The earliest evidence of human occupation in what is now New Mexico, dating from about 20,000 years ago, has been found in Sandia Cave near Albuquerque. This so-called Sandia man was later joined by other nomadic hunters—the Clovis and Folsom people from the northern and eastern portions of the state, and the Cochise culture, which flourished in southwestern New Mexico from about 10,000 to 500 BC. The Mogollon people tilled small farms in the southwest from 300 BC to about 100 years before Columbus came to the New World. Also among the state's early inhabitants were the Basket Makers, a seminomadic people who eventually evolved into the Anasazi, or Cliff Dwellers. The Anasazi, who made their home in the Four Corners region (where present-day New Mexico meets Colorado, Arizona, and Utah), were the predecessors of the modern Pueblo Indians.
The Pueblo people lived along the upper Rio Grande, except for a desert group east of Albuquerque, who lived in the same kind of apartment-like villages as the river Pueblos. During the 13th century, the Navajo settled in the Four Corners area to become farmers, sheepherders, and occasional enemies of the Pueblos. The Apache, a more nomadic and warlike group who came at about the same time, later posed a threat to all the non-Indians who arrived in New Mexico during the Spanish, Mexican, and American periods.
Francisco Vásquez de Coronado led the earliest major expedition to New Mexico, beginning in 1540, 80 years before the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock. In 1598, Don Juan de Onate led an expedition up the Rio Grande, where, one year later, he established the settlement of San Gabriel, near present-day Espanola; in 1610, the Spanish moved their center of activity to Santa Fe. For more than two centuries, the Spaniards, who concentrated their settlements, farms, and ranches in the upper Rio Grande Valley, dominated New Mexico, except for a period from 1680 to about 1693, when the Pueblo Indians temporarily regained control of the region.
In 1821, Mexico gained its independence from Spain, and New Mexico came under the Mexican flag for 25 years. The unpopularity of government officials sent from Mexico City and the inability of the new republic to control the Apache led to the revolt of 1837, which was put down by a force from Albuquerque led by General Manuel Armijo. In 1841, as governor of the Mexican territory, Armijo defeated an invading force from the Republic of Texas, but he later made a highly controversial decision not to defend Apache Pass east of Santa Fe during the Mexican-American War, instead retreating and allowing US forces under the command of General Stephen Watts Kearny to enter the capital city unopposed on 18 August 1846.
Kearny, without authorization from Congress, immediately attempted to make New Mexico a US territory. He appointed the respected Indian trader Charles Bent, a founder of Bent's Fort on the Santa Fe Trail, as civil governor, and then led his army on to California. After Kearny's departure, a Mexican and Indian revolt in Taos resulted in Bent's death; the suppression of the Taos uprising by another US Army contingent secured American control over New Mexico, although the area did not officially become a part of the US until the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo ended the Mexican-American War in 1848.
New Mexico became a US territory as part of the Compromise of 1850, which also brought California into the Union as a free state. Territorial status did not bring about rapid or dramatic changes in the lives of those who were already in New Mexico. However, an increasing number of people traveling on the Santa Fe Trail—which had been used since the early 1820s to carry goods between Independence, Mo., and Santa Fe—were Americans seeking a new home in the Southwest. One issue that divided many of these new settlers from the original Spanish-speaking inhabitants was land. Native New Mexicans resisted, sometimes violently, the efforts of new Anglo residents and outside capital to take over lands that had been allocated during the earlier Spanish and Mexican periods. Anglo lawyers such as Thomas Benton Catron acquired unprecedented amounts of land from native grantees as payment of legal fees in the prolonged litigation that often accompanied these disputes. Eventually, a court of private land claims, established by the federal government, legally processed 33 million acres (13 million hectares) of disputed land from 1891 to 1904.
