Las Cruces History: 30 Places to Explore its Intriguing Past - LasCruces.com
Horses pulling a stagecoach through the desert with the Organ Mountains in the distance.

Las Cruces history is richer and deeper than you might expect. Since it’s in Southern New Mexico, you’d expect history related to Native Americans, Spanish settlers, and Old West adventures, but you might be surprised to find that the Civil War is part of Las Cruces history, too. Let’s explore some of the fascinating places you can walk in the footsteps of history in Las Cruces, neighboring Mesilla, and nearby areas.

Native Americans

Native people have lived in or near the Mesilla Valley for more than 20,000 years, based on footprints recently discovered at nearby White Sands National Park. The Mogollon people lived in a large area from the Gila Wilderness to the Tularosa Basin and their descendants settled throughout the region. The Apache also lived in New Mexico and Arizona.

Tortugas Pueblo, which is on the National Register of Historic Places, has been the home of people of the Piro-Manso-Tiwa tribe since Eugene van Patten helped them get the townsite in the early 1900s. (You’ll read more about him later.) Two major annual events the pueblo hosts are the annual turtle races as part of the San Juan Fiesta in June and the Our Lady of Guadalupe Festival, held December 10 through 12, with feasts, dances, and a pilgrimage to the top of Tortugas (Turtle) Mountain (also called “A” Mountain for the huge A emblazoned on it for the New Mexico State University Aggies).

Displays at the New Mexico Farm & Ranch Heritage Museum help tell the story of Native Americans in Las Cruces history.

The Spaniards in Las Cruces History

In 1598, long before Las Cruces was established, Juan de Oñate passed through the area with a caravan of 129 men with their families and servants. They followed trade routes first created by the Native Americans centuries before the Spaniards arrived. It became El Camino Real de Tierra Adentro (the Royal Road of the Interior), the first of several royal roads.

When fully established, El Camino Real took colonists, troops, and merchants from Mexico City to as far north as Ohkay Owingey Pueblo, a distance of 2,000 miles. Later it was called the Chihuahua Trail. You can follow in the footsteps of the El Camino Real de Tierra Adentro National Historic Trail right in Las Cruces’ historic Mesquite District, in the village of Doña Ana along Cristo Rey Street, Fort Selden, or, 15 miles south of Las Cruces, Vado, which was the first all-African American settlement in the territory.

Yost Draw with interpretive signage.
Yost Draw north of Las Cruces is one of the places to walk in the footsteps of history, in this case El Camino Real de Tierra Adentro where Native Americans, Spaniards, and others traveled.

About 50 miles north of Las Cruces is Yost Draw, one of the best-preserved sections of the trail where there are interpretive signs and a 1.5-mile path through the Jornada del Muerto (“journey of the dead man” for the harrowing section of the trail without water). Point of Rocks is a few miles south of Yost Draw and offers signage and views of where the trail once was, now covered by railroad tracks.

Those traveling on the Royal Road left a lasting impact on the area. Doña Ana County and the Doña Ana Mountains are named for Doña Ana Robledo, a respected 76-year-old woman who died when the Spaniards were fleeing the 1680 Pueblo Revolt. She is buried near the Robledo Mountains, named for her grandfather, Pedro Robledo, who died at the age of 60 as he traveled with Oñate’s soldiers towards the north. He was buried there in 1598.

There is a sculpture of Doña Ana Robledo in the courtyard of Our Lady of Purification Catholic Church in the village of Doña Ana, seven miles north of Las Cruces, which was settled in the 1840s and was also named for her.

Exploring Las Cruces history

Las Cruces wasn’t settled until after the Mexican-American War. In 1849, settlers began working the rich soil of the Mesilla Valley. After that, it became an important stop along El Camino Real de Tierra Adentro. The name Las Cruces, it is said, comes from crosses erected to mark the graves of settlers killed by Apache.

The Las Cruces Railroad Depot as it looked in about 1910.
The Las Cruces Railroad Depot as it looked in about 1910.

Las Cruces became the county seat for Doña Ana County in 1881. However, at first, it was a smaller community, with nearby Mesilla in the starring role. That changed when the railroad proposed putting a station in Mesilla, but the town declined while Las Cruces agreed. The growth, fueled by businessmen and settlers from the east, instead happened in Las Cruces.

