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Our delightful city, so full of history, is a vibrant center of innovation which has its eyes on the future. This is the story of the origins of Las Cruces. You can also learn about our economy and find a list of links to vital resources.

Las Cruces, New Mexico

On This Page

Our Geologic Setting
Early Inhabitants
The Birth and Growth of Las Cruces
Our Climate

Las Cruces is located in southern New Mexico, 246 miles south of Albuquerque, NM, and 40 miles north of El Paso, TX, at an elevation of about 3900 feet.

Our Geologic Setting

On the edge of the Chihuahuan Desert, Las Cruces lies at the foot of the Organ Mountains and along the banks for the Rio Grande River. The mountains stand as guardians to the fertile Mesilla Valley, a beautifully varied area of forests, river valley, and exotic desert.

The valley runs along the Rio Grande Rift, a series of fault zones that extend from Colorado southwards into Mexico. The Rio Grande Rift is marked by a series of depressions (known as "graben") punctuated with uplifted mountains. The grabens form when blocks of the Earth’s crust sink as geologic forces pull the crust apart along fault lines. Sinking in one place is often accompanied by uplift along boundaries of the grabens. One such uplifted fault block resulted in the striking Organ Mountains to the east of Las Cruces.

The rifting and pulling apart usually heralds the breakup of continental land masses, such as the shifts that separated South America from Africa, forming the Atlantic Ocean during the Mesozoic Era. While such separation of the continental crust no longer is occurring in the Rio Grande Rift, the Rift is still considered active. The area experiences occasional low-intensity earthquakes (almost never felt by residents), hot springs can be found to the north of Las Cruces.

Early Inhabitants

The endless scattering of fossils in nearby mountains and deserts tell the tales of the dinosaurs which once inhabited southern New Mexico, and of the teeming reptiles and amphibians which preceded them by millions of years. In the late 1980s, a local paleontologist discovered what the Smithsonian Institute has called, "the world's best-fossilized footprints from the Permian Period." According to geologists, southern New Mexico was covered by a great inland sea 600 million years ago. When the sea retreated, many fossils were left behind.

Humans have occupied the southern New Mexico area for more than 10,000 years. The original inhabitants were the Mogollon Indians, which settled the area until the mid-1400s. Their history is written in the many petroglyphs, drawings on rock, which are scattered throughout New Mexico.

In the early 1500s, the Spanish explorers Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca, Alonso del Castillo Maldonando, Andrés Dorantes de Carranca, and the Moor Estevan wandered the Southwest after they were marooned near present-day Galveston, Texas. At least six Spanish expeditions followed, propelled by the myth of the Seven Cities of Cibola. However, no one from the expeditions stayed to settle the area.

St. Genevieve's Chapel

The Birth and Growth of Las Cruces

In 1598, Don Juan de Oñate and a group of settlers moved north from New Spain in search of gold. Sent by the King of Spain, Oñate and his company crossed through the Paso del Norte, "Pass of the North", which is modern-day El Paso and Ciudad Juarez, and traveled north to what would become Santa Fe. Their route became known as "El Camino Real de Tierra Adentro" (or, simply, Camino Real), which translates as "The Royal Road to the Interior Lands." Having begun their travels along the Rio Grande in order to assure their access to water during the trip through the desert, they were soon forced away from the river by land barriers and into the deadliest portion of the Camino Real. That area is now known as the Jornada del Muerto, or "Journey of the Dead". Many people have died of thirst along this stretch, including members of Oñate's expedition and those who followed. But Oñate's exploration resulted in the first major European colonization of North America, many years before Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock.

Oñate formally declared possession of Nuevo México when his expedition crossed the Rio Grande at Paso del Norte. Although the Camino Real passed through the site that would become Las Cruces, permanent settlement of the area was delayed due to lack of reliable water and Native American raids. Oñate continued north of present-day Santa Fe, and established the capital of the province at Ohkay Ohwingeh (formerly San Juan Pueblo). Except for the Pueblo Revolt (1680-1692) and the Reconquest (1693-1700), the Spanish ruled Nuevo México until 1821, when Mexico achieved independence from Spain.

The 16th through 19th centuries saw numerous clashes amongst the native peoples (Pueblo and Apache Indians), Spanish settlers, and later Mexican revolutionaries. Several massacres occurred along the Camino Real/Chihuahua Trail near present-day Las Cruces. In 1712, a group of colonists traveling north to Santa Fe were attacked by Apaches at their campsite about thirty to forty-five miles north of Paso del Norte. Soldiers from Paso del Norte buried the victims and erected crosses over the graves. In 1787, a bishop, a priest, two military officers, four trappers, and four choir boys were killed at the site. The attack occurred near the Rio Grande and only one boy survived. In a report dating from 1830, a caravan of forty people traveling south from Taos were all killed in the area, resulting in a "forest of crosses."

