New Mexico celebrates Centennial


On Jan. 6, 2012 we celebrate the centennial of New Mexico statehood. It took 64 years, generations of elected officials, and a succession of campaigns and constitutions. As other territories entered the union, New Mexico stood at the gate.

File photo: New Mexico earned statehood 100 years ago, making it the 47th to join the union.

New Mexico was too often on the wrong side of the political line or the day’s issues. Or powerful eastern congressmen, fearing the growing influence of the West, were reluctant to admit more western states. Or New Mexicans themselves were divided. Even when all signs were favorable, freak circumstances could intervene.

“Perhaps nowhere in history is there such a series of failures, in what at the time seemed almost certainty,” wrote former Gov. L. Bradford Prince in 1910.

Intrigue and Division

In 1846, the United States claimed New Mexico and placed it under military rule, but citizens wanted a civil government. At a convention two years later, they stated their opposition to slavery, which rankled pro-slavery Congressmen, and protested claims of Texas to all the land east of the Rio Grande. The claim had no foundation in law or history but had gained some credibility in Congress.

The first efforts came to naught.

President Zachary Taylor in 1849 was anxious for California and New Mexico to be admitted as states. New Mexico’s political leaders were divided: One camp supported (and profited by) the presence of the military, while the other pushed for statehood.

California knew what it wanted and became a state. New Mexicans agreed to be a territory.

In 1850, New Mexico convention delegates drew a boundary that took in the Texas and Oklahoma panhandles, along with pieces of present Kansas, Colorado, Utah, and Arizona. Voters approved the constitution and chose state officials, but the military governor declared that the new government would be inoperative until New Mexico was admitted as a state.

Question of Slavery

Almost from the outset, New Mexico’s admission was controversial. The North and South were then at loggerheads over whether Congress could ban slavery in the western territories. The Compromise of 1850 drew the present Texas-New Mexico boundary and paid Texas $10 million for its “loss.” Separately, New Mexico became a territory.

James Calhoun, the first territorial governor, formed a government despite deep factions. He tried hard to include Hispanic citizens among his appointees, provoking resentment among Anglos. The first census counted 56,984.

In 1860, a measure, which would admit New Mexico without specifying whether it was a free or slave state, ran into roadblocks. Free staters feared that New Mexico, as a slave state, would open the way for the South to conquer Mexico; southerners saw the bill as a trick to add a new free state to the union.

In the New York Tribune, Horace Greeley attacked the measure as an attempt to admit New Mexico as a slave state and denounced New Mexico as unworthy of statehood. Its inhabitants he called a “hybrid race” of Spanish and Indians who were “ignorant and degraded, demoralized and priest-ridden.”

New Mexico delegate Miguel Antonio Otero passionately rebutted Greeley’s accusations and called Greeley himself a “slanderer” and “an unscrupulous demagogue.”

Another proposal was to admit the country south of the Missouri Compromise line all the way to the Pacific Ocean as slave states. Otero was willing to accept, but congressional partisans rejected the compromise and in April the Civil War began.

During the war, in 1863, Congress created the Territory of Arizona from New Mexico Territory’s western half.

When the Civil War ended in 1865, Gov. Henry Connelly, hoping to capitalize on the territory’s loyalty to the union, led a movement seeking statehood, but it bogged down in internal division. Four years later, an effort to admit New Mexico as the state of Lincoln failed.

The Elkins Handshake

Gov. Marsh Giddings brought a new enthusiasm to the statehood movement in 1872, and Congress appeared friendly. A convention that year produced another constitution that would protect citizens from the abuses of railroads, offer free public schools, and pay for government operations. Opponents argued that statehood would cost nearly $100,000, and New Mexico’s population wasn’t large enough.

Stephen B. Elkins, New Mexico’s delegate to Congress, pursued statehood with such energy that Congress had to pay attention. Introducing a bill in 1874, he argued that New Mexico had the population required (well over 100,000) and the capacity to support a state government. He reminded Congress of the Hispanics’ faithful service during the Civil War and talked up New Mexico’s public schools, healthful climate, productive stock raisers, mineral resources, and even its wines.

Statehood bills for New Mexico and Colorado passed the House and Senate.

Friends of the two states sent the bills to the House speaker and needed a two-thirds majority vote to remove bills from the speaker’s desk for a vote. The two delegates lobbied feverishly to gain support; Elkins lined up votes of Georgia and Alabama congressmen.

