Western Trips

Western Trips

Monday, March 11, 2013

Mesilla NM and the Mesilla Valley

mesilla new mexico church
Basilica of San Albino
Mesilla New Mexico is both the most visited old community in southern New Mexico as well as one of the most historic. If your travels through New Mexico take you through the southern part of the state, a stop at old Mesilla is well worth your time. Old Mesilla, founded around 1849, which at one time was the most populated settlement between San Antonio and San Diego, is located just a few miles south of Las Cruces NM.

Mesilla, A Very Unique Location

Mesilla's location placed it in the direct path of many historical events of the mid 1800's. Some of these included the border dispute with Mexico itself after the end of the Mexican American War. Add to this the fact that Texas actually made claim to the area before the Civil War and then the invasion by Texas Confederates during the early years of the American Civil War. In addition, during the days of the New Mexico Territory, Mesilla's distance from the capital at Santa Fe and the more populous northern New Mexico area meant that lawlessness was a major factor to contend with not to mention a running battle with various Apache tribes.

old mesilla nm courthouse
Site of old Mesilla courthouse on the plaza
As to the legality of it's location, Mesilla New Mexico officially became a part of the New Mexico territory only after the Gadsden Purchase was consummated in the 1850's. This was when the U.S. paid Mexico (Santa Ana) seven million dollars to secure a strip of land extending from the Texas border westward to Yuma Arizona. The Gadsden negotiations finally settled where the U.S. border would be with Mexico. It was also the last time the U.S. would acquire land as part of "Manifest Destiny".

Mesilla New Mexico also has the distinction of having been along the old Butterfield Stage Coach route which operated for a short time just prior to the Civil War. There was a lot of history in this small area of southern New Mexico.

Another interesting fact about Mesilla NM is that at one time the town was along the west bank of the Rio Grande but due to flooding, and a new course set by the river, the town ended up east of the river.

mesilla new mexico plaza
Shops along the historic Mesilla plaza
The Confederate Invasion and the Apache Wars

The Apache tribes were another significant issue for Mesiila NM as well as that of the entire Mesilla Valley. Apache raiding was a major problem for the settlement of Mesilla as well as neighboring ranches and settlements in the valley. The onset of the Civil War made the matter worse. While the Confederates from Texas swept into the valley along with the subsequent closure and capture of Union forts in the region, the Apache raiding increased. The Confederate forces assumed the task of protecting the civilians from Indian attack, but because they were preoccupied with the Civil War itself, civilians were generally left to their own protective devices.

A good many civilians who occupied the Mesilla Valley were Confederate sympathizers. The local Mesilla newspaper ran editorial after editorial supporting the southern cause as well as a push for a new Arizona Territory.

butterfield stage line in new mexico
Butterfield Stage Coach marker on Mesilla plaza
For years during the late 1850's there were several efforts by people in the southern part of the territory to carve out their own government as the "Arizona Territory".  This actually occurred when the Confederates invaded and took temporary control of southern New Mexico Territory naming Mesilla it's capital. This all went on while the Apache Wars were in full swing. If anything, the Civil War and the temporary withdrawal of U.S. troops made the Apache matter much worse for Mesilla Valley residents. It seems that the Confederates had no better luck, and probably worse luck, than that of the Union forces in trying to quell the Apache raids.

Links to more Western Trips photo articles you'll find interesting are An Adobe Home and the historic town of Las Vegas New Mexico.

colonel ountain home in mesilla nm
Renovated Colonel Albert Jennings Fountain home
Visiting Mesilla NM

When you drive to old Mesilla, one of the first things you'll notice is the beautiful cathedral on the north end of the plaza.This is the Basilica of San Albino.The church was originally built of adobe in 1855 and the current structure was erected in 1906. The church was designated a basilica in 2008.

Another very interesting and historic structure is the old home of Colonel Albert Jennings Fountain. Colonel Fountain moved to Mesilla in 1873 and practiced law. He served as a member of the territorial legislature, a judge, a special prosecutor, a district attorney and a deputy court clerk. Fountain was a staunch Republican. The old Colonel Albert Jennings Fountain family home was located two blocks northwest of the Mesilla plaza. The restored and renovated home is now privately owned.

In 1896, Colonel Fountain and his eight year old son disappeared in the White Sands area while returning to Mesilla from Lincoln New Mexico after Fountain helped in the prosecution of notorious local cattle rustlers. Neither Colonel Fountain nor his son were ever found. While some evidence of wrong doing was discovered along and off the trail. Three suspects were eventually brought to trial but were acquitted for lack of evidence. The disappearance and suspected murders had both criminal and political overtones. A very good book on Colonel Albert Jennings Fountain and the circumstances of he and his sons disappearance is Murder on the White Sands: The Disappearance of Albert and Henry Fountain by author Corey Recko.

oldest brick structure in new mexico
Oldest brick structure in New Mexico
The Oldest Documented Brick Structure in New Mexico can be found on the southwest corner of the Mesilla plaza. The structure was built in 1860 by Augustin Maurin using bricks from his own kiln. He was murdered in his apartment by robbers in 1866.

On the southeast corner of the plaza is a structure which reportedly was at one time the courthouse which was the venue for the trial of Billy the Kid for the murder of Sheriff Brady of Lincoln. The structure today houses the Billy the Kid Gift Shop. A few doors down from the old courthouse is the William Bonney Gallery which housed the jail where Billy the Kid was held during his trial.

Just south of the Mesilla plaza is the Fountain Theatre. The Fountain family operated the Mesilla Valley Opera House and also built the Fountain Theatre. Today the theatre is operated by the Mesilla Valley Film Society.

Old Mesilla makes an excellent addition to your New Mexico road trip. As mentioned above, Mesilla and the Mesilla Valley happened to be at the crossroads of many very significant southwest historical events. Mesilla and Las Cruces New Mexico are located near the intersection of Interstate 10 and Interstate 25 and just a short distance north of El Paso Texas.

(Photos from author's private collection)

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