Spanish explorers, including the famed Coronado, appeared on the scene by the early 1500s. At that time, the Spanish referred to the native inhabitants as Pueblos because of the villages or "pueblos" they built. In 1598, a trailblazer named Don Juan de Onate led Spanish colonists through Las Cruces on a route that became known as El Camino Real, or the Royal Highway.
Onate and his group were the first to travel a desolate, 90-mile stretch of desert that became known as Jornado del Muerto, or Journey of Death. This route provided a shorter path than the one that curved along the Rio Grande, but the hot and arid conditions claimed the lives of many of its travelers. In addition, Apaches attacked the wagon trains and killed the settlers who dared to cross their territory.
It was an Apache ambush on settlers that gave Las Cruces its name. When travelers from Taos were killed along the El Camino Real in 1830, the grieving survivors marked the graves with crosses. Thus, La Placita de Las Cruces, or the Place of the Crosses, became the frontier settlement of Las Cruces in 1849, when the first streets were marked with rawhide rope.
However, during the two centuries preceding the 1850s, the Rio Grande Valley changed hands several times. Resisting the termination of their tribal customs, the Pueblos overthrew their Spanish oppressors in 1680, and maintained their autonomy until defeated in 1692.
More than 100 years later, Mexican revolutionaries overthrew the Spanish rulers and established the Republic of Mexico in 1821. Within 25 years, America's resolute westward expansion prompted a war against Mexico. The 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo and the Gadsden Purchase of 1854 claimed much of Mexico's northern land as U.S. domain.
The area became Confederate soil briefly in 1862, when 3,000 Texas troops marched into the Mesilla Valley en route to Sante Fe. Union soldiers later defeated the Confederates north of Sante Fe.
After the Civil War ended in 1865, the U.S. Army built Fort Selden to guard against the Apache. The Buffalo Soldiers of the 125th (African-American) Infantry were among the first troops to defend the fort. Later, a young captain named MacArthur commanded the post, while his son Douglas, played among the adobe, flat-roofed buildings. The expanding railroad and the increasing influx of new immigrants abated the Apache threat, and the fort was officially abandoned in 1891.
In 1973, Fort Selden became a state monument, and it is now the summertime site of weekend portrayals of the life of a frontier soldier. An interpretive trail also winds through the historical ruins, which are located about 15 miles north of Las Cruces.
During the late 1800s, Las Cruces began supplying goods to adventurous miners who came into the mountains seeking wealth. Fort Selden soldiers also came into town for supplies. Mesilla had become a major stop along the Butterfield Overland Stage route, which carried passengers through much of the western U.S. Also, innovative irrigation techniques spurred agricultural growth along the Rio Grande.
A colorful local character of this Wild West timeframe was Henry McCarty, a.k.a. William Bonney, a.k.a. Billy the Kid. During the Lincoln County cattle range wars in 1878, Billy the Kid killed a county sheriff, for which he was captured and sentenced to hang. Remarkably, he escaped from the Mesilla courthouse. Within a couple of years, however, he was tracked and killed by the Dona Ana County Sheriff, Pat Garrett. Ironically, the well-known sheriff was later shot outside Las Cruces by an unknown gunslinger; Garrett's body was buried in the local cemetery. Today, Las Cruces proudly displays the national historic districts of the Alameda Depot and Mesquite Street, which marks the town's original 1849 settlement. Significant buildings include the former Amador Hotel, built in 1853, now a county office, and the Armijo House, built in 1877, most recently a law office. Both the charming adobe buildings of the frontier settlers and the elegant mansions of the railroad tycoons reflect two distinct, local lifestyles of the latter 19th century. On January 6, 1912, New Mexico became the nation's 47th state. The area grew quietly and inconspicuously until July 16, 1945, when scientists involved in the war effort exploded the first atomic bomb north of Las Cruces near Alamogordo. The earth shattering, life-changing explosion occurred on Jornado del Muerto, long ago marked as a valley of death.
Following World War II in 1946, Las Cruces was incorporated as a city. Since then, it has grown to be New Mexico's second largest city and the Dona Ana county seat. Its current population of 78,000 has increased fivefold since 1950. The U.S. Census Bureau ranks Las Cruces among America's fastest growing urban areas. It has also been selected by Money Magazine as the 10th best small city in the West.
In addition, Las Cruces and its unusual environs continue to be popular for shooting a variety of movies. One of the earliest films ever made near Las Cruces was the 1911 feature "The Dude." During the 1990s, "Mad Love," "Homage" and "Lolita" were filmed in and around Las Cruces. The music videos of Toby Keith, John Michael Montgomery and Boys II Men have also been produced in the area. Most recently scenes from the Michael Douglas movie "Traffic" were filmed in Las Cruces.
In 1998, Las Cruces celebrated its 150th birthday with a gala of events that extended into the year 2000. This festive community spirit as well as the city's sunny climate, spectacular views and tri-cultural heritage make Las Cruces an amiable and enviable place to live.