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by Don Bullis

New Mexico’s Old Times & Old Timers

Historical Society of New Mexico

The Historical Society of New Mexico was created when group of men met in Santa Fe on December 15, 1859. That early date probably makes the Society the oldest west of the Mississippi.

Among those present at that meeting were Colonel John Grayson, Charles P. Clever, Facundo Pino, Jose Guadalupe Gallegos and Kirby Benedict. These were important men: Grayson was a U. S. Army colonel stationed at Fort Marcy; Clever was the United States Marshal for the Territory of New Mexico, and Benedict was the Chief Justice of the Territorial Supreme Court. Pino and Gallegos were wealthy citizens of Santa Fe.

Grayson was elected the first president of the group and William J. Sloan was elected secretary at a meeting held two weeks later, and he shortly issued a statement: “It gives me pleasure to announce to you, that on the 26th inst. a number of gentlemen residing in Santa Fe, formed an association called ‘The Historical Society of New Mexico.’ . . . The Society commences its investigations in this vast and comprehensive field under the most favorable auspices. It does not contemplate a sphere of operations, confined to Santa Fe, but one embracing the extreme limits of the Territory and Gadsden Purchase; sufficiently extensive and varied, to excite the best efforts of all active resident explorers, and the hopes and encouragement of the friends of science in every part of the Union.” Note that New Mexico at the time included all of what is now Arizona which became a separate territory in 1863.

The scope was indeed extensive: “History, Geography, Indian Races, Geology and Mineralogy, Antiquities and Collections, and Natural History.” Later added to the list were “Agriculture, Statistics, Botany, Biography, and Meteorology and Climatology.”

Early-on, the group met at La Parroquia, which was then the Santa Fe parish church, and is now a part of the Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis just off the plaza. The Society rented it from one of its members, Bishop Jean Baptiste Lamy. The society also used the building to display the documents, photographs and “objects of curiosity” it had accumulated in a fairly short period of time. Recent president of the Society, Michael Stevenson, believes that La Parroquia may be the first history museum with curated exhibits west of the Mississippi.

Stevenson wrote, “The Historical Society was the only institution of the times that had membership from [various] groups, even though it was in practice accessible only to those of some education, financial means, and social status. No women are mentioned in the minutes of the Society except those who occasionally provided amenities, such as curtains in the meeting hall, or donations. There is no mention of, and likely no thought given to, any involvement of leading figures from nearby Indian Pueblos . . . Unfortunately, there is no record of those who actually attended these meetings.”

The society started off with great gusto and grew to a hundred members, with many other participants who were honorary members. As the Civil War approached in the early 1860s, however, meetings became fewer and farther apart. Grayson deserted the United States Army in favor of the Confederate States Army. Others followed suit. On September 28, 1863, the Society resolved that the meeting room be surrendered and the collection sold at auction on October 3. They then adjourned without setting a date for another meeting.

The Society did, however, reconvene, on December 26, 1880. Territorial Secretary William G. Ritch was elected president and L. Bradford Prince, who was then Chief Justice of the Territorial Supreme Court, was Vice-President (he became president in 1884). The group was able to secure permission from the United States Secretary of the Interior to use the two easternmost rooms in the Palace of the Governors. Much work was done to amass the historical collection, and within a short time it filled the rooms to overflowing.

The museum opened in 1885 and by 1889 the services of a caretaker were required. Henry Woodruff assumed that responsibility (for $6 per week). He and his wife cared for the collection until 1930 when Henry died.

In the early 20th century, there developed a rivalry between Prince—who had by then served a term as Territorial Governor—and Edgar Lee Hewett, who wished to house his School of American Archeology in the west end of the Palace of the Governors. The acrimony continued until Prince’s death in 1922 after which the Society was more accommodating of Hewett, especially when Ralph Emerson Twitchell became president. Twitchell wrote in the 1923-1924 Society report, “It is not the business of a Historical Society to maintain a museum, but . . . fortunately we now have the wholehearted cooperation of the State Museum. The time to standardize has come; the day of the curio cabinet has gone.”

The Commission of Public Records was created in 1959 and charged with establishing the State Records Center and Archives. In 1977, the Society surrendered all of its collections, acquired before 1960, to the Museum of New Mexico.

The Society began hosting annual two and one half-day historical conferences in 1974, and continues the programs today. Publication of La Crónca de Nuevo México began in 1976 and is published four times annually offering historical items, books reviews, and news of historical activities around New Mexico. The Society also offers grants to local historical societies and other organizational members to assist in their programs and provides speakers for meetings through it speaker’s bureau. Historians and others involved in historical programs and preservation are recognized with the Society’s annual awards.

The current president of the Society is Janet Sayers of Albuquerque.

Selected sources:

Don Bullis, personal recollections (Bullis serves as first vice-president of the Society)
Myra Ellen Jenkins, Historical Society of New Mexico, 1859-1976, New Mexico Office of the State Historian
Michael Stevenson, The Museum and Collections of the Historical Society of New Mexico, 1859-1977,
Michael Stevenson, “Preface,” Minutes of The Historical Society of New Mexico, 1859-1863
The Historical Society of New Mexico Member Handbook