The Pueblo tribes of the upper Rio Grande Valley are descendants of the Anasazi, better known today as the ancestral Puebloans, who from the mid-9th to the 13th centuries lived in the Four Corners Region -- where the states of New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado, and Utah now meet. The ancestral Puebloans built spectacular structures; you get an idea of their scale and intricacy at the ruins at Chaco Canyon and Mesa Verde. It isn't known exactly why they abandoned their homes (some archaeologists suggest it was due to drought; others claim social unrest), but most theories suggest that they moved from these sites to areas like Frijoles Canyon (Bandelier National Monument) and Puye, where they built villages resembling the ones they had left. Then several hundred years later, for reasons not yet understood, they moved down from the canyons onto the flat plain next to the Rio Grande. By the time the Spaniards arrived in the 1500s, the Pueblo culture was well established throughout what would become northern and western New Mexico.
Architectural style was a unifying mark of the otherwise diverse ancestral Puebloan and today's Pueblo cultures. Both built condominium-style communities of stone and mud adobe bricks, three and four stories high. Grouped around central plazas, the villages incorporate circular spiritual chambers called kivas. As farmers, the ancestral Puebloan and Pueblo peoples used the waters of the Rio Grande and its tributaries to irrigate fields of corn, beans, and squash. They were also the creators of elaborate works of pottery.
The Spanish Occupation
The Spanish ventured into the upper Rio Grande after conquering Mexico's Aztecs from 1519 to 1521. In 1540, Francisco Vásquez de Coronado led an expedition in search of the fabled Seven Cities of Cíbola, coincidentally introducing horses and sheep to the region. Neither Coronado nor a succession of fortune-seeking conquistadors could locate the legendary cities of gold, so the Spanish concentrated their efforts on exploiting the Native Americans.
Franciscan priests attempted to turn the Pueblo people into model peasants. Their churches became the focal points of every pueblo, with Catholic schools an essential adjunct. By 1625, there were approximately 50 churches in the Rio Grande Valley. (Two of the Pueblo missions, at Isleta and Acoma, are still in use today.) The Pueblos, however, weren't enthused about doing "God's work" for the Spanish -- building new adobe missions, tilling fields, and weaving garments for export to Mexico -- so Spanish soldiers came north to back the padres in extracting labor. In effect, the Pueblo people were forced into slavery.
Santa Fe was founded in 1610 as the seat of Spanish government in the upper Rio Grande. Governor Don Pedro de Peralta named the settlement La Villa Real de la Santa Fe de San Francisco de Asis (The Royal City of the Holy Faith of St. Francis of Assisi). The Palace of the Governors has been used continuously as a public building ever since -- by the Spanish, Pueblos (1680-92), Mexicans, and Americans. Today it stands as the flagship of the state museum system.
Decades of oppression by the Spanish colonials led to Pueblo unrest. Uprisings in the 1630s at Taos and Jemez left village priests dead and triggered even more repression. In 1680, a unified Pueblo rebellion, orchestrated from Taos, succeeded in driving the Spaniards from the upper Rio Grande. The leaders of the revolt defiled or destroyed the churches, just as the Spanish had destroyed the religious symbols of the native people. Revolutionaries took the Palace of the Governors, where they burned archives and prayer books, and converted the chapel into a kiva. They also burned much of the property in Santa Fe that had been built by the Europeans and laid siege to Spanish settlements up and down the Rio Grande Valley. Forced to retreat to Mexico, the colonists were not able to retake Santa Fe until 12 years later. Bloody battles raged for the next several years, but by the beginning of the 18th century, Nuevo Mexico was firmly in Spanish hands.
It remained so until Mexico gained its independence from Spain in 1821. The most notable event in the intervening years was the mid-1700s departure of the Franciscans, exasperated by their failure to wipe out all vestiges of traditional Pueblo religion. Throughout the Spanish occupation, eight generations of Pueblos had clung tenaciously to their way of life. However, by the 1750s, the number of Pueblo villages had shrunk by half.