Explore Las Cruces history at the Santa Fe Railway station at Las Cruces Avenue and North Mesilla Street, now the city’s Railroad Museum. It is near the historic Alameda District, with Pioneer Park at its center, which was populated by families from the east who wanted homes reminiscent of what they had left behind. In contrast, the homes in the Mesquite Historic District on the east side of Main Street were built by Hispanic families and are rustic homes built of adobe.

historic moments in Mesilla

Of the two communities, Mesilla has most retained its historic flavor. It was settled by Mexicans after the 1846 Mexican-American War made Las Cruces and areas to the north part of the United States and the land that became Mesilla remained in Mexico. By 1850, more than 800 people were living in Mesilla, Mexico. However, the 1854 Gadsden Purchase, which was commemorated with a ceremony in Mesilla, made it and almost 30,000 square miles of southwestern New Mexico and southern Arizona part of the United States.

A map showing the lands purchased from Mexico in the Gadsden Purchase.
This map shows the lands purchased from Mexico in the Gadsden Purchase. Wikipedia image.

Mesilla was a stop on the Butterfield Stage Line, which began taking passengers and mail from St. Louis to San Francisco in 1858. This rugged 2,795-mile journey took about three weeks. The south end of the plaza area was the transportation block, with services for the Butterfield and other companies bringing passengers and freight through the area.

The Mesilla Plaza was also the site of an infamous political parade that turned violent. In 1871, Democratic and Republican parade participants rioted, resulting in the death of nine men with 50 more injured. The soldiers from Fort Selden 18 miles to the north were called in to restore order.

Today, the Mesilla Plaza and many of the buildings facing it are listed as a National Historic Landmark. The essential acequias that provide water for agriculture and some other homes and buildings in Mesilla are on the National Register of Historic Places.

The bandstand on the Mesilla Plaza with the Basilica of San Albino in the background.
The bandstand on the Mesilla Plaza commemorates the Gadsden Purchase of 1854. The Basilica of San Albino is seen in the background.

In Mesilla, explore the historic plaza where folks like Billy the Kid, a young Douglas MacArthur, Kit Carson, Roy Bean, Albert Fountain, Albert Fall, and Pancho Villa once strolled (or in Billy’s case, was also jailed and convicted of murder). Visit the Basilica de San Albino on the north end of the plaza, which is on the site of the first church built when the community was established. The current structure was built in 1906 and elevated to a basilica in 2008.

Soon, the Taylor-Barela-Reynolds-Mesilla State Monument on the plaza will invite visitors to explore a historic home most recently occupied by the J. Paul Taylor family. Taylor was a state legislator and educator, and the Taylor family moved into the home in the early 1950s, restoring and improving it while acquiring a collection of art and nacimientos, nativity scenes that were displayed during an open house for many years. He and his wife, Mary, donated the property to become a state monument after their deaths. Mary passed away in 2007 and J. Paul died in 2023.

At La Posta de Mesilla, a popular restaurant just off the plaza, you can see signs that explain what each of the restaurant’s many rooms was back in the mid-1800s when the building was part of the transportation block.

La Posta isn’t the only historic restaurant on the plaza. Stop by the Double Eagle and explore the art, history, and ghost stories while you enjoy a margarita or a fine meal.

The Civil War in Southern New Mexico

Trail sign for the Baylor Pass National Recreation Trail, where Civil War and Las Cruces history took place.
Up this trail, Union forces surrendered without firing a shot to Confederate Col. John Baylor, for whom the pass was named.

While we may think of the War Between the States as being waged further to the east, battles and skirmishes took place in the New Mexico Territory. For a while, the Confederate flag even flew in both Mesilla and Albuquerque and the rebels raided supplies and money in Santa Fe. The goal of the Confederates was to take New Mexico, move north to acquire Colorado’s rich mines, and then head west and capture California’s important ports.

As a first step in that plan, Confederate Colonel John Baylor brought 220 soldiers of the Texas Mounted Rifles to Mesilla. On July 24, 1861, he marched into Mesilla and was greeted by cheering residents. The next day, the First Battle of Mesilla was fought, with Union Major Isaac Lynde of Fort Fillmore leading 380 Regulars to evict Baylor. The battle did not go well for the Union forces, who retreated to the fort. Baylor, reinforced with more troops, captured 85 of the fort’s horses. That, along with the 20 killed in the battle, left the Union forces mostly on foot when they decided to make a run for Fort Stanton, near Ruidoso. They burned the fort’s ammunition and supplies, but apparently couldn’t bring themselves to get rid of the medicinal whiskey.

