New Mexico’s Historic Sites Tell a Story of Epic Proportions

Braden Anderson | SantaFe.com - April 22, 2016

'Explore History, Where it Happened'

While it is one of the most recently annexed states in the US, admitted to the union in only 1912, New Mexico’s history is an ancient one, that started long before The Constitution was even a thought. The name ‘New Mexico’, or Nuevo Mexico in Spanish, was given to the region as late as 1563, more than two hundred years before US independence from Britain. Even the state’s current capital, Santa Fe, was founded as a capital of New Spain in 1610.

For thousands of years, the region that would some day become New Mexico has been home to numerous cultures, peoples, politics, and religions that would shape the state as we know it today. Fortunately for history-buffs and the weekend vacationer alike, a face-to-face experience with these pillars of state history is not hard to find.

Having been a trade center, and seat of government for many different cultures over the past few thousand years, Santa Fe is a great place to start any historic journey, as many of the states historic sites are within a day’s drive from the city.

Coronado Historic Site is one such site.  As with many of New Mexico’s historic sites, Coronado marks a turning point in New Mexican history.  According to records, the site marks the encampment where Spanish Conquistador Francisco Vasquez de Coronado organized his expedition, consisting of 300 soldiers and 800 Indian allies from the south, before descending into the Rio Grande Valley to search for the fabled “seven cities of gold”.  Like many histories of New Mexico, this site clearly shows the intermingling of early peoples.  Near Coronado’s encampment, a Tewa pueblo, Kuaua, was discovered and excavated in the 1930’s. The modern day visitor center continues to represent this clash of cultures with artifacts from both Native American and Spanish Colonial origin.

Another great example of this coalescence of cultures can be found at Jemez Historic Site in Jemez Springs, NM, about an hour and half’s drive from Santa Fe. An inspiring  drive itself, winding up mountain roads and through meadows, State Highway 4 eventually brings visitors to natural mineral hot springs, leaving no question to why multiple early occupiers of the New Mexico territory crossed paths here.  At Jemez Historic Site, stone ruins of a 500 year old Indian village sit nearby a Spanish-Catholic mission, San Jose los Jemez, which itself dates to at least 1610.  To bring perspective to this site,  and New Mexico’s extensive and colorful history, the massive stone walls of the mission were constructed about the same time Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock.

Timelines aside, the history of New Mexico spans massive geographic scope as well.  Much of the state’s history is the story of long-used trade routes and travel-ways, which are largely responsible for the blending of cultures that would define modern New Mexico.  One of the oldest, and most influential of these early roadways is the El Camino Real (officially El Camino Real de Tierra Adentro, or “The Royal Road of the Interior Land), a 1,600 mile route that spanned from Mexico City to San Juan Pueblo/Ohkay Owingeh, just North of Santa Fe (later, portions of this road would become the currently used US Route 85, and proclaimed a National Scenic Byway.  The 404 mile US section of the trail was named a National Historic Trail system in 2000.  Though the trail itself has been flattened by thousands of feet, rutted by wagon wheels, covered by train tracks, and eventually paved for automobiles over the years, remnants of the cultures that have used it are still visible today.  Visitors to the El Camino Real Historic Trail today can experience the journeys of Native Americans, Spaniards, Mexicans, the military fort period, and the first Anglo settlers from the Eastern United States, through first person stories, and artifacts.

So often, it is easy to feel disconnected from the past, as if today's New Mexico simply landed here at random.  The residents and visitors to New Mexico, however, have a great resource, if not responsibility, to discover the state's past, and learn why modern New Mexico is just the way it is.  For a full list of the states historic sites and museums, check www.newmexicoculture.org, or for more in depth descriptions and locations, check www.museumfoundation.org.

For more information on New Mexico's Monuments and Historic sites read this SantaFe.com article.