The Road to Statehood


Friday, January 5, 1912, dawned cold and blustery in Santa Fe as a feeble sun attempted to defrost the frozen ground. The year had started colder than usual, twelve degrees below the normals recorded since 1872. About mid-morning people began congregating on the plaza, where so much of New Mexico’s history had taken place, a few at a time, until a modest crowd had gathered by noon. It was indeed a fortuitous occasion: the crowd wanted to be on hand to witness a truly historical event. It seemed a certainty that after sixty-two years of being a territory of the United States, New Mexico would finally be admitted as the forty-seventh state at any moment.

Although there had been numerous attempts to make New Mexico a state through the years, the ball really got rolling during the administration of President Theodore Roosevelt (1901–1909), when he professed his support for New Mexico statehood, partly in gratitude to the men from New Mexico who had served in his Rough Riders volunteer cavalry regiment during the Spanish American War. At the time, the consensus in Washington favored admitting New Mexico and Arizona as one state. When Roosevelt visited Albuquerque in 1903, giving a speech in front of the Alvarado Hotel, he was given a vivid reminder that New Mexico was eager for statehood: on a nearby platform stood forty-six Albuquerque girls, each representing a different state of the Union, while another young lady, representing the Territory of New Mexico, stood alone on the platform steps, pleading tearfully for admission.

In 1906 Congress passed a joint statehood act which would have admitted New Mexico and Arizona to the Union as a single state, to be called Arizona, with the capital in Santa Fe. New Mexico voters approved this plan, knowing that Arizona voters would kill it anyway, which they did. There was a historic precedent in that Arizona had been a part of New Mexico until 1863. In 1870 a bill had been introduced in Congress to admit both states, and parts of northern Mexico and southwestern Colorado, as a single state to be called Lincoln. And in 1902 a representative from Indiana had proposed admitting both as a single state to be called Montezuma. President Roosevelt, following the defeat of the jointure act, announced in December 1908 that he favored admitting New Mexico and Arizona separately, pointing out that the citizens of both territories had made it clear that they would not come in as one state.

The statehood movement received its greatest impetus during the administration of President William Taft (1909–1913), when Congress introduced acts to enable the people of New Mexico and Arizona to form separate constitutions and state governments, and be admitted into the Union. The Senate version was approved by Congress, and to wide acclaim President Taft signed the Enabling Act (S. 5916) on June 20, 1910, which applied to Arizona as well as New Mexico. The term “enabling act” in United States law relates to the formation of a new US state: legislation is passed by Congress authorizing the people of a territory to frame a constitution and lays down the requirements that must be met as a prerequisite to statehood. One newspaper proclaimed, “One era in the history of the American republic [has] ended and another [has begun] . . . the age of the territories, with all it ment [sic] of adventure, of romance and of National glory, has closed.” (Actually, Hawaii was a territory at the time [1898–1959], and Alaska was granted territorial status in 1912 but unofficially had been a territory since 1894).

Still, statehood had numerous enemies, including those in the press; some eastern newspapers repeated the tiresome argument that the “sagebrush commonwealths” did not have sufficient population to merit statehood. According to the Thirteenth Census of the United States (1910), New Mexico’s population was 327,301. The largest cities were Albuquerque (11,020), Roswell (6,172), Santa Fe (5,072), and Raton (4,539); 46,571 people lived in urban areas, and 280,730 lived in rural areas.

As specified in the Enabling Act, 100 delegates elected from the twenty-six counties of the territory convened in Santa Fe on October 3, 1910, drafting a constitution which they approved on November 21 and which was ratified by a vote of 31,742 to 13,399 on January 21, 1911. President Taft approved it on February 24 and sent it to Congress with a recommendation for approval. Congress squabbled over this constitution most of the spring and summer but finally consented, and President Taft approved it on August 21, 1911, the last day of the extra session of the Sixty-Second Congress.

With approval of the constitution, Governor William J. Mills, New Mexico’s last territorial governor, set November 7, 1911, as the date for the election of New Mexico’s first state officials, basically the last step before statehood could be granted. In this first lawful state election, William C. McDonald, a Democrat of Lincoln County, was elected governor, defeating Republican Holm O. Bursum of Socorro County. The voters also elected a full slate of state and county officials, to take office after statehood was proclaimed.

The two new New Mexico congressmen-elect, Harvey B. Fergusson and George Curry, departed New Mexico by train for Washington on December 30 and 31, 1911. Curry, who was carrying the official certificate of the canvassing board for President Taft, stopped in Las Vegas to confer with other Republican leaders before resuming his journey aboard Santa Fe Flyer No. 4, arriving in Washington on Wednesday evening, January 3, 1912. Curry and Fergusson, with other members of the New Mexico delegation, personally delivered the formal certificate and returns of New Mexico’s first state election to President Taft at the White House the next day. The president said that he would ask Secretary of State Philander C. Knox to prepare a proclamation by 10:00 a.m. Friday making New Mexico a state, inviting the entire delegation to be on hand for the signing. Everyone departed the White House confident that New Mexico would become a state the next day.

Sometime Friday morning, about the time that the crowd had formed on the plaza to hear the welcome news that New Mexico had been admitted to the Union, Delegate William H. “Bull” Andrews, in Washington, received word from the White House that the Department of Justice wanted to delay the statehood proclamation until it could take action on a number of old timber cases, wanting to make sure they would be transferred from the Territorial Supreme Court to federal jurisdiction. According to the story on the front page of the Santa Fe New Mexican, “Hoodoo Works To Last Minute,” it appeared that the statehood proclamation could be postponed until Monday or possibly later, the president reportedly being “vexed and displeased,” stating that he would not hold up a state’s admission on any such old cases and would not wait longer than next week at the latest.

