By Marc Simmons

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Santa Fe rates as one of the most historic cities in the entire United States. It often is touted, and rightly so, as the oldest capital in the nation. In spite of its large historical significance, however, the beginnings of Santa Fe are poorly known. That is because certain key documents relating to the founding have yet to be discovered in the Spanish archives.

According to a popular tale, long told, "some of Coronado's followers decided to remain in New Mexico when his expedition left for home in 1542. The band of intrepid Spaniards started a settlement that became Santa Fe, and the tourist attraction known today as 'the oldest house' represents the only structure dating from that era." All of this we now know is pure poppycock, as there exists nothing in the documentary record that even hints at such a story being true.

In late January of 1610, Don Pedro de Peralta reached New Mexico's first capital city, the Villa de San Gabriel, located on the west bank of the Rio Grande, opposite San Juan Pueblo. Peralta had been appointed by the viceroy to succeed Juan de Onate, New Mexico's first governor and founder. He also carried instructions to move the provincial capital to a better site.

The idea had been raised earlier by Onate himself, in 1608. At that date, he wrote to Mexico City indicating that he planned to relocate his settlers in the valley of the Santa Fe River. Some of them may have moved down there from San Gabriel as early as 1607. That is suggested in Spanish documents recently acquired in England by Dr. Tom Chavez and the Museum of New Mexico. The new site was said to be more defensible and, more important, there were no Pueblo Indians living in the vicinity. At the old capital, farmlands were scarce because San Juan had first claim for its needs. Just how many of Onate's people moved south prior to Peralta's arrival is unclear. But the majority probably still were at San Gabriel when the new governor decided to complete the transfer.

Thus the formal and legal founding of Santa Fe was carried out under the direction of Pedro de Peralta. He and his surveyor would have marked off the Plaza and streets and designated the sites for the main public buildings.

At some point, Gov. Peralta must have held an official ceremony to mark the founding. From that there should have come a plano de poblacion showing municipal boundaries, and a charter that certified as to the legality of the newly created municipality.

Unhappily, neither these nor any other documents directly bearing upon Santa Fe's birth have come to light thus far. The original papers no doubt were destroyed during the Pueblo Revolt of 1680. However, copies were sent in 1610 to the superior government probably were filed in archives in Mexico City or Seville, Spain. Some lucky scholar may one day find them.

Under Spanish law, the man founding a new community had the right to name it. But when peralta came, he saw that the small pre-existing settlement already was called Santa Fe, and so he left it at that. It is a safe guess that New Mexico's capital was named for the town of Santa Fe in southern Spain. That place had been started by Ferdinand and Isabella as a walled military camp outside the last Moorish stronghold of Granada. Its design was based on the Roman grid plan and proved so successful that it became the model for towns and cities built throughout the Spanish Empire.

One of the alternate names for New Mexico during its first century was New Granada. So naming its capital Santa Fe (Holy Faith) in honor of the Spanish city located at Granada might have seemed perfectly logical.

Throughout the colonial period, it was referred to in government records simply as La Villa Real de la Santa Fe (meaning, the Royal City of the Holy Faith). From that, local residents were familiarly known as villeros-tht is, townies.

Accepting 1610 as the date of Santa Fe's formal founding, the year 2010 will mark its cuartocentennial. Let us hope it's observed with more restraint and perspective than we have seen during the state's 400th anniversary.

Read Marc Simmons's "Coronado Land: Daily Life in Colonial New Mexico" (University of New Mexico Press).

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