LAS CRUCES, N.M. (KTSM) – In recent years there has been a concerted effort across the country to remove or rename objects and places that were meant to honor Confederate leaders.
In fact, the Borderland has seen places named for General Robert E. Lee and Confederate President Jefferson Davis renamed in just the past couple of years.
However, there is one former Confederate leader whose name can still be found across Las Cruces.
His name is John Robert Baylor, and he served as a lieutenant colonel. His exploits early in the Civil War in Southern New Mexico are memorialized in a small marker located in the plaza of Old Mesilla. But he also has a canyon road, hiking trail, and an Organ Mountain peak named after him in the Las Cruces area.
Baylor led the Confederacy to an early Civil War victory in 1861 when his troops managed to surround and capture Union soldiers who were attempting to flee the area. The Union troops made multiple mistakes, according to Dr. Jamie Bronstein, a U.S. history professor at New Mexico State University. That included getting too far ahead of their water wagon, which resulted in troops becoming dehydrated and weary.
“Between that and the poor planning, Baylor’s troops really didn’t even have to do anything,” said Dr. Bronstein. “They just had to, you know, get up in front of the Union troops and allow them to surrender.”
According to the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), which tracks Confederate monuments, that small sign in Mesilla was donated by a group called the Sons of Confederate Veterans in 1964 – a pivotal year for civil rights in the United States.
That group still exists today, although their website makes it clear that the organization “neither embraces, nor espouses acts or ideologies of racial and religious bigotry, and further, condemns the misuse of its sacred symbols and flags in the conduct of same.”
But their website also indicates that since their founding in 1896, they have had a vested interest in preserving history to inform future generations. (Note: We reached out to the Sons of Confederate Veterans national organization for comment on this story but did not receive a response).
But Bronstein disagrees with the notion that preserving history is a good enough argument for retaining these reminders of a dark chapter in our past.
“And there does seem to be this sort of intolerance among some segment of the population for renaming anything,” she said. “You know, somehow this destroys history or whatever.”
Baylor’s efforts on behalf of the Confederacy during the Civil War in New Mexico are just one thing about the man that many others find objectionable.
Baylor was noted for his anti-Native American views, which he held throughout his life. In fact, he served as an editor on a paper called The White Man, notorious for its disparaging remarks regarding Native Americans. In addition, historians note that he once told another commander to stage a fake peace rally with the Apache for the sole purpose of rounding them up so they could “Kill all the grown Indians.”
His history of hatred toward Native Americans is why Diego Medina, a tribal preservation officer for the Piro-Manso-Tiwa Tribe, wants to see Baylor’s name removed from the Organ Mountains.
“He was a bad person, and he’ll be recorded in history as such,” said Medina. “But our landscape doesn’t have to. And our landscape was not born to be named after him and will not continue to be named after him in the future.”
When asked why he believes Baylor’s name remains in the Borderland while the names of Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis have been removed, he said he believes it comes down to a possible lack of historical understanding.
“I think a lot of people don’t know his history, which is maybe a good thing,” he said. “But I think just overall in Las Cruces, there’s a real lack of historical awareness. And we’re seeing a shift in that. We’re at a real pivot point in the history of Las Cruces.”
But Medina is not alone in that fight. Patrick Nolan, executive director of an advocacy group knowns as the Friends of the Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks, is on the same page. He says he was stunned to learn about Baylor’s history and thinks it’s time for a name change.
“I think it’s a no-brainer,” said Nolan. “I think we’ll take care of it. These things take time though, right? And it’s gonna be a lot of community conversations that need to happen before then. “
Nolan says there is reason for optimism. That lies partially in the fact that the U.S. Secretary of the Interior, Deb Haaland, is from New Mexico and is the first Native American to ever hold that position. She issued a secretarial order in November of 2021 to form an advisory committee to review geographical land units that may have an offensive name.
However, the issue is there are at least several hundred places that must be reviewed across the country. So, Nolan says this fight could take another two or three years.
In the meantime, Medina says he has a few alternative names in mind for Baylor Peak, although he hasn’t settled on exactly what he’d like it to be called, if it is ever renamed in the future.
He says he’s hoping, in some way, to honor the rising sun, while also seeing the sun set on a dark chapter in the history of New Mexico.
“This entire mountain range is obviously on the Eastern side of the valley, and it’s the place where the sun greets us every morning,” said Medina.