New Mexico History Begins Civilization in the West

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 afterwards 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 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 new comers, 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.

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.

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 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 July, 2017.

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.

Also See:

Touch Me Not Mountain, Eagle Nest, New Mexico

Touch Me Not Mountain, Eagle Nest, New Mexico

Francisco Vasquez de Coronado

Native American (main page)

Mexican-American War

New Mexico (main page)

New Mexico Photo Galleries


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