New Mexico Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

New Mexico’s arid climate and southwestern geographical position have deeply influenced its history. Known as the “Land of Enchantment,” the state’s high altitudes, clear air, and colorful mountains and deserts attract artists and tourists alike.

History of New Mexico

New Mexico’s arid climate and southwestern geographical position have deeply influenced its history. Known as the “Land of Enchantment,” the state’s high altitudes, clear air, and colorful mountains and deserts attract artists and tourists alike. Its lack of water, however, makes large-scale settlement difficult, and its proximity to Mexico has long been a factor in making its culture a Spanish-American hybrid. Added to these ingredients, the state’s large American Indian population and late–1912–achievement of statehood give New Mexico a unique flavor.

Early History

American Indians have lived in New Mexico for perhaps twenty-five thousand years. Evidence shows that they hunted in northeastern New Mexico about ten thousand years ago. Later, the Mogollons settled near the modern Arizona border, eventually building villages. The Anasazis, another ancient people, lived in “Four Corners,” where Colorado, Arizona, New Mexico, and Utah meet, and created one of the most developed civilizations of the time. The Pueblo Indians are descendants of the Anasazis. In about 1500 b.c.e. the Navaho and Apache Indians arrived; Ute and Comanche tribes arrived shortly afterward.


The Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés invaded Mexico in 1519. Nine years later, another Spaniard, explorer Álvar Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca, became shipwrecked off the Texas coast. When he finally made it to Mexico City in 1536, his reports of large wealthy cities sparked interest in further exploration. In 1538 Franciscan friar Marcos de Niza set out exploring and within a year returned with tales of golden cities larger than Mexico City.

Spanish authorities chose Francisco Vásquez de de Coronado, then twenty-nine, to explore the region. He set out in 1540 with more than 1,600 men but in two years had found no opulent cities. His travels did increase Spain’s geographical knowledge of the region, however, and profoundly influenced the future.

After later expeditions, the Spanish finally decided in 1598 to found a colony in the region, with the capital at San Juan de las Caballeros, near the Chama River. In 1609 the capital was moved to Santa Fe (“holy faith”). The Spanish treated the American Indians harshly. Missionaries made inroads into their traditional culture, while secular rulers set up a system of forced labor tantamount to slavery. A revolt in 1680 left hundreds of Spaniards dead; the remainder fled. Twelve years later the Spanish reconquered the region, and for the next 125 years, the two sides lived in relative peace.

After 1821, however, Mexico gained its independence from Spain. Traders and trappers had been making uninvited forays into the New Mexico area, but now, with the suspicious Spanish gone, they were welcome. Also in 1821 American trader William Becknell established the Santa Fe Trail, over which millions of dollars of goods would travel until replaced by transcontinental railroads. New Mexico’s Indians and the Mexicans themselves rebelled against the government in 1837 but were crushed. In 1841 Texas, which had become an independent republic, invaded the region, but this effort also failed.

Matters changed again, this time decisively, after the United States and Mexico went to war in 1846. Troops led by General Stephen W. Kearny occupied New Mexico with little difficulty. After American victory in 1848, New Mexico, along with a huge swathe of territory that included much of California, Colorado, Utah, Nevada, and Arizona, came under American rule. The stage was set for the future state to emerge.

Becoming a Territory

It took sixty-four years for New Mexico to join the American Union as a separate and equal state. Much conflict and agonizing over statehood lay ahead. First, in 1850, New Mexico, which then included Arizona, was organized into a territory. In 1853 the Gadsden Purchase added new land on the southern border. Yet statehood was little more than a dream. The region had too few inhabitants–about sixty thousand in 1850–to become part of the Union. While in time thousands of Americans came to live there, the territory’s Mexican character drew hostility from certain forces in Congress. The fact that most inhabitants were Roman Catholic added to the distrust of the suspicious East.

Moreover, New Mexico, along with Arizona and other western regions, was a violent place, plagued with serious American Indian problems and often equally serious Anglo-American problems, in the form of range wars and general lawlessness. From the 1850’s to the 1880’s, when the last dangerous American Indian menace succumbed to peace and outlaws such as Billy the Kid were laid to rest, New Mexico was truly the Wild West.

Civil War

The territory experienced the Civil War in 1862, when an army of Texas Confederates commanded by General Henry J. Sibley invaded from the east. Sibley defeated a Union force at Valverde, more than one hundred miles south of Albuquerque on the east side of the Rio Grande, and advanced north toward Santa Fe and Albuquerque. His army was then to head north to Colorado and its gold regions around Pikes Peak and Denver. They never made it, however, because when they reached Glorieta Pass and Apache Canyon, near Santa Fe, Union soldiers turned them back in a battle sometimes called “the Gettysburg of the West.”


