History of New Mexico

New Mexico History Timeline

  • 1050 — The Pueblo people build massive villages and apartment-style homes along the Rio Grande Valley.
  • 1540 — Francisco Vasquez de Coronado, a Spanish conquistador, explores the area and encounters the Pueblo people.
  • 1598 — The first Spanish settlement in New Mexico, San Juan is founded by Juan de Oñate.
  • 1610 — Santa Fe, the capital of New Mexico, is founded.
  • 1680 — The Pueblos revolt due to mistreatment and forced conversion to Catholicism, and they remain free from Spanish rule until they are defeated in 1692.
  • 1756 — The Seven Years War is fought between the French, British, and Spanish.
  • 1786 — Peace is finally made with the raiding Comanches, opening the area to more European settlement.
  • 1821 — New Mexico swears allegiance to Mexico after it gains its freedom from Spain.
  • 1841 — Texans invade New Mexico and claim the land for Texas.
  • 1846 — The Mexican-American war begins.
  • 1848 — The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo is signed, and New Mexico is given to the United States.
  • 1863 — The land of New Mexico is divided in half to create the territories of Arizona and New Mexico.
  • 1912 — New Mexico officially gains statehood and joins the United States.

Native Americans and Pre-colonial Settlements

Archaeological evidence shows that New Mexico has had human occupants for at least 11,000 years, dating back to prehistoric settlements. Starting around the 13th century, the Pueblo people began constructing towns throughout the region, particularly near the Rio Grande river valley. What started out as homes dug into cliffsides gradually turned into huge structures that could be up to five stories high and have 700 rooms.

New Mexico in 1824

© Bob Adams - Aerial View of Pueblo Bonito, the largest 'great house' of the Pueblos

These massive apartments housed entire villages, who primarily farmed and hunted for a living. They had a vibrant culture of religion, art, trading, and building, and there is some proof that they were even trading with Mexican cities that were thousands of miles away. The Pueblos were the largest indigenous group in the area, but the Navajo and the Apache also occupied the North-Western part of New Mexico.

Pueblo Settlements in New Mexico

Some of the Pueblo Settlements on a map of New Mexico

The First Europeans in New Mexico

The history of New Mexico was not recorded until the Spanish first came to the region in the 16th century. The first Europeans who traveled through the area were led by the Spanish conquistador Francisco Vasquez de Coronado, who was searching for Cibola, a rumored province with seven cities of gold. Instead, they encountered the adobe towns of the Pueblos. Though Coronado did not find gold, he did introduce horses to the New Mexican tribes.

The Spanish Colonial period

During the following years, Spain was intent on claiming and colonizing as much of the New World as possible. Juan de Oñate traveled north of Mexico with 500 other settlers and 7,000 livestock animals to found San Juana de los Caballeros in 1598. Oñate became the governor of the Spanish terriotory.

Statue of Juan de Oñate

© Advanced Source Productions - Statue of Juan de Oñate

Oñate and subsequent governors attempted to enslave the local Native Americans and forcefully convert them to Catholicism. This lead to a great deal of hostility, and the territory's capital was moved to Santa Fe, which was in a more defensible area. The isolated towns of the Native Americans proved difficult to control, and eventually, Popé, a religious leader of the Tewa, lead a successful revolt in 1680. The Spanish were driven from the region, and they did not manage to reconquer their cities until 1692.

During the early 1700s, Comanche tribes from northern Texas raided throughout the area, decimating both Pueblo and Spanish settlements. Once they signed a peace treaty, Spanish settlements flourished throughout the region.


Depiction of the Comanche by George Catlin

Depiction of the Comanche by George Catlin


Mexican Control of the Territory

The Mexican war for independence in 1810 affected the territory of New Mexico greatly. Governor Facundo Melgares chose to swear loyalty to the newly independent country in 1821, and most of the other European settlements within the territory followed his lead. Mexico tried to encourage the settlements to develop a uniquely Mexican culture with festivals to celebrate independence, but most of the frontier settlers were more isolated and paid no attention to the shift in government.

New Mexico in 1824

© Giggette - New Mexico in 1824, part of Mexico

The original transition was fairly smooth, but as chaos developed in Mexico, the New Mexicans became dissatisfied. When President Santa Anna appointed a universally disliked governor and increased taxes, revolt broke out in 1837. After a few months of chaos, Manuel Armijo, a former governor, was reappointed. By this time, the population disliked the Mexican government so much that there were threats to secede and create El Republica Mexicana del Norte.

When the Republic of Texas seceded in 1836, they briefly attempted to claim New Mexico, but their troops were easily repelled.

The Mexican-American War

When the Mexican-American war began, New Mexico was originally left out of the fight. People did not even known they were at war until an American general, Stephen W. Kearny, marched into Santa Fe with 1400 troops. The American troops met no resistance, and most Mexican authorities quickly fled the area.

Mexico City occupied by US troops, painting by Carl Nebel

Mexico City occupied by US troops, painting by Carl Nebel

However, many New Mexicans were unhappy with the United States occupation, and both Pueblo Indians and European settlers united to revolt. The rebels killed Governor Bent, who had been installed by the United States, but the revolt was quickly crushed by Colonel Sterling Price.

At the end of the war, Mexico agreed to give most of its Northern territories to the United States in the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. New Mexican residents were given the choice of staying and getting American citizenship or leaving the area and heading to Mexico. Only about 1000 people chose to leave the region instead of becoming Americans.

Map of the Mexican-American War

© Kaidor - Map of the Mexican-American War

United States Control of New Mexico

After becoming a United States territory, the border of New Mexico was disputed, and Texas claimed part of the land. Eventually, the modern boundaries of New Mexico were established in 1863. There were a few brief battles between the Confederate and Union troops, but most of the American Civil War passed over New Mexico.

There were many conflicts during this time period between the Native Americans, the Hispanic settlers, and the American settlers, and this was one of the tensest periods of New Mexico history. Sadly, the government typically supported the claims of American settlers, instead of the established claims of Mexican and Native American settlers.

The Apache and Navajo tribes raided so many settlements that forts were established to protect people.

Eventually, most Native Americans were forced onto reservations, and their land was given to new homesteaders.

When the Sante Fe Railroad was created in 1878, the territory began to grow rapidly, especially after gold and silver were discovered on the land.

However, Congress would not admit New Mexico into the Union as a state because they were worried that much of the population was still too isolated or loyal to Mexico. President William Howard Taft managed to convince Congress to admit New Mexico as the 47th state in 1912.

Culture and Legacy

Market Stall in New Mexico

© Andrew Dunn - Market Stall in New Mexico

New Mexico's history provides a rich cultural background for the state. Its unique evolution as a Native American, Spanish, Mexican, and ultimately American territory has led to a local culture that includes many different traditions.

Santa Fe has some of the most vibrant Native American art shows in the world, and the entire state has one of the largest populations of historic Native American tribes, consisting of Pueblo tribes, Apache tribes, and the Navajo nation. New Mexico is also home to the oldest and largest Spanish Market in the country, filled with crafts, history, museums, restaurants, and shops dedicated to Hispanic heritage.

Facts about New Mexico History

  • New Mexico was originally home to huge settlements of the Pueblo People.
  • After being explored by Spanish conquistadors, the area became a Spanish territory.
  • The settlements within the territory were very isolated, and most settlers ignored the politics of the Mexican Revolution.
  • The territory was given to the United States after the Mexican-American war, and most settlers became American citizens.
  • There was a great deal of conflict as new settlers tried to steal the land of the Hispanic and Native American settlements.
  • The discovery of valuable natural resources grew the economy of the territory and it eventually became a state.