As it happened, the House was having a heated debate over civil rights legislation. Julius Caesar Burrows, of Michigan, pilloried the South in a lengthy, impassioned speech. The gregarious Elkins was chatting with friends in the lobby and didn’t hear the speech but entered the chamber as Burrows was wrapping up. Elkins rushed over to shake Burrows’ hand. The southerners who intended to support New Mexico saw Elkins’ handshake and changed their minds.

The Colorado bill passed. New Mexico’s bill failed.

For the remainder of the 1870s, the two parties, evenly balanced in Congress, were reluctant to consider new states. And the press routinely informed them of New Mexico’s corruption and Indian wars.

Gov. Samuel B. Axtell became deeply enmeshed in the territory’s political factions ― on the wrong side. The Lincoln County War and the Colfax County War festered on his watch. It was impossible to claim that New Mexico could govern itself.

Land Grabbers

When Edmund G. Ross became governor, in 1885, a powerful group of landowners called “the Santa Fe ring” controlled much of the territory’s political and economic activity. Some unscrupulous Anglo lawyers in the ring used New Mexicans’ ignorance of law and taxes to possess their land. Their ringleader was Thomas Catron.

Ring members believed statehood would improve their land values. Gov. Ross threw in with the opposition, which wasn’t necessarily against statehood but resisted anything the “land grabbers” wanted. The territory’s political parties warmed and cooled on statehood, depending on who advanced the cause. Powerful men like Solomon Luna and J. Francisco Chaves feared an influx of Anglo settlers could change the Hispanic way of life. An 1888 bill would bring Dakota, Montana, Washington and New Mexico into the union. However, New Mexico would be called Montezuma, which provoked protests in the territory. Again, the press launched tirades: New Mexicans were “not American, but ‘Greaser,’ persons ignorant of our laws, manners, customs, language, and institutions.”

Bradford Prince argued that the territory’s population of 180,000 was larger than any other state on admission, illiteracy was being reduced, and Spanish-speaking people were conservative and settled. Congress might have listened until prominent New Mexico business people sent a petition objecting to statehood. A second petition insisted that the first didn’t represent popular sentiment.

In 1889, the other territories, minus New Mexico, became states. New Mexico’s delegate, Antonio Joseph, introduced another statehood bill. He reported 342 public schools in operation, more than $1 million invested in new irrigation companies, vast acreage planted to wheat and corn, and ranches “crowded with cattle, sheep, and horses.”

A new bill proposed admitting Arizona, Idaho, New Mexico and Wyoming, but only Wyoming and Idaho made the cut.

In 1892, a bill was introduced to admit New Mexico, Utah, Arizona and Oklahoma. New Mexico by then had a stately capitol, an insane asylum, a penitentiary, a university, an agricultural college, and a school of mines ― all built without incurring debt. Bradford Prince testified that “all of its inhabitants except the oldest were born on American soil.”

It wasn’t to be. Powerful congressmen claimed these territories were not prepared for self-government.

In 1893, two bills were introduced ― one to admit New Mexico, the other to admit New Mexico, Utah, Arizona and Oklahoma. Prospects looked good that year, but delegate Antonio Joseph, stricken by a malarial attack, returned briefly to New Mexico. The New Mexico bill died.

Gold Standard

Washington debated gold and silver in 1895.

One side wanted the nation’s money to be backed by gold; the other favored unlimited coinage of silver. Like most of the West, New Mexicans favored a silver standard, but Thomas Catron, the new territorial delegate, didn’t want New Mexico’s statehood to be caught up in the rancor. He and Gov. Miguel A. Otero persuaded both parties to back the gold standard. The repeal of the Silver Purchase Act closed every silver and lead mine in New Mexico, depressing the territory’s economy.

Despite its sacrifice, New Mexico was again passed over. It didn’t help that New Mexico Republicans wrote Republicans in Congress charging that Catron was a land robber.

In 1896, the popular Harvey Fergusson, a Democrat, defeated Catron. Fergusson worked vigorously for statehood, but a Republican-controlled Congress associated New Mexico with “radical causes” like populism. That year Utah became a state, despite prejudice in Congress against Mormonism.

“Star of Progress”

Statehood got a shot in the arm in 1902 when Bernard S. Rodey, an Albuquerque lawyer, became New Mexico’s delegate to Congress. He and Otero campaigned so fiercely that anti-statehood opinions were expressed only in private.

