New Mexico: Santa Fe Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Santa Fe is the oldest city to become a state capital in the United States.

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Santa Fe, NM 87504-0909

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Although Santa Fe, established in 1610, is well known as the oldest city continuously used as a territorial or state capital in the United States, the area actually has a much longer history of civilization. It was populated by various Pueblo Indian villages between 600 and 1425 c.e., but then was abandoned for reasons that are not understood. Actually, archaeologists have found evidence of ancient peoples inhabiting the region just southwest of what is now Santa Fe as early as 3000 b.c.e. to 600 c.e. At the end of this period, these people turned from foraging to farming. This phase of existence of the northern Rio Grande area was called the developmental period and lasted until about 1200. Early sites from this era are scarce, while later sites are more easily found.

Early History

During the coalition period, from 1200 to 1325, the Santa Fe area underwent a huge growth in population. Archaeologists offer two reasons for this: Some attribute the growth to an influx of people from neighboring areas who left their homes because of climate and cultural changes, while others believe it was due to improved farming techniques and other advances that transpired because of a larger local population. According to historian David Grant Noble, the people began to congregate in larger communities during this period, and their villages featured “multiroom masonry or adobe houseblocks built around plazas and include characteristic round, subterranean kivas.”

Next came the classic period, from 1325 until 1600, which was marked by the use of mineral-paint glazes instead of vegetable or organic paint on pottery. The pottery itself was thick and porous, known as biscuit ware. During the early part of this period, the population seemed to thrive and used techniques like gridded gardens and check dams to conserve soil and water. However, in the latter part of the classic period, around 1425, the Pueblo Indians disappeared from the area. Santa Fe was again populated by the Pueblos 250 years later, but Spanish troops promptly ousted them when they arrived to settle the area.

Arrival of the Spanish

The Spanish settlement of La Villa de Santa Fe in 1610 began with a classic showdown between church and state. This situation was in part set up by the history of ecclesiastical and civil leaders in Spain. As they had viewed their victory over the Islamic Moors to be a holy crusade, so the kings of Spain now saw their conquest of the New World as a holy mission to Christianize the Native American population. Therefore, when Pedro de Peralta set out to found La Villa de Santa Fe, he was accompanied by numerous clergy. Initially, Governor Peralta shared power harmoniously with the local missionaries, at that time led by Friar Alonso de Peinado at their ecclesiastical headquarters in Domingo Pueblo. Trouble began in 1612, when Friar Isidro Ordóñez arrived with twelve new missionary recruits from Mexico City and claimed to have orders to relieve Peinado of his duties. These orders were later deemed fraudulent, but this discovery was made only after Ordóñez had irrevocably changed the history of Santa Fe.

The first sign of trouble came almost immediately upon Ordóñez’s arrival, for he declared he had orders that the soldiers and settlers who wanted to leave could return to Mexico. This announcement was in direct conflict with Peralta’s efforts to strengthen the settlement. Ordóñez’s plan was to drive Peralta and the government out of Santa Fe so that it could become exclusively the province of the mission, and he tried many tactics to undermine the governor. The next serious dispute between the two men came in May, 1613, when the friar tried to interrupt the governor’s annual tax collection of corn and blankets from the Indians because it fell too close to the Feast of the Pentecost. The two men argued over whose authority ruled in the matter; Ordóñez ultimately displayed a document naming him the agent of the Holy Office of the Inquisition for New Mexico and threatened to excommunicate the governor if he did not call off the tribute collection. When Peralta refused, Ordóñez made good on his threat. Later he absolved Peralta, but the incident set the stage for later scuffles.

That summer, Peralta made a failed attempt to banish Ordóñez to the Santo Domingo ecclesiastical headquarters and lost the support of many settlers when another friar ended up shot and wounded in the argument. This scene gave Ordóñez the upper hand, and he and his followers laid a trap for Peralta. When Peralta tried to return to Mexico City to tell the viceroy of Ordóñez’s actions, Ordóñez and his men arrested the governor and his entourage. Peralta remained imprisoned for eight months before escaping, but Ordóñez tracked him down and arrested him again.