Meanwhile, back on Santa Fe’s historic plaza, great enthusiasm ensued when a man appeared before the crowd, only to announce what the newspaper would later state: there was a problem, and the president had not yet signed. This was nothing new for New Mexicans; its tenure as a territory had lasted longer than that of any other state. Over six decades New Mexico’s statehood had been sacrificed to national issues: the slavery debate, Reconstruction, Free Silver, and Populism, to name but a few. It had been subjected to the skewed and incorrect perceptions and prejudices of the rest of the country, and even to internal hindrances within the territory. Since New Mexico had been made a territory in 1850 in a series of national political actions known as the Compromise of 1850, there had been at least fifty unsuccessful acts introduced for statehood. The crowd dispersed to the warm comfort of their homes.

The president’s displeasure in the delay brought results. The hero of the moment was Territorial Supreme Court Clerk José D. Sena, who was attending a dance nearby on Friday night when he received a telegram from US Attorney General George H. Wickersham directing him to enter a writ of error in the Territorial Supreme Court in the case of the United States versus the Alamogordo Lumber Company. The government, to reserve its rights to appeal before the Territorial Supreme Court passed out of existence and the status of territorial lands changed, ordered the writ to be entered. The suit was for damages for cutting timber on lands acquired from the territory, but which technically the territory had no right to sell in large tracts. Evidently Mr. Sena hustled to the Capitol, filed the writ, and notified the attorney general by telegraph that it had been entered, thus clearing the last obstacle to the statehood proclamation. The Department of Justice was evidently satisfied, advising the White House accordingly on Saturday morning. The White House, in turn, notified the congressmen-elect that the president would sign the proclamation that afternoon.

PresidenTaft signed the statehood proclamation at 1:35 p.m., Saturday, January 6, 1912, in the president’s private office, where a party consisting of the secretary of state and several other cabinet members, Congressmen-elect Curry and Harvey, and other members of the New Mexico delegation had assembled. Three photographers took “flashlights” (flash photos) of the occasion; one of the pictures showed the president, pen in hand, as he signed the document, wiping out one of the last remaining territories on the continent. President Taft shook hands all around and said he was glad to have so prominent a part in conferring the rights of citizenship on the people of New Mexico.

The actual signing of the documents took but a few minutes. The proclamation was signed in duplicate, with one copy for the federal government and the other to be deposited with the Historical Society of New Mexico. The president signed the documents with “a valuable gold pen, pearl handled,” furnished by Delegate Andrews, which was also to be presented to the Historical Society of New Mexico.

After signing the proclamation, the president turned to the delegation and said, “Well, it is all over. am glad to give you life. hope you will be healthy.” Representatives-elect Curry and Fergusson thanked the president. Ira M. Bond, Washington correspondent for several New Mexico newspapers, also thanked the president for signing the proclamation; the president replied that he highly appreciated the thanks of the press of New Mexico. According to the story in the Santa Fe New Mexican, Delegate Andrews advised that he would file the pictures taken with all the state institutions and in each county courthouse.

It was not quite noon in New Mexico when the New Mexican telephoned Governor Mills and other officials that President Taft had signed the statehood proclamation just a few minutes before in Washington. The newspaper was the first to throw a large flag to the breezes to celebrate the event—the first flag to fly from its new building on Palace Avenue. The telephones kept ringing to inquire the truth of the report, and gradually the Stars and Stripes appeared at various places throughout the city. Evidently all the steam whistles in town were out of commission—a customary way of celebrating momentous events at the time—because they were not heard during the patriotic demonstration.

The news that President Taft had finally signed the statehood proclamation also reached Albuquerque a few moments after the event. Anticipating that the president would sign the bill, many flags were already flying in the downtown area. From three flagstaffs on top of the new Charles Ilfeld Company building, as many new flags announced that New Mexico was a state. Public and private buildings alike displayed the Stars and Stripes. At one o’clock Mayor J. W. Elder authorized the fire whistle to be blown, announcing the news to the entire city. Other whistles joined in, and for several moments there was a din.

Archbishop J. B. Pitaval, Governor Mills, Chief Justice W. H. Pope, and other officials sent telegrams of congratulation to President Taft. Many of the 340 newly elected county officials, as well as other officials, did not wait for the inauguration of Governor McDonald and took their oaths of office immediately, assuming their duties under the state. Committees were already working feverishly to make inauguration day a statewide holiday.

The first state officials were inaugurated in Santa Fe on January 15. Governor McDonald took the oath as the first state governor of New Mexico, and Ezequiel C. de Baca was sworn in as lieutenant governor. The first New Mexico State Legislature convened at Santa Fe on March 11. Four days later, four of the legislators were in jail on charges of accepting bribes—but that is another story. New Mexico’s long struggle for statehood was finally over.

Charles Bennett holds a graduate degree in US history from the University of New Mexico. His career as a history museum professional has spanned thirty years with curatorial and administrative positions held in Albuquerque; Santa Fe; Philadelphia; and Dighton, Kansas. He retired in 2003 after twenty-six years with the Palace of the Governors and is a frequent contributor to El Palacio.