Rodey persuaded delegates from New Mexico, Arizona and Oklahoma to make a statehood bid together, and it was introduced in 1902. Sen. Matthew S. Quay, of Pennsylvania, became a champion of New Mexico, and New Mexicans were so grateful they named a county for him.

Sen. Albert J. Beveridge, R-Indiana, chairman of the Committee on Territories, mistrusted Quay and opposed the measure. During hearings in the territories the committee took testimony from pre-selected individuals, one at a time, behind closed doors. It avoided calling leading citizens and wasn’t interested in the territory’s finances, resources or industries. Members were very interested, however, in the use of Spanish in the courts, schools and daily commerce.

Beveridge recommended that Oklahoma and Indian Territory be admitted as one state. Statehood for New Mexico and Arizona should be withheld indefinitely, he insisted, because the populations were too small, the majority of people in New Mexico were Spanish and could only speak that language, illiteracy was high, and the arid climate would limit agriculture.

Congress denied statehood to New Mexico, Arizona and Oklahoma and rejected a proposal to admit Arizona and New Mexico as one state, to be called Montezuma.

President Theodore Roosevelt, indebted to New Mexico for the many Rough Riders who fought in the 1898 war, waffled.

Two months after the vote, Roosevelt visited Albuquerque, which erected elaborate pro-statehood displays. “New Mexico’s star of progress has risen. Statehood will be its sun that will cover the Territory with the liberty of the light of day,” Roosevelt said ingenuously.


In 1904 a statehood bill called again for New Mexico and Arizona to be joined as a state called Arizona, with its capitol in Santa Fe. Both governors and legislatures protested. There was no animosity between the two ― they simply had little in common.

Beveridge championed the movement, called “jointure.” It would assuage powerful easterners who were leery of the West’s growing political power, and it would combine two populations. Congress decided that each territory should vote.

New Mexico’s political leaders supported jointure, not because they’d softened their opposition, but because they knew Arizona would reject the proposal, and New Mexico’s cooperation might bode well for a separate statehood bill. In 1906, Arizonans voted down jointure, and New Mexicans passed it.

Through 1907 a land fraud scandal jeopardized New Mexico’s case for statehood. Roosevelt appointed George Curry as governor, saying, “Captain, I know your ambition is to have New Mexico made a state, but before you can get statehood you must clean house in New Mexico and show to Congress that the people of New Mexico are capable of governing themselves.”

That year at the Republican National Convention, New Mexican Holm O. Bursum, a member of the Resolutions Committee, orchestrated a plank in the party platform: “We favor the immediate admission of the Territories of New Mexico and Arizona as separate States in the Union.”

“(I)t was the most important forward step toward statehood for New Mexico in modern times, as it bound many of the Republican senators from Eastern states who were bitter opponents of statehood; it meant that with proper effort on our part, the long fight could be won,” Curry wrote in his autobiography. “It was a masterful job of convention strategy.”

Roosevelt finally stood up to Beveridge, telling him that “by keeping them out, you merely irritate the people there against the Republican party.” In his message to Congress on Dec. 8, 1908, he said, “I advocate the immediate admission of New Mexico and Arizona as States.”

Bills were introduced again to admit New Mexico and Arizona separately, but the lingering taint of scandal did its damage. The statehood bills were tabled.

“Sovereign State of the Union at Last”

President Taft was determined to fulfill the pledge in the Republican National Platform. There was now little overt opposition.

Beveridge managed to add some onerous amendments to a 1910 statehood bill, and the measure passed on June 18. The following Monday at 1:40 p.m., Taft signed the bill using a solid gold pen presented by the Postmaster General and delegate Bull Andrews’ gold-banded quill taken from an American eagle captured in Taos. It wasn’t over. New Mexico needed another constitution, and after a political fight, one emerged.

On Jan. 6, 1912 Taft signed the proclamation making New Mexico the 47th state of the union. He told the New Mexicans present, “Well, it is all over. I am glad to give you life. I hope you will be healthy.”

For more information on New Mexico’s statehood centennial, see “Celebrating New Mexico Statehood,” A longer version appeared in “Sunshine and Shadows in New Mexico’s Past,” an official centennial project of the Historical Society of New Mexico.

© 2011 New Mexico News Service


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