Land disputes were not the only cause of violence during the territorial period. In 1862, Confederate General Henry Hopkins Sibley led an army of Texans up the Rio Grande and occupied Santa Fe; he was defeated at Glorieta Pass in northern New Mexico by a hastily assembled army that included volunteers from Colorado and New Mexico and Union regulars, in a battle that has been labeled the Gettysburg of the West. The so-called Lincoln County War of 1878–81, a range war pitting cattlemen against merchants and involving, among other partisans, William H. Bonney (Billy the Kid), helped give the territory the image of a lawless region unfit for statehood.
Despite the tumult, New Mexico began to make substantial economic progress. In 1879, the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railroad entered the territory. General Lew Wallace, who was appointed by President Rutherford B. Hayes to settle the Lincoln County War, was the last territorial governor to enter New Mexico by stagecoach and the first to leave it by train.
By the end of the 19th century, the Indian threat that had plagued the Anglos, like the Spanish-speaking New Mexicans before them, had finally been resolved. New Mexicans won the respect of Theodore Roosevelt by enlisting in his Rough Riders during the Spanish-American War, and when he became president, he returned the favor by working for statehood. New Mexico finally became a state on 6 January 1912, under President William H. Taft.
In March 1916, irregulars of the Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa crossed the international boundary into New Mexico, killing, robbing, and burning homes in Columbus. US troops under the command of General John J. Pershing were sent into Mexico on a long and unsuccessful expedition to capture Villa, while National Guardsmen remained on the alert in the Columbus area for almost a year.
The decade of the 1920s was characterized by the discovery and development of new resources. Potash salts were found near Carlsbad, and important petroleum reserves in the southeast and northwest were discovered and exploited. Oil development made possible another important industry, tourism, which began to flourish as gasoline became increasingly available. This period of prosperity ended, however, with the onset of the Great Depression.
World War II revived the economy, but at a price. In 1942, hundreds of New Mexicans stationed in the Philippines were among the US troops forced to make the cruel "Bataan march" to Japanese prison camps. Scientists working at Los Alamos ushered in the Atomic Age with the explosion of the first atomic bomb at White Sands Proving Ground in June 1945.
The remarkable growth that characterized the Sunbelt during the postwar era has been noticeable in New Mexico. Newcomers from many parts of the country moved to the state, a demographic shift with profound social, cultural, and political consequences. Spanish-speaking New Mexicans, once an overwhelming majority, became a minority. As of the 2000 census, Hispanics accounted for 42% of the state's population, and Native Americans accounted for 9.5% of the population.
Defense-related industries have been a mainstay of New Mexico's economy in the postwar period. Income from this sector declined in the early 1990s due to reductions in military spending following the end of the Cold War. However, this decline was offset by New Mexico's diversification into nonmilitary production, including such high-tech projects as Intel's Rio Rancho plant, which, in the mid-1990s, was the world's largest computer-chip factory. Tourism also played a major role in New Mexico's economy through the 1990s, and the state remains a leading center of space and nuclear research.
Today New Mexico's leaders struggle with two persistent problems—poverty and crime. In 1998, with 20.4% of its residents living below the poverty level (the highest percentage in the nation), the state's children were found to be suffering. More than one in four children in New Mexico was poor, posing the immediate problems of hunger and malnutrition, lack of education, and a strain on the public health system as well as the long-term challenge to the juvenile justice system. Government figures in 1998 showed the state ranked as the most violent in the nation, with 961 crimes per 100,000 residents.
The state's public education system also posed a major issue in 2000, with the debate centering on proposed voucher legislation that would help parents pay for private schools. Opponents, including New Mexico's Democratic Party, argued in favor of legislation that would boost to public schools instead—increasing teacher pay, reducing class sizes, and improving early childhood education.
In recent years New Mexico has remained at the bottom of national rankings—ranking number one in crime, poverty, and dependence upon federal assistance, last in quality of education, 47th in livability, 44th in teachers' salaries, and 46th in health coverage.
Governor Bill Richardson, elected in 2002, came to the job with a long list of political credentials: former US Representative, UN ambassador, and Energy Secretary. In 2003 he focused on tax cuts, teachers' raises, school reform, job creation, water projects, changes in Medicaid, prescription drug coverage, and efforts to combat drunk driving.