Francisco Vásquez de Coronado, a Spanish explorer searching for gold, traveled the region that became New Mexico in 1540-1542. In 1598 the first Spanish settlement was established on the Rio Grande River by Juan de Onate; in 1610 Santa Fe was founded and made the capital of New Mexico.
The U.S. acquired most of New Mexico in 1848, as a result of the Mexican War, and the remainder in the 1853 Gadsden Purchase. Union troops captured the territory from the Confederates during the Civil War. With the surrender of Geronimo in 1886, the Apache Wars and most of the Indian conflicts in the area ended.
New Mexico, the 47th state to join the union, became a state in 1912. New Mexico is the fifth largest US state by land area, and the 37th in terms of population. The capital of New Mexico is Santa Fe, and its largest city is Albuquerque.
Since 1945, New Mexico has been a leader in energy research and development with extensive experiments conducted at Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory and Sandia Laboratories in the nuclear, solar, and geothermal areas.
New Mexico also has a long and rich artistic tradition and a vibrant arts scene. Some well-known artists from or associated with New Mexico include Leslie Marmon Silko, N. Scott Momaday, Rudolfo Anaya, Georgia O’Keefe, and Ansel Adams.
Minerals are the state's richest natural resource, and New Mexico is one of the U.S. leaders in the output of uranium and potassium salts. Petroleum, natural gas, copper, gold, silver, zinc, lead, and molybdenum also contributes heavily to the state's income.
The principal manufacturing industries include food products, chemicals, transportation equipment, lumber, electrical machinery, and stone-clay-glass products. About two-thirds of New Mexico's farm income comes from livestock products, especially dairy and cattle. Pecans, hay, and onions are the most important field crops. Corn, peanuts, beans, onions, chilies, and lettuce are also grown.
Tourist attractions include the Carlsbad Caverns National Park, Inscription Rock at El Morro National Monument, the ruins at Fort Union, Billy the Kid mementos at Lincoln, the White Sands and Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monuments, Bandelier National Monument, and the Chaco Culture National Historical Park.
New Mexico's Rio Grande river is the fourth longest river in North America. Which other rivers do you know? Test your knowledge with our World’s Longest Rivers quiz!
New Mexico is located in the southwestern United States, and is bordered by Colorado to the north, Texas and Oklahoma to the east, Arizona to the west, and the Mexican states of Chihuahua and Sonora to the south.
The state comprises 21,589 sq mi (315,194 km2) of land, with its geographic center in Torrance County, 12 miles south-southwest of Willard. New Mexico has 33 counties. It’s the fifth largest state in the union after Alaska, Texas, Montana, and California.
Landscape and Climate
New Mexico has an incredibly diverse geography and a range of climates.
Despite the vision many people have of a desert state, water defines much of New Mexico’s geography.
The Rio Grande river runs down the center of the state from north to south, creating the riparian Rio Grande Valley. The Rio Grande is the fourth largest river in the country, and its fertile basin has supported life for tens of thousands of years.
The Rio Grande valley is known for the bosque forest that grows along its banks, and its unique Albuquerque Basin climate.
The Pecos and Canadian rivers were popular routes for explorers, especially the Canadian river, which comes out of the mountains in the north and flows east across the arid plains.
The Gila and San Juan rivers lie west of North America’s Great Divide, with the Gila in the southwestern part of the state, and the San Juan coming out of the mountainous north and flowing east across arid plains.
All of the rivers in New Mexico are dammed to control flooding and provide irrigation. The human-created Elephant Butte Reservoir was once the largest artificial lake in the world.
Mountains also play an important role. Eighty percent of New Mexico sits at an elevation of between 4,000 and 8,000 feet above sea level. The northern and eastern parts of the state have an alpine climate.
Running from north to south along the east side of the Rio Grande, the Sangre de Cristo Mountains contain the state’s highest point, Wheeler Peak, which sits at 13,160 feet (4,011 meters) above sea level.
The eastern third of the state contains the western fringe of the Great Plains, and the northwestern corner of the state contains the Colorado Plateau. This plateau has dry grasslands, pinon-juniper woodland, mountain forests, and dry grasslands.
Finally, in the south, the Chihuahuan Desert, the largest desert in North America, provides the arid, desert landscape that many associate with New Mexico.
