La Villa Real de la Santa Fé (The Royal City of the Holy Faith) was built to be the capital of Spain’s northernmost territory in the New World. The Camino Real, the route that connected the outpost with Mexico, dead-ended in the newly built plaza. Barely 70 years later, the 1680 Pueblo Revolt set back the Spanish settlers’ plans, but not for long: Don Diego de Vargas returned with troops in 1693, bent on reconquering the city.
After a pitched battle, the Spanish moved back in (ousting the Indians from the statehouse, which they’d turned into storerooms and apartments) and established a shaky truce with the local population, after which more Spaniards began to settle in small villages north of Santa Fe.
Mexico’s independence from Spain in 1821 marked a major shift in the city’s fortunes, as the new government opened its northernmost territory to outside trade—something the Spanish had refused to do. Soon enough, theSanta Fe Trail, a route from Missouri to New Mexico first blazed in 1792, was booming with trade, and the city was a cosmopolitan commercial hub where Mexicans and Americans swapped goods and hard currency. But not without a little turmoil: In 1836, the Mexican government appointed Albino Pérez to the governorship—unlike previous leaders, he wasn’t a native New Mexican, which angered the populace.
A group of protesters fought Pérez’s disorganized militia on Black Mesa (the same place a crew of Puebloan holdouts prolonged De Vargas’s reconquista in 1694), northwest of Santa Fe. Pérez was then hunted down and killed in the Palace of the Governors. This incident helped the Americans earn an easy victory in New Mexico during the Mexican-American War, when General Stephen Kearny peaceably brought the territory under U.S. control in 1846.
But Santa Feans still had to contend with the more domineering figure of Bishop Jean Baptiste Lamy, appointed in 1850. For more than three decades, the Frenchman struggled with the local culture (both Spanish Catholic and Indian), and his attempts to “elevate” the city to European standards can be seen in the grandiose stone St. Francis Cathedral.
The Americans had a little more luck taming the frontier capital when the railroad came through, in 1880. Although it effectively killed theSanta Fe Trail (and the trade economy with it), it opened up the city to what’s still its lifeblood today: tourism. As locals moved south to do business in the boomtown of New Albuquerque, where the train tracks went right by their front doors, loads of curious Easterners, who weren’t deterred by the 18-mile rail spur up from Lamy, took their places. Along with them came freight cars full of odd materials, such as bricks and timber, to build new houses that were the most visible evidence that New Mexico was no longer a Spanish colony.
Some of these early visitors were artists who helped popularize Santa Fe as a retreat well before the territory was granted official statehood in 1912. In that same year, a council of city planners decided to promote Santa Fe as a tourist destination and preserve its distinctive architecture.
By 1917, the Museum of Fine Arts (now the New Mexico Museum of Art) had opened, and the first Indian Market was held in 1922 in response to the trend of Anglos’ collecting the local craftwork. Los Cinco Pintores—a crew of intrepid painters who built their own houses on Canyon Road—were just a handful of the artists who now called the city home.
A new element was added to Santa Fe’s mix in 1943, when the building at 109 East Palace Avenue became the “front office” and only known address for Los Alamos, where the country’s greatest scientists were developing the atomic bomb under a cloud of confidentiality. But the rational scientists left little mark on Santa Fe—right-brain thinking has continued to flourish, and the city is now a modern, creative version of its old self, a meeting place where international art dealers swap goods and ideas.
© Zora O'Neill from Moon Santa Fe, Taos & Albuquerque, 2nd edition