On Jan. 6, 1912, New Mexico became the 47th state in the union. For more than 60 years, we had waited and waited and waited.

In 1850, just two years after the end of the Mexican-American War and the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, New Mexico was relegated to territorial status, with governors and other government officials appointed by Washington, D.C., to rule.

It wasn’t that different from Mexican civil rule or even that of colonial rule. Spain appointed Spanish governors to New Mexico through a viceroy in Mexico City. Mexico appointed governors to New Mexico through emperors, presidents and other means. Though it was part of the U.S., New Mexicans would have to wait decades before tasting of the sweet fruit of democracy.

It didn’t seem fair. Texas gained statehood in 1845 and California in 1850. There was no Arizona, as that land was also part of New Mexico until it was separated in 1863.

There were many reasons for the discrepancy.

First, New Mexico had enough people to be a state in 1850, more than 61,000. Yet, we were not the right kind of people. Over the previous three decades, Americans traveling along the Santa Fe Trail from Missouri to New Mexico wrote reports that, in effect, deemed New Mexicans unworthy of statehood. From the U.S. perspective, the Mexican people of New Mexico — who were mixed Spanish and Native American, plus Roman Catholic — and the so called savage Native peoples of mixed backgrounds could never assimilate.

Second, there was a storm brewing back East over the question of slavery and states’ rights. The North wanted to abolish the abhorrent institution of enslaving Black people, while the South wanted to protect what was perceived to be a cultural heritage and economy worth fighting for. As Manifest Destiny drove the borders of the U.S. further and further west, both sides vied for territories to strengthen their political and demographic land base.

When the U.S. annexed almost half of Mexico between 1845 and 1850, the spoils of war were divided. Through the Compromise of 1850, California was admitted as a free state, while Texas became a slave state. New Mexico was denied statehood. It would become a territory, a protectorate of the United States, where slavery of Black people would not find a home. However, Native American servitude, justified since colonial times, continued.

Third, there was the “Indian Problem.” For centuries, New Mexico was the home to Navajo, Apache, Comanche, Hopi, Pueblos and other Native tribes and communities. If the Mexican people did not quite fit the profile of what would make a good American citizen in the 1850s, these people of the plains and mountains were even less desirable.

A system of forts was established throughout the territory starting around 1850. These were used to attack, subdue, scatter and weaken Natives with the ultimate goal of breaking their spirit and forcing them to assimilate while living on reservations far from American colonists and Hispano New Mexicans.

It was not just the Mexicans or Native peoples who were causing unrest. American, British and Irish businessmen, land speculators and lawyers with names such as Thomas Catron, John Tunstall and James Dolan created stresses and anxiety over access to land and range wars, with local battles breaking out in places like Lincoln and Colfax counties. The Wild West had arrived, and it was brought by Americans. Hispanos were cut out of business and ranching to such a criminal degree that vigilante justice came in the form of Las Gorras Blancas in San Miguel County in the 1880s.

New Mexico’s multiple attempts at statehood culminated in 1912, when President William Howard Taft signed the documents recognizing statehood. New Mexicans were granted citizenship and the right to vote. Yet, it would be years before Native Americans and women could vote and participate in our democracy.

There was still much work to be done, but statehood was a good start.

Rob Martinez, New Mexico’s state historian, writes a column about the state’s rich past every month in The New Mexican. View episodes of his YouTube series, New Mexico History in 10 Minutes, at tinyurl.com/NMHistoryin10.

(7) comments

Thomas Conner

We need more of his columns.

Jerry Appel

Thanks for the history lesson. I guess the movie Joe Kidd can be seen as pretty much a summary of what happened in New Mexico except it pretty much leaves out or ignores tribal issues. By keeping New Mexico a territory instead of a state, the opportunities for corruption and abuse were extended for many more decades compared to California or Texas. The effect of institutionalizing such behaviors has not been healthy for this state.

Mike Johnson

An interesting point, as those behaviors are indeed institutionalized in NM to a much larger and widespread extent than any other state.

Emily Hartigan

Sorry, Mike, but the Patron/jefe system has been alive and well in South Texas for decades.

Mike Johnson

True, I used to go hunting at Joaquin Cigarroa's ranch near Laredo often. It reminded me very much of Northern NM and the Santa Fe area. Very old colonial Spanish/Mexican.

Mike Johnson

Yes, NM has always had a bad reputation. All we need do is go back to what Gov. Lew Wallace said:``All calculations based on our experiences elsewhere fail in New Mexico.''. No surprise NM was among the last to be granted statehood in the lower 48. And he also knew where NM was heading:`I have spent enough time in this place,'' he wrote in one letter to his wife. ``There is nobody here who cares for me, and nobody I care for.'' On May 30, 1881, he left New Mexico in a new-fangled way: the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad.

A month before his departure, in that same April 29, 1881, letter to his wife, Wallace speculated almost gleefully about how the problems he faced would affect his successor—and, perhaps by extrapolating the Curse of Lew Wallace, future generations of New Mexicans. ``Of course, he will do just as I did,'' Wallace wrote, ``have the same ideas, make the same attempts, and with the same heartiness of effort, soon cool in zeal, then finally say, `All right, let her drift.' “

And so, when my great grandfather arrived in Santa Fe, as a delegate to the 1910 Constitutional Convention to prepare for statehood, little to nothing had changed from descriptions during Wallace's days: "The condition of the territorial government was dreadful. The so-called ``Santa Fe Ring'' of bribe-taking office-holders and bribe-giving businessmen behind the scene was in full swing, and crime was out of control" Albert Fall and Thomas Catron still ruled the land.

So little has changed after all these years, and of course I don't have to remind anyone where NM is among all the states in things like education, poverty, economic growth, unemployment, etc. So, were the American liberators right to not allow NM statehood until much time had passed? Maybe we should still be a territory.


Kelly Finnerty

So valuable for us to understand this history!

Thank you for providing this context.

Welcome to the discussion.

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