Chihuahua Desert and Mesilla History
November 30, 2007

Las Cruces, NM, Day Three in Sunny Acres RV Park, HH.

Six months in our bus.

Western US 4 deserts_smAMERICAN DESERTS.

In the USA there are four deserts: Chihuahuan Desert; Great Basin Desert; Mojave Desert; and the Sonoran Desert.

The Chihuahua Desert (200,000 sq. mi.) is a shrub desert.  The vast majority of this desert lies at elevations between 3,500 and 5,000.  Most of the area receives less than 10 inches of rainfall yearly.

The Great Basin Desert (190,000 sq. mi.) is a “cold desert” due to its more northern latitude as well as common elevations between 4,000 and 6,500 feet.  Precipitation, including snow is generally 7-12” annually.  Vegetation is low and homogeneous, often with a single dominant species of bush that extends for miles.

The Sonoran Desert (120,000 sq. mi) is the hottest of the North American deserts and has a more southern latitude.  It has a bimodal rainfall pattern that produces high biological diversity.  Winter storms from the Pacific and summer monsoons from the south allow woody plants and annuals.

The Mojave Desert (25,000 sq. mi.) is a transition desert between the cooler and higher Great Basin and the hot Sonoran desert to the south.  It is a rainshadow desert defined by latitude, elevation, geology and indicator plants.  General elevations are between 3,000 and 6,000 feet.  It has a typical mountain-and-basin topography with sparse vegetation.  San and gravel basins drain to central salt flats.

Chihuahuan Desert Map

Chihuahuan Desert Map


The Chihuahua Desert straddles the USA-Mexico border.  On the US side it occupies the valleys and basins of central and southern New Mexico.  It stretches from west of the Pecos River in Texas to southeastern Arizona.  It is the largest desert in North America.  To the north, the Great Basin Desert is the largest US desert.

By way of illustration, let’s skirt the portion of the Chihuahuan Desert that is within the borders of the United States.  This 1800 mile loop will take about thirty hours to drive.

Start at the northeastern corner of the USA Chihuahua Desert in Amarillo, TX and go west on I-40 through Albuquerque, NM.  Continue west across New Mexico.  After 520 miles and about seven hours stop just past the border in Holbrook, AZ.

Continue from the northwestern corner of the USA Chihuahua Desert in Holbrook, AZ and drive south on US-60 and AZ-77 for 240 miles and about four and a half hours to Tucson, AZ.  Continue southeast on I-10 and AZ-80 for 120 miles and another two and a half hours to the border town of Douglas, AZ.

Continue from the southwestern corner of the USA Chihuahua Desert in Douglas, AZ and drive northeast on AZ-80 crossing into New Mexico and then east on I-10 through Las Cruces, NM.  Turn south on I-10 crossing into Texas and passing through El Paso, TX.  Continue southeast along the Rio Grande to Big Bend National Park and Marathon, TX.  This 510 miles drive will take about eight hours.

Continue from the southeastern corner of the USA Chihuahua Desert in Marathon, TX and drive north on US-385 through Fort Stockton, east on I-20 to Odessa, north on US-385 to Lubbock and then continue north on I-27.  After 412 miles and about seven hours you will end up back in Amarillo, TX.


People have lived here for 4,000 years.  It is believed that pre-historic Paleo-Indians crossed this land as far back as 20,000 years ago.  Roughly 10,000 years ago, Anasazi tribes created cliff villages.  Spanish explorers, including the famed Coronado, appeared on the scene by the early 1500s.  The Spanish referred to the native inhabitants as Pueblos because of the villages or “pueblos” they built.  After their arrival, 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.

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.  Ornate found a shorter path than the one that curved along the Rio Grande but it was a desolate, 90-mile stretch of desert.  It became known as Jornado del Muerto, or Journey of Death because hot and arid conditions that claimed the lives of many. In addition, Apaches attacked the wagon trains and killed the settlers who dared to cross their territory.

In 1821 Mexican revolutionaries overthrew the Spanish rulers and established the Republic of Mexico.  Twenty-five years later, America’s determined 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 Chihuahua Trail.

The Chihuahua Trail.


The Chihuahua Trail is an ancient corridor across the northern Chihuahua Desert to the southern Rocky Mountains.  It ranks among the most historic highways in North America.  550 miles long, it connects Chihuahua, the capital of Mexico’s state of Chihuahua, with Santa Fe, the capital of the state of New Mexico. During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries the trail became the northern segment of the 1500 mile long Camino Real de Tierra Adentro, (The Royal Road of the Interior Land), a Spanish roadway that began in Mexico City and ended in Santa Fe.  This historic trail became known as El Camino Real, The Royal Road.

