Tracking state’s capitals


How many capitals has New Mexico had since its founding in 1598? Santa Fe after all has not been the only one.

Few people, I suppose, would guess the number is four. Santa Fe naturally claims priority, since the remaining three served only short terms as a center of government.

The first capital actually was San Gabriel del Yunge, located on the west bank of the Rio Grande opposite the Tewa Pueblo Spaniards called San Juan.

In a story titled “Conquistadors Capital,” Time Magazine (August 1962) wrote up the excavation of San Gabriel by University of New Mexico archaeologists. The exact location of the site, until then, had been in question.

Curiously, the late New Mexico state historian and archivist Dr. Myra Ellen Jenkins always insisted that San Gabriel was never New Mexico’s capital, but merely Juan de Oñate’s military headquarters.

However, since Oñate held the governorship and his residence was at San Gabriel, that place pro forma became the capitol.

Besides, one of the military officers there, Capt. Gaspar Perez de Villagra, in his book published in 1610, specifically referred several times to San Gabriel as “the capitol.”

It lost that designation though about 1610, when the majority of settlers went south and joined the newly arrived governor Pedro de Peralta in founding Santa Fe. Its status would remain unchallenged until the second half of the 19th century.

The next chapter in the story began in the summer of 1855 and involved lands within the Gadsden Purchase recently obtained from Mexico. That huge tract stretched from the town of Mesilla on the Rio Grande south of Las Cruces westward across New Mexico and southern Arizona to the Colorado River.

Citizens in that vast area, lacking any administrative or legal aid from remote Santa Fe, petitioned Congress for the right to organize a new territory of Arizona that included southwestern New Mexico. They proposed that Mesilla become the capital, since it was the most populous community.

Such a measure was introduced in the House of Representatives, but failed to win passage. Several similar bills quickly followed, all unsuccessful.

Meanwhile, the Gadsden Purchase lands were rapidly growing in population, with settlers mainly from Texas and the southern states.

When the Civil War broke out in 1861, Col. John R. Baylor descended upon Mesilla with a small Texan force and took possession of the still unorganized Territory of Arizona.

The newly created Confederate Congress was delighted and formally annexed the territory, now expanded, to include the lower third of New Mexico as well as all of modern Arizona below the Gila River.

Subsequent wartime events then led to the invasion of upper New Mexico by a Southern army under Gen. Henry H. Sibley. Socorro and Albuquerque swiftly fell to the intruders.

Santa Fe followed, when it was occupied by an advance Confederate force on March 23, 1862.

The previous March 4, the 200 Union troops garrisoning Fort Marcy abandoned Santa Fe and, taking a large quantity of their military supplies, fled toward Fort Union northeast of Las Vegas.

New Mexico Gov. Henry Connelly and other territorial officers went with them, saving what government documents they could carry.

In the absence of all federal officials, Santa Fe remained a capital in name only. Upon arrival, the Confederates observed that the plaza flagpole had been cut down by departing Union soldiers. They promptly raised a new one to fly the rebel flag and then began attempts to form a rudimentary Confederate government.

Meantime, Gov. Connelly had arrived in Las Vegas and with other political refugees moved into the Exchange Hotel on the west side of the plaza. Explaining his flight in a letter to Washington, he wrote, “I felt no disposition to be taken prisoner.”

The governor further stated, “The capital having been abandoned by United States forces, I have for the present established the Executive Department at Las Vegas.” That meant Las Vegas was the de facto capital, but it remained so only for a few weeks.

After the battle of Glorieta on March 28, causing withdrawal of the Southern army, Connelly and his associates returned to Santa Fe. Soon, the Confederate Territory of Arizona and its capitol of Mesilla were also reclaimed for the Union.

So yes, New Mexico has had four capitals, but three of them were only tiny blips on history’s radar. Santa Fe remains as the shining star of the quartet.