Old Times and Old Timers

by Don Bullis

New Mexico’s Old Times and Old Timers

(Note: many of us who reflect on New Mexico’s history as a vocation fail to consider our state’s largest city. Lest I be accused of that, here is a thumbnail sketch of the Duke City.)

New Mexico’s largest city and the seat of Bernalillo County, Albuquerque is located west of the Sandia and Manzano Mountains and is bisected north to south by the Rio Grande. It is otherwise surrounded by Pueblo Indian reservations: Sandia to the north, Laguna to the west and Isleta to the south. It is called the Duke City because it was named for the Spanish Duke of Alburquerque [sic].

Historians and linguists have for years debated the origin of the word Albuquerque, originally spelled Alburquerque, as noted above. The first “r” was dropped by English speakers in the 19th century. The original Alburquerque is a Spanish town located near the Portuguese border on the Iberian Peninsula.

Dr. Lynn B. Mitchell, a University of New Mexico professor of Latin and Greek, postulated in the late 1940s that the word was Arabic for “apricot”. He theorized that the fruit was African in origin and the Moors introduced it into Spain, and the Spanish brought it to the new world.

The wife of the Portuguese ambassador to the United States, Mrs. Luis Esteves Fernandez, wrote in the 1950s, that she had a friend named Albuquerque who believed the name came from the Visigothic words, “alba” and “kirche”, which meant “white church.”

Fray Angelico Chavez, writing in the New Mexico Magazine in 1956 is probably the most reliable source on this matter. He declared that the word is of Latin origin: “albus” (white) and “quercus” (oak) and therefore Albuquerque means “white oak.”

Dr. T. M. Pearce, also a University of New Mexico professor, pointed out in the late 1950s that a scroll received by the city of Albuquerque, New Mexico, from the city of Alburquerque in Spain, bears the picture of an oak tree, which tends to confirm Fray Angelico’s position. Also, by way of corroboration, the Shrine Temple in Albuquerque is called Ballut Abyad meaning “white oak” in Arabic.

The exact circumstances of the city’s creation are uncertain. Historian Howard Bryan wrote: “Spanish officials at the time [the town was established] were required to make detailed reports . . . but researchers have searched Spanish archives in vain for the required instrument of founding….”

Credit for the founding of the plaza goes to Spanish Governor Francisco Cuervo y Valdés who in April 1706 wrote the following to the viceroy in Mexico City: “I certify to the king, our lord, and to the most excellent señor viceroy, that I have founded a villa on the banks and in the valley of the Rio del Norte in a good place in regards land, water, pasture and firewood. I have given it as the patron saint the glorious apostle of the Indies, San Francisco Xavier, and called and named it the Villa of Alburquerque.” The governor averred that the villa was populated by 35 families which amounted to 252 people: men, women and children. In modern times, this villa is generally referred to as Old Town.

Albuquerque was first incorporated as a town in 1863 and on March 2 citizens elected seven aldermen: Cristobal Armijo, Salvador Armijo, Manuel Garcia, Tomas Gonzales, W. H. Henrie, Morris Miller and William T. Strachan. They in turn passed a body of town ordinances, among which was one which addressed both decorum and public health: “. . . any person making water, or depositing any excrement, under any porch, or upon any sidewalk or wall in front of the plaza, or within the cemetery, or in any street, road [etc.] … shall be fined not less than five dollars.”

It is noteworthy, too, that by ordinance, it was illegal to “carry arms” in Old Albuquerque. Violations of that law carried a fine of from five to twenty-five dollars.

New Town Albuquerque was created in 1879 in anticipation of the arrival of the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad the following year. A surveyor named Walter Marmon, a native of Ohio who had lived at Laguna Pueblo for a dozen or so years, is well known as the man who did the survey and laid out the street grid for Albuquerque’s “original townsite” in 1880 as the railroad approached. The Town Company, which owned the land, stopped Marmon when he reached High Street, a scant seven blocks east of the railroad. No one believed that Albuquerque would ever stretch to the east beyond that point.

For a time, there were two towns called Albuquerque, but Old and New became one in 1882 because, for one thing, the United States Post Office was confused.

Albuquerque grew slowly from statehood in 1912, when the population was about 11,000, until 1940 when it reached a bit more than 35,000. In the decade of the 1940s, primarily because of the development of military training facilities, the population grew to nearly 97,000. Population doubled again in the 1950s to more than 200,000. Albuquerque’s population according to the 2010 census was 545,852 in the city proper; 887,077 in the metro area which includes parts of Valencia and Sandoval Counties, and the city of Rio Rancho (at nearly 90,000 according to a 2011 estimate by the U. S. Census Bureau).

Since that same 2011 population estimate shows New Mexico with just over 2,000,000 people, the Albuquerque area amounts to more than forty percent of the total. It certainly merits some consideration.

See: Howard Bryan, Albuquerque Remembered; William E. Davis, Miracle on the Mesa, Nasario Garcia & Richard McCord, Albuquerque ¡Feliz Cumpleaños! Three Centuries to Remember; Robert Julyan, The Place Names of New Mexico; Marc Simmons, Albuquerque; “Town Ordinances of Albuquerque, New Mexico 1863”, Rio Abajo Weekly Press, May 5 & 12, 1863; United States Census Bureau
(Don Bullis’ most recent book, New Mexico Historical Biographies, won the 2012 Fray Francisco Atanasio Dominguez Award from the Historical Society of New Mexico.)