Chihuahua, Mexico is due south of El Paso.  The trail went north for 240 miles from Chihuahua to to the border cities of Juarez and El Paso on the Rio Grande.  Today Mexico’s Federal Highway 45 follows the original trail.  After crossing The Pass and Fort Bliss, the trail bore northward up the Rio Grande valley for some 55 miles.  On the east it passed the Franklin and Organ mountain ranges.

Between Las Cruces and Socorro, the river made a bow or a westward bending arc.  The trail “strung the bow” intercepting both ends of the river’s arc.  This 90-mile segment, east of the Caballo and Fra Cristobal ranges, lacked dependable sources of water.  It became known as the “Jornada del Muerto” — “the march of the dead” or “dead man’s journey.”  Today the Jornada del Muerto trail passes through the White Sands Missile Range. An ironic footnote: the first atomic bomb was dropped on this trail.

Rejoining the river the trail followed the valley northward for 150 miles through the region of historic pueblos..  It passed at the foot of lava-capped “Contadero” mesa.  It skirted the western edge of a rich marshland called the “Bosque del Apache.”  It passed Albuquerque and the western flanks of the Manzano and Sandia mountain ranges.  It began the ascent up the Southern Rocky Mountain foothills, veering away from the Rio Grande and following its Canada de Santa Fe tributary for about 30 miles to the community of Santa Fe.  Today I-25 follows this route.


In 1830 Apaches killed travelers from Taos along the El Camino Real.  Survivors marked their graves with crosses.  Nineteen years later, La Placita de Las Cruces, the Place of the Crosses, became the frontier settlement of Las Cruces.

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.  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.


Prior to 1857, there was no organized, commercial system of transportation west of the Mississippi River.  Although many people had crossed the United States by land, the word “overland” had not come into the American vocabulary.  On the historical scale, the Butterfield Overland Mail was symbolic of the doctrine of Manifest Destiny, which held that it was the duty and right of the United States to expand across the continent.

Adding to the national pride engendered by this symbolism, was unadulterated awe – still felt today – at the rapidity with which the endeavor got under way.  The backing of the federal government was obtained, trails were laid out, stations were set up and manned, coaches and wagons were manufactured and put into operation, and the many obstacles of travel across long stretches of pure wilderness were surmounted.

Several names were associated with the enterprise, but the major credit goes to one man, New  Yorker businessman and financier John Butterfield.  After much political log-rolling by Congress, he obtained a $600,000 government contract to establish and run the Overland Mail Company from St. Louis, Missouri, to San Francisco, California.

The building and the short life of the Butterfield Overland Mail were dictated by important events in history.  The Mexican War from 1846 to 1848 and the Gadsden Purchase in 1853 added territory that needed to be incorporated into this country.

Gold was discovered in California in 1848, and California became a state in 1850.  The flood of gold-seekers heading for the Pacific Coast, along with the U.S. Mail, embarked from the East Coast and sailed to the Isthmus of Panama.  Here passengers and cargo went ashore, crossed the mountainous strip of Panama, and took another ship up the West Coast of Central America, past Mexico, and thence to California.

Year-round operation of the Butterfield Overland Mail dictated the choice of a route through the milder climate of the southern tier of states and territories.  This choice, by routing the trail through Texas, led to its short life as the Civil War commenced.  Confederate sympathizers threatened violence to the line even before Texas seceded from the United States.  Union troops were pulled out of the Southwest to engage in battle in the East.  Some Indians further endangered the stage line by taking advantage of the lack of military strength in the area. In 1861, operation of the twice-weekly mail and passenger service was effectively stopped.

In establishing the service, Butterfield had said, “Remember boys, nothing on God’s earth must stop the United States mail!”  And nothing did.  During its two and one-half years of service, every eastbound and westbound stage arrived within the 25-day contract time.  Sometimes the trips were reduced to 21 days.  It was an unqualified success.

Joann Mazzio article about the Butterfield Overland Mail:


Butterfield Route with miles and times for each segment:

Div Route ……………………Miles …Hours
1 …San Francisco, CA …….462 ……80
2 …Los Angeles, CA ……….282 ……72
3 …Fort Yuma, AZ ………….280 ……72
4 …Tucson, AZ ………………360 …..82
5 …Franklin, AZ ……………..458 ….126
6 …Fort Chadbourne, TX …..283 …..65
7 …Colbert’s Ferry, OK …….192 …..38
8 …Fort Smith, AR ………….319 …..49
9 …Tipton, MO ………………160 ……11
……TOTALS: ………………2,795 ….596


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.

