New Mexico History Begins Civilization in the West

Black Mesa, New Mexico by Kathy Weiser-Alexander.

Black Mesa, New Mexico by Kathy Weiser-Alexander.

By George Wharton James in 1920

Coronado's March by Frederic Remington, 1897

Coronado’s March by Frederic Remington, 1897

The history of New Mexico is the history of the beginning of civilization in the western part of the United States. It is of such vast importance that two large volumes are required merely to catalogue its Spanish Archives. For, as its name implies, it was regarded as a “new” Mexico, and Francisco Vasquez de Coronado and his conquistadors fondly hoped to find therein the gold, silver, and precious things that had enriched Cortes in Mexico, Pizzaro in Peru, and dazzled the old world.

It was a myth that allured Vasquez de Coronado to the exploration of New Mexico — a mere crazy tale that rumor had set afoot years before; just such a rumor that would later send men speeding hither and yonder to find gold. Mexico and Peru were the “Klondikes” of the time that had dazzled the eyes of all Europe by their prodigal and fabulous wealth.

The stories that spread over Spain, Mexico, and elsewhere about the tons of golden and silver vessels and the abundance of precious stones of Montezuma and the Incas made men crazy with greed and they were ready and eager to fly in any direction that suggested a duplication of the experiences of the envied Hernan Cortes and Francisco Plzarro.

The myth that started the explorers into New Mexico was that “somewhere” up in that region where the buffalo roamed were seven cities, richer in gold and all that man lusted after than anything that had yet been discovered. The report of Marcos de Niza, who was sent out to verify the rumors by Antonio de Mendoza, the Viceroy of New Spain, who hoped to outdo Cortes in his discoveries, did not lessen the excitement. Coronado’s expedition only excited explorers even more. After Coronado had explored New Mexico, finding nothing, he refused to believe that the Seven Cities of Gold did not exist and pushed his way into Kansas, again finding nothing. There, convinced against his will, he turned back. When Coronado returned empty-handed – Cibola having seemingly disappeared into thin air, it was so startling that it took the Spaniards years to get over it. It practically killed Coronado for it may truthfully be said he died of a broken heart, a disillusioned, disappointed man.

Franciscan Priests

Franciscan Priests

All that the Spaniards found were seven Indian pueblos — villages built of adobe, or rude pieces of rock plastered over with adobe — whose people lived in aboriginal simplicity, who had neither gold, silver, precious stones, nor anything of great value. They knew nothing of mining, though they had picked up a little turquoise, and a few garnets and peridots.

However, myths of fabulous treasure die hard, and in the hope that the country would still justify the first stories told of it, more explorers came — again to be disappointed. A new element, by now, began to assert itself. This was an age of religious zeal and activity never before or since surpassed. The monkish orders of Spain were as frenzied in their zeal to save the souls of the heathen aborigines as the explorers were to get gold. Therefore, soon came the friars — Franciscan, Jesuit, Carmelite, and Dominican — all eager to gain the priceless reward of the spirit, ambitious to win the approval of their God by leading the souls of the natives into the fold of the church.

Then began another invasion — that of the missionaries. Churches, convents, and monasteries sprang up like magic. Eager to become martyrs, these men dared death daily by forcing their religion upon the natives, and such was their fiery energy and dauntless courage that they succeeded in convincing the Indians — against their will and desire — that they must help build the temples of worship desired by the newcomers. This was the period when the Mission Churches of New Mexico arose, 100 to 150 years earlier than those of California.

Simultaneously, villas or towns were started — San Gabriel, Santa Fe, Albuquerque, and others — for the Spanish and Mexican colonists, who still clung to the old tradition or myth and fondly hoped they might find the wealth their predecessors doubtless had overlooked.

San Miguel Mission, Santa Fe, New Mexico by Kathy Weiser

San Miguel Mission, Santa Fe, New Mexico by Kathy Weiser-Alexander.

Between them — friars and colonists — they succeeded in arousing in the hearts of the Indians, a hatred so intense, fiery and insuppressible that the Pueblo Rebellion of 1680 ensued and violent death stalked through the land. On that dreaded day the Indians, led by the zealous patriot, Popé, arose almost to a man — and woman, for the women shared in this bitter hatred — and fell upon every white man and woman they could reach.

Scores were slain, Santa Fe was besieged and Governor Antonio de Otermin, with a band of clinging, terrified refugees, fearfully fled down the Rio Grande River to near where El Paso, Texas now stands and breathlessly waited for help.

It came in time, and under Diego de Vargas the Indians were first cajoled and then whipped into submission. From that time, until the Mexicans asserted their independence, the Pueblos of New Mexico were regarded as loyal to Spain — lukewarm, perhaps, yet not actively hostile, transferring their allegiance in perfunctory fashion to the republic of Mexico, and, on the arrival of Stephen W. Kearny, in 1846, to the United States.

However, there were other Indians, besides the Pueblos, such as the Apache and Navajo, who were not inclined to accept the sovereignty of Spain, and who looked with a greater or lesser degree of contempt and scorn upon all attempts of the friars to change their religion. On being informed that unless he believed what the church taught, would assuredly be damned, promptly replied that “he would be damned if he did.” They were insolent, defiant, incorrigible and unconquerable. Missionaries and colonists had brought into the land horses, cows, sheep, and innumerable seeds for fruit trees, vegetables and grains. With a speedy appreciation of the value of the livestock, these nomadic Indians began to raid the flocks and herds of the colonists and those of the Indians who had become Christianized and counted as “the faithful.” A state of perpetual war, therefore, might be said to exist, the Apache, Navajo, and a few of the tribes swooping down upon the Spaniards and Mexicans and their possessions.

