Facts and Tales of Our State's 33 Counties

Harding County was named for President Warren G. Harding, who was president at the time the county was formed.

There are 33 counties in New Mexico. And yes, New Mexico is big, but our counties are extreme in both directions, large and small. For instance, our largest county by area is Catron County with 6,928 square miles. That’s about the same size as New Jersey. At the other extreme, the smallest county is Los Alamos with a mere 109 square miles — a little more than half the area of Albuquerque.

Population-wise, Bernalillo County is the big kid on the block, with more than 676,000 residents. The county with the fewest people is Harding County in northeastern New Mexico. Its population is 665 — or about three square miles per person!

There were nine original counties in New Mexico. Their shapes have changed considerably since 1846 when General Stephan W. Kearny claimed New Mexico for the United States. For instance, back then Bernalillo County stretched from Texas to the San Bernardino Valley in California. New Mexico had no western border.

Bernalillo County was named after its most important settlement, Bernalillo, home of the Bernal family. Bernalillo became part of Sandoval County when that county was created in 1903. That’s how the town of Bernalillo ended up in Sandoval County.

Five of our counties were named after presidents: Lincoln, Grant, Roosevelt (Teddy), McKinley and Harding. Warren G. Harding was president at the time Harding County was formed in 1921.

One county was named after a vice president. Schuyler Colfax had just been elected vice president with Ulysses Grant in 1869 right when a new county was created. Colfax County was named after the him even though he had yet to serve a day in office.

Finally, two of our counties, Lea and Chaves, are forever linked with a salute of mutual respect and affection. When a new county was formed in 1889, Joseph Calloway Lea of Roswell insisted it be named for his friend Jose Francisco Chaves, a war hero and elected territorial delegate to the U.S. House of Representatives. Almost 30 years later, Chaves County returned the favor in 1917 when it recommended that another new county be named for Lea. Unfortunately, Jose Francisco Chaves was not able to do it himself. He had been shot in 1904 by an unknown assassin while eating dinner in the town of Pinos Wells.

Jon Knudsen is a freelance writer and retired educator. Email him at  johnny_mango@yahoo.com.

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