Albuquerque was founded more than 300 years ago, nearly three-quarters of a century before the American Revolution. It has been a vital part of the Southwest ever since. This is a look at some of the important historical events that made Albuquerque the city it has become.
Geologic Albuquerque History
Albuquerque’s geologic history is as lively and interesting as its human history, for its geological events sculpted the land on which we live today.
Like all rivers, the Rio Grande, west of the city, takes the easiest path to the sea. In Northern New Mexico, that means it follows the Rio Grande Rift, the second most active fault in North America (right after California’s San Andreas Fault), a fracture that began dividing the land 36 million years ago.
Next up were the Sandia and Manzano Mountains — literally up. These mountains, which set Albuquerque’s eastern edge, uplifted about 70 million years ago. More recent are the five, dormant cinder cone volcanoes on the city’s West Mesa, the result of volcanic activity about 150,000 years ago. Note: these volcanoes are dormant, not extinct.
The First People in the Middle Rio Grande Valley
Drought plagued what would become New Mexico in the 1300s. It brought the demise of the Chaco culture and the great houses in Chaco Canyon. People had to find a new place to live, a place with water. They found the tributaries of the Rio Grande and built adobe villages, reminiscent of the multi-tiered pueblos we find today.
Archaeologists and historians believe that humans hunted and gathered in the mountains and along the river for more than 12,000 years prior to pueblo settlements. These are the people who made Clovis and later Folsom spear points. Along Albuquerque’s West Mesa, archaeologists have identified some 300 sites, documenting tool-making in the region.
On the west side of Albuquerque, the Petroglyph National Monument is home to more than 20,000 petroglyphs (rock carvings) that were created by Native American cultures over a period of 2,000 years. The site is believed to have been a center of cultural and religious activity for the region’s prehistoric communities.
Europeans arrived in 1540 — in the person of Francisco Vásquez de Coronado and his explorers in search of the Seven Golden Cities of Cíbola. The Tewa people living in the Kuaua pueblo along the river told him the cities of gold were much farther east. Coronado traveled to Kansas, but he came back. His unsuccessful exploration — unsuccessful because there are no cities of gold — led to the arrival of Spanish colonizers in the area.
Although Kuaua was abandoned in the 1600s, you can see the reconstructed ruins at the Coronado Historic Site, just north of Bernalillo about 15 miles. The site provides insights into the social and economic practices of the region’s prehistoric inhabitants and the interactions between Native American and European cultures.
The Great Pueblo Revolt
The Spanish also brought a harsh administration, and when locals had enough, they rose up and threw the Spanish out of New Mexico in 1680. In Albuquerque, the people from Sandia, Puaray, and Alameda pueblos attacked 17 ranchos south of the Sandia Pueblo, killing more than 120 settlers. The rest — some 1,500 — fled south to El Paso del Norte, today’s El Paso, Texas.
Twelve years later, Don Diego de Vargas returned and reclaimed the province of Nuevo México for Spain. He began issuing land grants to new arrivals in the valley and returned some land to descendants of pre-revolt settlers.
Albuquerque’s Official Founding
In 1706, Governor Francisco Cuervo y Valdez founded the Villa San Francisco de Alburquerque, naming it after Francisco Fernández de la Cueva Enríquez, Duke of Alburquerque. (People finding it hard to pronounce that first “R” dropped it from the name.) It took some time for the new village to get started, to build government buildings around a plaza, residences, and a church, named San Felipe de Neri, in continuous use since it was built in 1793.
New Mexico Changes Ownership — Twice
In 1821, Mexico won its independence from Spain, and New Mexico became part of the new nation. But it wasn’t to be so for long. Twenty-five years later, following the Mexican-American War, New Mexico officially became a territory of the United States. Gen. Stephen Watts Kearny occupied Albuquerque but encountered no resistance. He went on his way to continue fighting in California, leaving only a small garrison to protect the area.
New Mexico Welcomes Anglos from Back East
Many New Mexicans seemed to have loved, or at least accepted, the idea of being part of the United States. It opened their land for trade along the Santa Fe Trail and continued trade along El Camino Real to Mexico City. It welcomed Anglos with business interests — and money — to develop ranches, harvest timber, mine minerals, and engage in other economic activities.
Although the influx of Anglos reduced the percentage of Hispanic residents, the impact wasn’t lasting. By the early 21st century, four of ten families traced their ancestry to those who came north during the Spanish Colonial period.
