This year marks the 100th anniversary of statehood for Arizona and New Mexico, but why did it take until 1912 for them to become states? Amidst all the hoopla of centennial celebrations the actual history of statehood deserves a closer look.
What it reveals is a pattern of racism and discrimination against Native Americans, Hispanics and Catholics. Eastern politicians were not sure they wanted to dilute the body politic.
For New Mexico the long road to statehood included, according to New Mexico State Historian Rick Hendricks, “four constitutions and four referenda, some 15 congressional proposals, two enabling acts, six delegations to Washington and 62 years” from territorial designation to New Mexico's 47th star on the nation's flag. The New York Times and Harper's Weekly railed against New Mexico joining the union. Explorers in the 19th century set the rhetorical pattern.
Americans sought the Southwest's mineral wealth of gold, silver, coal and copper, but they weren't sure they wanted the outlawry of Billy the Kid and the infamous Lincoln County War. Santa Fe was an exotic destination, and the rails of the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railroad brought tourists west to see Indian villages such as the pueblos of Laguna, San Ildefonso and Acoma and then on to the Grand Canyon of Arizona. But statehood?
Traveling in New Mexico after the Mexican War of 1846-48, the British writer George Frederick Ruxton complained about “the hostility of Indians and the scarcity of water.” He described Socorro as “a small, wretched place” where “the faces of the women were all stained with the fiery red juice of a plant called alegrita, from the forehead to the chin. This is for the purpose of protecting the skin from the effects of the sun, and preserving them in untanned beauty to be exposed in the fandangos” or evening dances.
Military men had a different perspective. E.H. Bergmann, colonel of the New Mexico Volunteers, wrote in 1867 that northern New Mexico “is beyond a doubt the best portion ... and needs only an industrious white population to use the advantageous nature so generously afforded here.” What he meant was the development of minerals, forests and grasslands.
David Grey, writing in the newspaper Chicago Inter-Ocean on July 4, 1875, after visiting northern New Mexico, described men as “insolent and lazy.” He added that “the Catholic priests wield an unbounded influence over these ignorant and half-civilized people,” though he believed everything would change when “the railroad, the school-house, (and) the steepled church reach the plazas of Conejos, Ojo Caliente, Rito and Tierra Amarilla.” Writing in 1890, the itinerant Methodist minister John L. Dyer described New Mexico as “the outside or fag-ends of an old Latinized nation, that had been ridden over by Romish priests,” yet he added “the Mexicans are a kind, sympathetic people (who) will divide anything with even a stranger, especially in the rural parts.”
California joined the Union in 1850. Nevada joined a decade later with Colorado coming into the fold in 1876 and Utah in 1890 after disclaiming Mormon polygamy. But it was well into the 20th century before Congress conferred statehood upon Arizona and New Mexico. The path was not easy, and it contained twists and turns that could have eliminated the Four Corners.
Arizona had been part of New Mexico until 1863. Seven years later an attempt was made to combine them into one state to be named Lincoln, which would have included a part of southwestern Colorado. In 1902 there was a proposal to combine both territories and admit them as a single state named Montezuma. That failed. Racism continued. The Chicago Tribune wrote that New Mexico's population was “not American, but 'Greasers,' persons ignorant of our laws, manners, customs, language and institutions.”
My hero Teddy Roosevelt visited Albuquerque in 1903 and in a pageant in front of the Alavarado Hotel next to the Santa Fe Railroad tracks, 46 girls represented each state in the Union. The girl representing New Mexico was not even on the platform. She stood on the steps “pleading tearfully for admission.”
In 1906 Congress passed a joint resolution combining Arizona and New Mexico into one state to be named Arizona with its capital in Santa Fe. Historian Charles Bennett explains, “New Mexico voters approved this plan, knowing that Arizona voters would kill it anyway, which they did.” Finally in 1910 President William Howard Taft signed an “enabling act” for people of the territory to draft a state constitution. Here it gets interesting. One-third of the delegates to the New Mexico constitutional convention were Hispanic. They had specific goals and achieved those ends in the state constitution.
The 20,000-word constitution of 1910 had 130 sections and 22 articles. After decades of racism and pejorative comments about Hispanic heritage, the Hispanic delegates from northern New Mexico insisted on Article VII. Historian Francis Levine explains the importance of the state's constitution because, “Among its unique features was Article VII, Section 3, guaranteeing that the right of any citizen to vote, hold office, or sit on a jury would never be restricted or abridged on account of religion, race, language, or color, or the ability to speak, read, or write in English or Spanish. ... These important safeguards have kept New Mexico unique and culturally rich.” For the first 20 years of statehood all laws were required to be published in Spanish and English. Spanish is an official language of the state, equal to English.
Those provisions might seem far-reaching and inclusive, but it was still a man's world. The New Mexico constitution denied women the right to vote, excluded citizen initiatives, and maintained the old-fashioned election of U.S. senators by the state legislature, not by popular vote. This was the Progressive Era, but some reforms had yet to come to New Mexico.
The past also shaped the future. By 1912 the Southwest's rich archaeological legacy of Native American ruins and sites like Chaco, Bandelier and the Gila cliff dwellings in New Mexico; and Wupatki, Casa Grande and Montezuma's Castle in Arizona inspired tourism and provided the United States with an indigenous heritage unequaled in Europe. Their prehistoric past helped propel Arizona and New Mexico into the Union.
So happy centennial birthday! It was a long slog to statehood, but thanks for being the 47th and 48th stars on our American flag.
Andrew Gulliford is a professor of history and environmental studies at Fort Lewis College.