Navajo weaving, 1915, by William J. Carpenter

Navajo weaving, 1915, by William J. Carpenter

It was during these fighting days that the Navajo woman learned the art of blanket-weaving — which she had always known in a very crude and primitive fashion — with the wool from the sheep of the Spaniard, and to this fact, combined with the Navajo discovery that roast sheep and ox were more satisfying than the flesh of rabbits and the like, is undoubtedly owing most of the depredations committed by the nomad Indians upon the Mexicans.

In these conflicts considerable skill and generalship were often displayed, and thus came into existence a mass of stories, told with great gusto around the herders’ and cowboys’ campfires, and before the open fire-places of the Mexican homes, of deeds daring and thrilling, of narrow escapes and bloody achievements, of which later writers have made good use.

In these Spanish and Mexican days, too, great grants of land were given to Americans and other foreigners as well as those who used the Castilian speech. These were afterward the subject of much-harassing legislation, mainly because of a misunderstanding as to the reasons and motives behind the grants.

When the Spaniards took New Mexico the land was of little value. They had found a new world many scores of times larger than all of the old world claimed by them. They could neither use nor protect it. Two hundred years later when the Mexicans drove out the Spaniards the new owners were confronted with the same problems. They wanted to retain some kind of hold upon it, yet foes caused many fears. Land, particularly when it was upon the Mexican frontier adjoining territory of the United States, was always adjudged insecure. The Mexicans knew the land-grabbing, country-swallowing habits of the aggressive white men, so they felt that if, by granting such land to men who would use and hold it against all newcomers, they would not only retain their sovereignty over the land but would place an effective buffer between themselves and a people whom they strongly mistrusted.

Indian Attack by Charles Marion Russell

Indian Attack by Charles Marion Russell

Then, too, the Navajo, Apache, Ute, and others, were ever warring upon them, and it was a help and a comfort to feel that some redoubtable Indian fighter was at hand to arrest these aggressions and occasionally “take a rise” out of the aggressors. It can be seen, therefore, that it was a wise policy on the part of the Mexican Government to make these grants. They led to the founding of colonies, to the extension of the boundaries of civilization, and set up barriers against the inroads of the Indians and the encroachments of their enterprising and active neighbors across the border. What to them meant a few acres, a few thousands, a few hundreds of thousands of acres, of land? They were glad to give it to any in whose loyalty and courage they had belief that they would help to hold it. And, when the Mexican Government ceded New Mexico and California to the United States, politicians forcefully argued that the Mexican Government expressly stipulated that its previous grants of land should be acknowledged and protected.

Later, the seizing of the country by General Stephen Kearny, in 1846, caused considerable excitement, though there was little bloodshed. However, Kearny’s arrest of John C. Fremont, then serving as governor in California, produced an immensely greater ripple in American thought than did the annexation of the whole of New Mexico (including what is now Arizona).

Mexican-American War

Mexican-American War

When the Mexican-American War was over in 1848 and the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo signed, Mexico ceded its mostly unsettled northern holdings, today known as the American Southwest and California to the United States. In the Compromise of 1850 Texas ceded its claims to the area lying east of the Rio Grande River in exchange for ten million dollars. That same year, New Mexico, which then included present-day Arizona, southern Colorado, southern Utah, and southern Nevada was designated a territory but denied statehood. Three years later, when the United States acquired the southwestern boot heel of the state and southern  Arizona below the Gila River, it added 45,000 square miles to the territory.

In the early part of the Civil War, Confederates invaded New Mexico from Texas in 1861 and the Confederate Territory of Arizona is declared with the capital at La Mesilla. Two battles would be fought in New Mexico during the war including the Battles of Valverde and Glorieta Pass, which ended Confederate occupation of New Mexico.

New Mexico-Arizona Map, 1870.

New Mexico-Arizona Map, 1870.

In the meantime, the Territory of Colorado was created, diminishing the size of the territory. And in 1863, New Mexico was partitioned in half, creating the Territory of Arizona.

During the next several years, the territory would be involved in numerous Indian Wars as the United States worked to force all Native Americans on to reservations.

New Mexico then became the 47th state of the Union on January 6, 1912.

During World War II, the first atomic bombs were designed and manufactured at Los Alamos and the first was tested at the Trinity site in the desert at White Sands between Socorro and Alamogordo.

Today, New Mexico is called home to more than 2 million people, thriving on oil and gas production, tourism, ranching, Indian casinos, three Air Force bases, the White Sands Missile Range, and federal research laboratories Los Alamos National Laboratory and Sandia National Laboratories.

Consisting of more than 120,000 square miles, the state features six national forests, 16 National Parks, historic sites, trails, and monuments; as well as numerous state parks.


Compiled and edited by Kathy Weiser/Legends of America, updated June 2020.

Also See:

Touch Me Not Mountain, Eagle Nest, New Mexico

Touch Me Not Mountain, Eagle Nest, New Mexico by Kathy Weiser-Alexander.

Francisco Vasquez de Coronado

Native Americans – First Owners of America

Mexican-American War

New Mexico – Land of Enchantment.

New Mexico Photo Galleries

About this Article:  Portions of this article were written by George Wharton James and included in his book, New Mexico: The Land of the Delight Makers, published in 1920. However, the article as it appears here is far from verbatim as it has been heavily edited and expanded to include more recent history.

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