Before the first human inhabitants, the area around Las Cruces was populated by a teeming variety of reptiles and amphibians, who left many fossils when the great inland sea that once covered southern New Mexico retreated 600 million years ago. The Smithsonian has stated that the area holds "the world's best-fossilized footprints from the Permian Period."
Early Paleolithic Indians traversed the area about 20,000 years ago, and Anasazi tribes built cliff dwellings over most of New Mexico 10,000 years ago. The Mogollon tribe thrived in the Las Cruces region until they mysteriously disappeared around 1450 A.D. They left many petroglyphs, or rock drawings, scattered around the vicinity for scientists to gain a glimpse into their way of life.
The first European visitors came to the Las Cruces area in 1535 when Spanish explorers, led by Cabeza de Vaca, passed through. In 1589, the first colonists arrived, led by Don Juan Onate, motivated by legends of seven ancient cities of gold. The group's livestock were driven in front of them, blazing a trail called El Camino Real, which led from Chihuahua, Mexico, to Santa Fe. Another trail blazed by this same group was dubbed Jornado del Meurto, or Journey of Death. As they attempted to forge a path more direct than the one which followed the meandering Rio Grande, the brutal desert conditions claimed the lives of many men and the Apaches claimed more.
Control of the region changed hands often from the 1600s to about 1850. The Pueblo Indians rebelled against their Spanish conquerors in the late seventeenth century and enjoyed self-rule for a time. In 1821 the Mexican Revolution overthrew the Spanish and created the Republic of Mexico. Soon after that, U.S. westward expansion caused friction and an eventual war with Mexico. This was resolved with the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, followed by the 1854 Gadsden Purchase, which claimed much of northern Mexico's land as U.S. territory. The region was even briefly under Confederate rule when Texas troops marched on it in 1862. They were later defeated by Union soldiers near Santa Fe.
After the Civil War ended, the Army installed Fort Seldon to help guard travelers against attacks by the Apache. The Buffalo Soldiers of the 125th Infantry, African Americans, were among the first to men the fort. With the coming of the railroad and more and more new immigrants, the Apache threat abated and the fort officially closed in 1891.
The small town of Mesilla is intertwined with the history of Las Cruces. Mesilla was founded by residents who were not happy with the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo and wished to remain Mexican citizens, hence moving across the Rio Grande. Ironically, the Gadsden Purchase a few years later placed them back under U.S. rule.
In 1849 the first blocks of the city were laid out with rawhide ropes and stakes. Plots were quickly claimed by settlers and gold miners hoping to find their fortune in the Organ Mountains. The coming of the railroad increased growth of the town quickly. The Santa Fe Railroad had planned to lay track through Mesilla, which had been a depot of the Butterfield Stage Coach, but someone in Las Cruces offered them free land. From then on, Las Cruces grew rapidly while Mesilla remained a sleepy little border town.
Las Cruces continued to grow quickly yet rather quietly into the 1900s as New Mexico became the 47th state in 1912. The quiet was suddenly disturbed when the first atomic bomb was tested north of Las Cruces on July 16, 1945. The area used for the test site, fittingly, was the Jornado del Muerto area. The following year World War II ended and Las Cruces was officially incorporated as a city.
Today, Las Cruces remains one of the fastest growing metro areas in the nation, and the second largest city in New Mexico. In addition to thriving business in trade, government, and agriculture, the unique and stunning scenery of the region has made it an attractive place to film movies and music videos. Las Cruces celebrated its 150th birthday in 1998 with festivities that carried on into the millennium. It remains a true crossroads, not only of highways but of cultures and customs, which blend together amiably to become a very pleasant place to live.
Historical Information: Rio Grande Historical Collections, New Mexico State University Library, PO Box 30006 Las Cruces, NM 88003-3006; telephone (505)646-3839; fax (505)646-7477; email firstname.lastname@example.org