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New Mexico’s path to statehood often faltered

Cabezon Peak is a reminder of New Mexico's volcanic past, of the mountains that pushed through the earth and formed valleys between them, that defined that rugged natural beauty we take for granted. (Morgan Petroski / Journal)
Cabezon Peak is a reminder of New Mexico's volcanic past, of the mountains that pushed through the earth and formed valleys between them, that defined that rugged natural beauty we take for granted. (Morgan Petroski / Journal)
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There was a sea here once, a sea that slowly dried while mountains pushed up and broad valleys and mesas filled with grasses and forests. Volcanoes erupted in molten fury, sharp-clawed sloths and woolly mammoths lived and died and left their bones. And finally, man began walking on this ground we now call home.

Folsom Man, Clovis Man, the Basket Makers, the Anasazi. People came, lived and moved on. Apaches, Navajo and Pueblo people settled and stayed. Spaniards and Mexicans came and stayed, too, looking for riches, claiming the land and raising their flags.

Ancient history? Yes. New Mexico’s road to statehood in 1912 really began on a summer’s day in 1846, when an American Army general and his men crossed over Raton Pass.

Before that day, New Mexico’s history was not leading toward American statehood. “What we were on a trajectory here was to be eventually a Mexican state,” said state historian Rick Hendricks. “It took a war to put us on the road to statehood.”

But those early years – who we were, where our parents and grandparents were born, our skin color, language and religion, even our landscape and the minerals under our ground – had direct and indirect bearing on our long and tortured road to being admitted to the union.

New Mexico’s dance with statehood was slowed by a host of factors, including partisan politics here and in Washington, D.C., reluctance among New Mexicans to take the leap and a series of bad luck and odd happenstance.

But a theme arises again and again between the time the Stars and Stripes was first raised in Santa Fe in 1846 and New Mexico’s admittance as the 47th state in the Union 66 years later.

Historian Robert W. Larson, a University of New Mexico alumnus who wrote the definitive history of the drive to statehood, sums up the prevailing obstacle over six decades: “… an unfortunate but instinctive distrust of New Mexico’s essentially foreign culture was the last and most durable brick added to the strong wall of opposition that prevented the territory from joining the Union until 1912.”

American nativism raised its head again and again as a dubious nation looked at New Mexico and saw “a race speaking an alien language” (as one congressman put it) and “the heart of our worst civilization … with all the signs of ignorance and sloth” (the New York Times) and made sure the door to statehood stayed firmly closed.

Inauspicious beginning

What is now New Mexico was a land unto itself when Gen. Stephen Kearny and the American Army took it for the United States in the summer of 1846. The troops met no resistance as they marched to Santa Fe in Mexico’s most northern holding, but that did not mean the people, who had lived under the crown of Spain and the Republic of Mexico for nearly 250 years, welcomed the change.

Skirmishes erupted, the new civilian government crawled forward in fits and starts in frequent conflict with military rule, and the governor was scalped alive.

Col. Sterling Price, who was left to deal with New Mexico as Kearny and his troops quickly headed farther west, put it dryly: “The opinion that New Mexicans are favorably inclined to the United States government is entirely erroneous.”

In 1848, with the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo that ended the Mexican-American War, New Mexico was annexed to the United States.

Two years later New Mexicans had hammered out a Constitution and brought it before the voters, who approved it 8,371 to 39. It was an overwhelming endorsement of a new form of government.

But New Mexico’s fate was not in its own hands. The debate over slavery was splitting the nation, and Congress was uncomfortable admitting new states that might tip the balance. When President Zachary Taylor, a proponent of statehood for New Mexico, died in July 1850, an early and easy entry into the union was doomed.

Instead, Congress settled New Mexico’s eastern boundary dispute with Texas and created the Territory of New Mexico, a large swath that included most of modern-day Arizona and part of southern Colorado.

The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo had come with the promise that New Mexico would be admitted to the union “at the proper time,” and the New Mexico Territory would spend the next 64 years waiting to find out when that would be.

Nothing comes easy

Who lived in the young territory? The population was a little more than 61,000 in 1850 and inhabitants were natives of Mexican, Spanish and American Indian descent with an ever-growing smattering of Anglo newcomers who had traveled the Santa Fe Trail for trapping and trade.

The Roman Catholic Church was an integral part of daily life and political sway, and Spanish and native languages were spoken as often as English. Larson, in his book “New Mexico’s Quest for Statehood,” notes that New Mexicans once elected as one of their nonvoting territorial representatives in Congress a Catholic priest who spoke only Spanish and required a translator.

