Boostering the new state

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The achievement of statehood a century ago gave New Mexico an economic shot in the arm. The new state’s two leading cities, Albuquerque and Santa Fe, rushed to take advantage of the national publicity created in January 1912 by President Taft’s signing of the Statehood Bill.

Albuquerque was already well ahead of the game, having by this date attracted many industrial firms that supported a healthy manufacturing and merchandising economy.

A formal boosters association set about to foster a dynamic development program aimed at encouraging emigration to build up Albuquerque’s population and draw additional business.

The capital city, in a manner of speaking, was left in the dust. The chief problem was the main line of the Santa Fe Railway bypassed the town by 18 miles back in 1880.

The transportation impediment meant that Santa Fe had to look in a direction other than Albuquerque’s if it was to grow and compete.

After casting about, the community settled upon the promotion of tourism to mitigate its economic woes. So successful was that choice that it continues to shape the character and predominant flavor of the capital to this day.

Town fathers, at the beginning of a campaign to attract out-of-state visitors, decided to pitch Santa Fe as an exotic destination. They could easily draw upon elements of local color already in place to lure a bounty of wealthy travelers from beyond the Mississippi.

Out of the image-making process, there emerged community support for traditional public ceremonies, a historic preservation movement and encouragement of the home-grown Pueblo-Spanish Revival style of architecture.

A small example of the type of identity formation going on at this time comes from a Sept. 17, 1913, issue of the New Mexican. In it, a bold headline advised citizens: “Santa Fe Declared the Oldest City in the United States.”

It seems the Chamber of Commerce had passed a resolution to have that claim printed on 68,000 envelopes so that merchants and other businessmen could use them in their correspondence to help “swell the tourist crop.”

Chamber members, according to the newspaper, had been enthusiastic the previous evening when they gathered at an open meeting in the Palace of the Governors to support the “oldest city” proposal.

Santa Feans for years had nourished the idea — without evidence — that their European community had been around longer than any other in the nation. And they habitually stated that “fact” to any tourist who stopped them on the plaza to ask directions.

Several people at the chamber assemblage, however, spoke up saying St. Augustine, Fla., laid claim to being the oldest in the U.S., and urged Santa Fe change its slogan to read: “the second oldest city.”

They were shouted down, though, by the merchants who’d ordered the envelopes and now protested: “What is the use of taking second place and telling the whole world about it?”

The matter was then referred to two experts in attendance, historian Col. Ralph E. Twitchell and former New Mexico Gov. L. Bradford Prince, and in 1913, president of the New Mexico Historical Society.

Together, they supported the boosters, saying: “There is no proof that any city within the United States is older than Santa Fe.”

They were wrong. On Sept. 8, 1565, Pedro Menéndez de Avilés, recently appointed as governor by the king, landed on the east coast of Florida and established the Spanish municipality of St. Augustine.

The full story of Menéndez de Avilés’ activities only came to light in 1902 when his biography by Bartolomé Barrientos was published in Mexico City.

Evidently, no copy had reached Santa Fe prior to the “oldest city” hubbub in 1913. And in truth, no New Mexico historian at that time had a firm fix on the date their own capital was founded. Only in 1929 was a document published indicating that Santa Fe’s birth had occurred in late 1609 or, more likely, in early 1610.

Since then, no one — to my knowledge — has seriously argued that St. Augustine is undeserving of the accolade “oldest city.”