Critical Essays A Brief History of New Mexico


The earliest Indian and Spanish settlements in the Southwest are in the northwestern part of the upper Río Grande region. Ruins of early native civilizations can be found in Chaco Canyon, at Aztec, and at Mesa Verde, located in present-day Colorado. These were Pueblo Indians who lived in huge buildings (one ruin is estimated to have contained 800 rooms) and survived on an agrarian economy. In the upper Río Grande Valley, the Spanish explorers found some twenty pueblos when they arrived in the sixteenth century. They took refuge there from Comanche and Apache bands, whose nomadic lifestyles depended on hunting and stealing, and who were less friendly to foreigners than the sedentary Pueblos.

The earliest Europeans in the region wandered through it for years, after having been enslaved by natives near present-day Galveston, Texas. In 1527, Pánfilo de Narváez set out with an expedition of 300 men to conquer the provinces between the Río Grande and the cape of Florida. Early in 1528, the expedition explored the region near present-day Tampa Bay, where they heard stories about gold from the natives. Narváez, excited by the news of gold, separated his cavalry and infantry from their ships and spent the spring and summer months exploring the region. Near the end of summer, ill and tired from constant hostilities by natives, they built five barges near the mouth of the Apalachicola River and coasted westward in search of the Río Grande. They crossed present-day Mobile Bay and the Mississippi. Over time, the barges became separated and lost at sea. Early in November, Cabeza de Vaca and others, many sick and unconscious, were wrecked on an island near present-day Galveston, Texas. Approximately ninety of three hundred men on the five barges survived initially, but in the end, only four (Cabeza de Vaca, Estevánico, Dorantes, and Castillo) made it to Mexico City in July 1536.

Cabeza de Vaca, Castillo, Dorantes, and Estevánico, the black Moor from the west coast of Morocco, wandered through what is now Texas and the southern fringes of New Mexico between 1528 and 1536. In southern New Mexico, they crossed the Pecos River, some two hundred miles south of present-day Santa Rosa, New Mexico. Estevánico returned in 1539, with Fray Marcos de Niza, for further exploration of the region. Tales of the "Seven Cities of Gold" excited the explorers, but they found only squalor and poverty in the small villages they visited.

In 1541, Francisco Vásquez Coronado led a full-scale expedition through the region after establishing his base in Pueblo Indian country. On his way eastward in search of Quivira, the fabled city with streets paved with gold, he visited the Pecos Pueblo, which is located west of the headwaters of the Pecos River. The expedition proceeded southeasterly into the plains and built a bridge over the Pecos River near present-day Puerto de Luna. Like Marcos de Niza before him, Coronado found only a few huts, none with gold.

Spanish settlement of the region began in earnest following the conquest of New Mexico by Don Juan de Oñate in 1598. Oñate and his men established a headquarters at San Juan, near the confluence of the Río Grande and the Río Chama. In 1599, the Spaniards subdued the native peoples at Acoma and established the first permanent colony of Europeans in the populous Pueblo Indian country. Over the next two hundred and twenty years, New Mexico became a region dotted with Spanish missions that were linked to the Pueblos. Professional soldier-citizens were given land grants for their services, and, through farming and stock-raising, they exploited Indian labor.

The province was divided into two administrative districts: the Río Arriba and the Río Abajo, which referred to the upper and lower portions of the Río Grande Valley and the adjacent districts. From Santa Fe, located in central New Mexico and at the center of the Pueblos, Spanish governors managed the affairs of the province until 1821, when Mexico gained its independence from Spain. Earlier, near the end of the seventeenth century, the Pueblos revolted and routed the Spaniards for approximately a decade. The Reconquest of 1692, by Governor Vargas, restored the regime of the Spaniards.

In August 1846, during the Mexican-American War, U.S. Colonel Stephen Watts Kearney took formal possession of New Mexico and granted citizenship and amnesty to anyone swearing allegiance to the United States. Over the next several decades, both Mexicans and Indians struggled to survive within the bowels of the new nation that conquered them.

Development of the region in the second half of the nineteenth century proceeded quickly under the influence of the Santa Fe Ring, a group of American bankers, lawyers, merchants, and politicians who promoted their interests in the region. Landgrabbing became one of the most lucrative activities among the members. In 1880, the railroad reached Albuquerque, and the following year, the Atlantic & Pacific Railroad and the Southern Pacific met at Deming, New Mexico. The region's population tripled over the next two decades as Americans migrated into the area in search of lands to mine, graze, and farm. Cattle barons on the eastern New Mexico plains provided beef on the hoof to Indians on reservations and soldiers at American military outposts.

The arid climate ensured that grazing would become prominent on the plains, with farming limited to river valleys until the introduction of well-drilling, which gave rise to new agricultural centers. The construction of dams in the late 1880s resulted in the impoundment of the Pecos River for irrigation purposes. It is during this time (1850-90), when the land was being developed and the hostilities between Americans, Mexicans, Navahos, and Apaches reached their apex, that the Puerto de Luna valley was settled.

The Agua Negra land grant was allotted to Antonio Sandoval on November 24, 1824, by the Republic of Mexico. On January 21, 1860, the land grant was confirmed by the Congress of the United States, with the acreage set at 17,631. In the spring of 1863, Mexican-American families moved to the banks of the Pecos River and established settlements on the Agua Negra land grant. The land was known to them and to their fathers, who hunted buffalo on the plains, and the settlers soon built homes and irrigation ditches and developed increasing acres of this new land. One of the later settlers was Don José Luna, from Los Lunas in Valencia County. His home became the stopping place for travelers, who called it puerto de luna, and the name later was extended to the settlement itself. In 1891, Guadalupe County was established out of a portion of San Miguel County, and Puerto de Luna became the county seat. That same year, the compulsory school act was passed, requiring youths to attend school. In 1903, the county's name was changed to Leonard Wood County, and Santa Rosa was made the county seat. In 1906, however, the name of the county was changed back to Guadalupe by the Legislative Assembly because the Anglo-sounding "Leonard Wood" was unpopular among the locals.

In 1912, New Mexico gained statehood after having been denied it twice before by the Congress of the United States. During World War II, New Mexican soldiers suffered the greatest number of casualties, especially during the War in the Pacific. In the early 1940s, Los Alamos, New Mexico, became the site for the Manhattan Project, which developed the atomic bomb. The first bomb was exploded on July 16, 1945, at Trinity Site, a location on Alamogordo Air Force Base.

Santa Rosa, the "City of Lakes," was settled in 1865 and is located 116 miles east of Albuquerque. It was named for a chapel built by Don Celso Baca, a prominent settler who dedicated it to St. Rose of Lima. Santa Rosa became the junction point of two important railroad systems, and railroad construction crews frequented the town regularly at the turn of the century. This activity declined as the network of highways begun in the 1920s was completed. Today, the city's greatest attractions are the numerous natural lakes in the vicinity, which are attended by interesting rock formations, trees, and shrubbery. The most picturesque is the "Blue Hole," a bell-shaped opening fed by a subterranean river. Locals believe that the lakes are fed by a common underground water source and that they are connected by subterranean channels.

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