Doña Ana County

Doña Ana County, established in 1852, is one of thirty-three counties in New Mexico. It is the second-most populated county in the state. The county seat, Las Cruces, has been ranked as one of the fastest-growing communities in the United States for a decade.

Doña Ana County is celebrated for its natural wonders, from the peaks of the Organ Needles to the southwestern Chihuahuan Desert. The county encompasses 3,804 square miles, bordering El Paso County, Texas, to the east and southeast, Chihuahua, Mexico, directly south, Luna County to the west, Sierra County to the north, and Otero County to the east. This area was a critical strategic resource in the development of missile technology and space flight. NASA trained pilots for the Apollo Space Program here and the U.S. Air Force conducted bombing practice for bomber pilots and crews outside of town during WWII.

Our Lady of Purification Church in Doña Ana
Our Lady of Purification Church in Doña Ana. Paved now.

History

Dinosaur footprints at Prehistoric Trackways National Monument attest to life before humans, when a sea covered the region and the geological activity was a tectonic cocktail of earthquakes and volcanoes. Petroglyph-lined canyons in the Sierra de las Uvas Mountains, and Mogollon relics discovered near the natural springs in the Organ Mountains, attest to long-term human habitation. Later, Doña Ana County is where the Camino Real, traversed by Spanish conquistadors and colonists, intersected with the American West. This area was home to ranchers, gunslingers, homesteaders, lawmen, miners, soldiers, outlaws and the Apache. Billy the Kid escaped from the jail in Mesilla. Geronimo hid in the mountains nearby.

The Camino Real follows ancient trade routes established by indigenous tribes. Aztecs, Ancestral Puebloans and others blazed the trail. From Coronado’s initial search for gold in 1540 to Juan de Oñate’s expedition, Spanish conquistadors, supplies and settlers followed this route.

The Doña Ana paraje (rest stop) was one of the earliest natural landmarks in southern New Mexico, located in the Ancon de Doña Ana, 50 miles north of El Paso. Governor Oterman’s notes from the late 1600s contained a reference to the campsite. He camped there on February 4, 1682, following an unsuccessful expedition into New Mexico to reclaim Santa Fe after the Pueblo Revolt of 1680. Doña Ana afforded the only protection for travelers passing through the dangerous stretch of the Camino Real known as the Jornada del Muerto, which is the ninety mile stretch between El Paso del Norte and Socorro. There was no water, no shelter and lots of Apaches. Other than sparse and sporadic parajes, the Spanish didn’t establish permanent villages on this route. Why? Apache.

Wash on the way to Billy the Kid hideout
Washes and arroyos are like the natural alleyways of the Old West

The Apache

Apache territory formed a box between modern day El Paso, Albuquerque, Phoenix, and northern Mexico. The Puebloans, who have lived next to the Apache for centuries, can attest to their propensity to raid when resources are scarce. That occurs frequently in the climatologically schizophrenic southwest. There is a distinct correlation between drought and the intensity and frequency of raids.

For centuries, the Apache served as gatekeepers between the land that would become Mexico and the land that would become the American Southwest. Their language is one of seven southern Athabaskan languages (as is Navajo, aka Diné), which indicates that they migrated into this region from the north. Their linguistic cousins live in northern Canada and Alaska. The Apache and Navajo took over a lot of the territory previously inhabited by the Ancestral Puebloan, Mogollon and Hohokam cultures. They arrived after these ancient civilizations collapsed. They were nomadic tribes. By the time the Spanish arrived in southern New Mexico, small bands of Apache roamed large areas throughout southern New Mexico, Arizona, Texas and northern Mexico, from high elevation to low, setting up camp in different areas based on following game, harvesting a variety of edible foliage and trade.

Additionally, the Apache’s neighbors, the Comanche, rivaled them in terms of ferocity and warrior ethos. Between the two, southern New Mexico was inhospitable for settlers until after the Mexican American War when forts were established, with an ongoing military presence in the region to combat the Apache and Navajo raids. People who would become legends during the Apache Wars; Victorio, Cochise, Geronimo, Mangas Coloradas, the Apache Kid, all knew these hills, canyons, caves and mountains well.

