New Mexico

Original inhabitants

Evidence of a Paleo-Indian culture in present-day New Mexico dates to least 10,000 years ago. The discovery of fluted projectile points near the towns of Clovis and Folsom indicates that these early occupants were hunters, but little else is known about them. Around the beginning of the modern era, a group known as the Anasazi flourished in the San Juan River valley in the Four Corners area. Their highly developed civilization included the cultivation of corn and cotton, but declined somewhat mysteriously after 1000 A.D.

The Pueblo, descendants of the Anasazi, were prominent by 1300 and lived along the Rio Grande River in central New Mexico. They are noted for weaving and pottery skills, extensive agriculture, and multi-story adobe homes.

The Mogollón also had ties to the Anasazi and peaked as a culture after 1280. They inhabited the area now occupied by the Gila National Forest near the Arizona border and constructed intricate cliff dwellings.

Around the time of European arrival, other native peoples entered New Mexico. The Apache and Navajo migrated into the area in the 1400s and began protracted warfare against the Pueblo. Later the Comanche and Ute also competed for the region’s scarce resources.

European arrival

Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca, a Spanish nobleman and adventurer, may have been the first European to visit what is now New Mexico. He was shipwrecked in the Gulf of Mexico in 1528 and came ashore in what became Texas. He spent eight years wandering through the Southwest with a few companions before arriving at Mexico City. During his travels, Cabeza de Vaca heard stories of the riches of the Seven Cities of Cibola and reported them to intrigued Spanish authorities. Subsequent efforts to find vast wealth were not successful, but added much to Spanish knowledge of the area’s geography.

One of Cabeza de Vaca’s companions, Estevanico, had been a Moroccan slave. In 1539, he guided a party organized by the Franciscan priest Marcos de Niza in search of the fabled wealth. Estevanico was killed on the expedition and no wealth was found, but Niza did claim the area for Spain.

In 1540, Spanish explorer Francisco Vázquez de Coronado continued the search for the cities and visited Hopi and Zuni villages in the future states of Arizona and New Mexico.

In 1581, a Spanish force of missionaries and soldiers journeyed into New Mexico from their post on the Pacific. The priests remained in the area and lived among the Pueblo. The following year, a relief column was dispatched and discovered that the natives had snuffed out the missionaries’ evangelistic message by killing them.

Spanish efforts to establish a grip on New Mexico were advanced by the efforts of Juan de Oñate. Under a grant received from the Crown, Oñate’s party surveyed the country bordering the Rio Grande and in 1598 established a capital at San Gabriel on the Rio Chama near present-day Española. Failure to discover mineral wealth and the apparent abuse of neighboring Indians led to Oñate’s removal as governor in 1607. His successor, Pedro Peralta, constructed a new fortified capital at Santa Fe in 1609 or 1610.

Development of Spanish society

Failure to discover mineral wealth in Mexico del Norte freed the Spanish to concentrate on a single objective: to spread the faith to the native inhabitants of the area. Tensions resulted. The Pueblo in particular resented heavy-handed efforts to terminate their spiritual practices. Further discontent arose from a tax imposed on Indians under Spanish control, that required payments in corn and woven goods. As time passed, an increasing number of natives were virtually enslaved. Further chaos was visited on the area by ongoing quarrels between the missionaries and civil authorities.

By 1640, outbreaks of native violence had become commonplace. A major uprising began in 1680 when a Pueblo leader, Popé, allied with sympathetic Apache. More than 400 Spanish lives were taken, missions burned, and the capital of Santa Fe fell. Spanish authority was not restored until 1696. The end of hostilities with the Pueblo ushered in a period of relative peace that lasted for the following century and a quarter until the overthrow of Spanish control by Mexican nationalists. During that time, intermarriage between Spaniard and Pueblo became common, occasioned sometimes by the need to strengthen commercial alliances and other times by uniting families to ward off threats from marauding Apache.

Mexican territory

The Mexican drive for independence from Spain was successful in 1821 and ushered in a change that exerted an important impact on New Mexico. The new government rejected the old Spanish policy of actively excluding foreigners from the northern province. As a result of this new openness, an active trade developed with merchants in the United States. William Becknell was one of the first to develop the new market by transporting goods from Missouri to Santa Fe over a route that would become known as the Santa Fe Trail.

A truly multicultural society developed in New Mexico during the 1830s and 1840s. The indigenous tribes were joined by increasing numbers of New Mexicans, meaning those of mixed native and Spanish blood, and Anglos migrating from the United States. Harmony was not always a keynote of the relationship with tensions stemming from differences over religion, language, political allegiance and a myriad of economic issues. In 1837, resident New Mexicans joined with disaffected Indians in overthrowing the local Mexican government; the Palace of the Governors was seized by the rebels and the governor was executed. This uprising, however, was quickly and brutally suppressed.

Four years later, another threat to Mexican control was mounted, this time from independent Texans who made an abortive attempt to claim New Mexico. They were arrested and sent to prison in Mexico City, but were eventually released.

The voice of expansionist Texans was heard again in 1846 at the outbreak of the Mexican War, when they pressured the U.S. government to seek control of all of the Southwest. General Stephen W. Kearny led an expedition to Santa Fe, where little resistance was met and the U.S. flag was raised in August. This land grab was formalized in the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo (1848), which added the area that included New Mexico to the United States.

Territory of the United States

Under the provisions of the Compromise of 1850 the New Mexico Territory was organized, comprising present-day New Mexico and Arizona. This area and the new Utah Territory were to be open to both pro-slavery and free-soil advocates in what was regarded as middle ground on the nation’s most hotly contested issue. In 1853, the southern boundary of New Mexico was fixed at its present location through the purchase of additional territory from Mexico for the purpose of gaining more-favorable terrain for railroad construction.