In 1863 Congress organized the territories of Arizona and Colorado, in the process reducing the size of New Mexico. After the Civil War ended in 1865, cattle ranchers, sheepherders, and others flocked to the state in search of prosperity or adventure. Affairs were hardly fit for the pursuit of wealth, however, since conflicts broke out repeatedly among settlers. Some of the worst of the hostilities came in the late 1870’s in a county southeast of Albuquerque. The Lincoln County War saw cattlemen and others battling for political control. In this “war,” Billy the Kid, a teenage bandit who survived only until age twenty-one, murdered twenty-one men before being shot by Sheriff Pat Garrett. To end the bloodshed, in 1878 the territorial governor pardoned the fighters. Over the next decade other territorial governors helped establish order.

Establishing peace between settlers and American Indians, however, was another matter. Apache chief Victorio led many murderous raids against his enemies until his death in 1880. Control was passed to Geronimo, last of the warring Apache warrior chiefs. Geronimo surrendered repeatedly, only to escape and regroup his army. In September, 1886, he finally surrendered after receiving personal assurances of safety from President Grover Cleveland. Geronimo lived on to convert to Christianity and participate in President Theodore Roosevelt’s inauguration in 1905.

New Mexico Economy

With peace established, economic progress could proceed. Without American Indian depredations, cattle ranching prospered. Mineral wealth had been discovered and would continue to be discovered well into the next century. Between 1880 and 1890 the population swelled by more than one-third, to just more than 160,000. By 1910, though New Mexico was still not a state, the population had more than doubled again, to 325,000.

As in much of the West, the advent of the transcontinental railroad changed life in New Mexico. When the first train entered in 1878, products such as cattle could be easily and cheaply transported east. The territory experienced a boom in cattle and mining products. New Mexico’s economy, however, was handicapped by a lack of water; annual rainfall is less than ten inches. Sheriff Pat Garrett inaugurated far-reaching irrigation projects.


New Mexicans desired statehood, but by 1901 this goal had not been accomplished, despite many attempts. Congress feared allowing a seemingly foreign territory to gain precious votes in the Senate. The territory appeared too Mexican for full membership. The Spanish-American War (1898) allowed the territory to demonstrate its loyalty. Lieutenant Colonel Theodore Roosevelt recruited many of his Rough Riders in New Mexico, and they proved their trustworthiness. Finally, in 1910 Congress passed a statehood bill, and two years later New Mexico entered the Union.

The state constitution, adopted in 1911, is considered conservative in comparison to other western states, since it omits the initiative, referendum, and recall, which allot extra powers to the electorate. Instead, all legislative power lies in the bicameral legislature. Along with a governor, a lieutenant governor, and five other executive officers, officials are elected to four-year terms. They may hold office no more than two successive terms. Members of the upper house serve four-year terms; lower-house members serve two-year terms. Provisions guaranteeing voting rights and education for Spanish-speaking people can be changed only by three-fourths of the legislature and three-fourths of the electorate.

Two World Wars

The state was soon called upon again for military service, and its soldiers fought in World Wars I and II. The postwar period proved problematic, however, as a long drought wreaked havoc with the state’s economy. Livestock prices sank, ranchers went bankrupt, and banks collapsed. Providentially, however, new mineral wealth was discovered, and new businesses appeared. When Carlsbad Caverns became a National Park in 1930, a focal point for tourism was born. Water projects begun in the 1920’s eventually brought significant acreage under cultivation. While there was limited capacity for these supplies to be increased, New Deal projects during the Depression continued making inroads into this chronic problem.

Like those of neighboring states, New Mexico’s economy gained considerably during World War II, when federal spending increased dramatically. A secret project begun at Los Alamos turned out to be development of the world’s first atomic bombs. The first atomic explosion lighted up the New Mexico desert at Trinity, near Alamogordo, in 1945.

Postindustrial Society

New Mexico’s postwar economy grew on the strength of federal spending, especially for defense. Key areas were research on the military, peacetime uses of nuclear power, and experiments with rockets. This effort was assisted when uranium was discovered in the state in 1950. In the 1960’s, coal production rose markedly; New Mexico’s power supply is generated primarily from coal burning.

New Mexico’s economy and society dramatically changed with its passage from an industrial to a postindustrial and high-tech economy, with service industries far outweighing manufacturing, construction, agriculture, and mining in both income produced (70 percent) and number of employees (81 percent). In the 1990’s the state ranked among the nation’s leaders in nuclear and space research.

Categories: History