New Mexico - The Land of Enchantment

A radio telescope at the Very Large Array, Plains of San Augustin

Among American states, New Mexico has the third highest percentage of Native Americans (after Alaska and Oklahoma) and the fifth-highest total population of Native Americans (after California, Oklahoma, Arizona and Texas). The majority of Native Americans in New Mexico are of Navajo or Puebloan descent, although there are also significant numbers of Jicarilla and Mescalero Apaches. Some 44% of the population also comes from Hispanic roots, although geneaologists have been discovering that New Mexicans of Hispanic heritage have an average of 30-40% Native American ancestry.

10,000 years ago, New Mexico was home to the Clovis culture: a grouping of Paleo-Indians who developed a very distinctive arrow point. Centuries after the Clovis people came the Mogollon and Mimbres cultures (in the south and southwest) and the Ancestral Puebloans (north-central and northwest). By the time of the Spanish arrival in the area, there were scattered groups of Apaches, Navajos and Utes and the Puebloan people of the Upper Rio Grande, San Juan/Rio Puerco areas and the central and western mountains (Salinas, Acoma, Laguna, Zuni).

Bobcat Pass on the Enchanted Circle
Bobcat Pass on a windy, snowy day along the Enchanted Circle

The arrival of the Spaniards was disastrous for the natives, especially since the Spaniards brought the Spanish Inquisition and a plethora of European diseases with them. If that wasn't enough, the men the Spanish Crown put in charge (Don Juan de Onate chief among them) turned out to be excruciatingly abusive to the people. The European diseases depopulated whole areas of North America, never mind just New Mexico. Then came the Franciscans, intent on either converting or killing every native who'd survived the plagues and epidemics. The excesses of the priests and of the morally and financially bankrupt Spanish nobles led to the Pueblo Revolt of 1680. The Pueblo Revolt was a real "American Revolution" and led to everything Spanish being ejected from the area in 1680. They tried to come back several times but had no luck until Don Diego de Vargas arrived with a charter from the King of Spain in 1692.

De Vargas was charged with retaking Nuevo Mexico for the King but he wasn't given any money or manpower to work with. He presented his charter to the governor of Chihuahua and was given an army with some amount of weaponry. The army was formed by emptying the prisons of Chihuahua and escorting the prisoners outside the city. There they were instructed to go north with de Vargas and never return, on penalty of death. They were also given several wagon loads of old swords, daggers, armor, helmets and blunderbusses with some shot and gunpowder. There weren't many horses so most of the men walked all the way to Santa Fe and points north.

Angel Peak National Recreation Area
The badlands at Angel Peak National Recreation Area

By the time they arrived in northern New Mexico, the alliance among the Pueblos had broken down and the Spanish were able to take advantage of that. It took a few years but New Mexico was soon under Spanish rule again (although they stopped short of trying to reconquer Hopiland). This time, though, certain things were different. The natives were no longer available for the taking: previously they had been used as little more than slaves by the Spanish leaders and the priests. And the natives were no longer subject to forced conversion to "Christianity."

In 1820, Mexico declared independence from Spain and deported many Spanish citizens. A peace was negotiated between Mexico and Spain but the King of Spain refused to honor it. That led to more deportations from Mexico as they worked to rid their country of every person who had been born in Spain. By 1830, there were very few Spanish-born people left in Mexico who retained any amount of Spanish loyalty. This included the Catholic priesthood. With virtually no priests available in New Mexico, that opened the door to the establishment of Los Hermanos Pentitentes. Los Hermanos were the elders in many villages and they stepped up to become the civic and religious authorities. In some areas of the Southwest (particularly communities that were first populated by genizaros), Los Hermanos are still active in local affairs.

The ruins of Pecos Mission at Pecos National Historic Park
The mission church built at Cicuye (Pecos Pueblo)

In 1821, William Becknell arrived in Santa Fe with several wagon loads of American-made trade goods. Up until that time, the Spanish had allowed no trade between northern New Mexico and the United States: all trade goods had to come through Veracruz to Mexico City to Chihuahua and then up El Camino Real. What finally arrived in Santa Fe and Taos was the dregs of the dregs, and it had been taxed to death before it got anywhere near Santa Fe. Becknell essentially established the Santa Fe Trail and it became a major trade and migration route that was in near-constant use until the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railroad arrived just outside Santa Fe in 1878.

Trade boomed along the Santa Fe Trail and New Mexico was doing quite well, until American citizens who'd migrated to Texas decided that they wanted to steal the wealth of New Mexico, too (Texas was a relatively poor state until the advent of the automobile and big oil). It took almost 10 years to accomplish but finally, Mexican authorities took action to stop the thieves from Texas. And the Texan thieves the Mexicans had caught and forced to walk home barefoot lied to the US Congress, of course, about who did what, when and why. That's how the Mexican-American War of 1846-1848 was started.

In 1846, Colonel Stephen Watts Kearny sent a courier to the Governor of Nuevo Mexico informing him that the Army of the West was on its way from the Arkansas River to conquer Nuevo Mexico for the United States. When Kearny arrived in Santa Fe a few days later, the Mexican governor, his government and all their troops had evacuated the city. Kearny's troops pushed south to Las Cruces, then crossed the Rio Grande and headed for Chihuahua and Monterey (as part of the Mexican-American War). Kearny himself traveled west with a small force and "invaded" California.

