Las Cruces is an interesting town to visit as it has a different vibe than most U.S. cities. The reason dates back to its early European beginnings. It became a Spanish territory in 1598, when Juan de Oñate claimed it for Spain. The fact that it was already the home of the Manso Native Americans didn’t matter. It was later claimed by Mexican and then the Republic of Texas until 1848 when it became part of the United States. Las Cruces was founded the following year when the US Army came into the picture.
Las Cruces went through periods of growth and modernization but Mesilla, once about three miles outside of town but today a part of Las Cruces, refused to change. Today, Old Mesilla is one of the most iconic Old West towns in New Mexico. It’s an 1800’s border town that retained most of its original buildings and is filled with western legends.
The heart of town is the plaza where the Butterfield Stagecoach once stopped. At the plaza’s south end there is a replica of a 1930s-era bandstand. At one time Mesilla was claimed by both the US and Mexico. When the Gadsden Treaty was signed making Mesilla officially part of the US, The plaza was where the American flag was raised on November 16, 1854.
The Basilica of San Albino, an 1855 adobe church was built by venerable Spanish padres. The new church that stands today was built in 1908. It anchors the plaza on its north side.
The former courthouse and jail facing the southeast end of the plaza is where Billy the Kid stood trial 1881, Billy the Kid stood trial for killing Sheriff William Brady during the Lincoln County War. Here Billy the Kid was sentenced to hang on April 13, 1881.
He was sent to Lincoln County Courthouse but he escaped only to be killed a short time later by Pat Garrett. Rumors claim the ghost of Billy the Kid still haunts this building. Today, it is a gift shop. If you visit note the original 18 inch walls of handmade, adobe bricks.
One of the oldest buildings across from the plaza was erected in 1849 by Valentin Maese. It was originally just a two-room log home known as a jacal. Today it houses Double Eagle Restaurant.
Besides having a great food reputation, Double Eagle has another legend. A Romeo and Juliet type romance spawned a ghost story. As the Maese family prospered and added to the building one of the matriarchs had a son named Armando. She was very ambitious and kept reminding the boy of his exalted place in society. As a teenager, Armando fell in love with a family servant, a beautiful black-haired young girl named Inez. When Mama found out, she was
enraged. She immediately went to arrange a more suitable marriage for Armando. When she returned home after arranging the kind of marriage she wanted for her son, she went to tell him the news. She found him in his room with Inez in his arms. She stepped back into what is now the restaurant’s patio and found her sewing basket. Enraged, she clutched the scissors and returned to Armando’s room and plunged the blades into Inez’s breast. Armando screamed and bent over his beloved to shield her as Mama plunged in the blades again. This time into Armando’s back. She screamed his name but he never responded. Both teenagers died and Mama reportedly never spoke again. Family money kept her out of jail. The family sold the home and moved away but workers at Double Eagle report
sightings of a beautiful, dark-haired spirit often sighted in the restaurant.
As a US territory, clashes with Apaches grew and in 1865, the government established Fort Selden. Here I trod through history along portions of El Camino Real de Tierra Adentro, or the Royal Road.
Many of the soldiers who occupied this fort were African Americans. The first troops to occupy the fort were Company M 1st Regiment of Cavalry, California Volunteers from 31 July 1865 to 31 August 1866, and shortly after the 125th US Colored Infantry Regiment, African-American soldiers from Kentucky who had joined the Union Army near the end of the Civil War. Later units including the 38th Infantry Regiment, 9th US Cavalry and 10th US Cavalry, were also black soldiers known as Buffalo Soldiers. Nine of the Buffalo Soldiers received the Medal of Honor while serving in New Mexico Territory.
In 1884, a new commander was sent to Fort Selden. Captain Arthur MacArthur, Jr. brought with him his wife and two young sons, Arthur MacArthur III, age 7, and Douglas MacArthur, age 4. It was here that later General Douglas MacArthur learned to ride and shoot before he learned to read and write. The two years that young Douglas spent at Fort Selden before Captain MacArthur was transferred to Fort Wingate may have shaped future destiny.
If you can, visit the fort ruins soon. Weather and the elements have taken their toll. Little is left but remnants of old adobe walls, but oh what a story they tell. The walls are labeled so you know what each building was used for. Close your eyes and visualize the young soldiers stationed there living a life of usual monotony punctuated with occasional skirmished with Native Americans.
