Crescit eundo, it grows at it goes, has been the motto of New Mexico since 1851 when the territorial seal was first designated. Taken from classical Latin literature, it reflected the belief that the new territory would progress and prosper under the umbrella of the United States. The reference to growth has in no way a spatial connotation, yet for the purpose of this article about the exterior boundaries of New Mexico I chose to interpret it that way, or else I would have to dream up another title. And so, tongue-in-cheek, let me postulate that, had the 1851 framers of our motto been able to look as little as a dozen years into the future, they might well have placed the Latin equivalent of “it shrinks at it goes” on our State Seal.
The problem may have started with the Spaniards, who somehow never got around to precisely define New Mexico’s boundaries. When Juan de Oñate in 1598 took “possession of these kingdoms and provinces”, thirty-five years after they already had been, with enormous exaggeration, dubbed “un Nuevo Méjico”, he had no idea of the limits of the place. By the 1700s New Mexico was shown on maps to border on California and Florida, but were these places met was left to the whim of the mapmakers. The immense void between settled areas (nomadic Native Americans didn’t count) made the boundaries moot, but the Hopi villages to the west as well as Paso del Norte to the south were considered to be in New Mexico.
Since 1819, as a result of the Adams-Onis Treaty with Spain, the boundary between Mexico and the United States ran along the Red River west to the 100th meridian, thence north to the Arkansas, along the Arkansas to its source, thence continuing north to latitude 42 degrees. After Mexican independence New Mexico initially became a territory that stretched between the 100th (exactly) and 109th (approximately) meridians north to the Adams-Onis line. The 1836 Mexican constitution converted it into a department wedged between the departments of California and Texas, east and west boundaries a vague as ever.
After acquisition by the United States in the treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo and in response to the Texans creating Santa Fe County, a convention of delegates met in Santa Fe in September 1849 to prepare a constitution. It defined the territorial boundaries simply as being ”north by the Indian Territory; west by California; south by the boundary between Mexico and the United States; and east by the state of Texas.” A year later the constitutional convention was more specific. It now claimed the entire Texas panhandle to the 100th meridian in the east, thence up to the Arkansas, thence along the Arkansas to its source (at about 39¼ degree), and from there “in a direct line to where the Colorado intersects the 111th meridian” [near Rainbow Bridge National Monument], thence south to the Gila River, which at that time was still the international boundary with Mexico.
Section 2 of the Organic Act of September 9, 1850 reduced that claim on the east to the 103rd meridian but moved it west all the way to the state line of California. The Act called for a north boundary from where the 103rd meridian intersects the 38th parallel, thence west along that parallel to the summit of the Sierra Madre [meant was the continental divide], thence along that summit to the 37th parallel and with the parallel west to the California line. To dampen any euphoria in Santa Fe, the same section contained a caveat in which the United States reserved the right to divide the territory into two or more parts. The knife was not long in coming.
But first there was one more addition. As a result of the Gadsden Treaty in December 1853 New Mexico gained nearly 30,000 square miles south of the Gila River, from the Rio Grande in the east to the Colorado in the west. Six years later the Territory started to shrink.
First came John H. Clark with his erroneous 103rd meridian survey of 1859/60 that was to shave about a thousand square miles off New Mexico’s east side. Even though this was by far the smallest loss of real estate it created the loudest outcry. The value of that strip, including whatever oil and gas it may contain, is insignificant when compared to the reduction of 1861, in which the Territory lost the San Luis Valley to Colorado.
On February 28, 1861 Colorado was organized as a territory with its south boundary extending along the 37th parallel. This action sliced a full degree of latitude off New Mexico’s top, from the 103rd meridian on the east to the continental divide on the west, an area known as the New Mexico Notch. Miguel Otero, father of the future Governor, and Senator Stephen Douglas, creator of New Mexico’s original boundaries, tried in vain to defeat the reduction of its land area. New Mexico governor Connelly (1861-1865) estimated that the New Mexico Notch had a population of about 4,000. But the governor was helpless and could only express his regret that Colorado had taken the "fairest portion of our northern boundary" and to state his conviction that statehood was the only way of preventing the territory’s gradual shrinking in size.
Yet when another blow fell only two years later with the creation of Arizona Territory it was accepted in Santa Fe with apparent indifference. The Civil War was raging and Confederate conquest as well as partition of the Territory had narrowly been averted. There had been several schemes to create a separate territory south of latitude 34° 20’. As early as December 1854 and again in January 1855 the New Mexico legislature introduced a memorial calling for a new territory in the south to be called Pimeria. In 1856 two memorials asked for a separate territory of Arizona, stretching from the Colorado in the west to the Pecos in the east. A similar idea resurfaced in April 1860, when a convention held in Tucson established a provisional government for a new “Territory of Arizona” south of latitude 33° 40’ and including southern New Mexico. During the Civil War not only the Confederates but the Union Army too proclaimed a separate territory, both along a parallel a little south of Socorro.
The official separation of Arizona from New Mexico was signed by President Lincoln on February 24, 1863 along the 32nd meridian west of Washington (109°03’02” west of Greenwich). Even then separatist movements were strong, especially in Mesilla, calling for a territory of Montezuma to separate southern New Mexico from its north. But this time Governor Connelly and the legislature decided that enough was enough and actively opposed any further reduction.
If New Mexico had been outmaneuvered by Texas on the acceptance of the 103rd meridian survey, it would lose one more time against Texas in the 1920s. In 1920 suit was instituted in the U.S. Supreme Court against Texas over the location of the river boundary south of latitude 32°. Both states agreed that the boundary was in midchannel where the Rio Grande flowed in 1850, but disagreed over where that was. The river had moved several times and New Mexico claimed that most of that move had been to the west, deeper into its territory. Texas and a specially appointed master (Samuel S. Gannett of the U.S. Geological Survey) proved otherwise, and in 1931 the Court agreed and approved the present boundary, marked by 109 concrete monument that are located mostly, and as much as two miles, on the west side of the present location of the river.
So here we are, holding on to 40% of our former size of about 300 thousand square miles in 1860, even though with over 121 thousand square miles still in fifth place among the States. Crescit eundo?