New Mexico's

"Home on the Range"

 

Harding County History

 

On March 4th, 1921 Harding County was created by the New Mexico Legislature. It was formed from parts of eastern Mora County and southern Union County. It was named after then-President Warren Gamamiel Harding. Word came from Santa Fe that breezy day in March of 1921 that Harding had been created and Mosquero was the county seat. The Mosquero School was to become the county courthouse. Teachers and enthusiastic students paraded through the dusty streets behind a banner proclaiming "Just Born: Harding County", while they sang patriotic songs to announce the momentous event. Today the courthouse is still in use. Built around the rock L shaped school it is now a two story structure housing the present county government.

At that time approximately 5,000 people lived in Harding County, but the county has been losing population ever since. Like other agricultural communities in the American Southwest, Harding County has never recovered from the Great Plains Dust Bowl. Based on the 1996 population of 946 persons, Harding is the least populous and second least densely populated county in the state.

This was one of the last vast unpopulated areas in the U.S. and had, at its peak, supposedly 7000 people. Many of the ranches were established by homesteaders who received from 160-320 acre homesteads of free land under the Expanded Homestead Act.

As you drive across the county, don't be surprised if you find yourself thinking about Wells-Fargo Stage Coaches and little houses on the prairie. This is the West of our national mythology too often imprinted only through the magic of movies. And though Hollywood's interpretation of the old West is often severely distorted, it's based to a large degree on a profound reality - reflected under the harsh skies of northeastern New Mexico.

Here is where the plains met the mountains, the Cheyenne’s met the Apaches and Kiowa, west-bound ambition and determination often met dismal failure and death. As well, though, it is where that ambition met success, where a unique American spirit - part Spanish, part Indian, and part Anglo - was born of a necessity to survive. Wagon ruts - a hundred years old - are still visible in the prairie hardpan and Indian artifacts can be found by those willing to search hard enough.

The land itself is ancient. Sixty-five million years ago, dinosaurs sloshed through lush, prehistoric gardens. Later, when the water had receded, the land was a veritable caldron of subterranean fury, with volcanoes spewing steam and molten lava from the earth's bowels. The land is also one of ancient people. Ten thousand years ago, descendants of some of the earliest immigrants from Asia roamed these plains hunting mastodons, woolly mammoths, and other animals now long extinct.

Just a half century after Columbus "discovered" America, Spanish conquistador Francisco Coronado pushed his way through this part of New Mexico, looking for the fabled Seven Cities of Cibola. By then, the Apaches, along with the Navajos, who settled on the other side of the southern Rockies, had arrived from the north, and by the 18th century, when the Spanish colonizers began establishing settlements in the outlying areas of Santa Fe, the Indians had a homeland to protect.

The Indians didn't discriminate between the Spanish settlers and the Anglos, who began to appear from the east in the mid-19th century, and northeastern New Mexico was the site of hundreds of skirmishes and several major confrontations between natives and newcomers. As more and more supply wagons passed through, the Indians became more and more threatened and angry. The Indians were no match for the Iron Horse, though. By the late 19th century, the railroad had opened up the West, and the Indians, sadly, were pretty much licked. Some found refuge and solace on reservations. Some tried to make it in the white society. Still others wandered in an emotional and cultural limbo, their identities and senses of self loss somewhere between the two worlds.

From the late-19th century to the mid-20th centuries, Northeastern New Mexico depended largely on its rangeland - sheep and cattle grazed the prairies, and wool and beef were shipped to points throughout the West. By the 1970's the area had begun to open up to tourism. State parks were established and motels were built.

Still, this is a wonderful and often-overlooked part of New Mexico. Don't be put off by the barrenness of the countryside flanking the highways. Get off the main routes and do some exploring. Imagine what it was like in the past, when dinosaurs trudged through the swampland, the Cheyenne followed the buffalo, and massive herds of cattle were driven to the railhead. The Goodnight-Loving Cattle Drives passed through Harding County in years past.