Albuquerque’s Role in the Civil War
In March 1862, Gen. Henry Hopkins Sibley headed a Confederate army intent on capturing Fort Union and, with that, power to take possession of California gold and non-blockaded, deep-water Pacific ports. He captured Albuquerque but arrived too late. By the time his men marched in, Union soldiers had burned all the supplies in the depot and left for Fort Union.
Shortly afterwards, Sibley and his Confederates fought the Union at Glorieta Pass, southeast of Santa Fe. In a counterattack, a Yankee platoon unexpectedly came upon Sibley’s supply train, which they burned. The loss of the wagons and their supplies forced the Confederates to retreat. They never got another chance in New Mexico.
AT&SF Railroad Arrives
The Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railway arrived in 1880. It established a depot about two miles east of the plaza, nearly killing off what became known as “Old Town.” The decline was halted decades later when burqueños came to appreciate not only the historic nature of Old Town but also its economic value from tourism.
Albuquerque’s First Electric Lights
With the railroad came other modernizations. Besides the ubiquitous telegraph accompanying the rails, the first electric lights arrived in 1883.
Agriculture’s Contribution Declines
Throughout the 20th century, agriculture’s economic importance to Albuquerque has declined. The modern economy is based in light manufacturing, services, and research and development.
Military Influence Increases
In the 1930s, the federal government’s presence exploded when more than a hundred agencies established offices in the city. That influence increased even more with World War II. Albuquerque became the site for the Sandia Complex, a diverse group of industrial facilities, military bases, laboratories, and offices. Kirtland Air Force Base, established in 1942, became an important testing ground for weapons systems — some of them nuclear — while the city became a processing center for uranium ore mined in the Grants Mining District. During the Cold War, Albuquerque was on Soviet Union maps as a strike target in the event of a nuclear war.
In 1931, AT&T — the original Ma Bell — began converting the city’s telephone system to dial phones. Today, we all use cell phones, but there was a time when you cranked a handle to alert an operator to place your call. If you’re of a certain age, you’ll remember Lily Tomlin’s Ernestine, her fictitious phone operator, famously counting rings, as in “One ringy dingy. Two ringy dingies.”
A Sandy Beach in the Desert
Tingley Beach is a recreational area located along the Rio Grande in Downtown Albuquerque. Originally built in the 1930s as a public fishing lake, Tingley Beach has since been expanded and developed into a larger recreational area. Today, it includes three separate fishing ponds, a model boat pond, and a central pond that is home to a variety of waterfowl.
In addition to fishing, Tingley Beach offers a range of other outdoor activities, including birding, walking and biking trails, picnic areas, and playgrounds. There is also a miniature train that runs through the park, providing a fun way to explore the area.
Lovelace Clinic Seeks The Right Stuff
In 1959, 32 potential astronauts at Lovelace Clinic in Albuquerque endured some of the most extreme laboratory tests ever attempted, just so NASA could winnow down the group to the original Mercury 7 astronauts. Two years later, 19 women underwent the same examination. Thirteen passed. None of them flew in space until Sally Ride became the first American female astronaut in 1983. The reason: NASA regulations in 1961 prevented women from going to space.
Albuquerque’s Unique High-Wire Act
The Sandia Peak Tramway carried its first passengers in 1966. Its two gondolas, each accommodating up to 50 passengers, took 15 minutes to traverse the 2.7-mile cable run to the 10,378-foot summit. It’s the longest aerial tram in the Americas and was the longest in the world until surpassed in 2010 by the Wings of Tatev in Armenia.
Gates and Allen Found Microsoft
Bill Gates and Paul Allen founded Microsoft in 1975 in Albuquerque. By 1978, the new company had a dozen employees, but only one was from Albuquerque. Recruiting engineers to New Mexico proved a hardship and, Allen noted, “We had no customers in Albuquerque.” Thus, the decision was made to move to Seattle.
Today, Albuquerque is New Mexico’s largest city and its economic capital. Participating in Sister Cities International, Albuquerque has 10 sister cities, among which are Aşgabat, Turkmenistan; Guadalajara, Mexico; Hualien City, Taiwan; Rehovot, Israel; Sasebo, Japan; and, naturally, Alburquerque, Spain.
The city stands between 4,900 and 6,700 feet above sea level, giving it one of the highest elevations of any major city in the country — higher even than Denver’s famed claim to be the Mile-High City. (Denver is a mile above sea level. It’s just not the only one.)