El Camino Real going through Dona Ana
El Camino Real is still a road through a Doña Ana neighborhood.

Turmoil in the Territory

Within one generation, Doña Ana residents experienced a great flood, settled Apache country as refugees at great personal peril, saw the flag change three times, and experienced one change of “official” language in the 1800s. These were tumultuous times in the southwest.

After centuries of Spanish rule, Mexico achieved independence in 1821. Spain yielded this region to Mexico. The transition from the Spanish to Mexican government created cultural and political upheaval. The lack of regulation and oversight triggered a flood of international trade along the newly unrestricted El Camino Real, known at the time as the Chihuahua Trail.

Doña Ana statue
Doña Ana statue

Village of Doña Ana

The Rio Grande flood of 1829, less than a decade after Mexico achieved independence, was an environmental catastrophe. The river inundated farmland from Tomé, south along the Rio Grande floodplain, to the Mexican state of Chihuahua. The deluge displaced farmers and homesteaders , who sought refuge in El Paso. 116 of the flood refugees petitioned the Mexican government for El Ancón del Doña Ana (Doña Ana Bend Colony Grant), an arable stretch of unoccupied land 50 miles to the north.  The grant’s north end encompassed the site of the colonial-era paraje on El Camino Real.

In the spring of 1843, 14 out of 116 of the grant petitioners mustered the courage to move to Doña Ana, despite the hazard off Apache and Comanche raids. They situated the village on a plateau high above the floodplain, and after digging a diversion dam and a system of acequias (irrigation ditches), they constructed the community according to the traditional Spanish-Mexican village plan. Villagers laid the streets out in 35-foot grids of 137-square-foot lots. Later, families subdivided many of the lots for inheritance purposes. As a result, Doña Ana is shaped like a grid of rectangular blocks. Cristo Rey Street, adjacent to the church in Doña Ana, follows the original path of El Camino Real de Tierra Adentro, passing through the Doña Ana Village Historic District. This community is the oldest permanent Hispano settlement in southern New Mexico.

Mexican American War

As Spanish influence in the west weakened, the ambitions of the United States expanded. Their eyes turned west towards the land previously held by the Spanish. “Manifest Destiny” was the belief that the United States was innately destined to stretch from coast to coast. It was the underlying tenet behind the United States attacking Mexico in 1846, challenging their control of the land around the Rio Grande. That philosophy of dominance as destiny was the underpinning of the aggressive military actions against Mexico, Hispanos and the indigenous population during the western expansion from the mid-1800s into the early-1900s.

The war was brief. Mexico signed the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848, yielding land east of the Rio Grande to the United States. Inhabitants that remained loyal to Mexico moved to the other side of the river to establish the village of Mesilla, which was still within Mexico’s boundaries. However, the United States thwarted their effort. Based on pressure from the railroads to create a east-west line, the Gadsden Purchase in 1853 secured the 29,670-square-mile border region of present-day southern Arizona and southwestern New Mexico, including the Mesilla Valley.

American West

With the region’s resources came the region’s problems. For example, it is a large, isolated area, with limited water, limited resources, regular raids and pervasive lawlessness. Combine that with the need to navigate a unique blend of cultures, customs and languages. The influx of people after the war, both military and civilian, exacerbated the issues.

The discovery of gold and silver in the mountain ranges of southern New Mexico enticed more people to hazard deeper into Apache territory. The U.S. Army established forts throughout New Mexico, providing military support for the numerous settlements, ranches, mining camps and homesteads being established in the territory.

The Butterfield Stagecoach established a mail conduit, passenger line and supply chain to the rest of the country. The ruts from the stagecoach wheels can still be readily seen. The Butterfield contract called for semi-weekly runs, covering 2,800 miles, in a maximum of 25 days. The stages traveled an average of 5/mph around the clock, averaging 120 miles a day.  Within two and a half years Butterfield sold the operation to Wells Fargo, adding to their dominance of stage services throughout the west, which they maintained until the arrival of the railroad.

dona ana courthouseLas Cruces

Las Cruces’ origin story traces across the Rio Grande, indelibly linked to Doña Ana and Mesilla and the turmoil that existed after the Mexican American war.

