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A Look Into Some Key Moments in New Mexico's History

By Thea Franklin

Learn about several special events from New Mexico's history. From expeditions seeking a land full of gold to a revolt that became one of the bloodiest in history, the desert that is New Mexico never seemed more interesting!

New Mexico didn't become a part of the union until 1912, but its history began thousands of years earlier. So, what are some historical facts about New Mexico?

Although we do not have any written history from that long ago, archaeological evidence shows that Native Americans have been in New Mexico for 11,000 years. Actual written history starts in what is known as the colonial period, where European settlers came to North America seeking new land and riches. This is when some of the most interesting stories in the history of New Mexico begin.

Hunting for Gold

Coronado as he is believed to have looked 

In 1536, a Spanish explorer named Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca and his companions reached a small settlement called Nueva Galicia in Mexico. Their exploration, to what is now Florida, had fallen apart and failed, leaving them to traverse the southern part of the country in search for other Spanish settlers. Upon arrival in the settlement, Cabeza de Vaca relayed stories told to him by the Native Americans of huge, rich cities to the north. These cities were supposed to be agriculturally and technologically advanced, and of course, full of gold and other treasure.

Several years later, a Franciscan priest named Marcos de Niza was sent north to search for the legendary cities. Upon his return, he spoke of a city named Cíbola that must be seen to be believed, located in what is today New Mexico. It was all CoroFrancisco Vásquez de Coronado, the current governor of the settlement, needed to convince him to prepare a large expedition of his own to find and conquer the city and any others like it. He set out north towards New Mexico in 1540. Unfortunately, the city of Cíbola did not match the description given by Marcos de Niza. Instead of a wealthy city full of gold, he found a pueblo village of Native Americans: the Zuni tribe.

Coronado demanded entrance to the city, and when he was denied, he ordered it taken by force. The Zuni were no match for the Spanish soldiers, and the city was easily won in what would later be known as the Capture ofCíbola. Coronado left part of his envoy with the Zuni and continued to travel farther in search of the rumored cities, though he would never succeed. He returned to New Mexico in 1541, leaving much destruction in his wake, and following an injury returned to Mexico the following year. His expedition was the first of many and would begin the colonization history of New Mexico.

The Bloody Revolt

Taos Pueblo Church rebuilt after the revolt destroyed it 

The exploration and colonization of New Mexico would lead to much frustration and resentment on the part of the Native Americans. They were frequently forced to provide food and shelter for the Spanish during their explorations, and in 1598 the entire area of New Mexico was claimed for Spain. Over time they were essentially forced into a sort of slavery, and soon the Spanish chose to have the Native Americans convert to Christianity while their own religion was to be completely done away with. The natives cooperated for many years, but eventually the Spanish would push too far. One tribe, the Pueblos, had enough.

By 1675, the Native Americans were disillusioned with Christianity and had slowly, and secretly, gone back to their original religious ways. The Spanish were angry at this disobedience, and that year Governor Juan Francisco Treviño ordered the arrest and trial of 47 medicine men for the crime of witchcraft. All the men were sent to prison, with four sentenced to death; only three were eventually hanged as the fourth committed suicide. An angry group of Pueblos threatened the governor, who eventually released the remaining men. One man, who would be known as Popé, went into hiding and began forming what would be known as The Pueblo Revolt.

On August 10, 1680, over 400 Spanish settlers and almost two dozen priests were savagely murdered by the Pueblos in an organized rebellion. The homes, and especially the churches, were completely destroyed by the rebels. The rebellion became so large and widespread, not to mention dangerous, that the Spanish were not only forced to flee from the city, but from the entire state of New Mexico. The Spanish would not return for 12 years, proving that the Native Americans would not go down quietly.

The U.S. Takes Over

General Stephen W. Kearny 

Mexico controlled much of the southwest and far west portions of North America, including New Mexico, by 1846. It was at this time that the ever expanding United States was looking to add to the country. Problems began years earlier when Texas declared its independence from Mexico, though the country never really accepted it. It wasn't until 1845, when the United States was denied the purchase of Texas, did the possibility of war really begin. Soldiers were sent to guard Texas from Mexican troops, and within a matter of months, minor battles had begun. By May of 1846, Congress had declared war on Mexico.

In June of that year, the war came to New Mexico. The American General Stephen Watts Kearny brought his army into New Mexico fully prepared for battle, but no one wanted to fight. The Mexican governor surrendered immediately and Kearny was able to take the city of Santa Fe without firing a single shot. This is remembered as one of the more famous successes as it was a bloodless takeover in the middle of a very violent war. Kearny started a new government in Santa Fe and put into effect what would be known as the Kearny Code, which did not differentiate between those that were citizens and those that weren't, but considered them all the same. This would allow for legal rights and religious freedoms and would become one of the foundations of New Mexico's legal code.

Though there were some uprisings following the U.S. takeover of New Mexico, they were quickly put down and the rebels executed. At the end of the Mexican-American War in 1848, the United States officially gained control of the southwest. The area containing New Mexico, as well as what is now Arizona, would be known as the New Mexico Territory from 1850 on. Statehood was pushed off for years due to issues with population numbers and slavery disputes. Arizona would eventually gain its own territory, and in 1912, New Mexico was finally admitted to the union as a state.



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