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“Settlement and Homesteading in East-Central New Mexico”

Southwest Crossroads Spotlight

New Mexico’s population grew during the nineteenth century. Hispano families began to settle beyond the Rio Grande Valley and establish new villages. Some communities obtained land grants from the Spanish or Mexican governments; others settled without clear title to their homes. People reoccupied the Salinas region south of the Manzano Mountains. This area had few residents since the Puebloans and Spanish abandoned it just before the Pueblo Revolt of 1680. Families from communities on the Rio Grande founded Manzano and received a grant from Mexico in 1829. In the mid-nineteenth century, several villagers from Casa Colorada and La Joya came to live permanently near their summer grazing area and settled at the mission ruins of Abo.

Breaking Ground“Breaking Ground,” Unknown (Photographer)

When New Mexico became a territory of the United States, the relationships between people and land changed. Grant-holders fought to retain what they had under prior governments. Other Hispano settlers tried to claim land through the new homesteading laws. Under this system, individuals could patent up to 160 acres of land from the public domain. Hispanos were the first to seek homesteads in the greater Salinas region, particularly near permanent water sources. Settlers from outside the area began to arrive in the late 1800s. They opened sawmills, prospected for minerals, and waited for the area to grow. At the beginning of the twentieth century, the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railway built the Belen Cutoff through eastern New Mexico and changed the region.

Railroads provided jobs and linked eastern New Mexico to the rest of the country. Powerful national trends that brought previous homesteaders to Texas and Kansas also encouraged people to settle in New Mexico, tripling the population in a few decades. Most came from the east to seek new lives and opportunity. At times the excitement of homesteading seemed to border on mania. Railroad and real estate companies advertised land and promoters offered credit to farmers, financial aid for settlers, and package fares. Local newspapers and business people boasted of their communities’ civic virtue and potential for growth.

Working With Mule Teams“Working With Mule Teams,” Unknown (Photographer)

The families that came to live in the arid uplands of New Mexico started a boom in dry farming. Within a few years, pinto beans were a major industry around the town of Mountainair and farming was prevalent in the Estancia Basin and near Clovis. Success was dependent on rainfall. Periodic dry conditions forced farmers to irrigate with pumped groundwater, abandon their fields, or turn to ranching.

Fertile, well-watered land is uncommon in the western United States. In the early 1900s, the federal government recognized these conditions and revised the homesteading laws. The changes meant people could claim as much as a full section (640 acres) and many did during the 1920s and 1930s. They patented land for ranching and possible farming farther away from the railroads, water, and larger towns. Families with existing homesteads also moved to claim more remote areas. By the 1940s, people had settled most of the prime locations in the public domain for raising crops or running cattle. Soon after, a long drought made dry farming almost impossible. The lack of rain combined with a changing economy and brought the homesteading era in New Mexico to a close.