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Colonized by Spain, the land that is now New Mexico became a U.S. territory following treaties signed with Mexico in 1848 and 1853. The territory did not become a U.S. state until 1912. During World War II, New Mexico was the site of the top-secret Manhattan Project, in which top U.S. scientists raced to create the first atomic bomb. It was exploded at the Trinity test site, near Alamagordo, on July 16, 1945.

In 1947, Roswell, New Mexico, became a topic of speculation about extraterrestrial life when a local farmer discovered what some believed were the remains of a crashed alien spacecraft on his land. Visitors to New Mexico frequent attractions like the Very Large Array telescope in Socorro and the historic city of Santa Fe, which artist Georgia O’Keeffe famously called home.

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New Mexico Native American History

Some of the first evidence of early humans in North America, including spearheads and other tools, were discovered in Clovis, New Mexico, in the 1930s. Archaeologists used their findings to date human occupation back to the last Ice Age, at least 20,000 years ago, when nomadic people crossed the Bering Strait.

By about A.D. 400, these hunter-gatherers started permanently settling in the area now known as New Mexico. Around the end of the 13th century, a major event—possibly a drought—caused them to abandon their settlements and relocate to agricultural communities in New Mexico’s river valleys. When the Spanish arrived in New Mexico, they called these Native American settlements and the people who lived in them “Pueblos,” which means “village.”

Between 200 and 1300, the Navajo (Diné) also migrated into the southwestern United States and developed a rich culture in New Mexico starting at around 900. The Apache arrived in New Mexico around 1300.

The arrival of Spanish and then American settlers led to conflicts with these communities, resulting in the deaths of many Indigenous people and the loss of their lands.

Pueblo Revolt

The Pueblo Revolt of 1680 was the most successful uprising of Native Americans against colonists in North America. In the 17th century, Spanish missionaries came to New Mexico to convert the Pueblo people to Christianity, sanctioned by the Spanish government. They were accompanied by Spanish settlers, some of whom imposed forced labor on Indigenous people. The local Native American population declined due to violence, famine and disease from 80,000 at the start of the 17th century to about 17,000 by the late 17th century.

The Puebloans grew to resent the oppressive colonial policies. The situation reached a breaking point in 1670 when the Spanish governor of New Mexico ordered several Pueblo men executed and others publicly whipped. One of those men, Po’Pay, organized an alliance of Indigenous people throughout New Mexico, including such diverse tribes as the Hopi, Keres and Zuñi, to revolt. In 1680, the Pueblo people pillaged Spanish haciendas, burned down missions and killed 401 settlers and 21 Franciscan priests. The Spanish fled to Texas and didn’t return to New Mexico for another 12 years.

Geronimo

The Apache in New Mexico also fought back against Spanish settlements and forceful relocation to Native American reservations in the 19th century, famously led by Chiricahua Apache leader Geronimo. He and his people fought for more than 30 years to protect their homeland, finally surrendering in 1886 and ending the so-called Indian Wars in the American southwest.

As part of the terms of surrender, 300 Chiricahua Apache were forcibly removed to Florida. After 27 years of imprisonment, they were set free in 1913. Two-thirds returned to settle in New Mexico; the Mescalero Apache are their descendants.

The Long Walk

In the late 1700s, the Navajo (Diné) fought with the Spanish, who allied with rival tribes and enslaved the Navajo they captured. Conflict reignited in the early 1860s as more American settlers of European descent began moving into Navajo territory. In 1863, the U.S. military, led by Lt. Colonel Kit Carson, launched a scorched earth campaign across the Navajo homelands—burning villages, killing livestock and demolishing water sources until the Navajo surrendered.

