The Boundary of All These Kingdoms

Whatever one may want to call the historic leaders of New Mexico, empire builders they were not. Oñate could have laid the groundwork in 1598 when he “took possession of all these kingdoms” while still about a hundred miles south of the Rio Grande, but he neglected to set a monument and erect a “Bienvenidos a Nuevo México” sign. This left the delineation of our boundaries to the fantasies of the mapmakers.

The first time any of New Mexico’s boundaries was legally defined was in the Adams-Onis Treaty of February 22, 1819. That Treaty between the United States and Spain was necessary in order to nail down the limits of the Louisiana Purchase, the exact boundaries of which were in dispute. In Article III its western boundary was defined in part as “… following the course of the Rio Roxo [Red River] westward to the degree of longitude 100… thence…due north to the River Arkansas; thence, following the course of the southern bank of the Arkansas to its source in latitude 42 degrees north…thence along the said parallel to the South Sea”. This in effect limited Spanish New Mexico eastward to what is today the eastern boundary of the Texas panhandle and northward to the Arkansas and the 42nd parallel.

Next in time there began the long odyssey of our southern boundary. No precise line was ever defined under Spain, but El Paso del Norte [today Juárez] was considered to be in New Mexico. With Mexican independence in 1821 and popular pressure to colonize the Mesilla Valley, Chihuahua flexed is muscle. In 1824 when Chihuahua became a State and New Mexico a Territory, El Paso was transferred to Chihuahua. The Chihuahuan Colonization Law of 1825 put that state’s northern boundary in latitude 32º 35’ where it ran from the Rio Pecos to the Mimbres River, thence in a northward sweeping arc around the Santa Rita copper mines to the Continental Divide. In that same area we had a boundary with the State of Sonora which extended north to the Gila River. A dozen years later in 1836 a Statistical Report made at the order of the Chihuahua State Legislature put the State boundary at 32º 57’ 42”, about where State Highway 152 to Hillsboro leaves I-25 today.

The authorities of Chihuahua probably paid little attention to the Boundary Act of December 19, 1836, in which the Republic of Texas claimed all land north and east of the Rio Grande. Grantees in that area came to a rude awakening, when confirmation or rejection of their grants shifted to the powers-to-be in Austin. On February second of 1848 an ex-State Department clerk by the name of Nicholas Trist had put his name to a treaty [his authority to do so had been revoked] which gave New Mexico a new south boundary, consisting of a dotted line drawn by a draftsman on an inaccurate map. That line couldn’t be surveyed without a geographical definition, which was negotiated in a compromise between two official commissioners [Bartlett and García-Conde]. As was to be expected they made a mess of it. 

The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo was followed by the Organic Act of 1850 that put the south boundary of the Territory of New Mexico east of the Rio Grande in latitude 32 degrees, terminated eastward by the 103rd meridian. To the west of the river it followed latitude 32º 22’ “to the first branch of the river Gila”. When no such tributary could be found because there is none, the boundary commissioners put it three degrees west of the Rio Grande to a point north of present day Willcox, Az.. Thence it turned north to the Gila River and along the Gila to its junction with the Colorado.

This line, which was to be “religiously respected”, was not to last long. In the only instance when acreage was actually added to New Mexico, the Gadsden Purchase of 1853 voided the treaty line from the Rio Grande to the Colorado and created the south boundary of New Mexico as it exists today (minus the Arizona portion of course). I am not so sure about that “exists today” statement (see below).

We now turn our attention to the east boundary. At a constitutional convention held in May 1850 in Santa Fe the delegates claimed for New Mexico the old Adams-Onis line. In Congress the debates were lengthy and bitter, reflecting the division of the country over the slavery issue. It was Senator James Pearce of Maryland who suggested placing New Mexico’s east boundary at the 103rd meridian and compensating Texas with 10 million dollars (there was no talk about compensating New Mexico). As finally adopted, the boundary ended at latitude 38 degrees, a parallel that clips the belly of the Arkansas at present La Junta. To understand what happened to that extra degree above our present State boundary of 37 degrees we must leave the east boundary for a while and look at our north boundary.

In the Organic Act of 1850 the north boundary of the Territory ran along the 38th parallel from longitude 103 west to the Continental Divide, following the Divide south to latitude 37 degrees, thence along that latitude west to the California line. Yes, the northwest corner of New Mexico was once less than ten miles east of Scotty’s Castle in Death Valley National Park. The boundaries of California have not changed since 1850 when California became a State. On New Mexico the axe fell again in February 1861 with the creation of Colorado Territory when the San Luis Valley above latitude 37 degrees, was transferred to Colorado.

A native New Yorker by the name of Ehud Noble Darling contracted to survey Colorado’s south boundary in 1868. In 1902 a GLO examiner of surveys inspected sixty miles of Darling’s line. Most of the original monuments had disappeared and Colorado had unilaterally set new ones. The examiner reported that the new line was erroneously run and recommended a new survey. A year later that survey was made by Howard B. Carpenter, surveyor and astronomer for the GLO. I guess Carpenter tried to do us a favor because his line was north of Darling’s line by a considerable distance, putting three towns and five post offices from Colorado into New Mexico. Congress blessed his survey in 1908. The resulting confusion was not finally resolved until 1960 when the U.S. Supreme Court approved the restored Darling line it had ordered to be re-established in 1925.

Now back to the 103rd meridian. New Mexico’s boundary is on the 103rd meridian only for ½ degree of latitude, from 36 ½º to 37º, also known as the Cimarron Meridian. The remaining 310 miles are between two and four miles too far west, thanks to John H. Clark who in 1859 located New Mexico’s southeast corner in longitude 103º 03’55”. The east-west difference of 2.17 miles between Clark’s line at 36º30’ and the Cimarron Meridian is called “Crawford’s Closure” and forms the little jog of our boundary west of the southwest corner of the Oklahoma Panhandle.

There remains our west boundary to discuss. Under Spain the Hopi Villages and the Colorado River were in New Mexico. After Mexican independence Sinaloa and Sonora took a bite out of that but lost it in 1848. The big blow came in 1863, the year New Mexico Territory was cut in half when Congress created Arizona Territory. The division line was set at the 32nd meridian west of Washington, based on a chauvinistic Act of Congress of 1850 (9 Stat. 515) that degreed that “hereafter the meridian of the observatory of Washington shall be adopted and used for all astronomical purposes”. Allowing for the distance to Greenwich this put our west boundary at 109º03’02.3”. And there it remains today.

Then there is our boundary along the Rio Grande south of latitude 32 degrees. The legal definition calls for the course of the river on September 9th, 1850. As the river changed its bed in numerous floods the 1850 location became an argument with Texas. It took the U.S. Supreme Court to order a survey in 1928 that resulted in th
e meandering traverse that is the boundary today. Whether it is where the river ran in 1850 is anybody’s guess. Members of our Southern Rio Grande chapter say that half of all the monuments on that line are missing.

Of late the U.S. Department of Homeland Security is building a wall along a portion of our southern boundary in an attempt to keep out illegal immigrants. The wall is built on a setback of several feet from the actual international boundary, creating what surveyors call a “fool’s alley”. It takes very little imagination to predict what will happen in that strip.

Of course those of you who have read and remembered all I have written since 1988 knew all that. As I have indicated in the last issue of BENCHMARKS I am getting lazy, and so I ask those who are so inclined to count the number of boundary lines we have had since Oñate “took possession of all these kingdoms”. Don’t forget to count the wall.