Office of the State Historian
The stories of this place that came to be called New Mexico are as old as time itself — the stories of people, places and time emerging and becoming. How these stories have been passed down from generation to generation speaks to the profound nature of memory and the indispensable character of storytellers. It is a tradition of telling the past that continues to this day throughout the state. To formally recognize the importance of New Mexico’s Historians is to understand the value of connecting the past, present and the future for posterity.
The role of the New Mexico Historian has indeed figured prominently into the historiography of New Mexico and New Mexico historians have included a wide rage of distinguished men and women over the years. Captain Gaspar Pérez de Villagrá, who accompanied Juan de Oñate in the 1598 entrada into New Mexico, published the first Euro-American history of New Mexico entitled Historia de la Nueva México in 1610.
In colonial New Mexico, the act of chronicling and remembering was taken up by the top officials in civil and ecclesiastical government, secretaries and scribes alike. One of the early contributions is fay Juan de Torquemada’s Monarquia Indiana. Documentos para la Historia de Nuevo Mexico, though compiled in 1856, contained the official reports of the friars and other church authorities and covered most of the eighteenth and part of the seventeenth century. Beyond these official accounts, historical consciousness was also developed through the delicacy and strength of orality and memory.
There were many individuals who contributed to the documentation and preservation of historical records and facts after New Mexico’s U.S. occupation. Most notable is Donaciano Vigil, who served as New Mexico’s first Civil Governor from, 1847-1848 and was charged with the organization of New Mexico’s archival records and advancing the knowledge of New Mexico’s history. A letter from J. H. Simpson, on 25 October 1849, recognizes Vigil for having given him “important information in relation to the early history of New Mexico” and thanks him accordingly.
During New Mexico’s Territorial period, the role of “historian” was taken up informally by L. Bradford Prince, who served as Chief Justice of the Territorial Supreme Court (1879-1888) and as Governor of the Territory of New Mexico (1889-1893). Prince’s writings included the Students History of New Mexico, Historical Sketches from the Earliest Records to the American Occupation, Spanish Mission Churches of New Mexico, and numerous other monographs on New Mexico. Hubert Howe Bancroft also published his History of Arizona and New Mexico in 1889. No full biographical sketch of the role of historian would be complete, however, without mention of Ralph Emerson Twitchell. Twitchell’s contributions to the historiography of New Mexico are invaluable and include a five volume series, The Leading Facts of New Mexico History. Former Speaker of the House in the New Mexico Territorial Legislature, Benjamin M. Read similarly went on to distinguish himself as one of New Mexico’s historians, publishing Historia Ilustrada de Nuevo México in 1911.
The role of an “official historian,” was first held by J. Francisco Chávez. A Territorial Legislator and Congressional Delegate, Chávez occupied the position in the first years of the twentieth century holding the title “Territorial Historian.”
There were many individuals who contributed to the historiography of New Mexico following New Mexico’s statehood in 1912 This list includes the many individuals who participated in the federally funded Writers Project of president Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal. They were employed throughout New Mexico to solicit information about community and culture. The “Office of the State Historian” was officially created in the winter of 1945 by the New Mexico Legislature and in July of that year Governor John J. Dempsey appointed George Curry, who had been instrumental in leading New Mexico into statehood, to hold the position of “State Historian.”
On 11 April 1945, Chapter 63, New Mexico Laws of 1945, under Senate Bill 158, approved an “Act Providing for the Appointment of a State Historian by the Governor of New Mexico.” The legislation reads:
“Whereas there is an urgent need in the State of New Mexico for the appointment of a person who will serve as state historian and whose duties it will be to interview old timers, identify and mark places of interest soon to be obliterated by time and the elements, to catalogue and identify old time cattle brands, and other wise collect data pertaining to folk lore of New Mexico for the period from 1870 to 1912, now therefore,
Be it Enacted by the Legislature of the State of New Mexico:
Section 1. That the Governor of the State of New Mexico shall be and hereby is authorized to appoint a State Historian to serve during the years 1945 and 1946, whose duties shall be in harmony with the preamble to this bill, and who shall carry on his work under the direction of the Governor, and who shall submit in writing an annual report to the Governor on or before December 1, in 1945, and on or before December 1, in 1946, reciting his discoveries and findings, and giving a full and complete description of interviews with old timers and outlining and describing places of interest marked, all of which information shall be and become the permanent property of the State of New Mexico, and available to the general public.
Section 2. That the salary of the State Historian, so to be appointed by the Governor in conformity to the provisions of paragraph 1 hereof, shall be paid out of the contingency fund of the State Board of Finance, but such salary shall not exceed one hundred and fifty dollars ($150) in any one month, and out of such salary the State Historian, so appointed shall be obliged to pay any expenses incident to travel, secretarial and like expenses.
