Editor’s note: The Journal continues “What’s in a Name?,” a twice a month column in which staff writer Elaine Briseño will give a short history of how places in New Mexico got their names.
Enchant: to influence by or as if by charms and incantation, bewitch; to attract and move deeply; rouse to ecstatic admiration
These are definitions according to Merriam-Webster but the word has deeper meaning for New Mexicans.
For decades, the country’s 47th state has been known as the Land of Enchantment. It’s sometimes hard to explain the allure of New Mexico to new arrivals and those who have never been here, but alluring it is, despite often finding itself on the bottom of one list or another.
Its laid-back approach to life, its infinite vistas, stunning sunsets, multi-cultural communities who, daily, breathe life into their traditions, and its underlying rebellious spirit have been known to cast a spell on visitors and residents alike. To understand how New Mexico earned this title, we have to travel back more than 100 years to the height of the railroad because it’s the railroad that most likely first coined the phrase.
State Historian Rob Martinez said the phrase was used in 1906 by Lilian Whiting in her book “The Land of Enchantment: From Pike’s Peak to the Pacific,” which describes her travels through Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona and California. Whiting was a journalist, editor, author and a celebrated spiritualist.
In the opening of her book about this region, she has this to say: “… the inhabitants represent the best quality of American life; the opportunities and advantages already offered and constantly increasing are greater than would at first be considered possible. This entire Southwest can only be accurately defined as the Land of Enchantment.”
Durwood Ball, editor of New Mexico Historical Review and an associate professor in the University of New Mexico’s history department, said it’s possible she drew inspiration from the railroad companies. He notes that in the book’s acknowledgements, Whiting gives thanks to several executives of railroads that served the region, including the Santa Fe Railway, and the Denver and Rio Grande Western Railroad.
“Maybe they were funding her,” he said. “Did it come out of their marketing department or did she make it up? What they (railroads) wanted was passengers and tourist traffic; the fares.”
He may be right. A brief in the Oct. 15, 1904, edition of the Albuquerque Journal, and several other papers, marked the 10-year anniversary of the Santa Fe Railway route that ran from Chicago, to Los Angeles and on to San Francisco. The brief said the train would resume daily service “running through southwest land of enchantment.”
Whiting’s book was promoted in New Mexico and the phrase picked up steam in the late 1920s as a way to drive tourism. The tagline appeared in newspaper advertisements in an attempt to lure tourists to celebrations in Acoma, Taos and Gallup, and it was referenced in a speech about Carlsbad Caverns.
In August 1927, the Albuquerque Journal put out a call for the public to buy advertising space describing what “New Mexico, the Land of Enchantment” had to offer. The Journal planned on running these ads in 40 other newspapers across the United States in an attempt to boost tourism and civic pride.
The motto was obviously gaining popularity going into the 1930s, but there wasn’t a consensus yet. Officials were toying with the idea of branding New Mexico the “Sunshine State,” – license plates from 1932 bear that slogan – but gave up that idea when Florida adopted the nickname in 1934.
The Land of Enchantment slogan stuck around.
By the 1940s, the phrase was everywhere in New Mexico. State Motor Vehicle Commissioner J.O. Garcia ordered the phrase be stamped on all license plates in 1941. This year marks the 80th year in which the slogan has appeared on license plates.
The state waited nearly 60 more years before making the nickname official in 1999.
The phrase may have emerged as a gimmick to attract tourists, but that doesn’t make it any less true. Writers, photographers, tourists, actors, artists and spiritual leaders migrate to New Mexico yearly, seeking to immerse themselves in its enchantment.
Cody Johnson, spokesman for the New Mexico Tourism Department, said the state has added the phrase to its New Mexico True campaign. He said the state conducted a study with people outside New Mexico and the term Land of Enchantment consistently scored well.
“In terms of people seeing New Mexico as an exciting place people should visit at least once and a place they would feel welcome,” he said. “… The Land of Enchantment is an idea that persists.”