About Las Cruces – History and development of the Mesilla Valley

Following on my earlier post about the geography, etc……

The Mesilla Valley has been home to human inhabitants for at least 10,000 years, with settlements dating back at least 5000.  The modern era of colonial settlement began in the 1500s when the first Spanish explorers arrived.  It is known that Don Juan de Onate passed through the valley in 1598, but there was little to no settlement for two and a half centuries, due to the fierce defense of the lands by the local Apache Indians, who themselves had helped push out most of earlier groups of indigenous people.  The Spanish established a famous track, El Camino Real (the royal road), from Mexico City far to the south to Santa Fe, the current state capital 285 miles (450 km) north of Las Cruces.  Remnants of the original road can still be seen in the desert near here and several roads in the city lie over this track.



Many did not survive the “Jornada del Muerto” (journey of death) through the region.  Las Cruces gets its name from the Spanish for “the place of the crosses” that were placed on a hill along the route to memorialize earlier travelers.  Three crosses have come to represent the city and can be seen in logos, on buildings, etc.  Because of its historical origins the name withstood a recent court suit concerning the separation of church and state.



The first permanent settlement was in 1842, when a small group of by-now-independent Mexican colonists settled on a land grant issued a few decades earlier in the north valley.  Their town was Dona Ana.  The oldest church in southern New Mexico, Our Lady of Purification Church, still stands along with a few old adobe structures.

ImageChurch and adobe “horno” oven in old Dona Ana.

Image Old adobe homes along El Camino Real in Dona Ana.

There were various skirmishes in the territorial wars between the USA and Mexico in the area until this disputed part of Mexico was ceded to the US at the conclusion of the Mexican War in 1848 and through follow-on agreements in 1853.  In 1849 a group of American and Dona Ana settlers met to draw lots for 84 original plots in what was to become Las Cruces, complete with an American style Main Street.  At about the same time, La Mesilla, a few miles south was also founded, but along more Mexican lines.  Mesilla has retained its Mexican village flavor to this day, as seen in the town plaza and adobe homes.  It has become a popular tourist destination as a result of its historic character.  Various famous names of the “Wild Old West” such as Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, are part of Mesilla’s past, somewhat akin to Ned Kelly and his Gang in folklore.

Image Basilica of San Albino in the Mesilla plaza, with carnival rides for Cinco de Mayo (5th of May) celebrations.

Image Old storefronts in Mesilla



ImageOld home in Mesilla.

The area remained very dangerous for settlers, however, so several forts were established by the US government in the new territory (new Mexico did not become a state until 1912) to protect the border from Indian raids and later Mexican revolutionaries.  The ruins of one, Fort Selden, can be seen in the north part of the valley.  It was manned by Buffalo Soldiers, newly freed African Americans.

Image Old wagon and ruins at Fort Selden State Monument.

The strong Spanish-speaking heritage in this region can be seen in numerous place and family names tracing back to early settlers, as well as in cultural aspects, which I’ll post later in a separate blog.  The Armijo and Amador family burial plots and crypts are still in the old city cemetery, though much weathered by the harsh desert climate.

ImageArmijo-Gallager House, downtown Las Cruces.


Image Weathered wooden tombstones with Amador crypt in distance, in San Jose Cemetery.

Another legacy of early settlement is the system of irrigation ditches (acequia) that still wind through parts of downtown.



Much of the old section of Las Cruces lost its character during much maligned urban renewal efforts in the 1970s, but the Mesquite historic neighborhood along the El Camino Real route on the east side of Main Street still has many historic and traditional adobe homes, with long-time residents having relatively modest incomes.  Some artists have made this their home as well (I almost bought a 100 year old adobe studio there myself when house hunting last year), and there are several nice galleries to include the Unsettled Gallery.  There is a mix of run-down and restored properties, overall on an upward trend as greater efforts are being made to improve the downtown areas.

Image  Typical Mesquite street.

Image Abandoned adobe.


Image Improved Mesquite adobes, with Aralia Art Gallery (http://www.araliagallery.com/)

The next big change to the city occurred when the railroad line came to town in 1881 (Mesilla passed on the opportunity), bringing the outside world and the prosperity of new markets and goods.  Soon a new community sprang up in the several blocks between the depot (now a museum) and Main Street.  Today this area is known as the Alameda historic district, populated by the merchant class.  There was almost a competition to build more modern and trendy homes in a range of architectural styles….ranch, bungalow, mission, prairie, tudor, etc.  Pioneer Park is a focal point in this popular and improving neighborhood.  The homes range from modest to mansion, again with various artists (like me) in residence.  Many older homes have a casita, or separate apartment in back for relatives and visitors. The following photos are a sampling of my neighborhood.















Image  My own 1927 home in the Alameda district.

Image Pioneer Park

There are numerous new suburban neighborhoods around the city, most booming in the last few decades, with most growth, including the “big box” chain stores and restaurants on the east side Mesa.  Most of these are of contemporary “Southwest” design. There are condominiums, higher density detached homes, and large properties further toward the mountains on the southeast or near Picacho Peak on the west.

Image Condo/apartment homes.

Image Suburban sprawl on the Mesa.

Another major node of more recent development has been around the New Mexico State University campus on the south side of the city.  This school was established as an agricultural and technical college in the late 1800s and has grown to be a large Uni with over 30,000 students.  It is surrounded by many shops and restaurants, with several large convention/event halls nearby.  A tradition has been to paint a large letter on “A” Mountain (Tortugas Peak) nearby.  One of our team, Jenny Gilbertson, attended NMSU at one point and it was through her recommendations about Las Cruces and Mesilla that led me to move here last year, so thanks NMSU…Go Aggies! One big community event is the annual football rivalry between two local perennial State Championship high schools, hosting well over 20,000 fans in NMSU’s stadium.  Not quite State of Origin, but impressive for a town of 100,000.

ImageNMSU, with “A Mountain” in distance.


More about Downtown itself in next blog.




3 thoughts on “About Las Cruces – History and development of the Mesilla Valley

  1. Thank heaps Dave for your great photos of Las Cruces, loved the textures and colours of the old adobe buildings and the interesting read … thats great news that you’ll be coming over for an artist residency in Bundaberg, look forward to meeting you and seeing you work with watercolour

  2. Hey Dave – love the photo of the white adobe between the abandoned adobe and Aralia Gallery! I took heaps of photos of that building 🙂 the light was always amazing, especially with a stunning blue sky dotted with those distinctive NM clouds behind/above it.

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