Use of the land and minerals of New Mexico goes back to the prehistoric time of the early cultures in the Southwest that long preceded the flourishing sedentary civilization of the Pueblos that the Spanish found along the Rio Grande and its tributaries. Many of the Native American pueblos exist today much as they were in the 13th cent. Word of the pueblos reached the Spanish through Cabeza de Vaca, who may have wandered across S New Mexico between 1528 and 1536; they were enthusiastically identified by Fray Marcos de Niza as the fabulously rich Seven Cities of Cibola.
A full-scale expedition (1540–42) to find the cities was dispatched from New Spain, under the leadership of Francisco Vásquez de Coronado. The treatment of the Pueblo people by Coronado and his men led to the long-standing hostility between the Native Americans and the Spanish and slowed Spanish conquest. The first regular colony at San Juan was founded by Juan de Oñate in 1598. The Native Americans of Acoma revolted against the Spanish encroachment and were severely suppressed.
In 1609 Pedro de Peralta was made governor of the "Kingdom and Provinces of New Mexico," and a year later he founded his capital at Santa Fe. The little colony did not prosper greatly, although some of the missions flourished and haciendas were founded. The subjection of Native Americans to forced labor and attempts by missionaries to convert them resulted in violent revolt by the Apache in 1676 and the Pueblo in 1680. These uprisings drove the Spanish entirely out of New Mexico.
The Spanish did not return until the campaign of Diego de Vargas Zapata reestablished their control in 1692. In the 18th cent. the development of ranching and of some farming and mining was more thorough, laying the foundations for the Spanish culture in New Mexico that still persists. Over one third of the population today is of Hispanic origin (and few are recent immigrants from Mexico) and roughly the same percentage speak Spanish fluently.
When Mexico achieved its independence from Spain in 1821, New Mexico became a province of Mexico, and trade was opened with the United States. By the following year the Santa Fe Trail was being traveled by the wagon trains of American traders. In 1841 a group of Texans embarked on an expedition to assert Texan claims to part of New Mexico and were captured.
The Mexican War marked the coming of the Anglo-American culture to New Mexico. Stephen W. Kearny entered (1846) Santa Fe without opposition, and two years later the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo ceded New Mexico to the United States. The territory, which included Arizona and other territories, was enlarged by the Gadsden Purchase (1853).
A bid for statehood with an antislavery constitution was halted by the Compromise of 1850, which settled the Texas boundary question in New Mexico's favor and organized New Mexico as a territory without restriction on slavery. In the Civil War, New Mexico was at first occupied by Confederate troops from Texas, but was taken over by Union forces early in 1862. After the war and the withdrawal of the troops, the territory was plagued by conflict with the Apache and Navajo. The surrender of Apache chief Geronimo in 1886 ended conflict in New Mexico and Arizona (which had been made a separate territory in 1863). However, there were local troubles even after that time.
Already the ranchers had taken over much of the grasslands. The coming of the Santa Fe RR in 1879 encouraged the great cattle boom of the 80s. There were typical cow towns, feuds among cattlemen as well as between cattlemen and the authorities (notably the Lincoln County War), and the activities of such outlaws as Billy the Kid. The cattlemen were unable to keep out the sheepherders and were overwhelmed by the homesteaders and squatters, who fenced in and plowed under the "sea of grass." Land claims gave rise to bitter quarrels among the homesteaders, the ranchers, and the old Spanish families, who made claims under the original grants. Despite overgrazing and reduction of lands, ranching survived and continues to be important together with the limited but scientifically controlled irrigated and dry farming. Statehood was granted in 1912.
In 1943 the U.S. government built Los Alamos as a center for atomic research. The first atom bomb was exploded at the White Sands Proving Grounds in July, 1945. The growth and use of military and nuclear facilities continued after World War II. High-altitude experiments were apparently responsible for a 1947 incident near Roswell that led to persistent claims that the government was concealing captured extraterrestrial corpses and equipment. In the 1990s the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, deep in salt formations near Carlsbad, was readied for storage of nuclear wastes, amid controversy.
New Mexico's climate, tranquillity, and startling panoramas have made the state a place of winter or year-round residence for those seeking health or a place of retirement. Many writers and artists have made their homes in communities such as Taos and Santa Fe, including D. H. Lawrence and Georgia O'Keeffe. The Apache, Navajo, and Pueblo, and some Ute, live on federal reservations within the state—the Navajo Nation, with over 16 million acres (6.5 million hectares), is the largest in the country—and the Pueblo, a settled agricultural people, live in pueblos scattered throughout the state. At the beginning of the 1990s the Native American population of New Mexico was more than 134,000.