The Journal continues “What’s in a Name?,” a once a month column in which writer Elaine Briseño will give a short history of how places in New Mexico got their names.
Modern-day Clovis is a mostly agricultural community in the eastern part of the state whose genesis, like many rural communities, was the railroad, and its passengers the fertilizer that helped the city spring up around it.
While little argument exists about how the city of nearly 38,000 got started, the same can’t be said for how Clovis got its name.
The Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway began constructing its route through the area in the early 1900s. The preparation for the town began in 1906 after railway engineers were told to buy the first level section of land west of Texico and establish a town and rail station there.
“They looked upon an unending sea of waving prairie grass reaching to the horizon in every direction and chose the site just northwest of an existing rail switch, known as Riley Switch,” states the Clovis Chamber of Commerce website.
The land purchase was made in October of 1906 and town lots went up for sale on May 1, 1907. This gave the town its first name – Riley’s Switch.
That didn’t last long. The city’s name, according to the official version, was literally plucked from the history books. The wife or daughter of Edward Payson Ripley, president of the AT&SF railroad at the time, was studying the first Christian king of the Franks, Clovis I, who was a European ruler in the 5th century.
Robert Julyan in his book “The Place Names of New Mexico” mentions the above story, but he adds a second possibility for the name’s origin. He said the name has also been attributed to the daughter of James Dunn, the railroad’s chief engineer. He notes that neither origin has been documented.
The general manager for the property began purchasing newspaper advertisements in 1907 seeking homesteaders to settle Clovis, the “new Santa Fe Division Townsite” eight miles west of Texico.
“These resident lots in Clovis Heights now on sale can be purchased from $75 to $125 per lot, one half down, the balance in six months at 10% interest.”
The city was officially incorporated with the name Clovis in May of 1909.
But long before today’s railroad settlement, Clovis was home to the prehistoric Clovis people and Clovis culture, which is an anthropologically significant group of early Native Americans. Many people mistakenly believe the town was named for the site but that’s not true, according to officials there. It’s the other way around. The town existed before the prehistoric bones linked to the Clovis people and culture were discovered.
Archaeologists swarmed the state after a 1908 flood in Folsom in northern New Mexico washed away the ground, exposing bones that had been buried for thousands of years. They were discovered by cowboy George McJunkin as he went about his rounds checking the fences and arroyos for damage, according to a piece written by Stewart Green in partnership with the state’s tourism department.
Years later, in 1929, 19-year-old amateur archeologist Ridgely Whiteman of Clovis, inspired by reports of the New Mexico digs in the local newspapers, discovered evidence of human occupation within the Blackwater Draw near Portales. Whiteman, according to Green, “had come across what is now considered to be one of the most significant sites in human history,” as some believe the Clovis people were the first Americans.
The site revealed details of the past culture with the discovery of bones, tools and slender spear points that are today called Clovis points. It has become a focal point for scientific investigation. It has drawn researchers from the Carnegie Institute, Smithsonian Institution, Academy of Natural Sciences, National Science Foundation, U.S. National Museum and the National Geographic Society, according to Eastern New Mexico University.
Archaeology aside, the Clovis stop became known as a portal to Texas because it was the junction point for passenger trains traveling to and from Dallas, Fort Worth and Houston, according to the University of North Texas Libraries.
The town grew and thrived, but railways eventually passed out of favor with the arrival of the automobile, causing many New Mexico towns to shrink, some even fading completely out of existence. Clovis avoided that fate and that’s probably due to the establishment of Cannon Air Force Base in 1942 just outside the city. The base, according to the chamber, helped usher Clovis into a diversified economy that resulted in higher education and health care facilities and a slew of businesses.
It has faced closure a few times, the most recent in 2006, but the townspeople rallied to save it. Their letter-writing efforts and phone calls seemed to persuade the powers that be and the base was taken off the closure list. The city’s chamber of commerce unveiled a new tourism website VisitClovisNM.org, in September of 2021 to drum up more interest in the area.
Today where the name came from is less important than how that name is honored.
“The quality of life, the quality of people and newcomers with new innovative ideas, has been the secret that has made Clovis, New Mexico a special place to live, whether you are raising a family, horses, cows or a farm,” the chamber said. “To look back to our first pioneers and understand their hardships gives meaning to our lives in knowing the work ethic has been instilled in us who are living today and enjoying the fruits of our labor.”
Curious about how a town, street or building got its name? Email writer Elaine Briseño at email@example.com or 505-823-3965 as she continues the monthly journey in “What’s in a Name?”