New Mexico’s Journey To Become A State
By Rob Martínez
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.
This article first appeared in the Santa Fe New Mexican on December 31, 2021.