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New Mexico’s William C. McDonald prospered in White Oaks

William McDonald - NM
William McDonald - NM

William C. McDonald was born on July 25, 1858 in Jordanville, New York to John and Lydia McDonald. One of nine children, he completed his education at Cazenovia Seminary, then read law. He served as an apprentice in the law offices of Joseph S. Lorrence for two years and was admitted to the Kansas Bar in 1880.

After passing his bar exam, McDonald moved to New Mexico and made his home in White Oaks, then a boomtown of 2,500 individuals. Here he worked as a store clerk, miner and civil engineer. White Oaks proved to be a true melting pot of individuals, with Billy the Kid walking the streets and the miners frequenting “bawdy houses”, intermingling with educated and cultured residents.

On July 9, 1892, Charles Longuemare, publisher of the El Paso Bullion, was one of 200 guests invited to a party given by J. Y. Hewitt. Following the party, Longuemare stated in his Bullion column, “I did not see a single revolver in sight, that peace and prosperity were visible everywhere and that as usual, the editor of the Bullion found a hearty welcome and a kind greeting from all he met.”

During the golden years of White Oaks, McDonald was numbered among those who prospered. Rather than seeking his fortune in the mines, he chose to work as a clerk and in the process, found a use for his engineering skills. He also staked out mining claims while working as a mining and civil engineer.

Through his skillful efforts, in 1881, McDonald experienced his first taste of political life. He became the United States Deputy Mineral Surveyor for New Mexico, less than a year after he moved to the territory. From 1885-1887, he served Lincoln County as its assessor and was elected a member of the New Mexico Territorial House of Representatives in 1891.

McDonald became the manager of the Carrizozo Cattle Ranch Company (CCRC) in 1890, which was owned by an English syndicate. Located in Lincoln County, which is nestled in the southeastern corner of New Mexico, CCRC’s acreage provided the variety of abundant grasses needed to support cattle and sheep herds. Less than 5,000 people occupied the county in which a vast amount of livestock thrived.

McDonald also took control of the El Capitan Live Stock Company, thought to be New Mexico’s largest cattle concern in that day. This was followed by a chairmanship of the Lincoln County Board of Commissioners, from 1895 to 1897, then a member of the New Mexico Cattle Sanitary Board during the years 1905-1911. McDonald eventually purchased the Carrizozo Ranch, renaming it the “Bar W”.

The road to statehood for New Mexico was not one easily traveled. A major struggle in the process involved ridicule and prejudice, due to the fact the citizenry’s population was composed largely of Native American and Hispanic individuals. Coupled with political corruption’s reputation for violence and generously seasoned with Washington politics, few have difficulty understanding the reason a multi-generational effort was required to move New Mexico officially onto the list of states. After drafting its first constitution, New Mexico had its efforts dashed, when instead of the coveted statehood status it sought, it received territorial status instead.

During the Congressional debates of 1876 regarding civil rights for the recently freed slaves, a number of Southern congressmen witnessed a handshake between Stephen B. Elkins, congressional representative from New Mexico, and Julius Burrows from Michigan following Burrows’ speech in support of civil rights. When it came time to count the votes needed for ratification, many of those New Mexico hoped to receive support from instead voted against the territory. As if to pour salt into the wound, New Mexico was forced to watch as neighboring Colorado gained the coveted statehood status.

Following more than 60 years of territorial status, New Mexico drafted a bilingual constitution, the only state to do so. Finally, on January 6, 1912, the efforts paid off and New Mexico was welcomed into the Union as #47, with Arizona hot on her heels six weeks later.

In 1910, McDonald became chairman of the Democratic Territorial Central Committee. He secured the Democratic gubernatorial nomination in 1911, then won the election and became governor on November 7, 1911.

On January 15, 1912, Governor William C. McDonald gave his inaugural speech. Strong on his topic list was New Mexico’s victory in achieving statehood. One of his greatest concerns was for a public school system in New Mexico. In 1891, he helped to pass the “Pauline School Bill”, legislation responsible for establishing public schools throughout the territory/state. “My interest in the schools of New Mexico is so great that I shall always willingly and gladly sacrifice, if necessary, my personal inclination and convenience and endeavor to advance what I believe to be of the greatest importance of all things to our new state.” As governor, he championed education for all children between the ages of 7-14, with each school year seven months in length. Incorporated into the curriculum was the impact of narcotics and alcohol, along with the study of civics and New Mexico history. Each year, Arbor Day was celebrated with the planting of trees. Schools were funded with a permanent school fund created by McDonald. This fund received 5% of all the proceeds from US land sales, plus the sale of school lands.

Though the governor was a Democrat and the legislative branch was composed of Republicans, the two branches tended to work rather well together. Unfortunately, McDonald vetoed a number of items on an appropriation bill, which created animosities between them. There were also clashes between the two branches on such issues as the salaries paid to county officials.

Serving as governor, McDonald helped to implement New Mexico’s governmental system. While doing this, he was also forced to deal with raids by Mexican bandits. He also had the power to proclaim November’s third Thursday to be a day of Thanksgiving. Proclaiming November 27, 1913 as Thanksgiving Day, Governor McDonald stated, “I urge upon all that this day be observed as one of prayer and promise to God for the many blessings enjoyed by our people. At the same time may we not forget the poor and needy, making the day what its name implies for all.” He also requested for all businesses close for the day.

After leaving office, McDonald secured an appointment as the state’s fuel administrator from President Woodrow Wilson during World War I. He retained this post until 1918.

William C. McDonald died in El Paso on April 11, 1918 from Brights disease. He was laid to rest in White Oaks, New Mexico in the Cedarville Cemetery. Following the governor’s death, Lincoln County Historian, Glen Ellison, stated, “He watched a town be born, watched it crawl, stand and run. Then he graced his country with his grave.” As Ellison closed out his booklet by stating, “We set out to give you a glimpse of the William C. McDonald country, a world he knew. He came here when it was a wide, empty basin. He watched the railroad come, watched the town start, helped bring the courthouse here, and then went on to lead the new State of New Mexico through the first five years of its childhood.

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Now, we, the free, independent citizens of New Mexico, have at last come victorious from the battle, waged for full citizenship in a sovereign state, in that union established by their wisdom. As we look into the future, bright hopes of promise appear to some, and dark forebodings may dim the horizon of others. The past is history; the present is the dawn of the future. It is to the future we look and that future will be what we make it.

New Mexico Governor William C. McDonald

January 14, 1912 – Inaugural Address

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