pursued a settlement of Taos Pueblo’s water rights claims to the Rio Hondo and Rio Pueblo de Taos. Since August 2003, the parties have worked closely with a mediator to complete a settlement. This process has produced the DSA that was publicly released March 31, 2006.

The joint public release is an important step toward completing a water rights settlement in the Taos Valley. While no party has yet approved the DSA, the document represents the agreement reached at the table by the local negotiators. The six local parties (that is all parties except the United States), must now review and approve the document for the process to continue. Once the DSA is agreed upon at the local level, federal negotiations will continue to develop appropriate congressional legislation that approves and funds a final agreement. The negotiating parties will pursue similar legislation at the state level.

Anasazi America: Seventeen Centuries on the Road from Center Place
David Stuart
University of New Mexico Press, Albuquerque, 2000

Supplying Water and Saving the environment for Six Billion People: Proceedings from Selected Sessions from the 1990 ASCE Convention
Udai, P. Singh, and Otto J. Helwig, Editors
New York: American Society of Civil Engineers, 1990

"Dividing New Mexico’s Waters, 1700 – 1912"
John O. Baxter
University of New Mexico Press, Albuquerque, 1997

Dennis Chavez and the Politics of Water, 1931 – 1941
Christopher J. Vigil
Master’s Thesis
University of New Mexico, Albuquerque, New Mexico, 2006

New Mexico State Engineer Office, Santa Fe, NM

Water in New Mexico: A History of Its Management and Use
Ira G. Clark
University of New Mexico Press, Albuquerque, 1978

Rivers of Empire: Water, Aridity, and Growth of the American West
Donald Worster
Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1985

Acts of the Legislative Assembly of New Mexico, Thirty-sixth Session
New Mexican Printing Co., Santa Fe, 1905

“Correlation of the Model and Prototype Tests of the Conchas Dam Service Spillway and Stilling Basin”
Geary M. Allen, Jr.
Master’s Thesis,
University of New Mexico, Albuquerque, 1952

United States Department of the Interior, Bureau of Reclamation,
Regional Director, Region 5.
Factual Data-Carlsbad Project, 196?

The Bill Lane Center for the American West

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