Humans have inhabited the Mesilla Valley for thousands of years, from ancient hunter-gatherers to the Mogollon and, later, the Mansos. The river provided a steady supply of food and water and the warm climate improved the odds of survival. Over time, those people migrated from the area, leaving only traces of their existence through pottery shards and petroglyphs. Their influence in the region was quickly supplanted by the Apache, who migrated into the land the Mogollon had vacated. Archaeologists estimate that the Apache and Navajo arrived in New Mexico between 1200 – 1400 A.D. Oral history suggests the migration may have started earlier than that.
From the arrival of Coronado in 1540, looking for legendary cities of gold in the north, the Mesilla Valley is located on the route between the Spanish capital in Mexico City and the northern frontier, El Camino Real (The Royal Road). In 1598 Don Juan de Oñate camped in the valley on his way north to establish the first European colony in North America, San Juan de los Caballero, near present-day Española. El Camino Real became the 1600-mile lifeline between Mexico City and Santa Fe; however, no permanent settlements were established for over 200 years. Southern New Mexico was Apache territory. It wasn’t a good place to linger.
Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848
It wasn’t until after the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848 that the first permanent settlers arrived. The citizens of Doña Ana who wanted to remain citizens of Mexico crossed the river and established Mesilla seven miles down river, on the Mexico side of the border. The new community thrived. By 1850, Mesilla had established itself as an important transportation hub for both supplies and people. However, the consistent Apache raids kept the community on high alert. Periodically Apaches swept through the valley, stealing livestock and food, murdering colonists and seizing captives. In response, the villagers sent out the Mesilla Guard, a militia comprised of a man from each household. They would indiscriminately take revenge on any Apache they could find.
By 1851, the United States government established Fort Fillmore on the other side of the river to protect their newly conquered territory and the influx of settlers. Mesilla was closer to the fort than Las Cruces or Doña Ana. The village became the supply center for the garrisoned troops, providing entertainment, food, hay and building materials. The Mexican inhabitants of Mesilla provided the skills needed to build an adobe fort. By mid-century the village’s population reached 3,000, making it the largest town between San Antonio and San Diego. It was an important stop for both the Butterfield Stage Line and the San Antonio-San Diego Mail Lines. The community built fancy hotels and restaurants around the plaza to accommodate the deluge of travelers, as well as the influx new residents. The mix of political views and cultures frequently escalated into conflict, fist fights, riots and shootouts.
Gadsden Purchase Absorbs Mesilla
The United States government negotiated The Gadsden Purchase in 1854 based on pressure from the railroads to build a direct east-west line. The Gadsden Purchase, or Mexican-American Treaty v2.0, was an agreement between the United States and Mexico, wherein the United States agreed to pay Mexico $10 million for the 29,670-square mile strip of northern Mexico that would become part of Arizona and New Mexico. Conveniently, the transaction provided the land necessary for a southern transcontinental railroad. Mesilla, like many border communities, was absorbed into the United States in the process.
As construction of the railroad commenced, there was an influx of people. The workers consumed huge quantities of beef, placing city officials at the mercy of cattle rustlers. Gunfights were de rigueur in the streets of both Las Cruces and Mesilla. Criminals like Nicolas Provencio and Dutch Hubert were regulars in both towns. William H. Bonney, a.k.a. Billy the Kid was tried and convicted for murder in Mesilla. The judge told Billy he would hang until he was “dead, dead, dead”. Billy responded, “Well you can go to hell, hell, hell”. Later, Lincoln County Sheriff Pat Garrett shot Billy the Kid after he escaped from a Lincoln County jail cell while awaiting execution.
Santa Fe Railroad
Mesilla continued to grow and prosper until the 1880s when the Santa Fe Railroad unexpectedly selected Las Cruces instead of Mesilla for the location of its newest route. There are conflicting explanations as to why Las Cruces was chosen rather than Mesilla. The most common is that Mesilla landowners resented the railroad’s assumption that local residents would help build the line. They asked the railroad for too much money for right of way. Regardless, a Las Cruces businessman offered the railroad free land in exchange for the rights to develop along the tracks and the railroad opted to build through Las Cruces rather than Mesilla. With attention now focused on Las Cruces, Mesilla’s commercial importance began to wane.
Step Into the Past in Mesilla
Visiting Mesilla is like stepping into the past. Its size and population is virtually the same as it was 120 years ago. There is new architecture, but it’s rare. Where a stagecoach depot, saloon, courthouse and hotel once stood, there are restaurants, art galleries, bookstores and shops in the same buildings. In the 1960s, the town’s board of trustees passed a zoning code that preserves the town’s historic character and charm.
On some weekends, the plaza hosts festivals and events, like Cinco de Mayo, Diez y Seis de Septiembre and Dia de los Muertos. The events celebrate the town’s heritage and colorful past. During the holiday season, the plaza is aglow with luminarias and filled with the sounds of carolers. Landmarks include the San Albino Church, which the community built from adobe more than a century ago. Additionally, the Gadsden Museum is a local landmark recounting the area’s rich history. The old Butterfield Stage depot is home to a four-star restaurant, La Posta de Mesilla, which has a well-deserved worldwide reputation.
- Detailed New Mexico State Map
- Museums & Historic Attractions
- Lodging Map
- Wine & Ale Trail
- Wine Trail