People & Population
The 2021 Census shows New Mexico to be an ethnically diverse state with a majority middle-aged population concentrated in four mid-sized cities.
Half of New Mexico’s population is aged between 18 and 64, with one-quarter of the state’s residents being under 18.
New Mexico’s population is split roughly evenly between genders, with 50.5 percent of its residents identifying as female, and 49.5 percent identifying as male.
Just over half of New Mexico residents identified as Hispanic or Latino, followed by 35.9 percent, who identified as white, and 11.2 percent, who identified as Native American.
According to the Pew Research Center, 75 percent of adult New Mexico residents identify as Christian. The largest denomination is Roman Catholic (34 percent), followed by Evangelical Protestant (23 percent) and Mainline Protestant (14 percent).
21 percent of people polled statewide identified as “unaffiliated.”
Although non-Christian religions count for between one and two percent of each of the population’s religious preferences, New Mexico has long been a center for the New Age movement, which includes alternative medicine, spiritual retreats, and communes.
In 2022, the median income in New Mexico was $54,020 per year. The poverty rate was 18.4 percent.
New Mexico has 29 institutions of higher learning, including the University of New Mexico. In the 2021 Census, 86.8 percent of residents reported holding a high school diploma, and 28.5 percent held a higher education degree (Bachelor’s degree or higher).
In 2000, New Mexico had the highest concentration of Ph.D. holders in the country. It also has one of the highest high school dropout rates and is 34th in the nation in public education spending.
In the 2021 Census, 9.2 percent of New Mexican residents were foreign-born.
Albuquerque is New Mexico’s largest city, with more than half a million people. The capital, Santa Fe, is the fourth largest city, with 87,505 residents.
New Mexico has 19 Native American pueblos: Acoma, Cochiti, Isleta, Jemez, Laguna, Nambe, Ohkay Owingeh, Picuris, Pojoaque, Sandia, San Felipe, San Ildefonso, Santa Ana, Santa Clara, Santo Domingo, Taos, Tesuque, Zuni and Zia.
The 1911 Constitution of New Mexico established a republic, with a bill of rights and a separation of powers. Major state issues are decided by a popular vote. Constitutional amendments require a majority vote of both voters and lawmakers.
The New Mexico government is divided into three branches: the executive, the legislature, and the judiciary.
The executive branch is led by a popularly elected governor and lieutenant governor. Other members of the executive include the secretary of state, state treasurer, state auditor, and commissioner of public lands. The governor has the power to appoint high-ranking officials in the cabinet and state agencies.
The legislature consists of a 70-member house of representatives and a 42-member senate. House members are elected for two years. Senate members are elected every four years.
Unlike in many states, New Mexico legislators receive no salary. Rather, they receive a daily stipend while the legislature is in session.
The judiciary consists of the five-member New Mexico Supreme Court, the New Mexico Court of Appeals, and the lower courts, consisting of circuit courts of general jurisdiction, municipal, magistrate, and probate courts with limited jurisdiction. There are 13 judicial districts.
The state government’s official social media website is nm.gov.
In recent years, New Mexico’s state politics have leaned Democratic, and registered Democrats handily outnumber registered Republicans. However, for a majority of voters, the qualities of individual candidates have been more important than their party.
Voters tend to favor moderate candidates from both parties in state and federal elections. Following national trends, voters in the larger population centers tend to vote more progressively, while rural voters tend to vote more conservatively.
New Mexico has elected more women of color than any other US state. The first female secretary of state, the first Hispanic female governor, and the first Native American congresswoman were all elected in New Mexico. In addition, two-thirds of all nonwhite female governors were governors of New Mexico.
Currently, women comprise majorities in the New Mexico House of Representatives, the state Supreme Court and the state Court of Appeals. In addition, women represent two-thirds of New Mexico’s federal congressional districts.
In 2009, New Mexico became the 15th state to ban capital punishment, and in 2013, it became the 17th state to recognize same-sex marriage. In 2021, New Mexico became the 18th state to legalize the recreational use of cannabis. As of June 2022, New Mexico had the country’s most permissive abortion regulations.
New Mexico also has the most permissive gun laws in the US; adults over 18 may purchase any legal firearm without a permit, and there are no waiting periods or restrictions on magazine capacity.
