It's been a great 151 years of history, at least the recorded type.
But long before the Army surveyed and platted Las Cruces indeed long before Spanish explorer Don Juan de Onate made the area a stopover on his trip from Mexico City to search for gold, the area was inhabited. First came perhaps the most interesting inhabitants, the giant reptiles and amphibians who occupied the area during the Permian Period.
Those animals, which pre-date dinosaurs, lived in the now desert Southwest when it was home to a giant inland lake. As the lake dried, their footprints and bones were caught in fossilized rocks.
In the late 1980s, a local amateur paleontologist discovered the fossils. The area where they were found is, by his reckoning, one of the most productive fossils finds ever discovered. The Smithsonian Institute agrees, calling the find the world's best-fossilized footprints from that era, one that existed about 600 million years ago.
The remains of herbivores and carnivores have been found at the site. Unfortunately, the site must remain secret so fossils can be protected.
As the lake dried and shrank, so did the number of inhabitants. The next group we have a record of is the Mogollon Indians until about 1450. They left evidence that they had been here in the many rock drawings, petroglyphs that are found throughout the area. Then came Don Juan de Onate. He had heard legends of the Seven Cities of Gold that allegedly were in what is now central and northern New Mexico. He left Mexico, went through El Paso de Norte,today the sister cities of El Paso and Juarez and followed the Rio Grande north. Staying close to the river, he and his company of soldiers passed through the Mesilla Valley on their way to what they were sure would be untold riches. Unfortunately for many of the Spanish soldiers, natural land barriers made it necessary to move away from the river and Onate and his men began the "Jornada del Muerto," or journey of death. Many died from thirst on this stretch of the march,and trips that came later as well.
Unfortunately for him and his men, Onate never found the cities of gold. But he did introduce the written word, the Christian religion, the horse and cattle to the people living here.
After Onate arrived, European settlers followed and the Spanish colonized the Las Cruces area. The first settlement was in Dona Ana, just north of Las Cruces. The area was part of Mexico until 1848, when the Mexican War ended with the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. That treaty gave Dona Ana and lands east of the Rio Grande to the United States. The United States sent Army troops under the command of Lt. Delos Bennett Sackett to the area to protect the area and settlers began to arrive. The leader in Dona Ana, Don Pablo Melendres, asked Sackett to plan a new town to take the pressure off his village. Sackett obliged and using rawhide ropes and stakes, laid out the beginnings of present-day Las Cruces. Sackett laid out 84 blocks, each containing four lots. Once that was done, the 120 people wanting platted land gathered at the proposed sites for the church and plaza and drew lots from a hat to determine who got what site.
But as people began building, it became obvious that even though Sackett and his men had planned their work, the result wasn't what they were trying for. The streets were crooked and houses crowded each other. And there was one problem that Sackett hadn't planned on and was out of his control.
There weren't many trees in Las Cruces so people used adobe, dried mud, for building material. To get the mud, people dug holes in the street to get the dirt they needed and before the streets were paved, they were plagued with potholes. Finally, Judge Richard Campbell ordered the townspeople to stop digging up Main Street and fill in the holes in the streets.
Now that there was a town, it needed a name. People chose Las Cruces but where the name comes from is the subject of some disagreement. The most popular theory is that sometime during the 1700s, a bishop, a priest, a Mexican army colonel, four trappers and four choirboys were attacked near the Rio Grande and only one choirboy survived. He put up crosses at the site and the area became known as El Pueblo del Jardin de Las Cruces, or City of the Garden of the Crosses.
Another theory holds that crosses in the area marked the sites of various Apache attacks. This is similar to yet another theory that holds that in 1830, Las Cruces was the site of an attack on 40 or more travelers from Taos during which none of the travelers survived.
The most peaceful theory is that the name is simply the Spanish translation for crossing or crossroads.