The oldest permanent settlements in southern New Mexico were established by the Spanish. Long term parajes (rest stops) along the Camino Real became villages as trade on the route intensified after Mexican Independence. Doña Ana, just north of present-day Las Cruces, was the first community established in the area.

The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo ceded the territory that became the states of California, Nevada, Utah, and Arizona and New Mexico to the United States, including the village of Doña Ana. The United States sent Army troops, under the command of Lt. Delos Bennett Sackett, to patrol the region and to protect the arriving settlers, soldiers and resources. The rapid population growth overwhelmed the small community. The leader in Doña Ana, Don Pablo Melendres, asked Sackett to establish a new town to relieve the pressure on his village. Sackett agreed.

Mesquite Historic District

The U.S. Army designated a site for the new town six miles south of Doña Ana. Using rawhide ropes and stakes, Sackett laid out the beginnings of present-day Las Cruces. He laid out 84 blocks, each containing four lots. One hundred and twenty men gathered to draw lots from a hat to determine who got which site.

The original site partitioned for Las Cruces is the Mesquite Historic District. It stretches across Campo, San Pedro, Tornillo and Mesquite streets, between Chestnut and Colorado avenues. From its block-long cemetery and grassy Klein Park, the district is a colorful array of galleries, whimsical gardens and cafes. Even as Las Cruces continues to evolve around it and homeowners paint their houses pink, green, yellow, or blue, the old town site retains its historic heart. Many of the district’s oldest streets and buildings remain. Among them is Mesquite Street, which generally follows the original path of El Camino Real. The neighborhood is home to 713 historic homes and buildings, though it is only half its original size.

Recent efforts to boost awareness of the historical significance of El Camino Real have enhanced pride in the trail and awareness of the benefit of the local history to travel and, therefore, community finances. The increased interest in revitalizing historic neighborhoods has fueled architectural preservation initiatives.

Some think Mesquite has the potential to become “the Canyon Road of Las Cruces,” a reference to Santa Fe’s well known street of world class art galleries in historic adobe homes. In recent years, there have been attempts to hold periodic studio and gallery tours in the area, which has attracted artists from Australia, Belgium and the United States. They have established residences, studios and galleries on Mesquite Street.

Las Cruces cross

The Tale Behind the Crosses

The Crosses? The source of the name is a matter of debate, with legend and lore playing heavily into the various versions and interpretations.

Version 1: In 1852, a long caravan of 45 carts, drawn by oxen, heavily loaded with freight from Santa Fe to Chihuahua was attacked by the Mescalero-Apache and destroyed. 50 men were killed and buried on the spot, with crosses erected to commemorate the site. There are other versions of this story where the identity and number of people vary, but it invariably ends in death, usually involving Apache, with crosses erected.

Version 2: The name Las Cruces doesn’t have anything to do with crosses and grave sites. It is simply anglos mangling Spanish, morphing “the crossing” or “crossroads” with crosses, with Los Cruces becoming Las Cruces over time.

old mesilla

Founding Mesilla

The establishment of Las Cruces took pressure off Doña Ana. However, the transition from Spanish to Mexican to American took a toll on many of the long term residents, many of whom remained loyal to Mexico. Ambivalence provoked sixty families to move to the west side of the Rio Grande in 1950 to remain in Mexico. They founded Mesilla, meaning “little mesa.” However, their attempt to evade American citizenship was unsuccessful. Based on prodding from the railroad companies, the United States negotiated the Gadsden Purchase 4 years later. They purchased the 30,000-square mile strip of land along the southern border for $10 million and absorbed Mesilla.

Las Cruces developed slowly. Trade, freight operations ferrying supplies across the southwest, farming, and mining supported the community. Chihuahua Trail traders, like American freighters and others, took up residence. As a result, the town site expanded east and north. The town became a playground for cowboys, miners, and soldiers from Fort Fillmore and Fort Selden. It earned a reputation as a rowdy and dangerous town. In addition to general stores and rooming houses, the obligatory bars and brothels became a big draw.

