Date of Award

Spring 1-1-2013

Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)



First Advisor

Ralph Mann

Second Advisor

Phoebe S.K. Young

Third Advisor

Paul Sutter

Fourth Advisor

Robert Ferry

Fifth Advisor

Gregory Johnson


This dissertation is a social and environmental history of the communities of the Mesilla Valley from their initial founding in 1843 until the 1930s. The Valley, which straddles the Rio Grande in southern New Mexico, was first settled under Mexican land grants in the 1840s. Water and irrigation provided the agricultural foundation of the fledgling Hispanic communities such as Doña Ana, Las Cruces, and Mesilla. New Non-Hispanic settlers began arriving in the 1860s. Instead of imposing their values upon the established communities, they integrated themselves into the dominant Hispanic culture and even adopted varying degrees of Mexican national identity, even though the region was, after 1854, part of the United States. Traditions of interethnic interaction continued to shape life in the Mesilla Valley for decades.

The very survival of the Mesilla Valley settlements was threatened by a man-made drought in the late 1800s. Development in Colorado dramatically reduced the flow of the Rio Grande making farming untenable in the Mesilla Valley. Eventually, in 1905, the United States Congress approved the Rio Grande Project, a federal reclamation project, which provided for the development of an extensive irrigation infrastructure to ensure a dependable supply of water to the Mesilla Valley. The Rio Grande Project did not just bring water to the valley. It brought dramatic transformations in which local traditions of social interaction and water management interacted with the changes and ideological predispositions brought by federal engineers. Mesilla Valley residents did not shun the market or modern irrigation, but they did not wholeheartedly embrace the federal reclamation at the expense of established practice. Ultimately, local practice and custom mediated federal power.