Las Cruces, now named and platted, did indeed take some of the growth pressure off Dona Ana. However, growth soon proved to be no problem for Dona Ana because many of the residents there wanted to remain Mexican citizens and were angry that the treaty put them in the United States. So in 1850, more than 60 families loaded up their belongings and moved to the West Side of the Rio Grande, in Mexican territory. There, they founded Mesilla, whose name means "little mesa." Fate conspired against these Mexican patriots, however, because a mere four years later, the Gadsden Purchase was signed and Mesilla was part of the 30,000-square-mile strip of land the United States bought along the U.S.-Mexico border. The United States bought the land for $10 million, prodded by U.S. railroad companies that wanted a straight line to lay track connecting Southern California with the East Coast.
At the time of the Gadsden Purchase, Mesilla was already making a name for itself. It became a stop on the Butterfield Stage Line and Mesilla grew up around the stage depot. Mesilla was the biggest stop between San Diego and San Antonio and its stores sold the latest fashions.
Mesillans just naturally expected that the Santa Fe railroad would stop there as well. After the Civil War ended, the Santa Fe made plans to pass through Mesilla and make that town a stopping point as well. What happened next depends on whom you talk to, but the most popular story has it that Mesilla landowners got greedy and asked the railroad for too much money for rights of way. Then, a Las Cruces man offered the railroad free land in exchange for the rights to develop along the tracks. The Santa Fe was swayed by the offer of free land and bypassed Mesilla and stopped in Las Cruces.
At that point, the two towns moved in different directions. Las Cruces, which at the time had barely as many residents as Mesilla, quickly outgrew its neighbor. Mesilla didn't grow and today has about as many people living there as when the railroad came to Las Cruces.
That turned Mesilla into a sleepy southwestern town, although history was made there almost daily. Political disagreements, and there were many, tended to be solved by gunfights. Billy the Kid's last visit to a courtroom was in Mesilla, where he was tried and sentenced to hang. However, he escaped and headed east to Lincoln, NM, where Pat Garrett tracked him down and shot him. The building that housed the jail and courthouse still stand, although today it's a gift shop.
The old Butterfield Stage depot still stands as well. Today, it houses a four-star restaurant, La Posta, which has a worldwide reputation for excellent Mexican food.
Gift shops, restaurants, boutiques and art galleries now dot the Mesilla Plaza, but the ambiance and style is the same as it was in the 1800s. In the center of the plaza is a park with a gazebo. If you're lucky, you'll be able to hear mariachi musicians playing on the plaza, providing an aural background for your trip into the past.
There is new architecture in Mesilla but it's hard to find. In the 1960s, the town's board of trustees passed a zoning code that preserves the town's historic character and charm. Many developers have tried to build more modern-looking buildings but none has succeeded.
Also, the town has encouraged restoration and rehabilitation projects within its boundaries so many of the buildings, and all the stores, are in excellent shape.
So on your visit to Las Cruces, be sure to set aside enough time to visit this historic town. The people are friendly and gunfights are a thing of the past.
Las Cruces has seen its share of famous people, those who lived here and those who only passed through. Besides Billy the Kid and Pat Garrett, Apache chiefs Geronimo and Victorio passed through the area so often that the Army built Fort Selden to protect the fledgling towns of Las Cruces, Mesilla and Dona Ana from attack. And Albert Fall, the Secretary of the Interior who was convicted in the Teapot Dome scandal, lived in Las Cruces as well.
Much of the Old West style found here during the times of Billy the Kid and Geronimo still exists today. And more information is available at the various historic buildings and museums we have.
The famous still live here today. Clyde Tombaugh, the man who discovered Pluto, lived in Las Cruces,and taught astronomy at New Mexico State University, before his death. Mark Medoff, the playwright who wrote "Children of a Lesser God" and "When You Coming Back, Red Ryder," still lives in Las Cruces and teaches at New Mexico State. Former astronaut Frank Borman lives in Las Cruces, where he owns a business.