Happy Birthday New Mexico!
Around 1868 cattle dealer James Patterson built a small 15’ x 15’ trading post along the Goodnight-Loving Cattle Trail near a small Hispanic settlement known as Rio Hondo. Referred to as “one of the most important outfitting depots” between Texas and Colorado, the site was ideal, with plenty of tall grass for grazing and a steady source of water from the Hondo and Pecos Rivers. In 1870, the trading post was purchased by entrepreneur Van C. Smith who—with hopes of developing the gateway to the Southwest—expanded the building into a hotel, casino, and restaurant, and added a general store and post office next door. Still identified as Rio Hondo, in 1872 Smith changed the name to Roswell in honor of his father, Roswell Smith of Nebraska.
Smith soon moved on to other ventures, however Roswell continued to grow under the influence of several notable figures including cattle baron John Chisum, industrialist J.J. Hagerman, and Civil War veteran and “Father of Roswell” Captain Joseph C. Lea, among others. Lea himself would eventually become a wealthy cattleman like John Chisum and helped to start the New Mexico Military Institute in the process of making Roswell a suitable community for families. Still others continued to arrive, benefiting from Roswell’s unique qualities.
With the discovery of artesian wells in 1890, agriculture boomed. Apples were exported by the trainloads, and there were attempts made at growing other forms of produce including melons, celery, and strawberries. Blackdom, an all-African American farming community founded by former Southerners, was established 18 miles outside of Roswell at the end of the 19th century and produced cotton, cantaloupe, onions, alfalfa, and sugar beets until its demise in the 1920s. At the turn of the century, Roswell also attracted healthseekers, many suffering from tuberculosis, who sought a sunny, arid environment to cure their ailments. Robert H. Goddard, known as the “Father of Modern Rocketry,” relocated here in 1930 upon the advice of Charles Lindbergh in order to conduct his experiments in greater seclusion. The Works Progress Administration was active in Roswell during the Great Depression, constructing several significant buildings and structures including City Hall and a Federal art center, now known as the Roswell Museum and Art Center. The Walker Air Force Base—which opened as the Roswell Army Flying School in 1941—was a significant base of operations during WWII through the early years of the Cold War era, and was also known for its infamous involvement in the 1947 Roswell UFO Incident. When the Base closed in 1967, Roswell’s economy plummeted and eventually rebounded, becoming home to several industries, including dairy, pecans, and cheese, as well as a branch of Eastern New Mexico University.
Today, nearly 145 years after the small trading post was built, Roswell has indeed experienced many changes and its population has grown to over 65,000 people in the Chaves County area. In honor of Roswell’s many achievements, the Roswell Centennial Committee—made up of representatives from throughout the community—has produced this publication through the generous support of the City of Roswell Lodger’s Tax Fund, local businesses, as well as contributions by the Historical Society for Southeast New Mexico, local historians, and other community members. We hope, whether a visitor or resident, you enjoy the following pages as you learn about some of the perhaps lesser-known aspects of this historic “All-America City.”