Tuesday, February 14th, 2012

Picacho — A Brief History

Evangelisto Chavez

Evangelisto Chavez

Picacho was founded in 1855 by Juan (or Jose) Evangelisto Chaves, known as Evangelisto Chaves. Evangelisto, born May 8, 1827, had moved to Mesilla from Socorro, New Mexico some time before 1855. Evangelisto’s family history goes back to Pedro Gomez Duran Y Chaves*, who was born in Valverde de Llerena, Spain, and was one of the founding residents of Santa Fe in 1602. Evangelisto married Maria Petra de Jesus Trujillo in Socorro in 1851.

Picacho had long been a camping spot because it was located just south of a natural Rio Grande River crossing known as Apache or Indian Ford. It was also near one of the few places where it was possible to get wagons or coaches up the western slope of the Mesilla Valley. Even though the valley is not that steep, the west side consists of deep sand that provides a formidable barrier to horse-drawn conveyances.

Local tradition says that Evangelisto built the first house in Picacho. He established a large farm and a mercantile business and began employing many workers. He also started a ferry boat service at Apache Ford. Because he owned almost the entire town, it was sometimes called Chaves.

With Evangelisto’s financial acumen and the business provided by the Overland Mail Stage Stop established in 1858, the settlement grew fast. Just how fast can be seen in an 1859 Territorial vote:

Dona Ana, 240
Las Cruces, 100
Brazito, 19
La Mesa, 212
Santo Tomas, 69
Mesilla, 1101
Picacho, 136
Tucson, 267
Colorado City (Rodey), 100

These numbers are votes, i.e., United States male citizens, but they give an idea of the relative populations of the towns of southern New Mexico at this time (Arizona was part of New Mexico until February 24, 1863).

Picacho’s close proximity to the mountains made it vulnerable to Indian attacks, and there are accounts of raids in which livestock were taken and citizens lost their lives. Here is a typical account:

“On the morning of the 30th ult., five Apaches stole out of a corral at the village of Picacho, two hundred head of cattle. To show the audacity of these Indians, we will note that the stock was stolen within five miles of a camp of 650 soldiers.” (September 30, 1861)

During the Civil War, Picacho’s position as a transit point to Arizona led to its use for that purpose by both Confederate and Union troops.

With the arrival of the train at Las Cruces in 1881, Picacho along with Mesilla, La Mesa, Dona Ana, and Santo Tomas began a decline that led, by 1900, to almost insignificance.

Evangelisto, who is enumerated in the census of 1880 as living in Picacho, recognized Picacho’s dwindling importance and moved to Las Cruces in July, 1881, where he built a large house. In Las Cruces he had many business interests and served as Justice of the Peace, county treasurer, and school commissioner. He died unexpectedly on March 2, 1886.

*Although about 250 Spanish men and a few wives settled in Santa Fe following Don Juan de Oñate’s expedition there in 1598, by 1608 only about 50 remained, of which Pedro Gomez Duran Y Chaves was one. He was appointed Military Commander of New Mexico in 1627. His descendents spell the name both Chavas and Chavez.

See also:
Picacho Cemetery
Picacho Peak
Picacho — Forgotten Butterfield Stage Stop
Rough and Ready – Butterfield Stage Stop

Research by Dan Aranda; Photo of Evangelisto Chaves Copyright 2012 Dan Aranda; “Santa Fe Weekly Gazette,” January 8, 1859; “The Daily Dispatch,” November 5, 1861; “Rio Grande Republican,” March 6, 1886; Chavez, A Distinctive American Clan of New Mexico, by Fray Angelico Chavez.

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