The history and culture of New Mexico is arguably the most diverse and fascinating in the United States. While the Founding Fathers were busy wresting America from the British on the east coast, New Mexico was already a well-established colony populated by Hispanic and Native American settlers. This hardy mix of Indian, Spanish and Anglo culture hasn’t changed much since Santa Fe was founded in 1608. Beautifully rugged and endlessly engaging, New Mexico is like stepping into another land.
Some of North America’s most ancient native cultures made their home in New Mexico, including the Clovis, Anasazi and Pueblo people. Evidence of their settlement is the state’s top cultural attractions like Bandelier National Monument and the Gila Cliff Dwellings. In fact, the Native American culture is still alive and well with 11 active pueblos scattered around the state.
Spanish explorer Francisco Vazquez de Coronado was searching for the Seven Golden Cities of Cibola in 1540 when he made his way to the region. The Province of New Mexico was established in 1598, connecting the Spanish New World colonies of Central America with North America via the Royal Road of the Interior.
Santa Fe was founded in 1608, essentially making it the oldest town in America even though New Mexico would not become an official state until 1912. Santa Fe was developed by the Spanish as a trade center, with the Native American tribes eventually connecting with Anglo traders from the east coast. Santa Fe remains one of America’s most fascinating destinations, with a downtown packed with beautiful historic sites.
Albuquerque was the next big town to be established in 1706 as an alternative settlement to Santa Fe. The territory was passed to Mexico in 1821 after the War of Independence. The Mexican-American War of 1846-1848 ended with Mexico ceding most of the American Southwest and California to the US, including New Mexico.
In the 20th century, New Mexico was used by the US government for weapons testing at White Sands, Los Alamos and Alamogordo. The world’s first atomic bombs were developed during WWII at Los Alamos, just outside of Santa Fe, and then detonated at White Sands Proving Grounds. Major federal research labs and three Air Force bases have contributed greatly to the modern economy although tourism also has a large impact.
In many ways, New Mexico feels like a completely separate country from America. Its population is heavily made up of Hispanic and Native American people who can trace their ancestry back centuries. Anglos are actually a minority here, but there is little overt animosity between the ethnic groups as many have intermarried over the years. New Mexico is certainly one of America’s most rugged and most underdeveloped states, but its nature beauty and fascinating culture make up for any deficiency in modern amenities.
Most travelers only take the time to see the tourist hubs of Santa Fe, Taos and Albuquerque, all of which are excellent representations of the state’s culture and landscape. But don’t expect warm, friendly welcomes from everyone. New Mexico is a poor and often troubled place, and its residents generally have larger issues to deal with than entertaining tourists. This will be particularly evident if you drive into the rural hamlets where poverty is prevalent. But don’t let this deter you from exploring, as New Mexico is one of the country’s most fascinating places chock-full of things to see and do.