In January 1864, Carson and his troops forced more than 8,000 Navajo men, women and children from Arizona and New Mexico to walk or ride more than 300 miles from Fort Canby, New Mexico, to a reservation near Fort Sumner, New Mexico. This “Long Walk,” as it became known, resulted in the death of an estimated 300 Navajo due to starvation or exposure. The goal of the internment was to force the Navajo to adopt the Western culture, but many resisted assimilation. Four years later, the U.S.-Navajo Treaty of 1868 allowed the Navajo to return to a sliver of their homeland in Arizona and New Mexico.

Today, there are 23 federally-recognized Native American tribes in New Mexico, including 19 Pueblos, three Apache and the Navajo Nation. More than 228,400 Native American citizens comprise almost 11 percent of the state’s population.

New Mexico's Spanish Explorers, Colonists and Missionaries

Spanish Francisco Vázquez de Coronado’s expedition arrived in the area now known as New Mexico in 1540 on a quest for gold and silver. They found Native American settlements but no treasure and left. Other expeditions over the following decades failed. In 1598, supported by the Spanish state, Juan de Oñate led a group of soldiers, cattle and Franciscan priests into New Mexico, creating headquarters for the new colony at San Gabriel.

The fledgling colonists clashed with Indigenous people, who resented the colonists’ encroachment on their lands and their attempts to Christianize their people. In 1610, a new governor, Pedro de Peralta, established the first Spanish settlement at Santa Fe. The settlement grew to a population of 1,000 by the end of the century. The Pueblo Revolt of 1680 led the Spanish to abandon New Mexico for El Paso, where they remained for more than a decade.

In 1693, Diego de Vargas secured the cooperation of a number of Pueblo people. He returned to New Mexico the following year with 800 settlers and 100 soldiers to reestablish a settlement at Santa Fe. The settlers again clashed with the Native Americans in the region, including a major uprising in 1696. Weakened by war and disease, the Pueblo people eventually forged a weak alliance with the Spanish to fend off other enemy tribes, such as the Navajo.

At the beginning of the 19th century, Spanish colonists throughout New Spain began to struggle for Mexican independence. The Mexican War of Independence began in 1810. In 1821, Mexico gained independence from Spain, and New Mexico became a part of Mexico.

U.S. Territory and Statehood

In 1846, the Mexican-American War began when the United States declared war on Mexico over a disputed boundary in Texas. The war ended in 1848 with an American victory. Under the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, the United States paid Mexico $15 million in exchange for 525,000 square miles of land making up much of the present southwestern United States, including parts of New Mexico. The victory enshrined the concept of Manifest Destiny in American beliefs.

Tension continued between the two countries until the Gadsden Purchase finalized in 1854. The United States agreed to pay Mexico $10 million for 29,670 square miles of land that became part of New Mexico and Arizona.

The New Mexico territory slowly assimilated into the United States, initially offering to join with Arizona as a single state—a move rejected by Arizona voters in 1906. It wasn’t until January 6, 1912, that New Mexico was finally admitted to the Union as the 47th state.

Role in World War II

New Mexico played a significant role in the United States throughout World War II. Around the start of the war, the military began looking for an indecipherable code language to transmit messages. They settled on the Navajo language, spoken by fewer than 30 Navajos in New Mexico and Arizona at the time due to an early 20th-century American policy of forced assimilation. The first Navajo Code Talkers attended a training camp in May 1942. More than 400 code talkers were eventually deployed throughout the war, especially in the Pacific, and the code was never broken by enemy forces.

Following the bombing of Pearl Harbor, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed an executive order in 1942 declaring the western United States a “war zone,” leading the way for the internment of people with Japanese ancestry. Three Japanese internment camps were created in New Mexico, with more than 4,555 Japanese-Americans interned at a Santa Fe camp between 1942 and 1946.

On July 16, 1945, the world’s first atomic bomb was tested at the Trinity Site in central New Mexico. The bomb was the creation of the Manhattan Project, which was commissioned to build a nuclear weapon in 1942 after receiving intelligence that Germany was developing an atomic bomb of its own. Residents reported seeing the 18.6-kiloton explosion as far as 200 miles away.

