David Holtby describes his book Forty-Seventh Star as the first work on New Mexico’s transition to statehood that fully incorporates Spanish-language sources. While such a claim understates the significance of contributions by such scholars as Anthony Mora and John Nieto-Philips, Holtby’s book does break new ground, arguing that political missteps were more significant than racism in keeping New Mexico from statehood for forty-four years. Holtby integrates this political narrative with an innovatively sourced history-from-below of New Mexicans’ claims to popular sovereignty.
Given the importance of sectional interests to national politics, legislators needed good reasons to convert New Mexico from a territory to a state. From Daniel Webster onward they saw New Mexico as a barren land, lacking the water needed for irrigation and the Anglo settlement needed for assimilation into the union. As New Mexico boosters sought water and white settlers, a series of bumbling territorial legislators underwritten by Pennsylvania railroad interests lobbied unsuccessfully.
Statehood remained elusive, as politicians equated Nuevomexicanos and Filipinos. Both groups were acquisitions of American imperialism, and neither was seen as ready for self-government. Nuevomexicanos denied that they were illiterate, antimodern, and governed by corrupt local leaders. But their desire for small, self-sufficient farms and for community over individualism sometimes conflicted with Anglo expectations.
Enemies of statehood, particularly Senator Albert Beveridge (r-in), gleefully publicized the mountain of evidence that New Mexico was corrupt. Territorial governors Otero and Hagerman and delegate William H. Andrews were embroiled in scandals. Magnates profited by fraudulently acquiring contiguous homestead tracts for logging and land speculation. Chinese immigrants were being smuggled in over the Mexican border. Even so, William Howard Taft, who emerges as the hero in Holtby’s narrative, finally demanded that Beveridge and his patron Nelson Aldrich (r-ri) drop their opposition. In 1912 New Mexico gained statehood with a constitution that, on its face, gave Anglos and Nuevomexicanos equal power.
Holtby’s mostly engaging narrative occasionally bogs down in the minutiae of legislative wrangling. His attempts at determining popular opinion through content analysis of New Mexico newspapers are a bit dubious. Brief sections dedicated to the histories of the Pueblo Indians, black immigrants, and Chinese in New Mexico suggest that each group struggled against being marginalized, while Anglos and Nuevomexicanos alike pursued “modernization.” Thus, Holtby might profitably have given the question of race in the [End Page 186] territory more attention. These caveats aside, Forty-Seventh Star’s innovative mixture of the social and political makes it a must-read for historians of American expansion and decolonization in the Trans-Mississippi West.
New Mexico State University