The many wagons including a covered wagon like the ones used by early western-bound settlers help envision life at the fort.
There is a authentic museum inside and a video to help you understand life at Fort Selden.
The New Mexico Farm & Ranch Heritage Museum
The New Mexico Farm & Ranch Heritage Museum tells the 3,000-year history of farming and ranching in New Mexico. Yes, Paleo Indians were farming long before the Spanish arrived with their tough, rangy cattle and hardy ponies.
The extensive indoor museum tells the history and culture of agriculture in New Mexico from earliest times through the Space Age. One of the most interesting things in the museum is the oral histories. These early ranchers and farmers come to life in the retelling of their personal struggles.
One of these, a Mr. Ernest Aguayo, born in 1908, tells many adventures ranging from helping save the small bear later to become the forest fire fighters symbol, Smokey the Bear from a fire in the Capitans Mountains near Nogal Lake.
Another more sobering incident is his telling of the government’s land grab of his and other local farmers and ranchers land during WWII to build the Alamogordo Bombing Range which later became White Sands Missile Range. He was paid a $1000 land use fee with a promise that he would get the land back. He wasn’t even given time to remove many of his belongings before the government took over. Aguayo intended to return to his land and start over when he got the land back. However, he and others never got the land back. Some got small payments others none but none got their homes returned. Sad that they never mention this in history books in school.
The outdoor exhibits offer a look at the actual livestock that were, and are presently, raised in New Mexico. My docent, Liz, was so knowledgeable she was able to explain about cross breeding cattle to improve meat grades. She showed
me cattle from the early Spanish breeds to the crosses between Angus and a Brahman to produce Brangus, a hardy and popular breed of beef cattle that is more resistant to heat.
The animal’s on display range from goats to horses and tiny calves to huge bulls you would not want to tangle with.
Las Cruces Museum of Nature & Science
Las Cruces Museum of Nature & Science offers a look at wildlife on the desert from past to present. You’ll find live reptiles and amphibians. There are also realistically posed cougars, coyotes and other larger desert wildlife.
The museum is small but well done and offers a good education on the geography and wildlife of the region.
White Sands National Monument
White Sands National Monument is worth a visit just for the beauty of its sunsets. You’ll find miles of nothing but white sand dunes dotted with small desert shrubs in all directions as far as the eye can see.
The sunsets are reflected in the eastern sky as well as lighting up the western sky with the most vivid reds, oranges, and yellows I had ever seen in nature.
The visitor center at the entrance to White Sands is an excellent example of Spanish pueblo-adobe style buildings constructed here between 1936 and 1938. There are some furnishings, such as decoratively carved corbels, benches and chairs. There are interactive exhibits and computer touch screens to acquaint you with the factors that created this largest gypsum dunefield in the world. The interpretive film, A Land in Motion, explains how white Sands evolved. In front there is a Native Garden with local plants.
There is a gift shop and rest rooms to the rear. Once out in the dunes, there are only portable potties.
En route to White Sands National Monument you pass the White Sands Missile Range. There is a missile museum that you can visit here if you wish.
The drive through the Organ Mountains is beautiful and steep at places. It made me wish I had more time to get out there and explore them. Unfortunately I had a schedule that didn’t allow me that experience. Learn from my mistake and give yourself a lot of time to explore all the places around Las Cruces.
Hotel Encanto de Las
Looking for a place to stay that reflects the local traditions and style? The elegant Spanish Colonial style Hotel Encanto de Las Cruces is delightful. It’s an oasis in a desert. From the moment you enter the tree studded lobby with its Mexican art Spanish and Mexican Colonial history and tradition showcased all around you, you feel you have found real New Mexico.
My room was on the ground floor and had a comfortable patio that opened into the pool area. Trees surrounded it for privacy. My spacious room was furnished with the type furniture you expect in a Mexican palace. A king bed with a unique headboard with posts and a decorative backdrop between them encourages sweet dreams.
It has all the amenities you expect in a classy hotel and is pet friendly besides. The restaurant and bar on the main floor is cheerful and appears to have a large food and drink selection.