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2010 marked our Golden Anniversary!

NMGS Logo 50th

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The New Mexico Genealogical Society, founded in 1960, is composed entirely of volunteers. 2010 will be our 50th year of providing research materials and networking opportunities for family historians.

The New Mexico Genealogical Society

A history of Union County
by Jacqueline Chagnon Hill

This article was written as the introduction to the series of Union County Marriages in three volumes, 1893 to 1990. See Union Co. Marriages, by NMGS Press.

Tucked away in the far northeastern corner of New Mexico is Union County, endless miles of semi-arid plains, where the earth meets the sky and where the past is still close to the surface: though things change in Union, some things never change.

Formed from land that made up part of three other counties--the counties of Colfax, Mora, and San Miguel--Union County was created by the Territorial Legislature on Feb 13, 1893. It is said to have been named Union County because everyone was in agreement, or united, in their beliefs that a new county government was needed. But that appears to be about all they agreed upon! Much political wheeling and dealing went into the birth of this county, dissension as to who would get what--with money and political power the vistors, of course. The settlers could not even agree on where the county seat would be located, and it has been suggested that its very name--Union County--was selected because no one could come up with a better name.

There seems to be little doubt that there was justifiable need for the new county, because many of the people had to travel great distances in order to conduct their business at their respective county seats, and travel was hazardous. Furthermore, communication a century ago between small, isolated frontier towns on the prairie was understandably poor.

Not surprisingly, the new county movement met with strong opposition from the three counties involved. It represented to them a loss of valuable land and resources, as well the loss of considerable tax revenue. Colfax was being asked to cede an area of approximately 60 miles east-west and one of like size north-south. The counties of Mora and San Miguel would be losing a somewhat smaller area, approximately 55 miles east-west by 35 miles north-south. Of important significance, also, is that the area being proposed for the new county had, by the turn of the century, some 65 miles of railway. The railroad was attracting new business and prosperity into emerging towns like Clayton, a town on the railroad line. Homesteaders were moving into the area,and cattle ranches were everywhere, but by 1885 the cattle business was on the decline and the sheep business was taking hold. No farming at first: people believed it too dry to raise cropts, and depended entirely upon the grass for cattle and horse feed. But by 1890, farming had gradually begun. Fertile soil, level land, and a good climate made this a desirable place in which to live.

Yet, bills presented by the Council to annex land to form the new county continued to be met with defeat. That is, until early February 1893, when the bill was brought up for the third consecutive year--its fate awaited with deep concern for if it passed at all it would be by a very narrow margin. They were right about that: it was a tie vote! However, moments later it was saved by a representative from San Miguel County who changed his vote, reportedly from a "nay" to a "yes." It may be that he had grown weary of all the haggling. But, whatever the reason, Union County came into being that day.

The local 'power war' was not over, however. A new county seat was in the offing, resulting in great rivalry. Everyone wanted the county seat to be situated where they lived! The two largest towns in the new county were Clayton and Folsom, with Des Moines a distant third. All three and more vied for the county seat. Though all had something to offer--a railroad, tourist attractions, a central location--Clayton won out, but not without a struggle. Clayton and Folsom had become the leading contenders by then, and this called for some fancy maneuvering. So when Folsom ramrodded a bill through the ledialature in its favor, Clayton--not to be outdone--retaliated by being the first to build a courthouse. It was said to be an ugly building. Adding insult to injury, it was bult on the wrong side of the track--not where the businesses were, but on the side where the prosperous businessmen lived! This situation was short-lived, however, because in 1908 the building was destroyed by a tornado and a second courthouse had to be built, this one presumably in a more acceptable location.

Union County grew and prospered over the years, but, as with all communities, there were also hard times: droughts, fires, tornadoes, dust storms (the area was part of the Dust Bowl), and starving cattle all took their toll, as did the Great Depression.

The county's population suffered a drastic drop in the 1920s, as countless families abandoned their farms and entire communities virtually disappeared. Also contributing to this drop was a reduction in the area of the county in 1923, which reduced the county's population by approximately one-third. U.S. census figures report the population of Union County in 1900 to be 4,528. By 1920 it had increased to 16,680. Today's numbers continue to reflect the reductions of the twenties; the 1990 U.S. census lists its population as 4,124. Descendants of some of these early settlers live there yet. Others have come and gone, to be replaced by new residents. Having survived its first century, this remnant of the Old West can look back with pride on its colorful history and its many achievements.

This book [NMGS Union County Marriages, Vol. I] is a compilation of marriages in Union County for the years 1893-1940, published by the New Mexico Genealogical Society. The original marriage records can be found at the Court House in Clayton, New Mexico

Jacqueline Chagnon Hill

Acknowledgment: To Barry Newton Alvis for his article entitled "History of Union County, New Mexico" (1934), the source of the historical material used in this Introduction.

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