Life in Mesilla & the Mesilla Valley in the 1800s

New Mexico remained under Spanish rule until 1821 when Mexico achieved her independence from Spain.  Trading increased along the Chihuahua Trail and the Rio Grande Valley.  This put the Mesilla Valley nearly in the middle of this trade route.  However, it wasn’t until after the war between the United States and Mexico and the Treaty of Guadalupe of Hildalgo in 1848, that the first permanent settlers came to Mesilla and the Mesilla Valley to make their home. (6)

By 1850, Mesilla had a population of 600 residents, mainly of Mexican descent.  Dona Ana County was formed in 1852 with Mesilla becoming the County Seat shortly thereafter.  With the increased population and trade activity, the Apache Indians took notice and raided farms and ranches in and around Mesilla.   As a result, the United States government established Fort Fillmore to protect the new territory and it’s people.

Perhaps the most famous event to happen in the Mesilla Valley occurred on the plaza in Mesilla on November 16, 1854 when a commemorative ceremony took place recognizing the Gadsden Purchase and the signing of the Gadsden Treaty.  The Treaty formally established boundaries between the United States and Mexico, making Mesilla a part of the United States.  This ceremony was also the first time the United States flag had flown over the newly purchased territory.(6)

In the late 1850s, Mesilla was quickly becoming the crossroads of commerce and transportation in the southwest.  Three stage coach lines connected Mesilla with the outside world by 1858. By 1860, Mesilla’s population had grown to 2000 residents.  By comparison, Las Cruces had less than 1000 residents,  Albuquerque had 1760 residents and El Paso 428 residents.  Mesilla was the largest town between San Antonio, Texas and San Diego, California, east to west and Santa Fe, New Mexico and Chihuahua, Mexico, north to south. (6)

With the start of the Civil War, Mesilla found itself on the side of the Confederate States.  Lt. Colonel Baylor and his Texas Confederate Troops would declare Southern New Mexico and Arizona the territory  of  the Confederate States with Mesilla its capital.  The site of their headquarter building was at the location of the Fountain Theater today. A few months later, after series of battles in northern New Mexico in which Union Troops prevailed, Confederate Troops would flee to Texas. Shortly thereafter, 2600 members of the California Column of Union Troops would arrive in the Mesilla Valley and make their headquarters in Mesilla. The arrival of the Union troops and their integration into the existing population changed the family dynamics in the Mesilla Valley forever. Many Anglo soldiers, now veterans after the end of the Civil War, chose to stay in the Mesilla Valley and married Hispanic women.  One such veteran was Albert Jennings Fountain.

In the 1870s and 1880s, Mesilla was as lively and wild a frontier town as there was in the southwest.  Mesilla had nine general stores, three doctors, one dentist, one hotel, five lawyers, one billiard hall, two meat markets, one bakery, three carpenter shops, two printing offices and two mills.  People would come from Mexico, Arizona, Texas and other parts of New Mexico to attend festivals, bullfights, cockfights, dances and theater. It was also not unusual for an occasional gunfight to occur.  Billy the Kid and his cohorts frequented many establishments in Mesilla.  It was at the Mesilla Courthouse on the southeast corner of the plaza where Colonel Albert Fountain defended Billy the Kid for the murder of Sherriff William Brady.  Billy the Kid would be found guilty and sentenced to hang.  He subsequently escaped from jail in Lincoln County and shot to death by Sherriff Pat Garrett. (6)

Another significant event would occur in Mesilla in August of 1871.  Mesilla, now known for being a hotbed of political activity, hosted a gathering of both political parties one afternoon.  At stake was the election of a delegate to Congress. Both parties paraded around the plaza in different directions meeting in front of what is now the Mesilla Book Center.  Angry words were shared followed by gunshots and a brawl.  In the end, nine men would die and fifty wounded.

By 1881, the railroad was working its way across the southwest.  Railroad officials approached the town of Mesilla in an effort to purchase right-of –way for their rail. Mesilla residents showed little interest.  Railroad officials approached officials in Las Cruces who were more than willing to provide the right-of way. The location of the railroad to Las Cruces rather than Mesilla would change the economic and social complexion of life in Mesilla and the Mesilla Valley forever.  Today, Las Cruces has a population of nearly 100,000 residents…. Mesilla, 2000 residents, the same population it had in 1860.