In 1988 Gilbert Chaves of Las Cruces, in conjunction with NMPS (then NMASM) Southern Rio Grande Chapter, researched the location of the south bounday of New Mexico as it was negotiated in the treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. This was a line that stretched from the Rio Grande, beginning at a point fourty miles north of the present international boundary, a full three degrees of longitude across southwestern New Mexico and into Arizona. It was made obsolete in 1853/54 by the Gadsden Purchase. The line was partially surveyed in 1851. Gilbert took the lead in designing and constructing a concrete marker with a bronze plaque, a monument that for the convenience of the traveling public was placed on the west edge of Shalem Colony Trail. No evidence of the 1851 stone mound was found, but Gilbert thought that he had found a difference in the layers of soil at the most probable spot of the location of the old mound.
On October 1, 1988 NMPS President Joe Sisneros, Southern Rio Grande Chapter President Jim Kilby, Gilbert Chaves, myself, and a representative of a local newspaper met at the site to dedicate the historical marker. The occasion was publicized in an article that appeared in the October 5 issue of the Las Cruces Bulletin, and I also wrote about it in an article that was published in the spring 1989 issue of BENCHMARKS.
You may recall that after the end of the Mexican War in 1848 a commission was formed to survey the new international boundary from the mouth of the Rio Grande to the Pacific. The starting point for the land boundary was defined as where the south boundary of New Mexico crosses the river, a line that was to be taken of a map published in New York in 1847 by J. Disturnell. When the surveyors found that the Disturnell map was in error, arguments arose as to the true location of New Mexico’s boundary. The Mexicans understandably insisted that the latitude be taken as shown on the map, about 32°22’ and just north of present Las Cruces, while the Americans pointed to the fact that the Disturnell map showed New Mexico’s boundary was only about eight miles north of El Paso del Norte, at that time the name of Ciudad Juarez in the Mexican State of Chihuahua, a location that would put it half of a degree of latitude further south.
The treaty also called for a western terminus three degrees west of the Rio Grande, but again were those three degrees to be measured from the erroneous longitude of the map or from the true location of the river. In what became known as the Bartlett-Conde compromise, Commissioner John Russell Bartlett accepted the Mexican claim for latitude in return for measuring the longitude from the river.
It is a mystery to me why the Mexican treaty makers accepted the Disturnell map, with its dotted and highly approximate boundaries of the Mexican states, a map that was plagiarized from much earlier maps, because better information was available. While it is true that Don Juan de Oñate took possession of “all these kingdoms” while still about a hundred miles south of today’s border, that was a long time ago. After Mexican independence and some initial attempts to establish a State of the North (Estado Interno del Norte) that included New Mexico, Chihuahua, and Durango, in 1824 New Mexico became a territory and El Paso del Norte, historically a part of New Mexico, was transferred to the State of Chihuahua.
In 1836 the Legislature of the State of Chihuahua ordered a geographical survey to be made, in the course of which Pedro Garcia Conde, a trained engineer who in 1849 became Bartlett ‘s Mexican counterpart on the Joint Boundary Commission, prepared a large manuscript map. That map defined the north boundary of the State of Chihuahua at 32°57’42” north latitude, or just to the north of today’s Alamogordo and, further to the west, passing through future Caballo Reservoir. In 1839 the Dona Ana Bend Colony Grant was approved by the Departmental Assembly in the City of Chihuahua and in 1844 was surveyed, the north boundary being the mouth of the Dona Ana Acequia several miles north of 32°22’, well within the State of Chihuahua.
Once the latitude of 32°22’ had been agreed upon, the commissioners ordered the surveyors, Lt. Whipple for the United States and Salazar y Larregui for Mexico to accurately establish the line. The officially appointed surveyor, Andrew B. Gray, was delayed in Washington by illness, causing Bartlett to appoint Lt. Whipple surveyor ad interim, an act for which he had no real authority, that later became the impetus for voiding the Bartlett-Conde agreement. Whipple and Salazar made nearly 500 observations on eleven stars to establish the initial point on the west bank, 720 feet (219.4 meters) west of the center of the Rio Grande. There the surveyors had driven a post and made “a small excavation”.
On April 24, 1851 the Boundary Commission formally met to establish the original monument. A large group of dignitaries from El Paso del Norte and the State of Chihuahua, along with a company of the First Dragoons had been invited as witnesses to the ceremony. A lengthy document written in duplicate, in English and Spanish, and signed by the two Commissioners and the two surveyors was placed into a bottle and along with fragments of the Washington Monument (which was under construction at the time) was deposited at the site. Bartlett realized that this point was located in the floodplain of the Rio Grande, therefore he decided “to erect a large pyramidal [monument] one on a lofty conical-shaped hill, which itself appeared like an artificial structure at a distance. The line passed directly over this, and a monument upon it would be seen for a great distance in every direction.”
Apparently several attempt have been made by historians as well as surveyors to recover evidence of the monument that contained the bottle and granite fragments. From Bartlett’s account it is not entirely clear where the bottle was put, inside the rock mound as most historians apparently believe, or in the soil beneath the mound as most surveyors would have done, he only says that the bottle “was sealed and deposited at the place designated.”
In his Personal Narrative Bartlett writes that Lt. Whipple “had surveyed and laid down with great minuteness about one half” of the three degrees long arc to the west, and also established its endpoint, a point that would be in Arizona, about seven miles north of Willcox. The brouhaha over the location of the Bartlett-Conde line made further surveying pointless, until in 1854 the entire boundary from the Rio Grande to the Colorado River was redefined by the Gadsden Purchase.
Anyone interested in this part of southwestern Americana who desires to visit the 1988 memorial monument can do so by turning off I-25 in Las Cruces and following U.S. Highway 70 through town to the junction of the Shalem Colony Trail, located one half mile west of the bridge over the Rio Grande. Turn right (north) and follow the Trail for 4.4 miles to the monument. The plaque reads:
ON APRIL 24, 1851 MEMBERS OF THE JOINT BOUNDARY COMMISSION
OF THE UNITED STATES AND MEXICO ASSEMBLED HERE AND DECLARED
THIS POINT TO MARK THE SOUTHERN BOUNDARY OF NEW MEXICO
IN ACCORDANCE TO THE PROVISIONS OF THE TREATY OF GUADALUPE HIDALGO.
ERECTED AS A MEMORIAL TO THE PIONEER SURVEYORS OF TWO NATIONS
BY THE NEW MEXICO ASSOCIATION OF SURVEYORS AND MAPPERS.