The population of the territory was not united on the question of whether New Mexico would be better off as a state or a territory. And that wrangling, which waxed and waned with arguments about taxes, land mass, political influence and the role of the Catholic Church, would go on for decades.

As the years clicked by, Congress brought more and more states into the union and took up statehood for New Mexico a half-dozen times. It came within a whisker of approving it on more than one occasion.

Each time a bill was introduced, many of the same arguments were made. On the plus side, New Mexico met and exceeded the population requirement, it had established public schools and developed a strong livestock industry. On the negative side, New Mexico was predominantly Hispano, its adults were largely illiterate and its language and culture were very different from the “Americans” who were deciding who would join them as a nation.

Easterners’ prejudices were only buoyed by reports of gunslinging in the Lincoln and Colfax county wars and even by the testimony of territorial Gov. Lew Wallace’s wife, who described the local housing as “a collection of brick kilns” and opined that under statehood “the Americans would bear the taxes and the Mexicans hold all the offices.”

The modern perception is that outside forces continually deprived New Mexico of joining the union, but state historian Hendricks points out that “New Mexico did it to itself on several occasions.”

In 1866, a constitutional convention adjourned without taking action when a quorum failed to show up in Santa Fe. In 1890, voters rejected a constitution by more than two to one.

“The reasons that keep New Mexico from being a state that are put forward – they’re primarily Hispanic, they’re Roman Catholic, they don’t speak English, they’re poorly educated – those four things that keep coming up over and over and over probably wouldn’t have been issues,” Hendricks said, if the people and their leaders had been united in their desire to push for becoming a state.

Welcome to Montezuma

As the years rolled by, neighboring Colorado, Utah, Wyoming and Idaho managed to find their stars on the American flag.

As the 20th century dawned, New Mexico’s population had reached nearly 200,000. The state was crisscrossed by railroads and Fred Harvey hotels, and its fortunes began to change.

In 1902, Congress took up a bill to bring Oklahoma, New Mexico and Arizona into the union, and rather than speculating about odd and foreign territories, members of a Senate committee actually toured New Mexico to see and hear from her citizens.

The bill died in the Senate the next year, but two years later statehood popped up again – this time with a proposal to bring New Mexico and Arizona into the union as one state, known as “Montezuma.”

The rationale for “Montezuma” was that combining Arizona’s smaller population with New Mexico’s larger population would constitute a more appropriate congressional representation than if they were admitted separately. New Mexico’s territorial delegate, Bernard Rodey, made the case that the two territories contained distinct populations and were separated by a mountain range. That proposal died, but it came up again the next year.

In 1906 the joint Arizona-New Mexico state was to be called “Arizona” and have its capital in Santa Fe. Congress approved the joint state but allowed New Mexicans and Arizonans a referendum on the idea. New Mexicans approved the measure, but Arizona voted it down and the joint state idea was quieted.

Meanwhile, Oklahoma managed to become a state in 1907.

In 1910, the U.S. Census recorded the population of the New Mexico Territory as 327,301. A dozen railroads were in full swing and the president of the United States, William Howard Taft, had paid a visit.

Had the time finally come for the bricks to be removed from the wall of opposition? A new state constitution was written, Congress took up statehood for New Mexico and Arizona once again. It took eight months of negotiations – with objections that Arizona’s constitution made judicial recall too easy and New Mexico’s made amendments too difficult – but on Aug. 21, 1911, Taft signed the bill promising statehood to both New Mexico and Arizona.

Less than five months later, on Jan. 6, 1912, New Mexico became the 47th star on the flag when Taft signed the New Mexico statehood bill. (Arizona joined the union a little more than a month later.)

New Mexicans officially became Americans and inaugurated the first popularly elected governor, William McDonald.

How did the long march to statehood influence who we are today? The results of being late to the party of America were probably more psychological than practical, according to Hendricks.

“I think certainly it affected how New Mexicans viewed themselves and thought other people viewed them,” he says. “The citizens of New Mexico didn’t have all the rights and privileges of a citizen of the United States for a long time, and I think that’s a big thing.”

Keeping the door to statehood closed for a people who looked and spoke and lived differently from the rest of ethnically European America was also a black mark on the young nation, Hendricks says.

“New Mexico had all the particulars we needed. We had an economy that was sufficient. We had sufficient population. We had a body politic that had been involved in electing representatives to Congress,” Hendricks says. But “New Mexico was unique in being as Mexican as it was, and maybe that was just too much for the eastern United States to swallow. It was just a very, very different place. I think for the country probably it’s a very unfortunate episode.”

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