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.
Chile may have made its New Mexico debut up north, but it’s the Hatch Valley down south that made it a legend.
Mention the name to almost any New Mexican and they immediately begin to salivate, or, if they have more manners, think quietly to themselves: That’s where chile lover’s dreams come true.
To be fair, delicious chile hails from many parts of the state, but more than anything, people associate New Mexico chile with Hatch. One might even argue it’s the only reason most of us can find Hatch on a map. The self-proclaimed “Chile Capital of the World” is a small farming village north of Las Cruces with a population of just over 1,700 people, according to the 2020 Census. It is named for Gen. Edward Hatch, a Civil War veteran who later led a regiment of African American troops known as Buffalo Soldiers.
More on him shortly, after a brief history of how Hatch came to be a village. It wasn’t always named Hatch and it took a couple of tries before a permanent Spanish settlement took root.
The original town was established in 1851 and called Santa Barbara. Clashes with the local Apache people drove people away until the United States military established Fort Thorn nearby in 1853. Officials shuttered the fort just seven years later and people once again left Santa Barbara. It was not occupied again until 1875.
Like many Anglos of that time, it was work that brought Gen. Hatch to New Mexico. He became commander of Fort Thorn. It was for him that the village was renamed.
Hatch was born in Bangor, Maine, on Dec. 22, 1832. He received an education at the Norwich Military Academy in Vermont and when the Civil War began he signed up with the Union Army. Among other things, he became commander of the cavalry division of the Army of the Tennessee and served under Ulysses S. Grant. His performance and service during the war earned him the rank of general.
In 1875, he became the commander of the Military Department of New Mexico. It was during that time that he served as commander of Fort Thorn and led the Ninth Cavalry Regiment of Black Buffalo Soldiers in the conflict with the Apaches.
The Daily New Mexican shed some light on his personality in its April 18, 1876, edition describing Hatch as he traveled south by carriage to look into reports of “raiding Apaches.”
“He was in citizens dress but looked as if he meant business, and loved it. He is temperate, active, alert … ‘He has no begad nonsense about him.’ ”
A May 23, 1876, brief in the Weekly New Mexican has this to say about his efforts to make peace with the Native people on the Ojo Caliente reservation.
Hatch “…came back to Santa Fe on Wednesday, having amicably arranged matters with them, by providing that they get plenty to eat. The General finds that good and abundant food given to Indians is much less costly than grape-shot, and a more pleasant diet to all concerned.”
Hatch died in 1889 in Fort Robinson, Nebraska, from an injury he sustained after being thrown from his carriage. Obituaries referred to him as one of the “most brilliant soldiers in the Union army.”
The obituary in the Davenport, Iowa’s Morning Democrat newspaper described him as a young man of “sanguine temperament, ambitious plans and large views and it was a question with many of his acquaintances whether his noted self-confidence would stand the crucial tests of the war. His first year at the front settled all doubt as to the true metal of his qualities.”
Hatch the village became an agricultural community with a stop along the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway diagonal line between Rincon and Deming. Railroad use has declined, but the popularity of Hatch and its chile continues to grow.
It’s believed the Spaniards introduced the pueblo people to cultivated chile peppers in the late 1500s to early 1600s. The chile that adapted the best was a long green chile that turns red in the fall, which is what we enjoy today.
Joseph Franzoy was the first commercial chile farmer in the Hatch Valley. Franzoy, an Austrian immigrant, came to the valley with his wife Celestina Franzoy in 1917, when many small farms there were mostly growing cotton and wheat.
According to a September 2018 New Mexico Magazine story by Deborah Busemeyer, Franzoy had always dreamed of being a farmer and his Hatch Valley neighbors laughed when he wanted to diversify his crops by planting vegetables instead of cotton. He didn’t yet know about the crop that would put him in the history books. It was neighbors that introduced him to chile and upon first taste, he and his wife thought they were being poisoned.
But, like many of us, Franzoy came to love it. Others in his community were chile lovers and grew it for themselves, but didn’t sell to anyone outside the valley. Joseph did and here New Mexico is today enjoying the best produce on the planet.
Every year as summer winds to a close and farmers start harvesting their crops, the Hatch Valley Chamber of Commerce holds the annual Hatch Chile Festival. This year’s event will take place Labor Day weekend Sept. 3 and 4.
Curious about how a town, street or building got its name? Email staff writer Elaine Briseño at firstname.lastname@example.org or 505-823-3965 as she continues the monthly journey in “What’s in a Name?”