The Story of "The Place of the Crosses"

The story of how Las Cruces got its name depends largely on which version of history you believe. One version begins long before New Mexico was a state - or even a territory. It was, in fact, still part of Mexico. The written account most often quoted comes from the journal of Susan Shelby Magoffin, the wife of a wealthy trader who traveled with her husband on the Santa Fe Trail in the late 1840s. The diary in which she recorded her experiences has been used extensively as a source for histories of the time.


The Magoffins left Independence Missouri in June 1846, reaching Santa Fe in August. From there they headed south to El Paso del Norte (present-day El Paso TX) and beyond, traveling along the El Camino Real de Tierra Adentro. Magoffin wrote of passing over a spot several miles south of Dona Ana in January 1847, where she was told "a party of Apache Indians had attacked General (Manuel) Armijo and his troops and killed some 14 of his men, the graves of whom are marked by crude crosses."  It is not known if Magoffin actually saw the crosses herself.


But 56 years later, Maude McFie Bloom recounted in her 1903 master's thesis the version told to her by Mesilla Valley pioneer and Judge Sam Bean, who said he personally saw the crosses, each crudely crafted with two pine boards, when he first came to the New Mexico Territory in 1846. By then the site was being referred to in Spanish as Las Cruces - "the place of the crosses". According to Bean, the crosses marked the graves of a 40-man Chihuahuan trade party who were killed as they camped along the river's edge off the El Camino Real.


Fast forward to 2015, when a new book on the history of the Mesilla Valley makes the case that the name Las Cruces is based not on a makeshift graveyard, but on the fact that the area was a famous "crossroads".


Running north to south, the El Camino Real de Tierra Adentro ("Royal Road of the Interior Land") upon which the Magoffins travelled was the major trade route between Mexico City and northern New Mexico from 1598 to 1882. Running east to west, the Butterfield Overland Trail was a primary stagecoach route carrying mail and passengers between Saint Louis MO and San Francisco CA. The place where these two important routes crossed was, as you might have guessed, a few miles from the present-day city of Las Cruces.


Which version do you like best?  Do you have one of your own?