This entry is part 1 of 10 in the series New Mexico

Cíbola and Yootó Hahoodzo

Though the name “Mexico” now emblazons the 10th-most-populated nation on the planet, it originally referred to a specific location. In Nahuatl, Mēxihco was the name for the Valley of Mexico, a region that surrounded the mega-city of Teotihuacan. Those who lived there – the Mexica – oversaw the Aztec Empire.

When the Spanish conquered the Aztecs and the rest of the region in the early 16th century,  they began to hear fantastical tales from the natives. Far to the north lay a land called Yancuic Mexihco, which translates to “a new Mexico,” or Cíbola. This empire purportedly rivaled the size of their own, perhaps even surpassing it. When the Spanish, agog with the riches they had plundered in Central America and Mexico, heard Cíbola housed Seven Cities of Gold, they could not find it fast enough.

Led by Francisco Vásquez de Coronado, a Spanish entourage pushed northward in 1540 across the vast swaths of desert in search of the Seven Cities of Cíbola.

Coronado sets out to the north by Frederic Remington

Waiting in the land they explored were the Mogollon and the Ancestral Pueblo peoples. The Pueblo had constructed a vast trade network that snaked to the Valley of Mexico and beyond. What sort of empire could conjure such an extensive web? To the Azetc, certainly an empire as grand as their own, at the very least.

Coronado and his group marched more than 4,000 miles through modern Mexico and the Southwestern United States, eventually all the way to what is now Kansas. Yet, the Seven Cities of Cíbola were nothing more than a mirage.

These explorers returned to the south, which was now dubbed New Spain, in financial ruin. They had not discovered towns made of precious metals, but they had established a Spanish presence in the newly named Province of New Mexico. They had not found the fabled Yancuic Mexihco, but they named the new swath after it anyway.

The path of the Coronado Expedition of 1540-42 - graphic by University of Texas at Austin

This mixture of myth and exploration left us with several interesting historical quirks.

The current American state of New Mexico garners its name from this Yancuic Mexihco. When it comes to the United States, this etymology is extremely old. In fact, the region was known as New Mexico before the country south of it was called Mexico in totality, an anomaly in the human tradition of naming new settlements after old.

Further, the settlements in New Mexico lead to one of the oddest bits of American trivia. Santa Fe, now the capital of the state, was founded in 1610, a date which makes it the oldest state capital! Second place on that list – Boston – was not established until 1630!

An 1846 engraving of Santa Fe by J. W. Abert

The antiquity of New Mexico belies its relative youngness as a state. Between 1850 and 1912, when the Union admitted it, we called the region the New Mexico Territory.

The straight-line borders with Texas became official during the Compromise of 1850; later, the government carved the Arizona Territory out of the existing New Mexico Territory, largely solidifying the shape of the state we know today.

With an area of 121,591 square miles, New Mexico ranks fifth on the list of biggest states. Conversely, with just over 2 million inhabitants, the state places 36th in population. The combination of size and people means New Mexico’s population density is near the bottom: 45th of 50. Just the Dakotas, Wyoming, Montana, and Alaska feature fewer humans per square mile.

The gorgeous state flag features the red sun of the Zia people.

New Mexico borders Texas and Oklahoma to the east. At the Four Corners, it meets Colorado, Utah, and Arizona. The state shares a border with its old namesake, abutting two Mexican states, Chihuahua and Sonora.

North America’s largest desert – sharing a name with the aforementioned Mexican state and a small breed of canine, the Chihuahuan Desert – extends across the southern portions of the state. Though we popularly view New Mexico in this arid manner, the diversity of the landscape is significant. A third of the state is covered in forest; mountain ranges dot the entire state, including snow-capped peaks; grasslands and riparian stretches of flora interrupt mesa-strewn deserts.

The Sangro de Cristo Mountains, the southernmost arm of the Rockies, contain Wheeler Peak, the High Point of the state. The crag tops out at 13,160 feet.

Wheeler Peak in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains - photo by David Herrera
The mountain ranges of New Mexico - graphic by freeworldmaps

Five major rivers run through New Mexico, including the fourth-longest in the nation, the Rio Grande. Though we often think of this river as a west-to-east waterway that forms the border between Texas and Mexico, it actually bifurcates New Mexico in a north-south direction. Originating in Colorado, the Rio Grande traverses New Mexico before exiting to El Paso.

Two National Parks reside within the state: Carlsbad Caverns and White Sands. New Mexico packs in three UNESCO World Heritage Sites, more than any state in the nation. In addition to Taos Pueblo and Chaco Canyon, Carlsbad Caverns double up as a National Park and World Heritage Site. 

Major rivers of New Mexico - map by
Rio Grande Gorge and Bridge - photo by Daniel Schwen
White Sands National Park - photo by Kyle Stout
Stalactite straws at Carlsbad Caverns - photo by Kyle Stout
Taos Pueblo - photo by Karol M.
The ruins of Chetro Ketl in Chaco Canyon - photo by National Park Service

In addition to the enigmatic state bird, the roadrunner, New Mexico is filled with a hodgepodge of fauna to match the varied landscapes. Bears, cougars, bobcats, bighorn sheep, and elk roam the mountains, while coyotes, jackrabbits, pronghorn antelope, and diamondbacks slither across the desert. The endangered Mexican gray wolf is slowly making a comeback.

Just north of half a million humans live in the most populous city, Albuquerque. From there, totals drop off in a hurry; the second-most-populated city, Las Cruces, barely surpasses 100,000.

New Mexico is home to a unique mixture of American, Spanish, and Indigenous cultures. Living in the confines of the state are 19 Pueblo communities, three Apache tribes, and a large portion of the Navajo Nation.

The Navajo don’t call the state New Mexico or Cíbola; instead, it’s the fantastically sounding Yootó Hahoodzo. In Yootó Hahoodzo, you might not locate Seven Cities of Gold, but the natural beauty is easily worth the moniker of Land of Enchantment.

The greater roadrunner - photo by drumguy8800

Further Reading and Exploration

New Mexico – Official Website

Land of Enchantment – New Mexico True

New Mexico – Encyclopedia Britannica

Coronado’s Expedition of the Southwest – Legends of America

Brief Guide to the Geology of New Mexico – New Mexico Museum of Natural History

New Mexico’s Geography – New Mexico Museum of Art

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