During our nation’s bicentennial celebration in 1976, a group I belonged to at the time decided to build a series of dioramas explaining the previous 200 years in the American Southwest. It was part of an ambitious project presented in the local library.
It turned out to be more difficult than we’d thought. We didn’t have the Internet then, and plowing through memoirs required a great deal of determination and fortitude. We did it, though.
Since the American Southwest had been populated for thousands of years by Indians, we began with that. Our hands-on display included skins, a beaver dam and a small teepee. It was a hit with children.
The Spaniards arrived in the sixteenth century, led by Francisco Coronado, searching for gold.
Don Juan de Onate was the first Spaniard who planned to actually build settlements in the Southwest. He arrived in 1598. Santa Fe was established in 1610, making it the oldest capital in the United States. However, the Pueblo Indians didn’t appreciate the Spaniards’ ways, so in 1680 they revolted and threw the Spanish out.
That lasted until 1692 when Don Diego de Vargas led a reconquest.
Our bicentennial displays included more detailed recounting of Southwest history beginning in 1776, the year of the Declaration of Independence.
Mountain men and other adventurers along with prospectors, miners and hunters were the first white immigrants. In 1821, Mexico won independence from Spain. From then until the railroads arrived, the Santa Fe Trail was used by traders, merchants and many others. The Camino Real into Mexico also was traveled extensively.
Arizona was part of New Mexico during those years, and all that time the U.S.-Mexico border did not hinder travel or trade — or immigration, legal or not.
After the Civil War, immigration to the Southwest accelerated. Defeated, financially ruined, Southerners came looking for a new beginning.
Arizona and New Mexico achieved statehood in 1912.
Many of us alive today have heard the stories of people coming to the Southwest — legally — by covered wagon, so we built one for our display.
In the late 1870s the railroads came, followed by millions of homesteaders. Even today the land bears the scars left by the disastrous Homestead Act, which encouraged attempts at dryland farming in this arid land.
One of our members showed up one day with a trailer load of dry tumbleweeds for our display. She had to take them away because no tumbleweeds existed in this country until the 1870s, when some of its seeds were accidentally mixed with flax seeds, and imported by Ukrainian farmers to South Dakota. So immigration has included plants and animals as well as people.
Tumbleweed (Russian thistle) thrives in our salty and alkaline soils. It has become so ubiquitous that many have forgotten it is actually an invader. Some even consider it an American West icon.
In a speech before the Knights of Columbus in New York in 1915, Theodore Roosevelt said, “There is no room in this country for hyphenated Americanism…” He warned against our nation becoming “a tangle of squabbling nationalities.”
After all, we don’t call tumbleweeds “Russian-American Thistles.”