More to Explore

Organizing History: The Historical Society of New Mexico

The Historical Society of New Mexico, the oldest organization of its kind west of the Mississippi River, was formally organized on December 26, 1859 when a number of New Mexicans, both Hispano and Anglo, including many officers, territorial officials, judges, lawyers, churchmen, politicians and merchants, signed the necessary corporation papers, adopted a constitution, and elected Col. John B. Grayson, U.S.A., as president.

The Historical Society of New Mexico, 1859-1976

By Myra Ellen Jenkins

The Historical Society of New Mexico, the oldest organization of its kind west of the Mississippi River, was formally organized on December 26, 1859 when a number of New Mexicans, both Hispano and Anglo, including many officers, territorial officials, judges, lawyers, churchmen, politicians and merchants, signed the necessary corporation papers, adopted a constitution, and elected Col. John B. Grayson, U.S.A., as president. This meeting was held in the Territorial Council chambers at the Palace of the Governors. Two days later, the Society reconvened in the home of the president to adopt by-laws. When the second regular meeting was held in February, 1860, quarters had been rented from Bishop John B. Lamy, also a member, in an adobe building on the present St. Vincent’s Hospital.

For more than a year a vigorous and active program was pushed with speakers on historical subjects featured at monthly meetings, and the launching of a collection program for historical objects and documents. Unfortunately, few of the latter have survived. The Civil War cut short this first endeavor as President Grayson, and several other military members, resigned their commissions and left the territory to join the Confederacy, joined by some of the leading territorial officials. The Society was adjourned sine die September 23, 1863.

In December, 1880, on the 21st anniversary of the organization of the Society, pursuant to a published call issued by David J. Miller and Captain Louis Felsenthal, members of the old society, a large number of citizens from various parts of the territory gathered at the office of Secretary of the Territory W.G. Ritch in the Palace of the Governors, reorganized and reestablished the Historical Society of New Mexico, and elected Ritch president, and chief justice of the territorial supreme court L. Bradford Prince (later Governor of New Mexico) as first vice president. Ten other vice presidents were also elected, including, among others, Antonio Joseph of Taos, William Kroenig of Mora County, Mariano S. Otero of Bernalillo County, Tranquilino Luna of Valencia and Judge Warren Bristol of Doña Ana. A few items from the previous collections were recovered, and again the Society embarked upon a vigorous program of acquisition of historical materials, and sponsored addresses by leading authorities, such as Adolph F. Bandelier, on pertinent topics.

With the completion of a new capitol in 1885, most territorial offices were moved to the new structure and the Society, through the direct appeal of Prince, who had succeeded Ritch as president, to the Secretary of the Interior resulted in the issuing of an order that the two east rooms of the Palace, as they were vacated, be turned over to the Society. Exhibit cases were installed to house the growing collections, and on September 24, 1885 the new quarters were formally opened in a grand reception with appropriate addresses being delivered by Prince and Territorial Governor Edmund G. Ross. Shortly thereafter, the adjoining hallway and room were also taken over by the Society.

By the act of June 21, 1898 Congress gave the Palace of the Governors to the Territory of New Mexico, and the Historical Society continued to use the east portion of the building and periodically to receive funds from the territorial legislature for the purchase of documents, books and artifacts.

 The Museum of New Mexico was created by act of the 1909 territorial legislature under the control and management of a six-member board of regents appointed by the governor. However, the details were somewhat complex, since a compact was also entered into with the School of American Archaeology, a Santa Fe affiliate of the Washington, D.C. -based Archaeological Institute of America, a private institution. The Palace of the Governors was turned over to the new agency as headquarters for both the Museum and the School, and three regents were also to be members of the Managing Board of the School of American Archaeology, and the Director of the School, Dr. Edgar L. Hewett, was also the Director of the Museum of New Mexico. The law also specified: “That the rooms in the east end of the building which are now occupied by the Historical Society of New Mexico, shall be reserved for the use of said Society, free of rent, so long as the name is conducted in harmony with the management of the Museum of New Mexico herein established.”