Finally, after a new governor, Bernardino de Ceballos, was appointed, Peralta was allowed to return to Mexico City, where he reported to Spanish officials his treatment at the hands of Ordóñez. Peralta had papers to prove his accusations, and Ordóñez was summoned to Mexico City and reprimanded. The conflict between these two leaders lay the foundation for continuing trouble between church and state for the next seventy years.

Peralta’s Legacy

Peralta left another lasting legacy to Santa Fe. It was under his leadership that the construction of the Palace of the Governors began in 1610. It is the oldest public building in continuous use in the United States. The Palace of the Governors was New Mexico’s state capitol until 1860, and Confederate forces used it as their headquarters in 1862. It became the centerpiece of the Museum of New Mexico in 1913.

The Palace of the Governors also was the refuge for the Spaniards during a ten-day siege in the Pueblo Revolt of 1680. The revolt was the culmination of years of Indian resentment over the injustice of the Spanish colonial occupation. On August 10, 1680, the revolt began when the Pueblo Indians killed Friar Juan Baptista Pio. Settlers from the outlying villages fled to Santa Fe or Isleta. The Indian warriors attacked the outlying villages and then moved toward Santa Fe, on whose outskirts they were spotted on August 13.

That day, one of the Indian leaders approached the barricaded walls of Santa Fe and tried to negotiate with the governor, Antonio Otermín, to secure a surrender from the Spaniards. Otermín turned him away and suggested the Indians give up their fight. The rebels began burning the buildings surrounding Santa Fe, and Spanish soldiers left the city’s walls to fight back. Soon, the rebels succeeded in cutting off the Spaniards’ water and food supply, and the Spaniards were held captive within the city walls for nine days.

On August 20, Otermín convinced the desperate settlers that they had no choice but to fight their way out of the compound. Striking at dawn that morning, the settlers were able to surprise and drive off the rebels, who suffered severe losses. The next day, the people of Santa Fe decided they must abandon their city before the rebels returned; Otermín led more than one thousand men, women, and children from Santa Fe to Isleta. When they arrived, they found Isleta abandoned, too, its townspeople having fled for El Paso. After Otermín and the villagers left Santa Fe, the Indians celebrated by tearing down churches, turning the governor’s palace into a pueblo, and washing baptized Indians in soapweed in order to purify them.

Reconquest of Santa Fe

In 1693, Don Diego de Vargas led a group of one hundred soldiers, citizens, Indian auxiliaries, and two friars to reconquer Santa Fe. After cutting off their water and bringing up a small cannon and mortar, Vargas was able to convince the natives to make peace. He conducted a ceremonial repossession of the city, but actual reoccupation would come much harder. Vargas requested five hundred settler families to recolonize Santa Fe, but only seventy Spanish families braved hunger and an early winter to approach the villa in October, 1693. As they arrived, it became clear the Pueblo Indians had no intention of vacating their homes. On December 29, 1693, a new battle began. Unlike the Pueblo Revolt, in which Indians from the different pueblos united against the Spanish colonists, this time the Indians were not unified. The Pecos Pueblo Indians joined the settlers against the Santa Fe Pueblo Indians, and the Spanish settlers gained the upper hand. By the next day, the Spanish had seized the villa.

A century later, Santa Fe was still not a city. The 1790 census showed that about half the heads of households were farmers. The census also showed a highly multiethnic society. Spanish heritage was valued; those with pure or mostly Spanish ancestry enjoyed higher social positions. The Spanish developed a complex system of racial classification, known as the castas, to categorize those of mixed descent. This castas system was rejected when Santa Fe made its transition from colony of Spain to extension of Mexico in 1821. In that year, Mexican revolutionaries declared themselves independent of the kingdom of Spain. The Mexican government also liberalized or abolished strict Spanish prohibitions on foreign trade. Mexico desired foreign goods, so American merchants brought their trade to Santa Fe and enjoyed brisk sales.

