The word “secession” is usually associated with the Civil War and the attempt by southern states to secede from the Union. But in 1867, New Mexico experienced a small secession movement of its own, one having nothing to do with the great war.
This episode was led by the people of Silver City and Grant County who finally got fed up with crooked Santa Fe politics. In the centennial year of the American nation they voted to break away from New Mexico and join the neighboring Territory of Arizona. It was a bold move taken in desperation.
Grant County had been created in 1868 by lopping off the western part of huge Doña Ana County. Silver City, after its founding in 1870, became the county seat. Within a few years it was rated the most prosperous boom town anywhere in the territory. A Las Cruces newspaper called it “a go-ahead place, an example of energy and enterprise.”
Mining was the mainstay of Silver City’s economy. But lumbering was important too. And the first woodworking mill in the territory was opened there. Also, local merchants did a thriving business supplying a vast area of western New Mexico, eastern Arizona and northern Mexico. Silver City was on the way up.
That is, it was going up, provided it could get around dirty politics in the capital. Santa Fe was proving hostile to progress in Silver City.
The trouble lay with the notorious Santa Fe Ring, a clique of Anglo Republicans that included the governor, many legislators, judges and lawyers. They controlled the territorial politics, by manipulating the majority Hispanic vote, all for personal profit.
In the 1871-72 session, the Republicans in the legislature fell to squabbling among themselves. That allowed the minority Democrats to gain temporary control. Alarmed, Republican Gov. Marsh Giddings brought armed federal troops into the capitol building to intimidate the Democrats and keep power in the hands of the Ring.
Speaker Diego Archuleta denounced the governor as a tyrant “who seeks to overawe us and force us to obey his despotic will by the presence of U.S. bayonets. Before we submit, the Mexican people had better be placed upon reservations as the Indians now are.”
Grant County, of course, opposed the rascally governor. As a result, he saw that two legislative bills important to it were killed. One would have given Silver City a charter, allowing it to incorporate. The other would have permitted Grant County to establish a public school system.
Resentment caused by this action ran deep and lingered long. It finally peaked in 1876 when Grant County announced it would seek to cut its political ties with New Mexico and join Arizona. The people declared they were tired of being held in a state of vassalage by Santa Fe and its Ring.
By uniting with Arizona, Grant County citizens saw a number of advantages. Not only would they be rid of Santa Fe where they were under-represented and without influence, they would be much closer in miles to Arizona’s capital at Tucson. Also, Arizona was a mining state that could understand their special problems. Then there was the matter of the Chiricahua Apaches who were still on the warpath. Arizona, suffering the same trouble, could be counted upon to be more attentive in developing mutual defense.
Urged on by local newspapers, residents went to the polls and overwhelmingly voted for Grant County’s “Declaration of Independence.” The fact that the national centennial was in progress and much patriotic fervor was in the air probably contributed to the outcome of the election.
Arizona seemed delighted. A newspaper in Yuma proclaimed: “For our part we would welcome them with open arms.” Arizona Gov. Anson P.K. Safford warmly approved and steered through his legislature a memorial asking Congress to allow his annexation of New Mexico’s Grant County. The people there, he said, were the proper judges as to which territory they should belong. And the people had spoken.
At first the Santa Fe Ring and the leaders of Northern New Mexico treated the secessionist movement as a joke. But after the governor of Arizona had acted, and the measure was sent to Washington, the laughing died. Indeed, there was s flurry of panic. New Mexico could not afford to lose its richest county.
Congress settled the issue when it allowed the annexation bill to die in committee. But the Santa Fe politicians had received a good scare. Soon after, the legislature passed measures that let Silver City incorporate and establish its school system.
Although she had lost the war, Grant County won prestige and a strong new voice. Thereafter, the Santa Fe Ring treated Silver City with kid gloves, and no more talk was heard of secession.
Now in semi-retirement, author Marc Simmons wrote a weekly history column for more than 35 years. The New Mexican is publishing reprints from among the more than 1,800 columns he produced during his career.