Spanish and, later, Mexican and Anglo colonist and freight caravans camped in the vicinity, watered livestock in the nearby river, grazed the animals in the surrounding grassy bottomlands, cooked and sang and slept and sometimes fought around evening fires, and, in the later days, watched warily for Mescalero Apaches.

Mesilla put down permanent roots in the mid 1800’s, after the United States appropriated western Texas and the Southwest – a region roughly the size of Western Europe – in the course of the Mexican/American War and its aftermath. Mesilla, one of the most important settlements in the new territory, serviced Camino Real freight caravans, fought the Mescaleros, supplied the U. S. Army’s nearby Fort Fillmore, entertained Butterfield and San Antonio-to-San Diego stage coach passengers, endured Union and Confederate occupations, and served as territorial capitol.

Mesilla lost its place in the sun in 1881, when the railroad bypassed the village in favor of nearby Las Cruces. Mesilla became the perfect place for a community of ghosts.


Phantly Roy Bean, “Law West of the Pecos”
born 1825, Mason County, Kentucky; died 16 March 1903, Langtry, Texas
Occupation: Justice of the Peace, Saloonkeeper

Phantly Roy Bean was an eccentric U.S. saloon-keeper and Justice of the Peace who called himself “The Law West of the Pecos”. According to legend, Judge Roy Bean held court in his saloon along the Rio Grande in a desolate stretch of the Chihuahuan Desert of west Texas.

Roy Bean left home to follow two older brothers west seeking adventure. With Brother Sam, he joined a wagon train into New Mexico, then crossed the Rio Grande and set up a trading post in Chihuahua, Mexico. After killing a local hombre, Roy fled to California, to stay with his brother Joshua, who would soon become the first mayor of San Diego.

There, Roy developed a reputation for bragging, dueling and gambling on cockfights. Mayor Josh Bean appointed Roy a lieutenant in the state militia and bartender of the Headquarters, his own saloon. In 1852, Roy was arrested after wounding a man in a duel. He escaped, and after Mayor Josh was killed a few months later by a rival in a romantic triangle, Roy headed back to New Mexico where brother Sam Bean had become a sheriff.

Roy tended bar in Sam’s saloon for several years while smuggling guns from Mexico through the Union blockade during the Civil War. Afterward, he married a Mexican teenager and settled in San Antonio, where throughout the 1870s, he supported 5 children by peddling stolen firewood and selling watered-down milk. His notorious business practices eventually earned his San Antonio neighborhood the nickname Beanville.

Thunderbird de la Mesilla

Thunderbird de la Mesilla

Thunderbird de la Mesilla sign:

El Mariachi, dba; Thunderbird de la Mesilla; Gallery, Gifts, Indian Jewelry
This is the oldest documented brick building in New Mexico. Augustin Maurin (of French descent) initiated construction in 1860 using burned brick from his old kiln.  He was murdered by robbers in his adjoining apartment in 1866. The heir, Cesar Maurin, came here from France to claim the property.  He died of natural causes in 1868. Frenhman Pedro Duhalde, a former Mesilla saloonkeeper, moved in and was himself murdered by robbers. Now owned by Tiburcio Frietze, after having been used as a general store, residence, saloon and town hall, the building remains in good condition. Original hand-hewn vigas, supporting a low, irregular ceiling, join with the old brickwork in creating a fitting background for gift items displayed.The Dona Ana Historical Society finds this building worthy of preservation and commends Mr. Frietze for his part in its care.” (148 words)

Painting of the original La Posta.

Painting of the original La Posta.

La Posta Compound

“Earliest records indicate the La Posta Compound was originally constructed in the 1840’s.  Sam Bean and his brother Roy Bean, operated a freight and passenger service line to Pinos Altos from this building in the 1850’s.  After the Civil War, The La Posta Compound became an important stop on the Butterfield Stagecoach Line.  During the 1870’s and 1880’s, the Corn Exchange Hotel, one of the finest lodges in the Southwest, operated from the building.  John Davis, the proprietor of the hotel, died in the late 1870’s, however, his wife Augustina continued to operate the hotel, a restaurant and other businesses in the building until the early 1900’s.  La Posta de Mesilla Restaurant originated in the northwest corner of the building in 1939 by Katy Griggs Camunez. The business has grown to become one of the most famous restaurants in the Southwest, occupying 10,000 square feet of the La Posta Compound which now included several shops. After Katy passed away, the property and business was acquired by a great niece, Jerean Camunez Hutchinson and her husband Tom, a.k.a. “Hutch”, who continue to offer the same quality food and great service in the unique dining environment Katy created.”

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