The Arrival of the Anglos
The first Anglos to spend time in the upper Rio Grande Valley were mountain men: itinerant hunters, trappers, and traders. Trailblazers of the U.S. westward expansion, they began settling in New Mexico in the first decade of the 19th century. Many married into Pueblo or Hispanic families. Perhaps the best known was Kit Carson, a sometime federal agent, sometime scout, whose legend is inextricably interwoven with that of early Taos. Though he seldom stayed in one place for long, he considered the Taos area his home. He married Josepha Jaramillo, the daughter of a leading Taos citizen. Later he became a prime force in the final subjugation of the Plains Indians. The Taos home where he lived off and on for 40 years, until his death in 1868, is now a museum.
Wagon trains and eastern merchants followed Carson and the other early settlers. Santa Fe, Taos, and Albuquerque, already major trading and commercial centers at the end of the Chihuahua Trail (the Camino Real from Veracruz, Mexico, 1,000 miles south), became the western terminals of the new Santa Fe Trail (from Independence, Missouri, 800 miles east).
Even though independent Mexico granted the Pueblo people full citizenship and abandoned restrictive trade laws instituted by their former Spanish rulers, the subsequent 25 years of direct rule from Mexico City were not peaceful in the upper Rio Grande. Instead, they were marked by ongoing rebellion against severe taxation, especially in Taos. Neither did things quiet down when the United States assumed control of the territory during the U.S.-Mexican War. Shortly after General Stephen Kearney occupied Santa Fe (in a bloodless takeover) on orders of President James Polk in 1846, a revolt in Taos in 1847 led to the slaying of the new governor of New Mexico, Charles Bent. In 1848, the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo officially transferred title of New Mexico, along with Texas, Arizona, and California, to the United States.
Aside from Kit Carson, perhaps the two most notable personalities of 19th-century New Mexico were priests. Father Jose Martinez (1793-1867) was one of the first native-born priests to serve his people. Ordained in Durango, Mexico, he jolted the Catholic church after assuming control of the Taos parish: Martinez abolished the obligatory church tithe because it was a hardship on poor parishioners, published the first newspaper in the territory (in 1835), and fought large land acquisitions by Anglos after the United States annexed the territory.
On all these issues Martinez was at loggerheads with Bishop Jean-Baptiste Lamy (1814-88), a Frenchman appointed in 1851 to supervise the affairs of the first independent New Mexican diocese. Lamy, on whose life Willa Cather based her novel Death Comes for the Archbishop, served the diocese for 37 years. Lamy didn't take kindly to Martinez's independent streak and, after repeated conflicts, excommunicated the maverick priest in 1857. But Martinez was steadfast in his preaching. He established an independent church and continued as northern New Mexico's spiritual leader until his death.
Nevertheless, Lamy made many positive contributions to New Mexico, especially in the fields of education and architecture. Santa Fe's Romanesque Cathedral of St. Francis and the nearby Gothic-style Loretto Chapel, for instance, were constructed under his aegis. But he was adamant about adhering to strict Catholic religious tenets. Martinez, on the other hand, embraced the folk tradition, including the craft of santero (religious icon) carving and a tolerance of the Penitentes, a flagellant sect that flourished after the departure of the Franciscans in the mid-18th century.
With the advent of the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railway in 1879, New Mexico began to boom. Albuquerque in particular blossomed in the wake of a series of major gold strikes in the Madrid Valley, close to ancient Native American turquoise mines. By the time the gold lodes began to shrink in the 1890s, cattle and sheep ranching had become well entrenched. The territory's growth culminated in statehood in 1912.
Territorial governor Lew Wallace, who served from 1878 to 1881, was instrumental in promoting interest in the arts, which today flourish in northern New Mexico. While occupying the Palace of the Governors, Wallace penned the great biblical novel Ben-Hur. In the 1890s, Ernest Blumenschein, Bert Phillips, and Joseph Sharp launched the Taos art colony; it boomed in the decade following World War I when Mabel Dodge Luhan, D. H. Lawrence, Georgia O'Keeffe, Willa Cather, and many others visited or established residence in the area.
During World War II, the federal government purchased an isolated boys' camp west of Santa Fe and turned it into the Los Alamos National Laboratory, where the Manhattan Project and other top-secret atomic experiments were developed and perfected. The science and military legacies continue today; Albuquerque is among the nation's leaders in attracting defense contracts and high technology.
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