The history of human habitation in the Southwest dates back 12, 500 years. But by AD 100, three dominant and fascinating cultures had emerged: the Hohokam, the Mogollon and the Ancestral Puebloans (formerly known as the Anasazi).
The Hohokam lived in the Arizona deserts from 300 BC to AD 1450, and created an incredible canal irrigation system, earthen pyramids and a rich heritage of pottery. But they mysteriously disappeared in the mid-15th century. From 200 BC to AD 1450 the Mogollon people lived in the central mountains and valleys of the Southwest, and left behind the Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument.
The Ancestral Puebloans left the richest heritage of archaeological sites, like that at Chaco Culture National Historic Park. Today descendants of the Ancestral Puebloans are found in the Pueblo groups throughout New Mexico. The Hopi are descendants, too, and their village Old Oraibi may be the oldest continuously inhabited settlement in North America.
In 1540 Francisco Vásquez de Coronado led an expedition from Mexico City to the Southwest. Instead of riches, his party found Native Americans, many of whom were then killed or displaced. More than 50 years later, Juan de Oñate established the first capital of New Mexico at San Gabriel. Great bloodshed resulted from Oñate’s attempts to control Native American pueblos, and he left in failure in 1608. Santa Fe was established as a new capital the following year.
Development in the Southwest expanded rapidly during the 19th century, mainly due to railroad and geological surveys. As the US pushed west, the army forcibly removed whole tribes of Native Americans in often horrifyingly brutal Indian Wars. Gold and silver mines drew fortune seekers, and practically overnight the lawless mining towns of the Wild West mushroomed. Capitalizing on the development, the Santa Fe Railroad lured an ocean of tourists fascinated by the West’s rugged beauty and Native American culture.
Modern settlement is closely linked to water use. Following the Reclamation Act of 1902, huge federally funded dams were built to control rivers, irrigate the desert and encourage development. Rancorous debates and disagreements over water rights continue today, especially with the phenomenal boom in residential development.