Date of this Version
Great Plains Quarterly Volume 28, Number 3, Summer 2008, pp. 209-29.
The Pecos River of the nineteenth century, unlike its faint twenty-first century shadow, was a formidable watercourse. The river stretches some 755 miles, from the Sangre de Cristo Mountains northeast of Santa Fe to its eventual merger with the Rio Grande. Control over the public domain of southeastern New Mexico came from controlling access to the Pecos, its tributaries and springs. In the arid environment of New Mexico's Pecos Valley, corporate accumulation of land through manipulation of federal land laws followed the removal of Native Americans, the displacement of Mexican American communities, and the departure of major players in the cattle industry of the American West. One of the most ambitious engineering and irrigation ventures in nineteenth-century North America developed here from a simple idea in the mind of lawman Pat Garrett, better known for slaying William Bonney, a.k.a. Billy the Kid. Eventually, irrigation investment schemes attracted well-known capitalists from Europe, the East Coast, and Colorado Springs. Beginning in the late 1870s, through 1925, a succession of people tried to transform the river -and the desert embracing it.
The purpose of this article is to reveal some of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century speculative impulses for harnessing water. As a case study, the Pecos River of New Mexico goes a long ways towards an understanding of the conflicts arising between those bent on following Jeffersonian notions of yeoman democracy in settling the American West, and those whose speculative interests lingered into the twentieth century alongside the advent of the Reclamation Service.