A Concise History of New Mexico


Submitted by Don McAlavy, courtesy of the New Mexico Magazine staff.

It’s hard to believe today, but most of New Mexico used to be underneath a prehistoric sea and dinosaurs roamed freely across whatever existing landscape rested above water. Eventually, these giant creatures disappeared, most likely because of environmental factors, and melting glaciers from the last ice age carved out the high mountains evident today. Later, around 10,000 B.C., the Clovis-Paleo Indians discovered the eastern plains of New Mexico, the same romping grounds of the dinosaurs. These original New Mexicans later migrated to the west, established advanced societies and built impressive settlements that can still be seen today at places like Chaco, Bandelier and Puyé.

The Ancestral Pueblo people of Chaco Canyon in the northwest and the Mogollón people in the southwest established peaceful, agrarian-based societies by A.D. 1000. No one really knows what happened to the vanished Mogollón culture, but archaeologists believe the Ancestral Pueblo abandoned their towering stone settlements and later built most of the multistoried adobe pueblos found today along the Río Grande. The last Native Americans arrived in the area around the same time as the first Spanish explorers in the 1500s, and they included the Apache and Navajo tribes, also knows as the Athapascan people.

Spanish explorer Francisco Vázquez de Coronado was one of the first Europeans to comprehensively explore New Mexico in 1540 after hearing grandiose stories told by Estebanico the Moor. Estebanico, Alvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca and two other companions were the first Europeans to see New Mexico. They roamed across the Southwest looking for Mexico after being shipwrecked and lost off the coast of Florida in the 1530s.

Coronado and his expedition of conquistadores believed the wanderers’ stories of New Mexico, which were embellished upon by Franciscan missionaries eager to convert the natives. He searched in vain for the fabled Seven Cities of Cibola, a society rumored to be built of gold. Although Coronado died a broken man because of his failure to find gold, he was successful in charting much of the area for future explorers and colonizers of New Mexico, blazing much of the east-west path of modern-day Route 66 in the state.

Juan de Oñate later established the first official European colony in New Mexico in 1598 at San Gabriel, near Española. While Oñate’s expedition was a financial failure, the colonists persevered and planted deep roots still evident today. Pedro de Peralta was later authorized to establish Santa Fe as the new capital in 1607.

Roman Catholic missionaries who accompanied both explorer and colonist alike wasted no time in converting native people to Christianity. But the Pueblo people, tired of being told to relinquish their own beliefs, united under Popé and revolted against their conquerors in 1680. Many Spanish settlers were killed and the survivors fled south to what is now El Paso, Texas, along with many Christianized Indians. Led by Diego de Vargas, the Spanish returned and completely reconquered the area 12-15 years later with some help from a contingent of Native American warriors from the now-extinct Pecos Pueblo.


Throughout the next century, a Spanish/Pueblo lifestyle evolved because of the area’s isolation and neglect from both Spain and Mexico. Virtually abandoned, the Spanish colonistas persevered with limited resources and vital help from their Pueblo neighbors. The two cultures borrowed helpful characteristics from each other and the result is a distinct historical commingling that contributes tremendously to New Mexico’s charm today.  

When Mexico won her independence from Spain in 1821, the Colonial Period gave way to the Mexican Period. The newly established Mexican government ended the centuries-old Spanish policy of closed borders and immediately opened trade with the United States. Thousands of Americans quickly saw opportunity and began trading with New Mexicans, establishing the Santa Fe Trail, which stretched from Independence, Mo., to New Mexico’s capital.  

The Territorial Period began when U. S. Gen. Stephen Watts Kearny declared New Mexico an American territory from the rooftop of a home on the Las Vegas Plaza in 1848 during the Mexican War. Less than 20 years later, during the Civil War, New Mexicans joined Union forces to fight the Confederates at Apache Pass and Valverde to keep New Mexico a slave-free territory.  

With the coming of the railroad in the 1880s, the southeastern plains were transformed into cattle kingdoms overnight, and rivaling barons sparked the Lincoln County War, which transformed Billy the Kid into a legend. Similar ranching and homesteading conflicts occurred during the Colfax County War.

During the same time period Chiricahua Apaches led by Conchise, Mangas Coloradas, Victorio and the mighty Geronimo, to name a few, roamed over Sonora, Mexico, southern Arizona and southwestern New Mexico. Geronimo finally surrendered in 1886 in a remote area along the Arizona/New Mexico border.  

A multitude of political and cultural factors over the course of more than 60 years prevented statehood for New Mexico. Some people, including Gen. Tecumseh Sherman, advocated that the United States give New Mexico back to Mexico. But finally on Jan. 6, 1912, New Mexico became the 47th state of the Union. Since then, many New Mexicans have contributed to our country’s history, some influencing the outcome of World War II. The U.S. military employed Navajo Code-Talkers, who used their native language as a top-secret wartime code that the Japanese never broke.  

In addition, the top-secret Manhattan Project took place at Los Alamos and the first atomic explosion occurred at Trinity Site on July 16, 1945. Shortly after, two atomic bombs were dropped on Japan and the horrific war finally came to an end.

Today, New Mexico continues to beckon travelers and explorers with its magnificent landscapes, wide-open vistas and abundance of sun. The enticing terrain invites newcomers and New Mexican alike to make their own discoveries and to leave their own marks in time.  

New Mexico has many wonderful assets, one of them is the monthly New Mexico Magazine and it’s annual companion the New Mexico Vacation Guide (The Vacation Guide is free for the asking, 1-800-733-6396). Most of the history above was printed in the 2001 NM Vacation Guide, courtesy of the staff at New Mexico Magazine.  

**NOTE: The New Mexico Magazine permitted me to use their history of New Mexico if we would give them credit.

Don McAlavy

Copyright © 2001, New Mexico Magazine