New Mexico Joins the U.S.!

On Saturday, January 6, 1912, New Mexico finally became a full member of the United States of America.

The day had been a long time coming. The first attempt at statehood had been promptly crushed by the Compromise of 1850, when Congress used New Mexico in a deal to keep the southern states from revolting over the slavery issue. While California was admitted as a “free” state, New Mexico and Utah were classified as Territories where slavery was allowed.

During the following sixty years, the issue of slavery was resolved, but New Mexico still wasn’t made a state. Over fifty bills to initiate a statehood process were proposed, but none passed.

There are different theories about why New Mexico statehood took so long. One is that the Santa Fe Ring, led by Thomas B. Catron, was doing well under Territorial status and didn’t want to rock that particular financial boat.

Ironically, the wheeling and dealing produced by the likes of the Ring also resulted explosions like the Lincoln County War, a story the Eastern papers seemed especially drawn to. Clearly, New Mexico wasn’t civilized and law-abiding enough to be a State.

It’s also possible that the large number of Catholics in New Mexico made Protestant politicians back East nervous. As well as the fact that so many of those Catholics had brown skin.

Whatever the reason, on January 6, 1912, New Mexico became the 47th member of the United States of America. William C. McDonald, a Carrizozo rancher, was the first State Governor and Albert Bacon Fall and Thomas Catron, the first senators.

Albert-Bacon-Fall.Britanica

Albert Bacon Fall http://www.Britannica.com

Fortunately, Catron was past his prime at this point, so he couldn’t do much harm in D.C. But Fall, at age 51, was still young to get in trouble. He became embroiled in the Teapot Dome scandal—he’d accepted a $100,000 “loan” while officially negotiating the lease of federally-owned oil lands—and had to resign.

So New Mexico finally achieved statehood, but it got off to a less than perfect start. Fall proved that it was still a wild place where newcomers, at least, could end up getting themselves in trouble.  He had, after all, only been in New Mexico since 1883.

Sources: Don Bullis, New Mexico Biographical Dictionary Vol. I, Rio Grande Books: Los Ranchos de Albuquerque, 2007; Thomas C. Donnelly, The Government of New Mexico, University of New Mexico Press: Albuquerque, 1953; David V. Holtby, Forty-Seventh Star, University of Oklahoma Press: Norman, 2012; Marc Simmons, New Mexico, an interpretive history, University of New Mexico Press: Albuquerque, 1988.               ;

Chasing the Santa Fe Ring: Book Review

Chasing the Santa Fe Ring cover
by David L. Caffey
University of New Mexico Press, 2014
ISBN: 978-0-8263-1947-0

In New Mexico, the words “Santa Fe Ring” convey the same concept as the words “Tammany Hall” in New York. The Ring is synonymous with collusion by a few to suppress the many, the use of political power for private ends, and the accumulation of wealth by unsavory means.

In Chasing the Santa Fe Ring, David L. Caffey describes the beginnings, height, and end of the Ring and the people involved in it. The major figures he discusses include, of course, Thomas Catron, Governor Samuel Beach Axtell, Stephen Benton Elkins, and William Breeden. But there were a number of less well-known figures that had links to the ring—Colfax County men like physician Robert Longwill and attorney Melvin W. Mills and Santa Fe merchants like Lehman Spiegelberg and Abraham Staab. Caffey places the activities of these men in context and also provides a helpful summary of their activities in the back matter.

One of the pleasures of reading this book is learning about the connections between the Ring and the various events in New Mexico Territory that tend to be treated as stand-alone eruptions—for example, the Lincoln County War and the Colfax County War. Chasing the Santa Fe Ring is actually a great way to obtain a comprehensive history of the Territory from the lens of the Ring and its particular chronology of events.

Catron and his allies seem to have had their hands in any and every opportunity that appeared to promise a monetary return. This included something as large as using their legislative power to “open up” the land grants to acquisition by outsiders and as small as arranging for jury members to be paid in script with little or no monetary worth, buying that script up, and then forcing a law through the legislature which increased its value.

But this book isn’t just a record of the wrongs perpetuated by the Santa Fe Ring. It’s also the story of how a few people took action and brought an end to its power. One of those people was Mary Tibble McPherson, a woman who didn’t actually live in New Mexico. But her daughter did. By the time McPherson was finished raising hell, even Washington D.C. was taking notice.

Mary McPherson wasn’t the only person involved in the fight against the Ring. But to find out more, you’ll have to read the book. If you’re interested in New Mexico history in the Territorial period, Chasing the Santa Fe Ring is a great resource. I recommend it!