On February 12, 1847, an eyewitness recorded the following observation in her diary:

Yesterday, we passed over the spot where a few years since a party of Apaches attacked Gen. Armijo as he returned from the Pass with a party of troops, and killed some fourteen of his men, the graves of whom, marked by a rude cross, are now seen.

The village of El Pueblo del Jardin de Las Cruces ("The City of the Garden of the Crosses") was founded two years after that diary entry , and the practice of marking the sites of tragedies with crosses remains a common practice in New Mexico to this day.

In 1848, through the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hildalgo, Mexico ceded Nuevo México, and much of the present-day Southwest, to the United States. Many settlers headed for the area, trying to claim rights to the undeeded land just acquired by the treaty. In 1849, Pablo Melendres, the mayordomo of Doña Ana, a village about fifteen miles to the north of present-day Las Cruces, asked the United States Army to help relieve overcrowding in his community.

United States Army Lt. Delos Bennett Sackett, using rawhide rope and stakes, plotted an area to form what is known today as Las Cruces. Sackett came to the Mesilla Valley from Fort Gibson, Okla. With the First Dragoon of Company H., his mission, along with the 87 other soldiers, was to protect small communities from Apache raids. These communities included El Paso (or Paso del Norte) and Doña Ana.

A block of land was designated for the plaza and church and 84 city blocks were laid out, each containing four lots of land. Once the town site was completed, the 120 people living on the platted land drew numbers from a hat for their new home sites. After home sites were identified and people began building, it became clear that despite his best laid plans, Sackett had designed a town with crooked streets and houses that crowded against each other. Furthermore, since mud was the primary building material, people began digging holes in the streets to make adobe blocks for their houses. It became such a problem that Judge Richard Campbell ordered the townspeople to stop making adobes on Main Street and to fill in the holes.

While the creation of Las Cruces may have eased the pressure for a rapidly growing Doña Ana, it didn't ease the anti-United States sentiments harbored by some Doña Ana residents who preferred Mexican rule to that of the United States. These sentiments eventually led to the formation of another village. In 1850, 60 families packed up their belongings and moved west of the Rio Grande, which was still Mexican territory. They settled on a mesita or hill, and formed the village of Mesilla. Unfortunately for the settlers, they soon became US residents again when the Gadsden Purchase, finalized in 1854, turned over a 30,000 square mile strip of land from Mexico to the US for $10 million. Although residents of Mesilla were no longer citizens of Mexico, they continued to live out their lives as though they were.

Las Cruces has been the haunt of many notable figures, such as Geronimo, Victorio, Albert Fall and the discoverer of Pluto, the late Clyde Tombaugh. But none have garnered more attention than the most infamous outlaw in the West, William H. Bonney, a.k.a., Billy the Kid. In 1880, Billy the Kid stood trial in a Mesilla, NM courtroom for the murder of Andrew “Buckshot” Roberts. He was found guilty and sentenced to hang by Judge Warren Bristol. During his sentencing, Judge Bristol told Billy he was to be hung "until you are dead, dead, dead!" Legend has it that Billy shouted back, "And you can go to hell, hell, hell!" He was taken to Lincoln, NM where he escaped while awaiting execution. He was later shot and killed by Lincoln County Sheriff Pat Garrett in 1881. The building in Mesilla that housed the jail and courtroom are still standing, and the iron jail cell that held him is on display across the street in the Gadsden Museum.

Our Climate

Las Cruces enjoys 350 days of sunshine each year. Summer temperatures routinely hit the high nineties, with nighttime lows in the sixties. Las Cruces winters are also very pleasant, especially when compared with the northern states, with daylight temperatures in the fifties and sixties. Our average annual precipitation is 8.5" rain and 3.2" snow, although snow usually remains on the ground only for a matter of hours. Most rain occurs in July and August, our mis-named "monsoon" season, when heavy thunderstorms may occur on a few days.

However, it is forecasted that the Earth's general climate change will result in less snow and more rain for the area. Since much of New Mexico's surface water comes from snowmelt in the mountains, the area will have less water stored in snow pack. Additionally, higher temperatures will cause early snowmelt, and surface runoff and evaporation of snowmelt and rain will mean less water will be available overall, especially during the peak irrigation season in late summer.