Part II: The Doors to New Opportunity Open With The First Bank Branch in Santa Fe

Article published April 28, 2021

An item appearing on page 2 of the April 20, 1871 edition of The Daily New Mexican begins with a small graphic of a hand with a protruding finger pointing toward an eighteen-word report.

“The First National Bank of this city is now open for business as per card in another column.”

That other card, what today would be recognized as an advertisement, had been running already several days stating a few choice statistics about the First National Bank of Santa Fe, announcing its hours of 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. at its office on the Santa Fe Plaza’s west side. The ad made the following appeal to readers:

Business respectfully solicited.

So, it began 150 years ago this month that the doors of the First National Bank of Santa Fe opened a few months after the bank was chartered and became the first and only national bank for hundreds of miles in any direction. The establishment of the bank would bring a new level of sophistication to the financial dealings of the territory and provide a nucleus for the growth of New Mexico’s economy for the next century and a half.

Now in 2021, we memorialize that opening of Santa Fe’s bank and reflect on those words “Business respectfully solicited.” If perhaps seemingly an understated sentiment from a bygone era, what’s intrinsic in those words is the idea that relationships matter, people matter and there’s something special and important in dealing with people from your own community.

First National 1870, the current name of the First National Bank of Santa Fe, carries on the tradition of local people serving the community in which they live. The teams of professionals at each of our branches in and around Santa Fe are dedicated to providing the personal touch one finds in a hometown institution while offering the sophisticated products and services of a larger national bank. Building relationships with our clients and understanding the dreams and needs of families and businesses are critical to what we do.

A History of Service

Like much of the history of the United States, the story of First National Bank of Santa Fe can be bisected by World War II. During those first 75 years, the bank was both witness and participant in the coming of the railroad, New Mexico’s statehood and Santa Fe’s evolution into a hub for business, scientific and cultural endeavors.

Fresh from the glow of victory in the second world war, the Santa Fe New Mexican, as it had come to be known, editorialized in its Sept. 11, 1945 edition on what the bank had come to mean to the community. The newspaper noted how the bank’s first organizational meetings took place the same week that Napoleon III had surrendered to the king of Prussia.

Since then, the First National Bank of Santa Fe has functioned through three foreign wars, has weathered successfully one financial crisis after another and has always met the legitimate demands of its depositors with cash on the barrel-head even when most other banks paid in script or had to close their doors.

Bank assets had grown from $150,000 at the end of 1870 when the bank was chartered to more than $21 million in 1945, the bank had announced in September of that year.

The bank’s service to the country, and specifically the Manhattan Project, would emerge after the end of the war as Northern New Mexico’s role in the development of the atomic bomb became clearer. The bank was the repository of federal funds directed to the top-secret project.

“The year 1945 was the most momentous in modern history …” a report to bank shareholders read. “Your bank not only made up the payrolls for Los Alamos but also provided banking facilities to a large portion of Los Alamos personnel and at times covered substantial overdrafts without knowing quite sure how, when and whence would come the payoff.”

The National Atomic Testing Museum recounted a story documented by renowned scientist Robert Brownlee who arrived in Los Alamos with his family in the 1950s.

“We had the south end of a duplex on Villa Street,” he wrote. “It was a fine place, but there was no furniture there, nor did we arrive with any. It was floor time. I borrowed money from the First National Bank of Santa Fe to buy a table and chairs, a refrigerator and some blankets. The bank deducted the interest on the loan before giving me money.”

Supporting the Cultural Economy

Santa Fe and Northern New Mexico already had a long history as a home for the arts when the bank was founded. The interactions of its Native, European and American populations had created a unique artistic tradition that continues to draw practitioners and patrons of the arts to the region today.

The First National Bank of Santa Fe was a key backer of the building now known as La Fonda on the Plaza. The spot where the hotel resides today had its own long history as an inn prior to its current incarnation but was redeveloped in the 1920s. It would become part of the Harvey House chain of hotels established by Fred Harvey whose legacy would include the establishment of the Harvey Girls, a corps of well-trained waitstaff of young women who still have a following of their own.

Later on, the bank would help finance the development of the College of Santa Fe, Santa Fe Opera and St. John’s College. Today, myriad businesses in the cultural and tourist economies turn to the bank for important projects and everyday banking needs. With its personal, wealth management/private banking and mortgage services, First National 1870 continues meeting the ongoing needs of Northern New Mexicans, as well as the businesses and institutions they run.

Making the Dream Work

In addition to its work with institutions and businesses, the First National Bank of Santa Fe was an instrumental force in the lives of people in Northern New Mexico looking to own their own homes and cars. Starting in the late 1940s, the bank’s approach to the community has made it a partner to families and businesses alike.

“Plan for the Future,” the bank’s advertising read in the 1940s.

Whether it is to build or buy a home, or to replenish your stock of merchandise, or for the education of son or daughter, or to safeguard or make investments, your bank connections and consequent credit standing are of the first importance.

In many families, banking with First National Bank of Santa Fe — and now First National 1870 — became a kind of tradition that passed between generations with longtime employees witnessing children growing up to become business owners, homeowners and clients who then pass on the tradition of local banking.

Meeting New Challenges

By the time the bank reached its centennial birthday in 1970, its role in Santa Fe had been cemented into the local culture. Many banks had come and gone in the previous hundred years. Across the country, the vast majority of national banks chartered in the same era as the First National Bank of Santa Fe had folded over the years.

A centennial medallion featuring a team of horses in front of an embossed replica of the bank’s current home on the Plaza was offered for sale. A commemorative book documenting the bank’s history was commissioned and written by Wayne Mauzy who had been director of the Museum of New Mexico and whose work on the bank’s history is still cited. In honor of the anniversary, a conference of bankers drew more than 1,000 visitors to Santa Fe that year and a special exhibition of old bank notes were among the observances held for the milestone event.

Truly, it was a time of change as the bank continued its transition to the present. Only in the past few years had the bank begun to adopt computer technology to track accounts and calculate interest. Large scale renovations of the bank’s properties were undertaken to accommodate the bulky machinery.

“The first phase involves equipment to prepare and deposit checks for processing by computer, the first machines of this model installed in the United States,” read a report in the Aug. 15, 1966 issue of the Santa Fe New Mexican.

Future upgrades and automation would take place in the coming years including the revolution of the now ubiquitous Automatic Teller Machine, followed by more automation and eventually online banking services facilitated by the Internet revolution of the 1990s.

A New Future Found in the Past

While today we are proud to deliver the latest in technology and interconnectivity, First National 1870 continues to be committed to its community and the legacy of our history in Santa Fe. Together with Sunflower Bank and Guardian Mortgage, we look forward to serving you today and tomorrow. We invite you to celebrate our 150th year of creating possibility in Santa Fe by visiting for video interviews with our team members and special interactive features.

To all our customers, thank you.

To those who are not yet our customers, we hope you will consider us for all your financial needs.

And, as was said in 1871, “Business respectfully solicited.”