Part 1: Making History Together

Article published April 28, 2021

One hundred and fifty years ago this week, Santa Fe was already deeply embedded in the landscape of Northern New Mexico. The town of fewer than 5,000 people was a seat of influence throughout the region for its cultural and economic strengths when a new institution — the First National Bank of Santa Fe — was established and set forth a legacy that would help reshape the future of the city and its people.

While we are now known as First National 1870 in honor of the year of our founding, the bank’s roots are deeply set in Santa Fe’s history, its business community and families. From the days of telegraphs and handwritten bank statements to today’s encrypted ATM cards and mobile banking apps that can send or receive funds around the world in seconds, First National 1870 has stood the test of time. Relationships are at the center of what we do.

First National 1870 believes we should be more than walls and ledgers. Our name may have changed; what hasn’t changed is our commitment to creating relationships throughout the community and our dedication to moving our customers’ hopes from dreams to reality.

Evidence of our community relationships can be found throughout Santa Fe, from homes purchased and retirement dreams realized, to businesses that know us as a trustworthy partner. First National 1870 empowers both businesses and families to accomplish more than they may have imagined possible.

As we look toward the future, we invite you to rediscover First National 1870. From December 2020 to April 2021, we are celebrating both our past and future in Santa Fe with occasional special features about the people, land and times that shaped us. The dates celebrate the timeline of the bank’s founding, with its charter dating to Dec. 13, 1870, and the doors of its first location opening in April 1871.

We thank the people of Santa Fe and Northern New Mexico for our first 150 years and look forward to our next century of service.

A History of First National 1870 in Santa Fe

In 1870 — more than 40 years before New Mexico would be admitted to the Union as the 47th U.S. state in 1912 — it was still a far-flung territory in the eyes of easterners and the national government. What would become the Land of Enchantment had come under the American flag a mere 24 years earlier and was still finding its place as a North American holding.

Even then, it was a well-storied region with distinctive cultural and historical traditions that continue to resonate. For businesses, however, the financial system was vastly different from what we know now. Banking services were provided by merchants; barter was prevalent; and, according to documents from the period, there was not a bank within 400 miles of Santa Fe.

It was out of this backdrop that the First National Bank of Santa Fe emerged, as the first bank in the Southwest, establishing its charter on Dec. 13, 1870, before opening its doors on April 15, 1871, in the first of several locations that it would inhabit in present-day Santa Fe.

Legacy of the Maxwell Land Grant

In his 1970 history marking the centennial of the First National Bank of Santa Fe, historian, author and former Museum of New Mexico director Wayne L. Mauzy described the events that led to the bank’s charter as coming out of a contentious era of land speculation and the Maxwell Land Grant.

Lucien B. Maxwell, originally from Illinois, had come to New Mexico and over time became a powerful figure in the territory, establishing a trading post that would eventually become the nucleus of the town of Cimarron. When gold was found on Maxwell’s land in 1866, Mauzy writes, a gold rush ensued and investors acquired more than 2 million acres of land.

While the company and investors would have their own history of losses for many and gains for others, Maxwell used $150,000 of the reported $1.35 million he’d been paid for the land to organize the First National Bank of Santa Fe under 1863 National Bank Act. It was not the first attempt to organize a bank in Santa Fe, Mauzy writes, but it was the first successful attempt to create a national bank in the Southwest.

The Start of a New Era

Although the doors to the new bank wouldn’t open for several months, the charter granted in December 1870 marked a new chapter in Santa Fe history. There were still more than a few details to be worked out, not the least of which was the acquisition of actual money for an area whose economy had been operating substantively on trade.

“Three ambulances with an escort of 25 soldiers came in this afternoon bringing a large sum of money for the US Depository in this place,” The New Mexican reported in February 1871 in a story reprinted in 1954 It was further noted by The New Mexican that “The party was 10 days on the road between Fort Lyons and Union and experienced disagreeable weather throughout the entire trip.”

A rival bank also began to organize in this time period, but the backers of that second bank led by Thomas Catron and his law partner Stephen Elkins were brought into the First National Bank of Santa Fe fold. Elkins would in short order replace Maxwell as the bank’s president, a position that Catron, too, would hold. Both Elkins and Catron went on to serve as U.S. senators, with Elkins representing West Virginia and Catron representing New Mexico following the state’s admission to the Union.

The First National Bank of Santa Fe was originally located at the Don Fernando Delgado building which shares the footprint of the location on the Santa Fe Plaza. Lit with kerosene lamps and candles, the building was rented for $30 a month and employed a second-hand vault acquired for $400.

Engaging a Century of Growth and Change

As the region’s economy grew, so did the bank’s outlook. Loans were made for mining development, merchant use and to the territorial government. Many more loans were given to the sheep and cattle operations that resided at the heart of the local economies. By the turn of the 20th century, Mauzy writes, people whose names we might find familiar today — including H.S. Kaune & Company, U.S. Senator H.O. Bursum and Gross, Kelly & Co. — sought funding from the bank for different enterprises. Along with statehood, the bank acquired a new home, moving to the east end of the Plaza in 1912, where it would stay for more than four decades.

The move also marked a move toward the mechanization of its services. The First National Bank of Santa Fe would see substantial competition from The Santa Fe Bank and Capital City Bank, but both would move into receivership when the drought of 1923 devastated much the region’s agricultural and livestock industry. At that time, the number of banks operating in New Mexico fell from 124 to 41. Strong management preserved the First National Bank of Santa Fe through The Great Depression, Mauzy writes. Among other moves, the bank lowered outstanding loans and halted dividend payments for several years. By the time World War II came around, the bank was positioned to play an important, albeit secretive, role in ending the war.

“Santa Fe and your bank, by a quirk of fortune, were an essential cog in the manufacture of the atomic bomb which brought a sudden end to the war,” the bank president’s report said that year. “Your bank not only made up the payrolls for Los Alamos, but also provided banking facilities to a large portion of Los Alamos personnel …”

Establishing a Landmark

The bank’s prosperity following the war provided the funds for a new downtown building where the main branch remains today. Famed architect John Gaw Meem was commissioned to plan the new building, going through as many as seven versions before settling on a design.

“The group of buildings at the north and western sides of the Plaza consisting of the new bank building, the art museum and the Palace of the Governors have a unity of design and feeling that is distinctly Santa Fean,” The New Mexican would write in its April 3, 1954 issue, one day ahead of the bank’s opening in its new location.

The new building featured then-modern marvels still familiar in the Internet age. Ads boasted the convenience of banking from your car. “You can drive right in, transact your business and drive out without opening your car door.” A new “fish proof and trap proof ” design for the night-deposit drop heralded newfound convenience for after-hours transactions.

Home to annual model train exhibitions in the lobby during the holidays and a tourism information booth in the summer, the downtown office remains a Santa Fe landmark. The bank has expanded through the region and kept up with the times, offering mobile and online banking along with a full spectrum of services. In 2013, First National Bank of Santa Fe was acquired by Strategic Growth Bancorp and later merged with Sunflower Bank. As a nod to the unique identity of the bank and its history in the region, the bank was not rebranded as Sunflower Bank instead it continues to operate as First National 1870, a name invoking its long history since its founding 150 years ago.