During the Civil War, there was a significant Confederate presence in New Mexico. Pro-slavery Texans seized portions of New Mexico, calling the area the Territory of Arizona. Union forces prevailed in 1862 in the Battle of Glorieta Pass, sometimes dubbed the “Gettysburg of the West.” Civil war did not interrupt the continuing conflict between white settlers and Indians. Beginning in 1862, Kit Carson led an effort to force the Navajo and Mescalero Apache onto reservations.

In 1863, the United States created the new Arizona Territory from the western portion of New Mexico and in the process, established the present-day boundaries of both states.

Economic development

Mining became briefly important in the 1820s when a minor gold strike was made in north-central New Mexico. Later and more substantial strikes occurred in the 1860s, but gold never figured as prominently in the economy as in some other western states.

A coal mine was operated by the U.S. Army near present-day Socorro in west-central New Mexico in the early 1860s. This small industry was given a boost in the 1880s with the arrival of the railroads, which needed coal to fire their boilers and also offered a cheap means to get the product to faraway markets. Coal production reached a peak during World War I, then went into steep decline.

Livestock provided the primary economic base during the territorial years. Both cattle- and sheep-raising interests grew, but often clashed violently. The tendency for sheep to chew grasses off at ground level made it impossible for cattle to use the same lands. Competition among the ranchers also was heightened by the scarcity of water.

Economic development was slowed by continuing Indian warfare and general lawlessness. The Mimbres Apache under Victorio resisted incursions onto their homelands in 1879 and 1880, and Geronimo continued his warfare until 1886. In the years from 1878 to 1881, chaos prevailed in Lincoln County in south-central New Mexico. A business rivalry there resulted in murder, then in a string of reprisals. Some of the old Southwest’s most colorful characters played a role in the so-called Lincoln County War, including Sheriff Pat Garrett and General Lew Wallace, a Civil War veteran, governor of the New Mexico Territory and author of Ben Hur. Billy the Kid led a cattle rustling gang in Lincoln County at this time, but was killed by Garrett in 1881.

The arrival of the first railroad in 1879 brought a small wave of settlers in the following years. The new arrivals demanded an end to lawlessness and helped to establish a more-stable society. Change also occurred among the ranchers who began to enclose their operations, marking the decline of the open-range era. Farming was introduced in many areas, but was risky because of limited water supplies. The first important irrigation project was started in the 1890s in the Pecos River Valley of eastern New Mexico. “Dry farming” efforts also were undertaken — a process that concentrated on crops that could be harvested in the spring or fall and left the fields fallow during the scorching summers. During the growing seasons, the crops were often given a mulch cover to retain moisture.

New Mexico statehood

Statehood for New Mexico was not a high priority in Washington, D.C., where political leaders often viewed the territory as one inhabited only by Roman Catholics, Indians and Spanish speakers. Support eventually materialized in the person of William Howard Taft, which enabled New Mexico to enter the Union on January 6, 1912 as the 47th state. William C. McDonald became the first governor.

The state’s economy in the early 20th century was led by mining, oil and an emerging tourism industry that took advantage of the area’s scenic beauty, a warm and dry climate, and growing interest in Indian crafts and ceremonies.

Lawlessness made a brief return to the state in 1916, when Francisco “Pancho” Villa staged a raid on Columbus in southwestern New Mexico, killed 17 residents and burned the town. A punitive expedition was sent under the command of Black Jack Pershing, who pursued Villa into Mexican territory. The incursion severely strained relations with the Venustiano Carranza government, to which United States had extended recognition. Carranza was Villa`s rival for power in Mexico. President Wilson summoned home the unsuccessful and frustrated Pershing in 1917 when the U.S. was preparing to enter World War I.

New Mexico struggled in the 1920s and 1930s — a time of drought, widespread unemployment, bankruptcies and foreclosures. Small measures of relief were brought by oil discoveries and the development of the Carlsbad Caverns as a tourist destination, where many of the facilities were constructed by young workers in the Civilian Conservation Corps.

During World War II, the town and research facility of Los Alamos were built by the federal government as a center for the development of the atomic bomb. In July 1945, the new weapon was tested at the White Sands Proving Grounds outside of Alamogordo.

An extremely valuable contribution was made to U.S. Marine operations in the Pacific by the Navajo “code talkers,” who transmitted vital battlefield information by radio in their native language. Japanese cryptologists were able to break the codes of the American army and navy, but not the marines.

A number of locations in New Mexico were used as internment camps for Japanese Americans, including Lordsburg, where two male internees were shot and killed under questionable circumstances in 1942.

Postwar development

A number of events occurred in the postwar years that were aimed at increasing the rights of native peoples in New Mexico. A federal court order forced a change in the state’s constitution, and in 1948, Indians gained the right to vote. During the 1960s, the Federal Land Grant Alliance was led by Reies López Tijerina, a Chicano leader who sought to reclaim forest reserve lands. Violence was associated with this movement.

In March 1999, the U.S. Department of Energy’s Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, a longterm storage facility for radioactive waste, opened after nearly 20 years of controversy. The facility provides underground storage rooms in a 2,000-foot- thick salt formation located in the Chihuahuan Desert near Carlsbad.

Dam and irrigation projects have been responsible for a diversification of New Mexico agriculture, but the lack of a dependable economic base has caused the state to remain behind others in education and health services.

Bill Richardson has become one of New Mexico’s most prominent political figures in recent years. He represented the state’s Third Congressional District as a Democrat for 15 years, served as United Nations ambassador and Secretary of Energy during the Clinton administration, and in 2002 was elected governor of New Mexico.


See Indian Wars Time Table and New Mexico .

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