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Stars & Swipes

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — New Mexico became an American territory in 1848. But it wasn’t until 1912 that President William Howard Taft signed a proclamation making the Territory of New Mexico the 47th state. Why did it take so long to achieve statehood?

In his fascinating new history “Forty-Seventh Star,” Albuquerque author David Holtby zeroes in on that confounding issue. In the book, Holtby unearths the multiple, layered intrigues of territorial, regional and national partisan politics from the 1880s to the signing.

One of the New Mexico politicians who pushed for statehood in the 1890s was Thomas B. Catron, who served as head of the territory’s Republican Party and in the mid-1890s was elected the territorial delegate to Congress. But Catron’s brash insider moves and public predictions of committee passage of statehood legislation turned off potential congressional allies.

“Forty-Seventh Star, New Mexico’s Struggle for Statehood” by David V. Holtby
University of Oklahoma Press, $29.95, 362 pp.

His political campaign for the post of delegate was held under the shadow of the assassination of Francisco Chavez, the territory’s most powerful Democrat and Santa Fe sheriff. That killing had followed a failed attempt on Catron’s life.

Holtby writes that Catron began his statehood drive back in the 1880s “motivated in large part by the expectation that it would produce a financial windfall.”

By that time, he was a wealthy man. And by the time he had served as delegate, Holtby described Catron as the largest individual landowner in the United States. He is still remembered as a key member of the Santa Fe Ring, “which operated across party lines and attracted men of cunning and greed,” Holtby writes.

The author said he came to this book while working on a manuscript that covered a more expansive chronology – 1770 to 1945 – and deals with the influences of the policies of the governments of Spain, Mexico and the United States in New Mexico, and how the societies responded to them.

“I thought I’d do a chapter or maybe two on statehood. As I got into it, every question I posed, the answers kept surprising me. So I kept digging, and then there was that ‘A-ha!’ moment. I thought there’s way more here than a chapter or two. So I set aside the first project,” Holtby said.

His statehood manuscript grew and grew in length.

“As an editor I always asked my authors, for whom are you writing? For your academic colleagues? That’s certainly fine, but there were people who had the … ability to write for the so-called general interest reader,” he said.

“When I started the (statehood) project I made it clear that while it had a lot of documentation, I wanted my friends, my neighbors … were the audience, not the university faculty, but I hope they will find it informative.

“I wrote the book because I wanted New Mexicans to have a deeper awareness,” Holtby added.

The Territory of Arizona became a state five weeks after New Mexico, on Feb. 14, 1912. That date was the 50th anniversary of the Arizona Territory’s declaration for the Confederacy, he said.

“Some say it wanted to show they were rejecting that previous declaration, and others argue it was a last-ditch effort to poke the United States in the eye and remind the U.S. that (the territory) had once been against you,” Holtby said.

The University of Oklahoma Press, which published “Forty-Seventh Star,” named it the outstanding book of 2012 for the Julian J. Rothbaum Prize.

Holtby is retired from the UNM Press, where for more than 28 years he served as editor, editor-in-chief and associate director.

David Holtby discusses, signs “Forty-Seventh Star” at 7 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 25, at Bookworks, 4022 Rio Grande NW; at noon Wednesday, Sept. 26, he lectures on “Four Forgotten Ones in the Struggle for Statehood” in the auditorium of the New Mexico History Museum, 113 Lincoln Ave., Santa Fe. Free. Immediately following the lecture Holtby will sign copies of the book. He will give a talk and sign at 2 p.m. Oct. 2 at the UNM Bookstore, near Central and Cornell. And he will give a lecture on “Statehood and Albuquerque” at 2 p.m. Oct. 21 at the Albuquerque Museum, 2000 Mountain NW. The talk, which is sponsored by the Albuquerque Historical Society, is free. A book signing follows.