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Mesilla Plaza

In the center of the plaza of Old Mesilla is a small bandstand painted white. On its south side, facing Mexico is a painted scene of the Mexican and United States flags crossed at their poles with the letter “M” above and number “54” below. To tourists, who don’t know about the frequent shifts of the United States-Mexican border, the symbol must be puzzling. But for mesilleros — citizens of Mesilla — it affirms the year when their town, once a Mexican colony, became part of the United States under the Gadsden Purchase of 1854.

In spite of this event, the plaza does not look much like the Americanized versions of the Spanish-influenced landscape found in Santa Fe, Taos, and especially, Las Vegas. Where those typically changed with the influence of the railroad or Main Street-type commerce, Mesilla, passed by the railroad in 1881, retains much of its pre-statehood appearance. The buildings surrounding the plaza are mostly one-story; the tallest, three story St. Albino’s Church dominates the plaza’s north end. And only one building, the old Mesilla Valley Store shows any influence of railroad introduced architecture.

Mesilla started in reaction to an unpopular treaty between the United States and Mexico. Signed at end of the Mexican-American War, the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo gave the United States, the victor of this imperial skirmish, a huge swath of former Mexico, making up the present states of New Mexico, California, Arizona, Nevada, Utah and portions of Colorado and Wyoming; it recognized Texas as an American territory. In all, the United States gained nearly one million acres, all for the sweet price of $15 million. Under the treaty, the Rio Grande’s ever changing course would form the boundary between the United States and Mexico.

To hedge on the American enterprise, Mexicans from the Doña Ana Bend Colony began to cross the Rio Grande, establishing settlements on the west side of the river, back in Mexican territory. Don Rafael Ruelas headed this short migration, leading 60 Mexican families on March 1, 1850, from Doña Ana to a level area on the river’s west side —future Mesilla. Mexico officially recognized the settlement two years later, with the title the Mesilla Civil Colony and a land grant of 21,628 acres.

According reports of the Mexican land commissioner, a plaza was already in existence by 1853. Flanking it were clusters of jacales — small buildings made of close-set wooden stakes or poles plastered with mud and sheltered by straw or rushes — for defense against Indian attack.

Almost forming a tale of two cities, some settlers from the Doña Ana Bend Colony decided to stick with the United States, moving north to the site of future Las Cruces on the east side of the river. At request of the Doña Ana alcalde, U.S. Army Lieutenant Delos Bennett Sackett laid out a townsite that would become Las Cruces.

Positioned along the north-south El Camino Real, a commercial and travel corridor between Mexico and its colonial settlements in the north, Mesilla experienced a new wave of east-west traffic in 1849 as thousands of gold-seekers rushed through the village on their way to California.

The Gadsden Purchase — a virtual bargain basement sale that gave United States a 29,670-square-mile swath making up present-day southern New Mexico and southern Arizona — settled the location of the international boundary. And with it, the small settlement of La Mesilla began to take on the look of a border territorial town. On November 16, 1854, on Mesilla’s plaza, the Mexican flag came down and the United States flag came up — they were now Americans.

The jacales were replaced with buildings of permanence: long, low adobe-constructed dwellings with inward orientated patios hidden behind thick walls. Many had portales, or long porches running the length of the façade, sheltering if from the sometimes piercing sun. Doors and windows were flush with the wall; vigas and canales popped from the top of the roof parapets. This design is seen much today along the east, west and portions of the south side of the plaza.

Typifying this territorial design is the Barela-Reynolds House along the north half of the west side of the plaza. Started as a store run by Mariano Yrissari in the 1850s, the building consists of two commercial properties separated by a zaguán, an interior corridor. Behind the store to the north extends a long line of rooms leading back to a former barn and stable. The front of the north store presents window and door openings with pointed pediments, Greek-Revival-style elements typical of the territorial era. The south half of the building, on the other side of the zaguán, shows the only railroad architecture influence on the plaza. Its cast-iron front is stamped to look like stone; its cornice bracketed and topped by a cast-iron parapet and a solemn flag pole.

With the creation of Fort Fillmore several miles to the southeast, Indian raids became less of a problem, and both east-west and north-south traffic increased through Mesilla. The town became an important stop on the Butterfield Overland Stage and Mail route between San Antonio and San Diego, and it saw increased use of the Camino Real with its extension of the Santa Fe Trail. The town’s growing importance led to it being selected county seat in 1855. In the late 1850s, at the prompting of Texas leaders in El Paso, several attempts were made to designate Mesilla a separate territory, but each failed over the question whether it would be organized as a slave or free territory.

The underlining secessionist motive of these requests came to the surface on July 25, 1861. Colonel Edward Baylor and his force of 200 Texas Mounted Rifles rode into Mesilla, and according to the nomination, “received a joyous welcome from the citizenry, many of whom supported the southern cause and were worried about Indian raids due to the removal of U.S. troops.”

Reading the welcome favorably, Baylor made Mesilla his headquarters and later declared himself military governor of a new Confederate Territory of Arizona, which included all of Arizona, California, Nevada, the southern portion of New Mexico and part of Texas — an area very similar to that which the Mesilla dissidents petitioned for unsuccessfully in the 1850s. Confederate actions in the capital of Mesilla included issuing “rag” money to serve as the territory’s currency. But the Confederates’ defeat at Glorieta Pass brought a swift end to the phantom territory and Baylor’s aggrandizements.

After the war, Mesilla fell back into its agricultural rhythm, changed somewhat by newcomers taking advantage of the Homestead Act of 1862. In 1881, the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe bypassed Mesilla for Las Cruces; and this convinced the legislature to move the county seat to Las Cruces four year later. In result, as the nomination states, “Mesilla’s commercial and political importance declined rapidly.”

By the 1930s, the village became quaintly titled “Old Mesilla,” and was described in one 1940 travel book as a town whose “old plaza and surrounding flat-topped adobe houses sleep in sun, dreaming of the days when this was the capital of a vast new state that combined the lower part of New Mexico with all of Arizona.” It is a dream not unlike the one Colonel Baylor had 70 years before.