While Albuquerque history is rich and interesting, you may first wonder where New Mexico’s largest city got its hard-to-spell name. The city was named after Francisco Fernández de la Cueva Enríquez, the 10th Duke of Alburquerque. Somewhere over the centuries that first “R” got lost.
As a result, the city is now known simply as Albuquerque, and since it is named after a duke, that’s where the nickname the Duke City came from. But there’s much more to the city’s history than where its name originated.
Early Years of Albuquerque History
The original settlement of Albuquerque, founded by the Spanish before the Pueblo Revolt of 1680, was composed of about 20 isolated estancias (farms) and ranches between the Sandia and Isleta pueblos. One of those farms was built by Diego de Trujillo. He named it “El Paraje de las Huertas” — the place of the gardens — and was noted for its stand of cottonwood trees. The de Trujillo property became the focus of the new village.
But first, the Spanish had to endure the humiliation of being driven out of the province by the Indigenous people in the infamous Pueblo Revolt. Scores died. Many of the nearly 1,500 survivors took refuge at Isleta until they could escape south to El Paso del Norte and New Spain.
The Spanish were absent for more than a dozen years until Diego de Vargas returned to Santa Fe to reestablish the Spanish hegemony of the region. It was not a peaceful reunion, and de Vargas fought numerous battles.
In 1704 at Bernalillo, during an expedition to punish Apache raiders, de Vargas was killed, and Francisco Cuervo y Valdéz was appointed acting governor of New Spain by the Viceroy of New Spain — none other than Francisco Fernández de la Cueva Enríquez, Duke of Alburquerque.
Cuervo took one look at the community along the Middle Rio Grande Valley and declared, “I have never seen so much want, misery, and backwardness in my life. I suspect this land was better off before the Spanish came.” But of course, the Spanish had no intention of leaving. Cuervo enlisted a hundred regular soldiers and deployed them around the province.
By 1706, having solidified his authority, Cuervo needed an administrative center and chose the Middle Rio Grande, attracted by the beautiful stand of cottonwood. It was here he established the Villa de San Francisco de Alburquerque — with the R we don’t use today.
Even before the founding of the villa, village homes were inhabited only on Sundays. Residents spent most of the week on their farms.
A Developing Community
Cuervo sent exaggerated reports to the viceroy and the King of Spain about his new villa — claiming there were 35 families comprising 252 people. Actually, there were only 19 families with about 103 people, including 10 soldiers, and he failed to get permission to call it a villa, an administrative center.
You may have heard it’s better to ask forgiveness than permission. That must have been as true then as it is now. While Cuervo was governor, there was no plaza, no government buildings, and the church was less than the grandiose image Cuervo painted.
But he was forgiven, though was soon to be replaced by José Chacón Medina Salazar y Villaseñor, and the village continued to grow. In the late 1700s, a permanent population was established around the plaza that was by then established.
Homes, shops, and government buildings were constructed around the plaza, mostly adobes with traditional flat roofs, long portales (porches), and bancos (benches) in the shade created by the portales, giving weary walkers a place to sit and rest.
On the north side, the people constructed the San Felipe de Neri church, in continuous use since it was built in 1793. Today, it is one of the oldest in the city and the only one remaining from Spanish Colonial times.
Part of Mexico, Then the United States, and Even the Confederacy
Albuquerque, as part of the Province of Nuevo México, passed to Mexico in 1821 following the Mexican War of Independence, but that was relatively short-lived. Just 25 years later in September 1846, Stephen W. Kearny marched into Albuquerque, raised the American flag, and administered an oath of allegiance to residents. People apparently appreciated Kearny’s presence — or, at least, the influx of goods that followed.
Fourteen years later, America was shattered by the Civil War. The Confederacy attempted to take control of the Southwest — Texas, New Mexico Territory, and California — giving them access to California gold fields and, perhaps more importantly, to seaports not blockaded by Yankee ships.
Confederate General Henry Hopkins Sibley captured Albuquerque in March 1862, even though the Union army burnt its supplies before abandoning its depot. Then Sibley marched north to take Fort Union. The Union army met him at the southern end of Glorieta Pass and defeated him, forcing him to retreat to Texas.
The Railroad Arrives
The railroad is a big part of Albuquerque’s history. By the end of the Civil War, America had its first transcontinental railroad. The second, traversing the southern tier states, was completed in the 1880s, and the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railway established a depot about two miles east of the plaza.
This became “New Albuquerque,” and rivaled “Old Town,” the first part of the city. Albuquerque was incorporated in 1891, and Old Town declined as businesses and institutions moved to the new downtown area. By the 1930s few businesses still operated around Old Town Plaza.
Perhaps Old Town would have blown away in the next dust storm, but its fortunes began to improve by the 1940s as burqueños came to appreciate Old Town’s historic value.
While Albuquerque continued — and continues — to grow as a major metropolitan center in the Southwest, Old Town became a popular tourist destination. Many of the classic adobe homes were converted into restaurants, art galleries, and shops.
As you explore this historic treasure, note the buildings wearing plaques of the National Register of Historic Places. There are four, besides San Felipe de Neri: the Salvador Armijo house built around 1840, Our Lady of the Angels school (1878), Antonio Vigil house (1879), and Charles A. Bolter house (1912).
Albuquerque joined the burgeoning Age of Autos with the building of U.S. Route 66, a trend that only continued with the completion of two major Interstate highways following historic Route 66 and El Camino Real. The city became part of the nation’s aviation network with its international Sunport.
Enjoying Old Town Albuquerque Today
Albuquerque history is celebrated all year long. Albuquerque throws itself a birthday celebration in Old Town on April 23 with food, music, and more. Every weekend from May through August people can take part in Summertime in Old Town. Old Town hosts visitors during the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta in early October.
And you can sip hot chocolate on the plaza during the Old Town Holiday Stroll from 5 to 9 p.m. in early December. At all these events, you’ll find music and dance performances, shops are open late, and you can take your pick of restaurants for a traditional New Mexican dinner.
Albuquerque today may be missing one “R,” but it has gained quite a lot more!