Tourism and Economy

After World War II ended, the federal government claimed millions of acres of land in New Mexico to build bases, missile ranges and research and development facilities. Los Alamos National Laboratory, established in 1943 for developing and testing atomic bombs during World War II, continues to serve as one of the country’s foremost research institutions.

Tourism is another major driver of the New Mexico economy. Roswell, New Mexico remained a tourist destination for people interested in extraterrestrials after a rancher discovered unusual debris, including what some people claimed were alien bodies, in a pasture outside the city in July 1947. Air Force officials claimed it was the remains of a crashed weather balloon. The theory was finally put to rest in 1997 when the U.S. Air Force released a 231-page report on Roswell. The report explained that the “alien bodies” found at the crash site were government test dummies designed to improve pilots’ chances for survival when falling from high altitudes.

Originating in 1972, the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors each October who come to witness more than 600 colorful hot air balloons ascend into the air over nine days.

Date of Statehood: January 6, 1912

Capital: Santa Fe

Population: 2,059,179 (2010)

Size: 121,590 square miles

Nickname(s): Land of Enchantment

Motto: Crescit Eundo (“It Grows as it Goes”)

Tree: Piñon Pine

Flower: Yucca

Bird: Greater Roadrunner

Interesting Facts

  • Constructed in 1610, the Palace of the Governors in Santa Fe is the oldest seat of government in the United States.
  • White Sands National Park contains the largest gypsum dune field in the world. The result of water evaporating from transitory lakes with high mineral content, gypsum deposits are windswept into picturesque white sand dunes spanning 275 square miles.
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  • The Spanish language spoken by close to a quarter of a million people throughout New Mexico and southern Colorado is an ancient dialect that is largely Castilian in origin.

Sources 

Smithsonian Magazine, The Clovis Point and the Discovery of America’s First Culture.

New Mexico Tourism Department, The Story of the Clovis People.

Smithsonian Magazine, Riddles of the Anasazi.

New Mexico Office of the Secretary of State, About New Mexico: Native Americans.

The New York Times, Why New Mexico’s 1680 Pueblo Revolt Is Echoing in 2020 Protests.

Indian Pueblo Cultural Center, A Brief History of the Pueblo Revolt.

National Park Service, Historic New Mexico Spanish Missions.

National Park Service, Visiting New Mexico Pueblos.

Tourism Santa Fe, Native American Culture and History.

New Mexico Indian Affairs Department, New Mexico’s Twenty-Three Tribes and the Indian Affairs Department.

National Park Service, Apachean.

National Park Service, The Apache Wars Part II: Geronimo.

National Park Service, Post Apache Wars.

Mescalero Apache Tribe, Our History.

Crow Canyon Archaeological Center. The Long Walk.

National Park Service, Kit Carson.

Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian, The Long Walk.

Utah American Indian Digital Archive, History: The Navajo.

National Park Service, New Mexico, 1536-1680.

Smithsonian National Museum of American History, Spanish New Mexico.

City of Albuquerque, Parks & Recreation, Colonial New Mexico.

National Park Service, The Mexican-American War.

National Archives, Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo (1848).

PBS, The Mexican-American War.

United States Senate, States in the Senate, New Mexico Timeline.

U.S. Department of State, Gadsden Purchase, 1853–1854.

U.S. House of Representatives, Overview of New Mexico Politics, 1848–1898.

National Archives, Manhattan Project Notebook (1942).

Los Alamos National Laboratory, About the Lab.

United States Air Force, Trinity: World's First Nuclear Test.

Atomic Heritage Foundation, World War II and New Mexico.

The Washington Post, 75 years ago, Roswell ‘flying saucer’ report sparked UFO obsession.

City of Roswell, Our History.

Associated Press, Untitled.

Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta, History.

Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta, Final Numbers 2017.

National Trust for Historic Preservation, Palace of the Governors.

United States Census Bureau, New Mexico Population.

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