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Nuestra Historia - Founders met to draft state’s constitution

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It had been 60 long years since New Mexico became an American territory, following four years of U.S. military occupation after Kearny’s invasion in 1846. On June 20, 1910, at 1:40 p.m., with the stroke of his pen, President Taft enabled New Mexico to become the 47th American state.

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The Territory was quickly overtaken with celebration, and the red, white and blue was unfurled in public and private buildings alike. William “Bull” Andrews, last of the Territory’s 18 congressional delegates, was greeted with great fanfare when he returned from Washington. Everywhere in New Mexico there was jubilation and speechmaking — after 50 separate attempts, the deed was finally done!

Before statehood could actually be achieved, however, the people of New Mexico would need to adopt a constitution to be approved by Congress. As required by the enabling act, Territorial Gov. William J. Mills of Las Vegas issued a proclamation calling for a constitutional convention to convene in Santa Fe on Oct. 3, 1910.

One hundred convention delegates would be elected, apportioned among New Mexico’s 26 counties. San Miguel County was allotted nine delegates, the most of any county, followed by eight for Bernalillo County, five for Santa Fe, and on down the line. (New Mexico’s population was 327,396, a 67 percent increase since 1900, due mostly to the enormous influx of non-Hispanics in just one decade.)

New Mexico was heavily Republican in 1910, and of the 100 delegates elected, 71 were Republicans and 29 were Democrats. San Miguel County’s nine Republican delegates were J. M. Cunningham, S.B. Davis, Harry W. Kelly, Luciano Maes, brothers Eugenio and Margarito Romero, Atanacio Roybal, Nepomuceno Segura and Charles A. Spiess. (The almost even split between Hispanics and Anglos reflected the concentrated non-Hispanic population in East Las Vegas, which saw rapid and substantial growth in the three decades since the railroad arrived in 1879.)

San Miguel County immediately dominated the convention. Las Vegas attorney Charles A. Spiess was elected president, and Don Eugenio Romero became a member of the powerful steering committee which would run the convention. Both Spiess and Don Eugenio would exercise enormous influence over the historic proceedings.

As concerns Don Eugenio’s role, renowned historian Ralph Emerson Twitchell, a Las Vegas attorney at the time, noted that every member of the steering committee was a “power in the county which was represented by him in the convention,” and the committee members “dictated the policies of the convention, without the support of whom no article of the constitution could have been adopted.”

Other members of the all-powerful steering committee were also giants from throughout New Mexico. The committee chairman, Valencia County’s Solomon Luna, was considered the most prominent and influential man in New Mexico — of either political party or ethnicity. He would later decline solicitations from both political parties to be their nominee to become New Mexico’s first state governor. (Don Solomon and Don Eugenio were among the last great dons of New Mexico, who at once commanded great wealth, political power and social prominence — and were the ultimate patrones.)

Another seat on the committee was reserved for Otero County’s Albert B. Fall, later New Mexico’s U.S. senator, and Secretary of Interior under President Harding — ending his career in prison and infamy for the Teapot Dome scandal. Other members of the committee were Thomas B. Catron, leader of the Santa Fe Ring, and Holm O. Bursum of Socorro. (Less than a year later, at the Republican convention in Las Vegas, Bursum would defeat Secundino Romero, Don Eugenio’s son, to become the Republican nominee for governor.)

With the support of the powerful men who would constitute the steering committee — and with Don Eugenio’s blessing in particular — Charles A. Spiess assumed his role as president of the convention, immediately following the invocation delivered by the Rev. Jules Deraches, representing the Archbishop of Santa Fe.

Spiess was a prominent Las Vegas attorney who had served as District Attorney and in the Territorial legislature, and was also president of the New Mexico Bar. Of German-Swiss ancestry, Spiess was born in Missouri in 1867. He came to New Mexico in 1888, and soon arrived in Las Vegas.

Spiess made his home in Old Town, at 2323 Hot Springs Blvd., where he lived until his death in 1919, at the young age of 52. The exterior of the home remains essentially intact, except for replacement of the arched front porch. (Spiess was among the handful of non-Hispanics who made their home in Old Town after the railroad arrived, as did Jewish merchants Charles Ilfeld and the Rosenwald family, and banker Jefferson Raynolds.)

These and other Territorial leaders would become the founding fathers of the new American state. They would draft a constitution unlike any other in the United States, molded for and from the unique and ancient place that is New Mexico.         

Jesus L. Lopez is a native of Las Vegas and a local historian. He may be reached at 425-3730.