New Mexico has been occupied by Native Americans since prehistoric times; they hunted game in the mountains and farmed along the river banks. They were called Pueblo Indians by the Spaniards who first explored the area in 1539 because they clustered in tight communities that were similar to Spanish pueblos or villages. The Spaniards ventured into New Mexico in search of gold. They established the first settlement in 1598 and made Sante Fe their capital. Eventually, the Spaniards spread all the way to Rio Grande. But clashes with the Indians resulted in the Spaniards being driven out of New Mexico in the late 17th century. Don Diego de Vargas of Spain reconquered the territory twelve years later, and the two cultures learned to co-exist entirely without conflict from then on. The Indians taught the Spanish how to grow beans, chile, and corn while the Spanish passed their metalwork skills, which the natives used to craft jewelry.
When Mexico won its independence in 1821, New Mexico became a part of the Mexican Republic. The territory, however, was taken over by the U.S. after the U.S.-Mexican War of 1846. During the latter half of the 19th century, migrants from eastern U.S. began arriving via the Santa Fe Trail bringing a new Victorian culture to the territory. In 1912, New Mexico became a state and a new wave of European immigrants of German, Italian, Irish, and Russian descent arrived to work the mines, which were set up across the state to extract the land of its gold, oil, coal, and natural gas. Today, New Mexico’s mining industry remains its chief economic bread and butter, yielding about $5 billion a year in oil and uranium. New Mexico has also seen its Spanish community enhanced by new immigrants from Central and South America. This influx has made the states even more religious with towns holding fiestas honoring patron saints.
Pueblo Way of Life
The Pueblo Indians have a reverential relationship with the land that they express by living in flat-roofed earthen dwellings, carving drawings on rock faces, and holding religious ceremonies involving rhythmic chants and dances.
The semi-nomadic Navajo and Apache Indians arrived in New Mexico some time after the Pueblo Indians and adopted the Pueblo way of life, although their societies were less structured and more individualistic.
Some 20 Pueblo groups still remain today in New Mexico and live in close-knit communities made up of centuries-old dwelling; each group practicing a unique culture. Some of the Pueblo groups and their reservations can actually be visited and their religious ceremonies observed by tourists subject to various restrictions (such as no photography), while other groups remain strictly closed off. Many of the Pueblo groups sell a variety of crafts and wares that you can purchase at the reservations. Interested artists can sometimes pay a fee and obtain permission to photograph the Pueblos and their ceremonies. For a less first-hand experience, there are many museums and sites in Santa Fe and Albuquerque, including the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center, where you can learn more about the Pueblo way of life.
The Rio Grande river is the lifeblood of New Mexico’s arid land; it serves as the natural dividing line between east and west, running from the mountainous north to New Mexico’s south-central border with Mexico. The river gives agricultural life to New Mexico’s southwest region.
In northern New Mexico, you’ll find heavily forested areas covered with pine and spruce and streamed by pristine river streams. This region is great for trout and fly-fishing, game-hunting, and in the winter world-class skiing.
The northwest region of New Mexico encompasses a small section of the Navajo Reservation while the southwest is covered by the Gila National Forest and its 3.3 million acres, home of the cliff dwellings of the Mogollon culture of the 13th century. In the southeast is the Mesilla Valley, an agricultural area where cotton, chiles, and onions are grown.
Eastern New Mexico is characterized by vast plains and windswept grasslands where herds of cattle and sheep congregate. In the west, you’ll find the Sacramento Mountains where the Apache natives live. The highlight of this region are the underground Carlsbad Caverns and its massive chambers, considered one of the world’s greatest natural wonders.
New Mexico has two major city destinations, Albuquerque and Santa Fe. One-third of the state’s population resides in Albuquerque where you’ll find the state’s economic and educational heart. Visitors should check out the cultural museums there, which include the dinosaur museum, New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science, the Pueblo Indian museum, Indian Pueblo Cultural Center, and the National Atomic Museum, which is dedicated to preserving the information and history of nuclear technology; New Mexico was after all the state where the atomic bomb was developed. Also be sure to visit the Petroglyph National Monument and its volcanic basalt that have been carved with petroglyphs of animals by the natives.
Santa Fe, on the other hand, is New Mexico’s capital city, sheltered behind the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. The narrow streets, century-old adobe buildings, dirt roads, and carved bultos and painted retablos that adorn the church altars and walls give Santa Fe a charming, even sensibly romantic Hispanic character to it.
Another major tourist destination is Roswell and its UFO landing site and museum. A 1947 wreckage that crash landed in this city has been speculated and hyped up over the years, especially by Hollywood. Many believe the wreckage was of a UFO alien craft that the U.S. government recovered and has kept undisclosed to the public.
Another worthwhile destination is the White Sands National Monument in the Tularosa Valley. The monument covers a field of white sand dunes that are made up of gypsum crystals, a rarity since Gypsum is water soluble.