New Mexico books to treasure

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Last year about this time, I did a column on recently published New Mexico books, easily overlooked yet worthy of Christmas gifting. It was my first effort in that line, but a warm response from readers has prompted me to make another go of it.

The leadoff book on my new list is “Santa Fe, 400 Years, 400 Questions,” edited by Elizabeth West (Sunstone Press, hardback $40, soft cover $30). It honors the 400th anniversary of the capital’s founding in 1610, although not published until 2012.

Framework for the text is provided by 400 questions that originally appeared daily in the Santa Fe New Mexican, each followed by an expanded or sometimes revised answer. The questions deal with history and contemporary culture.

A lot of fascinating material is shoehorned into this hefty volume of almost 400 pages, which includes a wealth of early photographs, maps and images by 20th century artist Harold E. West. In it I found much history that was new to me.

Jumping to the lower end of the state, I can recommend Rick Hendricks’ “The Casads, A Pioneer Family of the Mesilla Valley” (Rio Grande Books, soft cover, $17.95).

Here is one of the few detailed accounts of an early American promoter in that quarter of the New Mexico Territory. Thomas Casad and his family while traveling eastward from California, became stranded in the Mesilla Valley two days before Christmas 1874.

By the time of his death 11 years later, he had become an outstanding agriculturist and dairyman of the area, and the first to introduce modern farming equipment.

Casad built grist mills, invested in mining and became one of the editors of the Mesilla Valley Independent newspaper, along with famed political figure Albert J. Fountain. This book offers up a revealing glimpse into our 19th century economic history. Author Hendricks, incidentally, at present is the New Mexico State historian.

Carol P. Decker’s “The Great Pecos Mission, 1540-2000″ (Sunstone Press, soft cover, $12.95) gives us an easy-to-read historical introduction to perhaps the state’s most frequently visited ruined Pueblo church, 20 miles east of Santa Fe.

Early day Spaniards described Pecos as “the biggest and most prominent pueblo we have encountered.” Its story is studied with episodes of high dreams and tragedy. Quite intriguing is Decker’s final chapter, “Return of the Ancestors.” It tells of 200 human skeletons that archeologists prior to 1930 removed from Pecos graves and sent to Harvard University. These were returned in 1999 to New Mexico and reburied in protected ground within what is today the Pecos National Historical Park.

Historic Fort Stanton, located in Lincoln County, is one of those gems that lends substance to the claim that “New Mexico remains a place where the past still counts.” The county is best known, of course, as the theater in which that grisly war starring Billy the Kid was played out. Fort Stanton, established in 1853, is remembered for its role in the conflict, but also for much else. The chief mission of the fort was to control the neighboring Mescalero Apaches. After abandonment as a military post in 1896 buildings were transferred to the Public Health Service to become the country’s first tuberculosis sanatorium.

Lincoln County historian/author Lynda A. Sanchez has summed up the entire story in her book “Fort Stanton, An Illustrated History” (privately printed, stiff covers, $48, available on Amazon.com).

By letter she tells me that orders placed directly by her phone at (575) 653-4821 will receive a significant discount. This oversize volume is replete with color photographs and historical images.

The last title on my list is also my top choice for the year: David V. Holtby, “Forty-Seventh Star, New Mexico’s Struggle for Statehood” (University of Oklahoma Press, hard cover, $29.95). It demonstrates how corruption, cronyism and bitterly partisan politics prevented New Mexico from achieving statehood for a total of 64 years. Richly textured and full of surprises, this book is beautifully written, informative and as reliable as you can find. Anyone wishing to delve below the surface of New Mexico’s history will find rewards aplenty in “Forty-Seventh Star.”