From this date until 1959 programs of the three organizations, the Museum, the School of American Research and the Historical Society of New Mexico, were interrelated. Under the direction of Director Hewett a massive program of rehabilitation and reconstruction of the venerable old Palace, which had served as the seat of government from 1610 through most of the territorial period, was begun. In the process, conflict arose between the Director of the Museum – School of American Research and the leaders of the Historical Society over the use of space and jurisdiction. As a result, some of the Society’s valuable collections were removed, or otherwise dispersed, and have remained in private hands. Other collections, however, continued to be acquired by gift or by state funds appropriated to the Museum. In 1922 a large number of official Spanish, Mexican and Territorial records, as well as private historical papers from these periods, some actually bearing the official stamp of the Historical Society, were sold by the estate of former Society president Ritch to the Huntington Library. During the 1960s an unsuccessful attempt was made by the State Records Center and Archives to replevin, from private hands, another large group of Spanish and Mexican period archives of the Santa Cruz area which had been bought by the Historical Society in the early 1900s with territorial appropriations.

By 1927 a critical problem had arisen with respect to the mounting records created by state agencies, due to the absence of any records management program and the lack of space in the state capitol. Storage areas were filled to overflowing. In an attempt to solve the problem, the legislature in that year passed HB 338 making the Historical Society of New Mexico “the official custodian and trustee for the State of New Mexico of the public archives of whatever kind which may be transferred to it from any public office…” The legislature, continued to make appropriations for the Historical Society, but the funds were administered by the Museum of New Mexico. The situation was an impossible one, either for the Museum or the Society. As administrative agency for the Society, the Museum was charged with preserving records but had neither the space nor the personnel to take adequate steps towards organizing or even for properly housing the papers. Throughout 1927 – 1960 much good work was done, intermittently, in the description and listing of individual collections, but nothing could be done with the non-current public records which by that time had become archival in nature and value.

For many years one of the chief functions of the Historical Society was the sponsorship of the New Mexico Historical Review, a professional journal, the first issue of which appeared in January, 1926 with Lansing B. Bloom as principal editor. Since 1917 Bloom had been on the staff of the School of American Research and the Museum of New Mexico. With his appointment to the History Department of the University of New Mexico in 1929 the Review became a joint publication of the Society and the University, with UNM providing the editor (Bloom) while the Society was responsible for its management and business affairs. Complications mounted, for while the state legislature allocated some funds for the Society, as a quasi-public organization, these funds were budgeted and administered by the Museum of New Mexico, and, hence, responsibilities were never fully defined. During the 1940s and 1950s, except for the Review,the Society became relatively inactive. Following the death of Mr. Bloom, Dr. Frank D. Reeve, Professor of History at the University of New Mexico became editor and served in that capacity until his retirement.

In the meantime, two major changes had occurred with reference to the interlocking Museum of New Mexico – School of American Research – Historical Society of New Mexico relationship. The 1959 legislature mandated the separation of the Museum of New Mexico, a state agency, from the School of American Research. It also passed the Public Records Act creating a new agency, the State Records Center, as the official depository for all public records, repealing the 1927 act giving any custodianship of those records to the Historical Society.

Because of these developments, the Historical Society reincorporated in 1959 as a private organization no longer directly connected with the Museum of New Mexico. Since state funds were no longer allocated to the Museum for the Society’s use, that institution was hard pressed to provide assistance and the Review became virtually an orphan. Under a three-way agreement by the Museum, the Society and UNM on July 1, 1963, ownership of the Review was turned over to the University, but one direct tie between the Society and University remained in that membership was secured only by subscription to the Review , and $1.00 of the subscription fee was returned to the Society as dues. In 1964 respected Spanish Colonial period scholar Eleanor B. Adams succeeded Dr. Reeve as editor, and upon her retirement in the summer of 1975 Dr. Manuel P. Servin of the University of New Mexico History Department became editor.

Following the reincorporation of the Society in 1959 several capable presidents attempted various projects to further its objectives, but interest lagged, partly because of the membership by subscription to the Review limitation. Beginning in 1973 an increasing number of individuals interested in a wide variety of aspects concerning New Mexico’s rich, multicultural history, as well as historic preservation groups and local historical organizations, discussed plans for a reorganized and revitalized Society. At the last meeting, held September 17, 1975, a new constitution and by-laws were adopted.

[La Crónica de Nuevo México 68 (July 2006 republished): 1, 2. Published by the Historical Society of New Mexico and reproduced with their permission.]