New Mexico’s economy is based on five primary sectors: extraction industries, arts and entertainment, tourism, technology, and agriculture. Despite its natural wealth, it remains one of the poorest states in the union and has a high level of income inequality.
New Mexico is the United States’ second-largest producer of crude oil, and its ninth-largest producer of natural gas, and the industry continues to grow. Hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling have increased the state’s production of crude oil from the Permian Basin, making the US the largest producer of crude oil in the world in 2018.
New Mexico has the highest proportion of federal land with oil and gas. It also has a high level of greenhouse gas release, due not only to extractive industries but also to a natural methane hot spot near the Four Corners area.
Production of timber in New Mexico’s forested region is also significant, particularly pinewood. Other natural resources include turquoise, uranium ore, manganese ore, salt, potash, perlite, beryllium, and tin concentrates.
Arts and Entertainment
New Mexico’s art scene may have come to international attention through painter Georgia O’Keefe and photographer Ansel Adams, but the area is also famous for both folk art and contemporary fine art from Native American artists.
The state is also a hub for popular entertainment. Animator William Hannah (of Hannah-Barbera) was born in New Mexico. Thus, New Mexico can be said to be the birthplace of The Flintstones, the Jetsons, and Scooby Doo.
New Mexico provides financial incentives for filmmakers who utilize local cast and crew members. This program alone is estimated to have brought 85 films and $1.2 billion to New Mexico since 2003.
The New Mexico-based artists collective Meow Wolf has expanded to Nevada, Colorado, Texas, and other places in the southwest.
New Mexico has also been home to numerous country music record labels since the 1950s.
Space, Science, and Technology
Government research during the second world war made New Mexico a center for science and technology. Project Y, the laboratory that designed the first atomic bomb for the Manhattan Project, was located in Los Alamos, for example.
The Sandia National Laboratories and Los Alamos National Laboratories are located in New Mexico, as is the VLA (the Very Large Array, a large array of telescopes). New Mexico State University is a space-grant college.
Microsoft was also founded in New Mexico, in Albuquerque. Today, New Mexico is part of the Rio Grande Technology Corridor, which is emerging as a competitor to Silicon Valley. Intel’s Fab 11X, HP’s IT Center, and other pillars of the tech industry are located in the state.
New Mexico is also a center for private space exploration. Spaceport America and Space X Starbase have their home in New Mexico.
Tourism has become increasingly important to New Mexico’s economy. The state hosted 39.2 million tourists in 2021 alone, which accounted for $10 billion in income.
Visitors flock to New Mexico for several reasons, including its pleasant year-round climate, the state’s wealth of natural attractions, its rich and distinctive culture, and its vibrant arts scene.
Foodies have also discovered New Mexico’s unique cuisine, which combines Native, Mexican, and European flavors. New Mexico has been featured in numerous television programs, including Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown. New Mexico chefs have also won numerous James Beard Foundation awards.
In addition to the state’s 31 state parks, New Mexico offers world-class nature reserves, many public parks, alpine ski facilities, hiking trails, and areas for hiking and fishing.
Chile peppers are one of New Mexico’s most important crops. In addition to being the state vegetable, chile pepper sales brought $39.9 million to the state’s economy in 2021. New Mexico is also a large producer of dry beans and the country’s fifth-largest grower of pecans.
Cattle ranching is also an important industry, and New Mexican wagyu beef is becoming an important product. Other agricultural products include hay, sorghum, and pinon nuts.
Wealth and Poverty
In 2022, New Mexico’s median income was $50,040, while the average household income was $47,000.
According to the 2021 census, New Mexico has a poverty rate of 18 percent, which is the third highest in the nation, after Louisiana and Mississippi. 30 percent of children in the state were reported to live in poverty, and nearly three-quarters of all births were financed by Medicaid. In May 2021, 44 percent of New Mexico residents were enrolled in Medicaid.
The state government has enacted several measures to address these problems, including a minimum wage increase (January 2021), and requiring employers to provide paid sick leave. Some cities also enacted measures to combat poverty, including living wage ordinances.
Native American and Hispanic influences are evident in almost every aspect of life, from food to architecture and the arts. But the state doesn’t take itself too seriously; it’s also home to a variety of lighthearted events and attractions, including the annual UFO Festival in Roswell.