More about Mesilla

Arrival of the Railroad

The railroad arrived in the late 1800s, coinciding with a mining boom in southern New Mexico. There was a lot of gold and silver pouring out of the hills of southern New Mexico in the 1880s. Las Cruces was a critical transportation hub in the region. The first train arrived in April, 1881. By 1888, the New Mexico College of Agriculture & Mechanic Arts opened its doors. The first class of five students graduated in 1893. The railroad also ignited population growth. The town’s population tripled to 3,000 by 1900. In 1907, Las Cruces was officially incorporated as a town. Five years later, in 1912, New Mexico became the 47th state. By the 1920s, Las Cruces’ population was close to 4,000 residents. By 1940, it was almost 9,000.

The outbreak of World War II had a profound impact on the region. More than 2,000 New Mexicans died during the war, many of them from southern New Mexico, many on the Bataan Death March. Additionally, with a large percentage of the working age men serving in the military overseas, there was a shortage of farm labor. The U.S. Government sent German and Italian POWs to New Mexico to work in the fields. The Tularosa Basin, east of Las Cruces, became one of the army’s most important weapons testing grounds. The Trinity Site, located at the basin’s north end, was the site of the first atomic bomb explosion. By 1945, the Army Corps of Engineers declared White Sands Proving Ground an area of military necessity, with air space protected from ground to infinity (theoretically).

las cruces farmers marketMore about Las Cruces?

Visitors can learn more about the region’s culture and heritage at one of several city museums, all of which are free admission: Branigan Cultural Center, the Las Cruces Art Museum, the Museum of Nature and Science, and the Las Cruces Railroad Museum.

There are three national monuments less than an hour’s drive from downtown Las Cruces: Organ Mountain Desert Peaks National Monument, the Prehistoric Trackways National Monument and White Sands National Monument. All three offer outdoor recreation opportunities, from hiking and back-country camping to sand dune sledding, rock climbing or mountain biking. More hiking, day trip and adventure options available here.

The Chile Pepper Institute is on the NMSU campus, appropriately convenient to Hatch. The institute is the world’s only international, nonprofit organization devoted to education and the research of chile peppers. They have a public Teaching Garden, where 150 of the world’s hottest chiles from around the world are grown. The Teaching Garden is open seven days a week from June to October. Chile seeds, food items and other merchandise are available at the visitors center and at the NMSU gift shop. If you are visiting and want your own supply of chile, they sell seed.

If you are looking for a guide, David at Southwest Expeditions provides a variety of tours, from rafting the Rio Grande and flying along the Organ Mountains to following in the footsteps of Billy the Kid and exploring the fascinating history of Old Mesilla. His list of tours is extensive, with something for everyone, from adventure seekers to groups and family travel.

southwest expeditions bannerFacts

Las Cruces is located in southern New Mexico, at the foot of the Organ Mountains, on the banks of the Rio Grande, at the edge of the Chihuahuan Desert, 225 miles south of Albuquerque, 275 miles east of Tucson, AZ, and 42 miles west of El Paso, TX at the intersection of I-10 & I-25. Villagers from Dona Ana and American settlers moving in after the Mexican American war established the community in 1849.

Population
Doña Ana County: 200,000
Las Cruces: 95,000

Elevation 3,896 feet

Weather

  • Las Cruces enjoys 350 days of sunshine a year. Temperatures in the summer months routinely reach the high 90s, with nighttime lows in the 60s. The fall air is a bit cooler with daytime highs of mid 70s to low 80s.
  • Las Cruces basks in daytime temperatures ranging from the upper 50s to lower 60s while northern states dig themselves out from under the snow. Temperatures climb steadily from the low to high 80s in March and April.
  • Las Cruces receives an average of 8.5 inches of rain per year. Furthermore, they get a paltry two inches of snow in the winter. July and August are monsoon season months. The average rainfall is 2” per month.
  • On average, the warmest month is June and the coldest month is December. The record high is 113 degrees in 1994 and the record low is -17 degrees in 1962.

Maps

More Maps

Visiting Las Cruces?

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