TEXAS vs. NEW MEXICO
One botched land survey plus two neighboring states
Santa Fe, NM – You’d think, after 160 years, that state borders are set in stone. Think again.
As visitors to the New Mexico History Museum (www.nmhistorymuseum.org), at 113 Lincoln Ave. just off the Santa Fe Plaza, will discover, the blurry borders between Texas and New Mexico have fueled a century of mostly good-natured feuding that has continued into the new millennium. The museum’s computer-interactive exhibit, “Shifting Boundaries,” includes an examination of the intertwined histories of the two states, which at times have acted like contentious neighbors squabbling over the placement of a backyard fence.
While the Texas-New Mexico border officially was established by the Compromise of 1850, its precise boundaries were subject to interpretation, the whims of Mother Nature, and – whoops! – simple human error. It turns out that when surveyor John H. Clark in 1859 established the nation’s 103rd meridian as the border between Texas and New Mexico, he accidentally set the boundary about three miles too far west.
The narrow strip of debated land runs along New Mexico’s now-eastern border for 320 miles and encompasses the now-Texas towns of Farwell, Texline, Bledsoe and Bronco.
“That’s our land!” declared officials of the territory of New Mexico, after the error was uncovered during their bid for statehood in 1910. “Don’t even think about it,” replied the state of Texas, which hadn’t been keen about relinquishing slavery or the territory of New Mexico in the first place. “Drop it – or else forget about becoming a state,” Congress told the New Mexicans in 1911.
And so the matter festered for the next 100 years, erupting most recently with a 2005 bill in the New Mexico Senate suing Texas for the land, which died in the legislative process. Two years before, the land commissioners of the two states had proposed to settle the dispute with an old-fashioned duel using antique pistols, followed by a skeet shoot. Fortunately, no modern-day blood was shed, but neither was the issue resolved.
“The exhibit shows that we are still fighting border wars,” said Dr. Frances Levine, director of the New Mexico History Museum. “We don’t always have guns drawn, but our states haggle over political boundaries all the time. The same thing happened with water rights. Many people don’t know that this is an issue that simply won’t die.”
Another point of contention between the two states has been New Mexico’s southwestern border, defined in the 1850 Compromise by the winding Rio Grande. Nice idea, but shouldn’t somebody have imagined that the river, over time, might very well change its course and muck up a perfectly sensible boundary?
Visit the New Mexico History Museum to learn how the boundaries of Texas, New Mexico, Arizona – the entire Southwest – have changed over time and to ponder what our shared heritage reveals about our future. Get into the stories that defined the American West.
New Mexico History Museum
For more information about the New Mexico History Museum, including a selection of user-ready high-resolution photographs, log onto http://media.museumofnewmexico.org/nmhm. More than 8,000 additional, high-resolution photographs illustrating the history of New Mexico are available by keyword search at www.palaceofthegovernors.org (click on “Photo Archives” then on “Digitized Collections”). Most requests for scans from this site can be delivered the same day, and usage is free for publicity purposes only.