On July 27, 1861, during the height of summer heat, Lynde and his men began their retreat. Unwisely, many of the men are reputed to have filled their canteens with whiskey rather than water and by the time they reached the area of San Agustin Spring in the Organ Mountains, more than 15 miles away, they were experiencing dehydration and heat illness. They were intercepted by 300 Confederate troops under the command of Baylor and Lynde surrendered without firing a shot. Lynde was later dropped from the Army rolls for abandoning his post and surrendering to an “inferior force of insurgents.”

Lynde’s abandonment of the fort allowed the Confederates to take control of Mesilla. Baylor established a capitol building on Calle de Guadalupe where the historic Fountain Theatre is today. He raised the Confederate flag and declared himself governor of Arizona Territory, which included parts of what are now New Mexico and Arizona. The battles moved toward Albuquerque, although there was a Second Battle of Mesilla on July 1, 1862, the last engagement between Union and Confederate troops in Arizona Territory before the Confederates were driven from New Mexico.

Baylor, too, lost his job after issuing an order to round up and kill male Native Americans and take the women and children to sell as slaves. Appalled, Confederate President Jefferson Davis stripped him of his rank and his role as governor of New Mexico Territory. Baylor had also been acquitted of murder after shooting a newspaperman with whom he disagreed in Mesilla. But the route his men took through the Organ Mountains still bears his name, Baylor Pass National Recreation Trail, part of the Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument. You can hike in their footsteps along the three-mile trail from Baylor Canyon Road over the mountains to Aguirre Spring Recreation Area and Campground.

The Death of Sheriff Pat Garrett

A sign marking the spot where Pat Garrett was murdered, part of Las Cruces history.
This sign marks the spot where former sheriff Pat Garrett was murdered, just outside Las Cruces.

There’s more Las Cruces history to explore. On the frontage road paralleling Highway 70, Bataan Memorial East, at South Jornada is a historical marker indicating the spot where Sheriff Pat Garrett was murdered. Garrett is famous for being the man who killed Billy the Kid. His daughter, Elizabeth, is remembered for writing New Mexico’s state song, “O Fair New Mexico.”

Garrett came to an inauspicious end when he was shot on February 29, 1908, supposedly in self-defense by ranch hand Wayne Brazel. Brazel was leasing land from Garrett and infuriated the former sheriff by running goats on the land. Brazel was later acquitted of murder. However, there’s a lot more to this story and many theories about powerful men who may have been involved in a conspiracy to kill Garrett, who was shot in the back of the head and then in the stomach once he was lying on the ground.

Dripping Springs, a las cruces resort

Another area with some interesting Las Cruces history is accessed from the other end of Baylor Canyon Road, so either take the drive from the trailhead along the mountains until you reach Dripping Springs Road, or access University/Dripping Springs Road from Interstate 10. At the eastern end of Dripping Springs Road, you come to Dripping Springs Natural Area, a BLM-managed recreation area that has trails taking you to the remains of a stagecoach stop, Col. Eugene van Patten’s Mountain Camp, a resort that was popular from the late 1890s until the First World War, and the Boyd Sanitarium, a tuberculosis sanatorium that operated there for a few years. It’s a wonderful place to explore the Organ Mountains and local history.

Old buildings at Dripping Springs keep Las Cruces history alive.
The first of the old buildings where you can explore Las Cruces history at Dripping Springs in the Organ Mountains.

There’s also a picnic and parking area at La Cueva, which was used as shelter by Native Americans as well as the unfortunate Hermit of La Cueva, Giovanni Maria de Agostini, who was found murdered near La Cueva on May 2, 1869. The Italian Maronite Christian had traveled the world and founded several religious communities but finally met his end alone at La Cueva.

There are many more stories about the history of Las Cruces here on LasCruces.com. You can also learn more about Las Cruces history at the Branigan Cultural Center, operated by the City of Las Cruces, and the New Mexico Farm & Ranch Heritage Museum.

Story and photography by Cheryl Fallstead

 

Posted by LasCruces.com

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