The North House at Taos Pueblo
The North House at Taos Pueblo

In January 1847, a group of Mexican citizens together with some Pueblo Indians attacked certain homes and business establishments in the village of Taos. Several prominent Americans and Mexicans were killed before American fighters arrived from Santa Fe and put down the Taos Uprising. The final "battle" saw the Americans shelling the chapel at Taos Pueblo with what they thought were most of the rebels inside. It turned out the chapel was filled with old men, women and children. The rebels themselves surrendered while the ruin of the chapel was still smoldering and shortly, most of them were tried, convicted and hanging from trees all around the Taos Plaza.

As the colony at Mora had also been supportive of the uprising, the village of Mora was looted and burned to the ground. Almost all the men, women and children found in the town of Mora were killed in the process. The only survivors were men who had gone into the mountains to hunt game for their families.

What isn't known so much is that the last slave auction held in the United States was held in that same Taos Plaza in 1867 (Congress had to pass another law, the Peonage Act of 1867, specifically aimed at stopping the practice in New Mexico). The market was a holdover from the days when Spain ruled the territory. Spanish officials never did spend much time in Taos, the early center of government was a long day's ride to the south at San Juan Pueblo. Then the government center was moved further south to the formerly inhabited region of Santa Fe in 1610. With Taos Pueblo's centuries-long history as a regional trading center, many illicit things went on under the blankets at market time.

In the beginning of the European invasion, under Spanish law virtually anyone could be sentenced into slavery by court or priest. Application of that legal structure was so pervasive and abusive it led to the Pueblo Revolt of 1680. The law was modified a bit after the reconquest of New Mexico in the 1690's but in the early 1700's, some Indian tribes (Comanche, Ute, Apache, Kiowa) started bringing captives from tribes not under Spanish rule (Navajo, Paiute, Cheyenne, Arapaho and others) to be auctioned at the Taos market. After the Anglo-Americans took over in 1847, the color of that market tilted more sharply black.

The Elfego Baca Memorial in Reserve
The Elfego Baca Memorial in Reserve

Under the Spanish, the term of slavery was 20 years. During that 20 years, the position of the Spanish Church was the slave was not human and had no soul. But on release from servitude, the previously enslaved had their souls miraculously restored to them and they became human beings again. That didn't help their plight much as they could become land-holding citizens only by jumping through a dangerous hoop: They had to settle in certain villages that were sited and organized purely to be defensive buffers against nomadic raiders, and they had to act as militia to stop those raiders from going any further toward Spanish settlements. In return for this they were given special consideration by the government and given land to support themselves. Some of those former slaves went on to become slave owners themselves.

Otherwise, as landless people with no legal means of support, most genizaros were forced to continue laboring for their previous owners or face starvation. For some of those genizaros, it worked out okay but many others died trying to make a life for themselves. It all depended on the temperament of the Spanish "noble" who "owned" them.

Similarly, in 1741 the people of Sandia were convinced by Franciscan priests to return to Sandia Pueblo from the relative safety of their homes at Payupki on Second Mesa in Hopiland. Some of them had fled to Hopiland after the 1680 revolt and more arrived there every time a new Spanish militia reached the area of Sandia and again killed, looted and burned in the name of the King of Spain. The Franciscan fathers sent to Payupki in 1740 were persistent and finally successful. On the Sandias arrival in the vicinity of Albuquerque, the Spanish authorities broke all promises made to the tribe and forced them all into that "defensive buffer" position for more than 30 years (some Hopis traveled with the Sandias and they were given the most exposed position in the settlement). The tribe was not allowed to rebuild their pueblo at a location of their own choosing until after Governor Juan Bautista de Anza and his troops decimated the upper echelons of the Comanche tribal command structure at the Battle of Cuerno Verde in Colorado in 1776.

It was quite different for slaves under the Americans and their laws... And as I mentioned above, the Confederacy was out of business two years before the slave traders on the Taos Plaza were finally put out of business. That wasn't the end of slavery (or any of the various euphemisms it has hidden under since) in New Mexico or the United States, but it was the end of the Taos public market.

Los Alamos, New Mexico
The canyons below Los Alamos
Hiking in Santa Fe National Forest
Hikers in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains

Fast Facts about New Mexico

Capital: Santa Fe
Largest City: Albuquerque
Became a State: January 6, 1912 : 47th
Area: 121,593 square miles : 5th
Highest Point: Wheeler Peak : 13,161'
Lowest Point: Red Bluff Reservoir : 2,842'

2010 New Mexico Population Demographics

Total Population
Population by Age
Under 18
18 & over
65 & over
Population by Ethnicity
Hispanic or Latino
Non Hispanic or Latino
Population by Race
Native American
Hawaiian or Pacific Islander
Two or more
Shiprock, a sacred peak on the Navajo Nation
Shiprock, a peak sacred to the Dineh and other people
Map of New Mexico
Earthships in the desert west of Taos Gorge
Earthships between Taos and Tres Piedras

Photos courtesy of TheArmchairExplorer, CCA-by-SA 4.0 License
Map courtesy of Cartesia MapArt US Terrain