Estudillo House; Interior of the Kit Carson House in Taos, New Mexico.
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Santa Fe Plaza

Santa Fe, New Mexico

East side of Santa Fe Plaza, 1866

East side of Santa Fe Plaza, 1866
Courtesy of NARA

A witness to over four hundred years of New Mexico history and located at the center of the oldest European established capital city in the United States (that is still a capital city), the Santa Fe Plaza is the heart of Santa Fe, now the capital of the State of New Mexico. In the early years of the city, the plaza was an open space in the small Santa Fe presidio. Later, foreign traders and locals used the plaza as an open marketplace and center of commerce. Today, it is a public park used for heritage celebrations. In its long history, Santa Fe Plaza was a witness to two major liberation movements – the Pueblo Revolt of 1680 and the War for Mexican Independence that ended in 1821. In 1846, an American general, standing in the plaza, proclaimed that New Mexico was a United States territory. Still the center of town, the Santa Fe Plaza today is a National Historic Landmark and part of the Santa Fe Historic District.

After the Spanish settled Mexico in the 16th century, they began to push farther north into the territory known today as New Mexico. In 1598, Don Juan de Oñate became the first governor of New Mexico when he established a permanent colonial presence there. After his term, colonial governor Don Pedro de Peralta founded the second capital of New Mexico at Santa Fe in 1610. Once they arrived and chose the site, the Spanish built a walled fort and village at their new capital, which included a central plaza. This early fort plaza is the historic Santa Fe Plaza today. The Spanish used it as a defensible position in case of attacks by the Pueblo Indians, with the town’s elites living around the plaza. Santa Fe Plaza quickly became the social and economic center of the town, where Spanish colonists and Pueblo Indians could gather to trade indigenous and European goods.

Painting of Don Diego de Vargas; Men reenact the 1692 reoccupation of Santa Fe during Fiesta de Santa Fe in 1922

Top Image: Painting of Don Diego de Vargas
Image courtesy of the Palace of the Governors Museum

Bottom Image: Men reenact the 1692 reoccupation of Santa Fe during Fiesta de Santa Fe in 1922
Courtesy of the New Mexico State Historian’s office

When the Spanish colonists arrived to settle New Mexico permanently in 1598, the region was the territory of the indigenous Pueblo nations. Spain charged its soldiers and priests to suppress Pueblo culture and replace it with Spanish culture and Catholicism. After about 80 years of contact, the Pueblo rebelled against the Spanish and pushed the colony south out of New Mexico in the Pueblo Revolt of 1680. The Pueblo Indians forced 2,500 Spanish colonists to flee Santa Fe during the revolt. Twelve years later, in 1692, Governor Don Diego de Vargas led his Spanish forces back to New Mexico to reconquer the territory. The Pueblo who moved into Santa Fe after the Spanish abandoned it eventually surrendered peacefully to Diego de Vargas at the Santa Fe Plaza. In honor of the Spanish reoccupation of the city, Santa Fe hosts La Fiesta de Santa Fe in the plaza each year – a tradition that dates back to 1712 and is one of the oldest European thanksgiving celebrations in the United States.

Mexico won its independence from Spain in 1821, after 11 years of revolution. At the end of Mexico’s war with Spain, Santa Fe’s newly independent Mexicans raised the Mexican flag above the Palace of the Governors and named the plaza La Plaza de la Constitución in honor of their new government. After the war, trade and immigration increased between Mexico and the United States. Established in 1822, the Santa Fe Trail was an international trade route that stretched 800 miles between Santa Fe Plaza and Independence, Missouri. Wagon caravans and lone traders traveled for 10 weeks, east and west, to bring goods across the continent. Boarding houses, gambling halls, and other businesses that catered to traders surrounded the busy plaza during the Santa Fe Trail era.

In the 1840s, New Mexico became a U.S. territory after the United States and Mexico went to war over their national borders. The Mexican-American War lasted from the spring of 1846 to the winter of 1848. After the United States invaded northern Mexico in 1846, General Stephen W. Kearny proclaimed from Santa Fe Plaza that the New Mexico territory belonged to the United States. Mexico formally ceded California, Arizona, Nevada, Texas, and New Mexico to the United States in 1848, and the Gadsden Purchase and the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo established the border the two countries share today. After the formal annexation of New Mexico and the construction of the railroad, wagon activity on the Santa Fe Trail slowed. The city of Santa Fe eventually fenced in the plaza and planted alfalfa in the packed dirt. The Anglo American population in Santa Fe grew rapidly in the second half of the 19th century and in 1912, the United States admitted the territory of New Mexico to the union as a State.

Photo of the obelisk before 2020

Photo of the Plaza with the obelisk before 2020
Photo courtesy of Beatrice Murch

Santa Fe Plaza today is no longer a barren expanse of packed dirt or an alfalfa field, but a pleasant, grassy public square, lined with cottonwood trees and flagstone walkways. It is half the size today that it was during the Spanish period. Historical stone markers in the plaza include memorials that mark the start of the Santa Fe Trail and Kearny’s announcement of annexation. On Indigenous People's Day in 2020 protesters toppled the central obelisk memorial dedicated to “the heroes who have fallen in the various battles with the savage Indians in the territory of New Mexico.” The Palace of the Governors, the oldest continuously occupied public building in the United States, is located across the street from the Plaza and is open to visitors. The area around the plaza is still a commercial hub. Many of the buildings in the Santa Fe Historic District that includes and surrounds the plaza are in Spanish-Pueblo, Territorial and 19th-century non-indigenous architectural styles that give the district its distinct character. Restaurants, galleries, boutiques, and museums line the streets around the plaza. In honor of its Spanish past, the city continues to host La Fiesta de Santa Fe at the plaza, where the locals celebrate the city’s Hispano heritage annually each September with plays, parades, music, dancing, crafts, and a Catholic mass.

Plan your visit

Santa Fe Plaza, a National Historic Landmark, is a square block bordered by San Francisco St., Washington Ave., Palace Ave., and Lincoln Ave. that is located south of the Palace of the Governors in Santa Fe. Click here for the National Historic Landmark file: text and photos. Santa Fe Plaza is a public park and open daily. The Palace of the Governors hosts tours of historic downtown Santa Fe at 10:15 a.m., Monday-Saturday, May-October. Visit the museum's website for more information. For more information, visit the National Park Service Santa Fe National Historic Trail website.

The Palace of the Governors (El Palacio Real de Santa Fe) has been documented by the National Park Service’s Historic American Buildings Survey. Santa Fe Plaza is also featured in the National Park Service American Southwest Travel Itinerary and El Camino Real de Tierra Adentro National Historic Trail Travel Itinerary.

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