ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (KRQE) – It is a detailed peak behind the curtain of one of New Mexico’s most consequential decades. Newly released data shows who helped fuel New Mexico’s growth from a sparsely populated, dusty, rural outpost to a growing urban center in the southwestern United States.
More than seven decades later, for the first time ever, the U.S. Census Bureau has released the names recorded on the 1950 census. In honor of the event, KRQE News 13 takes a look back at New Mexico’s history through population numbers.
Just how fast was New Mexico growing? What are some of the cities and towns that were starting to fade away? And who resided in these unique spots? Some of these questions can be answered by already-released census data. But now that the full details are available, it’s a chance to revisit this unique moment in the state’s history.
While the Census count happens every 10 years, the full details aren’t released until 72 years later. That’s to ensure the privacy of people counted. So, this is the public’s first opportunity to search for details of the 1950 count.
The data provides a snapshot of the United States as it existed on April 1, 1950. Using an online database, you can search the 1950 census data by name and location. If you know where to look, you might be able to discover details about relatives!
“It provides you an incredibly valuable piece of information that you’re not going to get from anywhere else. Because, at the same moment of time, on April 1, 1950, approximately, you will have where people resided and a series of characteristics about their families and people that they were around in the same community,” explains LM Garcia y Griego, a professor in the Department of History at the University of New Mexico (UNM). “That’s extremely valuable, and useful, and interesting information.”
New Mexico in 1950
The 1950 census provides a big-picture look at New Mexico. When combined with data from other census years, it reveals just how much New Mexico has changed over time.
Counts from the 1950 census show that Albuquerque was the fastest-growing “standard metropolitan area” at the time. From 1940 to 1950, Albuquerque more than doubled in population, growing faster than other areas, such as Lubbock, San Diego, Miami, and Phoenix.
On the whole, the state had been growing for more than two decades by the time Census enumerators came knocking on doors in 1950. New Mexico’s population grew just over 25% from 1930 to 1940, historical census data shows. Sometime in the 1930s, the state’s population hit half a million people. From 1940 to 1950, the state’s population grew by another 28%, rising from the 45th most populated state in 1930 to the 40th most populated state in 1950.
Albuquerque, of course, was a key center of growth. In 1940, the census counted about 35,500 people in Albuquerque. By 1950, it had more than doubled in population, to 96,815 residents.
Albuquerque’s growth around 1950 is likely due, at least in part, to the expansion of military jobs. Kirtland Air Force Base (called the Army Air Base until 1941) received its first base commander in 1941, according to Department of Defense records. That summer, a train brought 500 support staff for the base. Shortly after, new B-17 trainees showed up. By 1947, the base had a population of nearly 1,000 military and civilian personnel.
“A major segment of the national nuclear weapons industry, in the 1950s, is in the Albuquerque area,” says LM Garcia y Griego “The growth of the Northeast Heights, between 1940 and 1960, was essentially the product — not just not just the Air Force Base, per se, — but more the Sandia National Laboratories. A lot of people came in as engineers, technicians, and various types of support staff for the weapons industry in the late 40s and 1950s.”
In addition to military workers coming to Albuquerque from out of state, some of the growth of Albuquerque was also due to people moving in from rural areas, LM Garcia y Griego says. And the census numbers back this up.
Quitting the farm and heading to the city
The 1930 census tallies 316,501 rural residents across the entire state. Only 106,816 of those were urban residents. By 1940, the statewide urban population increased by more than 65% — the 1940 urban population totaled 176,401.
Census records show that while the total amount of farmland in the state stayed relatively constant from the mid-1930s to 1950, the number of people farming that land shrank through the years. Some left the state for better opportunities in places like California, LM Garcia y Griego says. Others packed up and headed to urban centers like Albuquerque.
The 1930 census shows more than 31,000 farm operators in New Mexico. By 1950, that number was down to 23,599 operators. Many would-be farming communities simply couldn’t sustain themselves, LM Garcia y Griego explains.
“In terms of area, [New Mexico is] much more suited for ranching than it is for farming,” he says. “And that doesn’t sustain a lot of people.” The arid climate and frequent water shortages in many parts of the state were a particular challenge. And the natural drought cycles of the 40s and 50s may have played a role, he says.
“There have been significant changes in the last 100 years, in terms of the New Mexico climate,” LM Garcia y Griego says. “And those kinds of long term cycles are part of New Mexico’s history.”
In the early 1940s, for example, New Mexico was in a period of particularly wet conditions across the state. At one point, more than 90% of the state was “exceptionally wet,” according to historical data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. But throughout most of the 1950s, the majority of the state was in drought conditions.
So for a variety of reasons, New Mexico’s rural population shrank around the time of the 1950 census. Some communities essentially vanished.
Communities lost to time
Historical Census numbers reveal communities that have more or less vanished from the map. For example, the 1940 census counted 119 residents in Centerville, New Mexico. By 1950, there were 73 residents. Now, you’d be hard-pressed to find Centerville on the map.
The community was located about 30 miles east of Mosquero, in far northeast New Mexico. A post office originally marked the central location of Centerville. Postal services operated from about 1907 to 1944, according to data compiled by Jerry L. Williams in the book New Mexico in Maps. Now, a Google Map search reveals just a few homes and a fair bit of irrigated land.
Progresso, New Mexico is another one of the now-disappeared communities. In 1940, Census enumerators counted 158 residents in this Torrance County spot. By 1950, it had shrunk to 83 people. Now, very little remains — but the residents are remembered among the thousands of names collected in 1950.
Exploring history on your own
The 1950 Census records are intended for public use. This link will take you to the Census site, where you can search for free. More help can be found here.
You can search by name, but note that the records aren’t perfect. To make the census computer-accessible, the U.S. Census Bureau used artificial intelligence to digitize the records. They warn that some names might not be perfect. LM Garcia y Griego adds that not everyone was accurately counted back in 1950.
“Keep in mind that the quality of the data is a little uneven, that names don’t always get spelled correctly, and that you’ll want to corroborate it with other information [sources],” he says.
Names with unique spelling, in particular, might not be accurate. And some people weren’t counted at all. The census counted people where they resided, not where they happened to be when the Census officials arrived. So, people without long-term, stable housing were likely undercounted, LM Garcia y Griego says.
Migrant workers were likely to be traveling and might have gotten missed. Native Americans who did not live on reservations were also not included in all of the Census records.