In response, the new state historian and former governor, George Curry, was evidently successful in assembling biographies of “many of the pioneers of Territorial days, together with many photographs of considerable value.” This material, according to Curry’s own autobiography was housed at the old Lincoln County Courthouse, wherein the Office of the State Historian would be housed.
The Office of the State Historian was re-authorized by the legislature in 1947 – An Act Providing for the Appointment of a State Historian by the Governor of New Mexico, and Providing for Salary and Expenses Incident to the Office. (Chapter 18, Laws of New Mexico, 18). This legislation reads as follows:
Whereas the State Legislature of the State of New Mexico under the provisions of Chapter 63 of the Laws of 1945 provided for the appointment of a State Historian by the Governor of New Mexico, for the years 1945 and 1946, and Whereas, it appears from the annual report filed with the Governor, as provided in said Act, that much has been accomplished in the historical field in the way of obtaining and preserving accurate information and collecting photographs of old timers and places of historical interest, and Whereas, it is the belief of the Legislature that the work of the State Historian should be carried on in a more extensive scale during the calendar years 1947 and 1948, now therefore,
Be it Enacted by the Legislature of the State of New Mexico:
Section 1. That the Governor of the State of New Mexico shall be and hereby is authorized to appoint a State Historian whose duties shall be to interview old timers, identify and mark places of interest soon to be obliterated by the elements, to catalogue and identify old time cattle brands, and otherwise collect and record data pertaining to the history of New Mexico, and who shall carry on his work under the direction of the Governor and who shall submit in writing an annual report to the Governor on or before December 1, 1947, and on or before December 1, of each succeeding year, reciting his discoveries and findings, and giving a full and complete description of interviews with old timers and outlining and describing places of interest marked, all of which information shall be and become the permanent property of the State of New Mexico, and available to the general public.
Section 2. That the salary and expenses of the State Historian, so to be appointed by the Governor in conformity to the provisions of Section 1 hereof, shall be paid out of the emergency fund of the State Board of Finance, but such salary and expenses shall not exceed six thousand dollars in any one year, and
Section 3. The State Historian shall be obliged to have his office and place of residence in the old Court House at Lincoln, New Mexico, and as part of his duties shall be obliged to extend hospitality and courtesy to tourists and visitors desiring to see the place from which the outlaw, “Billy the Kid”, escaped from prison; and any authority of the State of New Mexico having custody of the said Court House in Lincoln County shall be obliged to permit the State Historian to have the exclusive use and occupancy thereof rent free during his term of office.
The position of “State Historian” was not renewed after 1948, which may have been dictated by a variety of issues including perhaps a lack of post war financing and a focused attention on the collections of museums and archives at the expense of interpretation and research. This lack of attention, however, left a gap in understanding these twenty pivotal years in New Mexico history.
Myra Ellen JenkinsIn 1967, however, the statute creating the State Commission on Historic Sites (now the Cultural Properties Review Committee), also designated the person who held the position of “senior archivist” at the State Records Center and Archives as the “state historian” for purposes of the act. (Chapter 7, Laws of New Mexico, 1967). This position was held by Dr. Myra Ellen Jenkins.
In 1969, extending the 1967 statute, the New Mexico Legislature created the “Cultural Properties Act.” This act cited the historical and cultural heritage of the state as one of the state’s most valued and important assets. This statute identified the state historian as one of two statutory members of the CPRC. Apparently to reflect position or title changes at the State Records Center and Archives, the state historian was identified in section 12 of the act as the State Record’s Center and Archives Administrative Deputy. Since 1969, the state historian has remained as the only statutory member of the CPRC.
Within the State Records Center and Archives, the Division of Historical Services was established on January 1, 1971 to provide services, formerly carried out by the Archives Division. The separation of activities was necessitated by the increased demand for historical services by state agencies and elected officials. Historical services included the interpretation of historical documents, expert testimony, the presentation of factual information on the history of New Mexico, and consultation and/or review of historical articles published by state agencies. Nine months later, Historical Services and Archival Services were combined. Dr. Jenkins held the position until 1980 when she retired. At this point, Mr. Hilario Romero became state historian.
In 1981 Dr. Stanley Hordes was hired as the state historian and in the same year, Chapter 48 of the 1981 Laws of New Mexico clarified that the state historian at the State Records Center and Archives was to be designated “State Historian” for purposes of the Cultural Properties Act. As a result of this legislation, Historical Services was created as a separate division on June 19, 1981. Dr. Hordes held the office of state historian until 1985. Robert Torrez was appointed in 1987 and held the position until 2000. Dr. Estevan Rael-Gálvez served as state historian for eight years (2001-2009). Dr. Rick Hendricks, PhD became state historian in 2010 and served until his appointment as State Records Administrator by the Commission of Public Records in 2019.
Rob Martinez accepted the position of State Historian in 2019 and continues to proudly serve to this day.