Native American Influence
Everyday life in New Mexico is suffused with Native American influence. There are 23 Native American tribes in New Mexico, including three Apache tribes and the Navajo Nation. Each tribe is a sovereign nation with its own government, culture, language, and way of life.
Visitors can see evidence of Native history in kivas, cliff dwellings, pit houses, public festivals, and pictographs. But Native American culture isn’t limited to historic sites.
New Mexico is home to several renowned museums and art galleries that center on works of Native artists of the past and present, including the Institute of American Indian Arts and the Museum of Contemporary Native Arts, both in Santa Fe.
The Cuisine of New Mexico
New Mexico’s State Question, “Red or Green?" refers to chiles, which are one of New Mexico’s most important crops, and an essential ingredient in New Mexican cuisine.
Restaurant goers can count on being asked if they prefer their food to be made with red or green chiles. Diners might also be asked, “Red, green, or Christmas?” where “Christmas” means a combination of red and green chiles.
The cuisine of New Mexico is unique, combining elements of Mexican and Native cuisine with European influences. Having developed in relative isolation, New Mexican flavors are easy to distinguish, thanks to a unique combination of local spices.
Some typically New Mexican dishes include giant fry bread-style sopapillas, Enchilada Montada (stacked enchiladas), and Calabacitas (a squash dish).
Conspiracy buffs will recognize the name of New Mexico’s fifth most populous city, Roswell. Roswell is home to the 1947 Roswell incident, in which many believe a UFO crashed into the desert and was subsequently covered up by government authorities.
Today, the town takes its spooky reputation in stride. Its official logo is a capital ‘R’ with a spaceship superimposed on it, and its official seal has a space ship and a little green man. The city hosts an annual UFO festival and sells official UFO-themed merchandise, and UFO tourism is an important pillar of the city’s lucrative tourist industry.
Footprints discovered in 2017 suggest that the area now known as New Mexico was inhabited as far back as 25,000 years ago. Many groups of people have contributed to the history and culture of present-day New Mexico, from paleo-Indians to Native Americans to people from different parts of Europe.
The first known people to live in the area that is now New Mexico were the paleo-Indian Clovis culture. Clovis stone tools and flint points date to between 10,000 and 9,000 BCE, however, there is evidence that humans lived in the area as early as 23,000 BCE.
The Ancestral Puebloan people (Anasazi) emerged in the northern part of today’s New Mexico around 12,000 BCE. Their culture flourished between 700 and 1130 CE due to regular rainfall in the area.
At its height, the Ancestral Puebloan culture had a vast network of trade routes. Stories about these routes and the empire that built them traveled as far as the Aztec Empire in Mexico. These stories referred to the empire as Yancuic Mexico, or “New Mexico.”
People of the Mogollon Native American culture inhabited the area south of the Ancestral Puebloan people from around 200 CE to 1540 CE.
For reasons unknown, the Ancestral Puebloan people left the area in the 12th and 13th centuries CE. Some theories include the great drought that occurred after 1130, societal pressures related to rapid growth, and additional pressure from other incoming groups of people.
The legend of Nuevo Mexico became part of the legend of the Seven Cities of Gold, or the Seven Cities of Cibola. In 1540, Spaniard Francisco Vásquez de Coronado organized an expedition north to search for the seven cities.
The first Spaniard to use the term “Nuevo Mexico” was Francisco de Ibarra, who traveled north in 1563, and reported back that the fabled place did, indeed, exist. In 1598, Juan de Onate was appointed governor of the new province of New Mexico. Onate founded the settlement of Espanola in 1598. The city of Santa Fe was founded in 1610 and became the capital.
In 1680, the Pueblo people in Santa Fe rose up against the Spanish in the Pueblo Revolt. 400 Spaniards were killed, and the remaining 2,000 settlers were driven out.
The Spaniards would return in 1694, offering increased religious and cultural liberty for the Pueblo people. After the death of the Pueblo leader, Popé, the area returned to Spanish control. Some of the subsequent governors would forward indigenous rights, and make treaties recognizing the rights of some indigenous groups to their ancestral lands.