The Santa Fe Trail

Thanks to this new revenue stream, the Santa Fe Trail opened as an avenue for commerce. It had been established as a route from Santa Fe to St. Louis by a French pathfinder named Pedro Vial in 1792. William Becknell, who became known as “Father of the Santa Fe Trail,” brought the first wagon of goods to Santa Fe on November 6, 1822. The American traders enriched Santa Fe not only with their goods, but also by paying custom duties, which supported the area’s military efforts.

In May, 1846, the United States declared war on Mexico, dividing New Mexico’s loyalties. Although American trade was virtually the region’s only business and financial support, New Mexico’s governor, Manuel Armijo, was obliged, as a general in the Mexican army, to fight the United States. On August 15, as U.S. General Stephen W. Kearny approached the Apache Canyon with his invading Army of the West, Armijo sent his citizen army to block them and followed them himself the next day with his presidial army. When he got to the canyon, he decided to surrender, and Kearny and his troops marched into Santa Fe to claim it for the United States.

On August 23, Kearny began construction of Fort Marcy behind the Palace of the Governors. One hundred soldiers and thirty-one Mexican brick masons built the ten-sided structure, and within three months it was defensible. At this point, Kearny appointed well-known trader and Taos resident Charles Bent as governor. His tenure ended a few short months later, with his murder on January 19, 1847, by a group conspiring to overthrow the Americans. The Taos Rebellion was put down within days and marked the last time American authority was challenged in New Mexico.

New Mexico Applies for Statehood

In 1850, New Mexico applied for statehood at the prompting of President Zachary Taylor and other antislavery politicians, who thought New Mexico’s lack of slavery could boost the antislavery vote in Congress. Texans, who were proslavery and held that New Mexico was part of their state, prepared to invade New Mexico. The Compromise of 1850 stipulated that both Arizona and New Mexico would be organized as a single territory with no congressional vote. The compromise also said the new territory would not take a stand on slavery until it became a state, which did not happen for another sixty years.

In 1912, New Mexico achieved statehood as the forty-seventh state in the Union, ending sixty-two years of territorial status. Although a minority of the state’s 327,301 citizens supported statehood, the minority was active and vocal. It included politicians who aspired to a U.S. Senate seat, land owners who hoped that investors would be lured to the new state and would increase the value of real estate, and some progressive citizens.

Modern Preservation Efforts

Today, visitors to Santa Fe will see a wealth of remains of the city’s cultural and historical past. The Plaza has been the center of life in Santa Fe for almost four hundred years. Other famous sites include the End of the Trail Monument, which honors pioneers who made it to the end of the eight-hundred-mile Santa Fe Trail; the Palace of the Governors, which is now a museum of cultural history; the Museum of Fine Arts and seven other museums; the circular Capital Building; the Chapel of San Miguel, whose foundations were laid in 1610, making it one of the oldest churches in the United States; and the Loretto Chapel. Another famous church is the Chapel of Our Lady of Guadalupe. Built in 1795, it is considered the oldest shrine to the Virgin of Guadalupe in the United States. Equally fascinating are Santa Fe’s adobe houses, most of them built in the eighteenth century.

Within one hundred miles of the city, about twenty Pueblo Indian villages show tourists a glimpse of an eight hundred-year-old way of life. The famed Santa Fe Opera is located just north of Santa Fe near the pueblos of the Tesuque and Nambé. It has produced more world premiere performances than any other American opera company. The Indian Market, hosted by the Southwestern Association on Indian Affairs every August, is the nation’s largest and most prestigious American Indian art show.

For Further Information
  • Noble, David Grant, ed. Santa Fe: History of an Ancient City. New York: School of American Research, 1989. A highly readable collection of writings by some of Santa Fe’s most famous historians and archaeologists.
  • Simmons, Marc. New Mexico: A History. New York: W. W. Norton, 1977. Somewhat drier than Noble’s work above but fuller in detail on the city’s Spanish and Indian heritage. Together, the books provide a rich understanding of Santa Fe’s most famous historical events and an appreciation for the ethnic and cultural diversity of the city.
  • Wilson, Chris. The Myth of Santa Fe: Creating a Modern Regional Tradition. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1997. Covers the modern history of Santa Fe and the developments in culture and tourism in the twentieth century.
Categories: History