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.
There’s more to Roswell than shot glasses, T-shirts, earrings, mugs, Christmas ornaments and fake driver’s licenses featuring little green men.
Aliens may have put the small, southeastern city on the radar for national and international travelers, but it wasn’t UFOs and their passengers that founded Roswell. Roswell is the story of the Wild West, the oilman, the adventurer, the rancher and the everyday, hard-working citizen.
It was businessman Van C. Smith and his partner Aaron Wilburn who in 1869 helped stack the adobe bricks that would become the city’s first two buildings. The structures housed the general store and post office, and provided sleeping accommodations for paying guests.
According to “The Place Names of New Mexico” by Robert Julyan, the two men settled on the Rio Hondo stream near the area where it intersects with the Pecos River. Before their arrival, locals called the area Rio Hondo after the stream. Smith decided to give his small settlement a different name for practical reasons. Smith christened the town Roswell after his prominent Lafayette, Indiana lawyer father Roswell Smith.
According to Julyan “in 1872 Smith let it be known among his friends that he was calling his place Roswell, for his father …”
A short statement in the May 25, 1872 Santa Fe’s The Daily New Mexican announced his intentions.
“Van C. Smith has named his place on the Rio Hondo, in Lincoln County, ‘Roswell,’ which address should be placed upon all mail matter directed him, for if simply directed to Rio Hondo it may be carried to any point upon the stream, and cause a great delay and inconvenience.”
The post office was established in 1873. Smith became postmaster and the name Roswell became official.
Although Smith established Roswell, he wasn’t the driving force behind its growth. He sold his holdings to Capt. Joseph C. Lea, for whom Lea County is named, and it was Lea and his family who helped it grow and thrive.
New Mexico wasn’t the only place where Smith left a mark.
A 1997 New Mexico Historical Review article by Frederick Nolan provides more insight into the life of Smith, whose full name was Van Ness Cummings Smith. He was born in 1837 in Windsor County, Vermont. He initially left home at a young to seek gold, but was unsuccessful. He ended up in Arizona in the 1860s, where he became a prominent citizen helping settle Prescott and becoming the state’s first sheriff.
By the late 1860s, Smith was down on his luck and left Arizona for Omaha, Nebraska, where, according to Nolan, he became a successful professional gambler. While there, he wrote a letter to his friend Follett Christie about his discontent.
A March 21, 1868 blurb in the Arizona Miner said that Smith told Christie he was “tired of the East, and intends to strike out soon and hunt bed-rock in some auriferous region where folks are more free-hearted, liberal, and – honest.”
A year later, he was in New Mexico involved in various adventures and dealings. But the one that had the most lasting impact was settling Roswell.
Smith’s life came to an end in August of 1914 after a long illness. He died in Prescott, Arizona. An obit in the Sept. 2, 1914 Weekly Journal-Miner, with the headline “Arizona’s First Sheriff Is No More,” paid tribute to him. It referred to Smith as one of the “strong men” and “most useful citizens” of Arizona’s early days.
“To state that the deceased was one of the pilgrims in blazing the way for others to follow, may justly be accredited to him and others of that era. He came to Prescott early in 1863, and when the territory was organized none were more faithful, zealous and courageous than the deceased.”
Visitors can find Roswell in the southeastern part of the state within Chavez County on the northern fringe of the Chihuahua Desert. Its population has reached nearly 48,000 and it’s the fifth largest city in New Mexico.
Roswell is also home to Bitter Lake National Wildlife Refuge, the J. Kenneth Smith Bird Sanctuary & Nature Center and New Mexico Military Institute. Oil rigs are a familiar sight, as are rows of pecan farms and cows. The area is a huge producer of milk.
Interesting tidbit: There’s also a Roswell in Georgia, founded in 1839 by Roswell King. It’s a close suburb of Atlanta and has a population near 90,000.
The now infamous Roswell incident has created a cult following among UFO enthusiasts. The story goes that in July of 1947, local rancher W.W. “Mac” Brazel found tinfoil, rubber and thin wooden beams scattered around his ranch. There were reports of “silvery flying discs” sighted, so he took the debris to the Roswell sheriff’s office, who then contacted the U.S. Army. The real frenzy began when the Army, in a news release, announced it had recovered a “flying disc” on a ranch near Roswell.
Authorities later said the materials were part of a weather balloon kite, but it was too late. The conspiracy seeds were planted and subsequent books, stories and documentaries helped the alien story blossom into a full identity for the town.
People from around the world flock to the city every year for the Roswell UFO Festival in July. This year, the city will recognize the 75th anniversary of the rumored extraterrestrial landing.
Beyond the storefronts of main street, Roswell is a town similar to other rural communities across the state. They just happen to embrace the legend of little green men.