The American Southwest

The American Southwest is rugged, beautiful, and filled with American History. It lures visitors with red-rock canyons, Old West legends, Spanish & Native American cultures, and wonderful national parks such as Grand Canyon, Arches National Park, Big Bend National Park, and Carlsbad Caverns.

This region is loosely defined and has never been standardized, but it always includes Arizona and New Mexico, as well as portions of Utah, Colorado, Nevada, California, and Texas. Contrary to the image that many people have of the American Southwest — that it is a sprawling desert — it is one of the most geographically diverse regions in the United States. From the Rocky Mountain landscape to dramatic red rock bluffs and mesas, to the flatlands of the Rio Grande, the landscape is varied and surprising.

It is also home to a wonderful and vibrant mix of Anglo, Latino, Hispanic, and Native American traditions that make diverse, interesting, and picturesque opportunities to see and experience history, landscape, and culture.

Human settlement in the Southwest dates back over 12,000 years and is preserved today by the rock art, cliff dwellings, and other archaeological remains found throughout the region.

The Puebloans, sometimes known as the Anasazi people inhabited the area for well over 1000 years but disappeared during the 12th or 13th century. The Athabascan people, including the Navajo and Apache, began arriving as early as 1000 AD and remain the largest indigenous group in the area to this day. These people gave the vast area much of its distinctive culture and learned how to live in its climate and geography.

While hunting and gathering activities predominated in the Great Basin and California, and bison hunting dominated the Great Plains, the peoples of the American Southwest established early agricultural communities and grew maize, beans, and squash. They constantly experimented with a variety of irrigation techniques to overcome the hot dry climate. Changes in rainfall patterns led to their constructing complex communities which would eventually be abandoned when rainfall could not support the population.

Coronado's Expedition by Frederic Remington

Coronado’s Expedition by Frederic Remington

Spanish explorers of the American Southwest, beginning with Francisco Vasquez de Coronado’s 1540-42 expedition, encountered both settled communities and deserted ruins. The Spanish remained a dominant military force for nearly 300 years. 

The Spanish, in making the American Southwest an outpost of their far-flung empire, brought change as religious orders, soldiers and colonists built missions, presidios (forts), and towns with distinctive central plazas and churches; Santa Fe was founded in about 1610, Albuquerque began in 1706, Las Trampas in 1751, and Taos between 1780 and 1800.

The area became part of Mexico in 1821 after Mexico won its independence from Spain. By the mid-1800s the expanding United States established a presence, and in 1848, after the Mexican-American War, much of the area became United States territory.

After the Southwest was brought into the orbit of the expansionist American nation, the Anglo influence was imprinted on the land in forts, trading posts, mining centers of silver, gold, and copper, cattle ranches, railroads, and dams.

Santa Fe Palace of Governors

Santa Fe Palace of Governo

The American Southwest with its distinctive building traditions, languages, religions, and foods, reflects the vitality of the Spanish, Mexican, Indian and Anglo cultures which formed its history and the Southwest we see today. Here, you will be introduced to prehistoric and historic sites, buildings, structures, and districts associated with the long and colorful history of the American Southwest. Many of the sites in the American Southwest contain irreplaceable prehistoric and historic artifacts that are protected by Federal and state laws. In keeping with our responsibility to preserve these sites for future generations, visitors should be extremely careful not to disturb or remove any artifact found at these sites.

Acoma, Santa Fe, Kit Carson House, El Santuario de Chimayo, and Taos, in New Mexico; Hovenweep and Mesa Verde in Colorado; and San Xavier del Bac, Fort Apache, Hubbell Trading Post, Barrio Libre, Fort Bowie, Tuzigoot, in Arizona; the names of the American Southwest evoke a starkly beautiful land of deserts, mountains and fertile valleys which is both very old and very new. Arizona and New Mexico, admitted to the Union in 1912, are two of the youngest states in the nation; yet Arizona, New Mexico, and Colorado contain venerable adobe communities and ancient, long-abandoned prehistoric ruins collectively representing thousands of years of human habitation.

Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado

Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado

©Kathy Weiser/Legends of America, updated October 2020.

Also See:

Ancient Puebloans of the Southwest

Colorado Historic Sites

Forts & Presidios Across America

New Mexico Historic Sites

Santa Fe Trail – Highway to the Southwest

Sources:

Lonely Planet
National Park Service
Wiki Travel