Pre-Civil War History
The northeastern portion of New Mexico was owned by France until 1803, when it was sold to the United States as part of the Louisiana Purchase. The remainder of the territory was part of New Spain. In 1821, following the Mexican War of Independence, this part of the territory came under the rule of the First Mexican Empire.
When Texas seceded from Mexico in 1836, it claimed the area east of the Rio Grande. In 1841, Texas sent an expedition to Santa Fe in order to stake its claim. The New Mexican authorities and indigenous groups, particularly the Taos, repelled the Texans and jailed the members of the expedition.
During the Mexican War, the United States invaded the area via the Santa Fe Trail. After the war, in 1848, the US acquired most of New Mexico. The US acquired and remainder in the 1853 Gadsden Purchase.
When the Civil War erupted in 1861, both the Union and the Confederacy claimed ownership of the territory of New Mexico. In 1862, the Confederacy launched the New Mexico Campaign, with the eventual goal of controlling the entire American southwest.
The Battle of Glorieta Pass in 1862, put paid to this ambition. More than 8,000 soldiers from New Mexico Territory would serve in the Union Army.
Post Civil War
On January 6, 1912, New Mexico was admitted as the 47th state in the Union.
Dating back to the Spanish era, the majority of the population of New Mexico was of Indo-Hispano descent. The relationship of the minority white settlers with this group, and with the larger Native American tribes in the area could be contentious at times, and on occasion erupted in violence.
In 1924, Congress passed a law granting Native Americans US citizenship and the right to vote. However, between 1924 and 1956, state and local governments would employ the Jim Crow tactics successfully employed in the southern states to deny Native Americans the franchise. This right wouldn’t fully return until the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Hispanics and Native Americans would also suffer segregation and employment discrimination.
In 1928, the discovery of oil in Lea County would change the area’s fortunes for decades to come. In 2020, Lea County was the number one oil producer in the United States.
During the second world war, the first atomic bombs were designed and manufactured in Los Alamos, New Mexico. The first atomic bomb was tested at the Trinity site between Socorro and Alamogordo.
After the second world war, the population of New Mexico underwent rapid growth, almost doubling in size between 1940 and 1960. In addition to federal employment opportunities, low taxes and a warm climate drew people to the state.
The arts have also helped to attract people to New Mexico. Photographer Ansel Adams, painter Georgia O’Keefe, and musicians John Denver and Jim Morrison all found inspiration there.
Today, New Mexico is home to growing industries in electronic circuits, information technology, scientific research, food, media, and more.
The state also continues to be a hub for military and weapons research and is home to three Air Force bases, as well as the Los Alamos National Laboratory, the Sandia National Laboratory, and the White Sands Missile Range.
Selected Famous Natives and Residents:
- Kathy Baker actress;
- Notah Begay III golfer;
- Judy Blume author;
- Ernest L. Blumenshein artist;
- William “Billy the Kidâ€ Bonney outlaw;
- Richard Bradford author;
- Ralph Bunche Nobel Peace Prize winner;
- Bruce Cabot actor;
- Kit Carson army scout and trapper;
- Dennis Chavez former senator;
- John Chisum cattle king;
- Mangus Coloradas Apache leader;
- Edward Condon physicist;
- Bill Daily actor;
- John Denver singer;
- Bo Diddley blues guitarist;
- Patrick Garrett lawman;
- Greer Garson actress;
- Sid Gutierrez astronaut;
- William Hanna animator;
- Neil Patrick Harris actor;
- Carl Hatch senator;
- Tony Hillerman author;
- Conrad Hilton hotel executive;
- Dennis Hopper actor;
- Peter Hurd artist;
- Preston Jones playwright and actor;
- Ralph Kiner baseball player and sportscaster;
- Nancy Lopez golfer;
- Maria Martínez San Ildefonso Pueblo potter;
- Demi Moore actress;
- Jim Morrison singer and songwriter;
- Bill Mauldin political cartoonist;
- Popé San Juan Pueblo medicine man and leader;
- Georgia O'Keeffe painter;
- Harrison Schmitt astronaut and representative;
- Kim Stanley actress;
- Slim Summerville actor;
- Clyde Tombaugh astronomer;
- Al Unser, Bobby Unser auto racers;
- Victorio Apache chief;
- Linda Wertheimer NPR correspondent;
- Kathy Whitworth golfer.
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