History of Santa Fe, NM

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The trading post established in 1803

The Royal City of the Holy Faith of San Francis of Assisi, which is Santa Fe, New Mexico, is the continental United State’s oldest European city west of the Mississippi.

In addition, Santa Fe is the earliest capital city in North America. Nicknamed the City Different, Santa Fe also holds the oldest community celebration in the U.S., the Fiesta de Santa Fe, and is the site of the Palace of the Governors, the longest standing public building in the nation.

The city has acted as the capital for four distinctive political areas: first it was the Spanish Kingdom of New Mexico, then the Mexican province of Nuevo Méjico, followed by the American New Mexico Territory – which included Arizona – and finally, the State of New Mexico.

Early History and Beginnings

Even though Santa Fe was not founded until 1607, Pueblo Indians, the Tewa, had occupied the area since the 1050s. In 1540, Francisco Vázquez de Coronado first claimed the area for Spain. It was called the Kingdom of New Mexico. It would be 48 years before Madrid appointed a Governor General for the area. The first was Juan de Oñate, who established his capital in San Juan Pueblo, about 25 miles north of Santa Fe. He served for about 11 years and then Pedro de Peralta took office. De Peralta moved the capital to Santa Fe in 1610, one year after arriving in New Mexico.

Only the occasional ride by the Apaches, Navajos or Comanche disturbed the growth and developing wealth of the city f or the next 70 years. The Spanish soldiers continued their labor of conquest and the Franciscan missionaries their missionary efforts. But in 1680, tired of the abuse and of the ban on their traditional religious practices, the Pueblo revolted. Some 400 of the 2,500 settlers were killed and the rest flew to Mexico. The Indians burned the city, except for the Palace of the Governors. They held Santa Fe for 12 years.

Don Diego de Vargas

In 1692, Diego de Vargas achieved one of the most unusual re-conquests of a territory ever. At the head of a small unit of Spanish soldiers, de Vargas when from town to town offering the Pueblos forgiveness and security if they would go back to Christianity and swear loyalty to the Spanish crown. It worked everywhere so he tried it in Santa Fe, too. In July he entered the city with six soldiers, seven cannons and one Franciscan priest. Negotiations with the Pueblo leaders began an on Sept. 14 de Vargas announced the retaking. This bloodless capture is what is commemorated in the Fiesta de Santa Fe.

The peace did not last, though. The Pueblos revolted two more times. In those occasions de Vargas was not as magnanimous, suppressing the uprisings with extreme violence and bloodletting.

The slow pace growth and development of the city continued for the next decades. American traders and trappers began to frequent the area and in 1841 a detachment of soldiers arrived from Texas to take control of the Santa Fe Trail. In 1846 The U.S. declared war on Mexico and some 1,700 troops of the Army of the West under Brigadier General Stephen W. Kearny occupied Santa Fe, raised the Stars and Stripes over the central plaza, and declared New Mexico American territory. Under the provisions of the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo the area was officially transferred to the United States.

Innovation and Corruption in the 19th Century

The middle to late 1800s brought great change to the city. The most reverend John B. Lamy, a French clergy, became the first Vicar Apostolic of New Mexico. He arrived in 1851 and began construction of Santa Fe’s Saint Francis Cathedral. Then during March of 1863 Confederate troops occupied the city for a few days.

The establishment of the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe railroad in the 1870s brought hope of further growth to the city; however the rough terrain made it impossible with the technology of the times to bring the rails to the city. It ended up going through Lamy, a small town just south of Santa Fe.

Then, in the 1880s with the railroad and the newfangled telegraph, the whole state including Santa Fe, experience tremendous economic and population growth. Corruption however came along. Things got so bad that President Rutherford B. Hayes picked a territorial governor to cleanse the state. His choice was General Lew Wallace, a Civil War veteran and author, who would finish his most famous work – Ben Hur: A Tale of the Christ – in Santa Fe. It is said that Wallace clean up New Mexico so well that Billy the Kid threatened to go to Santa Fe and shoot him down.

Some decline occurred after that. But with the development of Native American crafts, the preservation of historic buildings, colonies of artist, zoning code that mandates the use of Pueblo style architecture and tourism, Santa Fe is a flourishing city once again. It is one of the most distinct and interesting cities in the country.