The Gadsden Purchase and the Treaty of Guadalupe are not the only important events in the history of Las Cruces. Four hundred years ago, Don Juan de Oñate made his historic trek into what is now New Mexico in search of gold.
In 1598, working on behalf of the King of Spain, Oñate and his entourage made their way through the great Pass of the North (modern-day El Paso) and then north to what would become Santa Fe. The route became known as the Camino Real. The company moved along the Rio Grande to ensure that they would have water as they passed through the desolate land. But eventually, land barriers forced the expedition away from the river and into the deadliest portion of the Camino Real now known as the Jornada del Muerto, or Journey of the Dead. Many men died of thirst along this stretch, both during Oñate's trek and on those that followed. Oñate's expedition marked the first major European colonization of the North American continent, years before Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock.
But before Oñate, this area was inhabited by the ancient culture of the Mogollon Indians until roughly 1450. Little is known about their existence, but expressions of life in that long-ago era are depicted in the many petroglyphs (rock drawings) that remain scattered throughout the area.
Birth of Las Cruces
More than 150 years ago, United States Army Lt. Delos Bennett Sackett, using rawhide rope and stakes, plotted out 84 city blocks to form what is known today as Las Cruces, NM. Sackett came to the Mesilla Valley from Fort Gibson, Oklahoma.
During the summer of 1848, with the First Dragoon of Company H., his mission, along with the 87 other soldiers, was to protect small communities from Apache raids. These communities included El Paso (or Paso del Norte) and Doña Ana, a small village headed by alcalde Don Pablo Melendres.
By 1848, the Mexican War with the United States had ended with the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. That treaty, among other things, converted Doña Ana from Mexican to United States territory. Many settlers headed for the area, trying to claim rights to the undeeded land just acquired by the treaty. In an attempt to maintain order in Doña Ana, Don Pablo Melendres sought relief from the US Army to help in surveying and platting out a new town site. Using rugged equipment, Las Cruces, at least in concept, was born.
A block of land was designated for the plaza and church and 84 city blocks were laid out, each containing four lots of land. Once the town site was completed, the 120 people living on the platted land drew numbers from a hat for their new home sites.
After home sites were identified and people began building, it became clear that despite his best laid plans, Sackett had platted a town with crooked streets and houses that crowded against each other. Furthermore, since mud was the primary building material, people began digging holes in the streets to make adobe blocks for their houses. It became such a problem that Judge Richard Campbell ordered the townspeople to stop making adobes on Main Street and to fill in the holes.
How We Got Our Name
There are multiple theories as to how Las Cruces got its name. One theory suggests that sometime during the 18th Century, a bishop, a priest, a Mexican Army colonel, a captain, four trappers and four choir boys were attacked near the Rio Grande and only one - a boy - survived. Crosses were erected in their honor, and the name, El Pueblo del Jardin de Las Cruces, (the City of the Garden of Crosses,) evolved.
Other stories say multiple crosses were erected in the area to mark the grave sites of the many victims of Apache raids. Still another story is that a group of 40 travelers from Taos, NM were killed just as they reached Las Cruces. But some people feel that the name is simply the Spanish translation for "crossing" or "crossroads."