The History of Santa Fe, Capital of New Mexico

Santa Fe Plaza  1800Historic Santa Fe New Mexico- compliments of the Inn at Pueblo Bonito, Santa Fe.

Santa Fe is the capital of New Mexico and is the fourth-largest city in the state. Santa Fe is the oldest capital city in the United States and the oldest city in New Mexico. The meaning of Santa Fe is “holy faith” in Spanish. 2014 population was 68,298. The city was originally occupied by a number of Pueblo Indian villages with founding dates between 1050 to 1150. One of the earliest known settlements came sometime after 900, and is now known as Downtown Santa Fe. A Native American group built a cluster of homes that centered around the site of today’s Plaza and spread for half a mile to the south and west. The village was called Ogapoge. The Santa Fe River provided water to people and is a seasonal waterway which was a year round stream until the 1700s. In 2007, the river was recognized as the most endangered river in the United States, according to the conservation group American Rivers.


1880 San Miguel Mission

Don Juan de Oñate led the first effort to colonize the region in 1598, establishing Santa Fe de Nuevo México as a province of New Spain. Under Juan de Oñate and his son, the capital of the province was the settlement of San Juan de los Caballeros north of Santa Fe near modern Ohkay Owingeh Pueblo (aka San Juan Pueblo). New Mexico’s second Spanish governor, Don Pedro de Peralta, however, founded a new city at the foot of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains in 1607. He called it La Villa Real de la Santa Fe de San Francisco de Asís (the Royal Town of the Holy Faith of Saint Francis of Assisi). In 1610, he made it the capital of the province, which it has almost constantly remained, making it the oldest state capital in the United States.

Santa Fe, 1846–1847

Except for the years 1680–1692, when, as a result of the Pueblo Revolt, the native Pueblo people drove the Spaniards out of the area known as New Mexico, later to be reconquered by Don Diego de Vargas, Santa Fe remained Spain’s provincial seat until the outbreak of the Mexican War of Independence in 1810. In 1824 the city’s status as the capital of the Mexican territory of Santa Fe de Nuevo México was formalized in the 1824 Constitution

Procession on Santa Fe Plaza 1820

Procession on Santa Fe Plaza 1820

The Republic of Texas claimed Santa Fe as part of the western portion of Texas along the Rio Grande when it seceded from Mexico in 1836. In 1841, a small military and trading expedition set out from Austin, Texas, with the aim of gaining control over the Santa Fe Trail. Known as the Texan Santa Fe Expedition, the force was poorly prepared and was easily captured by the Mexican army. In 1846, the United States declared war on Mexico, and Brigadier General Stephen W. Kearny led the main body of his Army of the West of some 1,700 soldiers into the city to claim it and the whole New Mexico Territory for the United States. By 1848 the U.S. officially gained New Mexico through the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo.

Colonel Alexander William Doniphan, under the command of Kearny, recovered ammunition from Santa Fe labeled “Spain 1776”, showing both the quality of communication and military support New Mexico received under Mexican rule.

American visitors saw little promise in the remote town. One traveller in 1849 wrote:

“I can hardly imagine how Santa Fe is supported. The country around it is barren. At the North stands a snow-capped mountain while the valley in which the town is situated is drab and sandy. The streets are narrow… A Mexican will walk about town all day to sell a bundle of grass worth about a dime. They are the poorest looking people I ever saw. They subsist principally on mutton, onions and red pepper.”—letter from an American traveler, 1849

Mora Merchants & Apache Guards (NM Archives)

Mora Merchants & Apache Guards (NM Archives)


Today, Santa Fe is a testament to such preservation of rich history as well as a monument to the strength and wealth an environment gains through hardship; the City Different is a true oasis in the desert.

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