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The New Mexico Genealogical Society, founded in 1960, is composed entirely of volunteers. We continue the tradition of providing research materials and networking opportunities for family historians.

The Quest for Statehood Seven

A Cuarto Centennial History of New Mexico
by Robert J. Torrez

Chapter Seven: The Quest for Statehood

It took New Mexico more than half a century to shed its territorial status and become a state. New Mexico's citizens first attempted to gain statehood in 1850, when local officials drafted a state constitution which was overwhelmingly approved by voters. A legislature and executive officers were elected. That same summer, however, this statehood plan was nullified when Congress passed the Compromise Bill of 1850 which granted New Mexico territorial status. Other attempts to develop and implement a state constitution followed, including proposed constitutions which were defeated at the polls in 1872 and 1889. There was even an effort at joint statehood with Arizona in 1906, but this too was defeated by the voters.

Many reasons have been suggested why it took New Mexico so long to become a state. Early efforts were hampered, in part, by a general ignorance about the territory and suspicions towards its people. Statehood was opposed by those who felt that New Mexico's predominantly Hispanic and Indian population was too foreign and too Catholic for admission to the American Union. There was even periodic debate as to whether a new name for the territory would help the cause of statehood. Names such as Navajo and Lincoln were suggested and seriously considered.

There were also questions about the loyalty these recently conquered people had for their new country. This issue was slowly laid to rest by the honorable service of New Mexico's citizens in the Union cause during the Civil War and later in the Spanish American War. But a different racial issue, however, figured significantly into the delay. During the reconstruction period following the Civil War, New Mexico's chances for statehood seemed assured. In 1876 however , that chance was destroyed by one inadvertent handshake.

During an 1876 Congressional debate, Michigan Representative Julius Caesar Burrows, an admired orator, rose to speak in favor of a bill designed to protect the civil rights of freed Negroes. Stephen B. Elkins, New Mexico's delegate to Congress, was not present for most of the speech, but entered the House chamber just as Burrows was bringing his rousing oration to a close. Unaware of the full nature of Burrows' speech, Elkins shook his colleague's hand in congratulations, a gesture many Southern Congressmen interpreted as support for the civil rights legislation. Elkins' handshake is blamed for costing New Mexico several Southern votes it needed for passage of the statehood bill, and while Colorado was voted into the Union in 1876, New Mexico remained a territory for another 36 years.

Despite the myriad racial, religious, political, and economic issues which delayed every attempt at statehood, New Mexico's efforts never ceased. Finally, on June 20, 1910, President William H. Taft signed an Enabling Act which authorized the territory to call a constitutional convention in preparation for being admitted as a state. On October 3 of that year, one hundred delegates elected from every county in the territory, convened at Santa Fe and drafted a constitution which was approved by voters on January 21, 1911. New Mexico had taken the final step in its long journey towards becoming a full part of the United States of America.

A proud and distinguished delegation from New Mexico was present in Washington, D.C. when President Taft signed the proclamation admitting New Mexico as the 47th state. After signing the long-awaited document at I :35 P.M., January 6,1912, the President turned to the delegation and said, "Well, it is all over. I am glad to give you life. I hope you will be healthy." New Mexico's long struggle for statehood was finally over.

A few days later, on January 15, 1912, William C. McDonald stood on the steps of the capitol building in Santa Fe, and was inaugurated as the first Governor of the State of New Mexico. Our state then began the on-going struggle to prove itself a worthy addition to the Union. Two world wars, innumerable economic and political changes, and the relentless march of progress have made New Mexico a place which would have been beyond the imagination of our aboriginal ancestors, the Spanish conquistadores, Mexican farmers, French trappers, American soldiers, Jewish merchants, and all those who came to this place and made it their home.

As we commemorate the 400th anniversary of the Juan de Oñate expedition which brought Spanish settlement to New Mexico in 1598, we continue to recognize all the men and women who came to New Mexico during the past four centuries who have contributed to make our state a unique place; a place where scientists such as those at the National Laboratories in Los Alamos, one of New Mexico's youngest cities, pioneer uses of nuclear fission; while an hour's drive away, the residents of Acoma and Taos Pueblo maintain traditions of great antiquity, and choose to live in two of North America's oldest continuously occupied communities without electricity or other modern conveniences.

Truly an enchanted land.
1. Early Spanish Exploration of the Southwest
2. Settlement of New Mexico
3. The Reconquista of New Mexico
4. New Mexico in the 18th Century
5. A Spanish Province Becomes Part of the United States
6. The Territorial Period
7. The Quest for Statehood

This article, by New Mexico State Historian Robert J. Torrez, appeared in the Official New Mexico Blue Book, Cuarto Centennial Edition, 1598-1998. It has been reprinted here with permission of the author. The New Mexico Blue Book is free, published by the Office of the New Mexico Secretary of State, and may be ordered by calling 1-800-477-3632.

For a detailed account of the founding of New Mexico, we recommend The Last Conquistador: Don Juan de Oñate and the Settling of the Far Southwest, by Marc Simmons, University of Oklahoma Press.

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