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Themes – Significance of the History of the Southwest


The history of the American Southwest is both rich and deep. In no other section/region of North America can one find the multitude of well-preserved ancient and prehistoric artifacts and sites that tell the human story of occupation, adaptation and co-existence. Study of the Mogollon, Hohokam and Ancestral Puebloan cultures reveals a constant evolution from simple, small hunter-gatherer clans to highly complex societies that developed the technical skills to support thousands of residents in the middle of an arid environment, and the cultural sophistication to create fine works of art when the rest of North America lived at subsistence levels and left no lasting record of their existence. The history of the American Southwest demonstrates that the “New World” was, in fact, an old world that developed separate and sophisticated technical, administrative and social structures that supported large populations and promoted artistic endeavors along with trade relationships that extended the length of the Hemisphere.

Southwestern history also provides an alternative story to the growth and development of the United States. The pueblos of the Southwest developed a communal approach to social organization that worked effectively for centuries. Only superior arms and technology defeated it. Spanish colonial practice drove pueblo society underground where persistence in the face of public humiliation and harsh punishment nurtured pueblo values until they reemerged in 1680 to unite the people in overcoming their oppressors. That success resulted in greater autonomy throughout the remainder of the colonial period. A centuries’ old history of independent governance and communal values provides an alternative to the traditional story of East Coast colonies moving westward and civilizing the wilderness along the way.

The history of the Southwest paints a different picture of colonization as well. Spanish colonists extended the lands of the empire for king and country, not for themselves. As a result, the intention of colonization was inclusion not exclusion. Native Americans were not seen as barriers to expansion, but as part of the expansion process. Conversion of more non-believers to Catholicism benefitted the Church, the monarch and the colonists themselves. This idea of inclusion and incorporation meant that the Pueblo peoples experienced self-government from 1621 forward, and that of the indigenous peoples living in the United States today, only the Puebloans still live on the same lands that their ancestors did when the Europeans arrived.

The Southwest was not a wilderness when Americans arrived and took over in 1848. Not only had the Pueblo peoples lived in the area for millennia, but also the Spanish had established a permanent presence in the region nearly a decade before Anglo-Europeans set foot in North America in 1609. Annexing an area with a large agrarian population with a similar history of written laws and participatory government challenges the notion of westward movement based on “Manifest Destiny.”

Finally, the history of the southwest is one of diversity. Unlike many areas of the Early Republic, the Southwest in the 19th century consisted of long-established ethnic groups. In New Mexico alone, there were seven different native languages spoken among the native peoples. The Spanish brought a multi-ethnic background when they arrived. The interaction of these societies produced even more ethnic variety. A partial list of words in common usage today that have their origins in the diversity of the region provides an example of the variety that is the Southwest:

  • Common words of Arabic origin: Adobe, alcohol, alfalfa, alkali, coffee, cotton, jar, guitar, lemon, lime, orange, sash, sugar, tangerine, zero
  • Common words of Spanish origin: Alligator, Apache, arroyo, avocado, banana, barbeque, bronco, cafeteria,  chocolate, corral, cowboy, crusade, hurricane, jerky, key, mesa, ranch, rodeo, silo, vanilla

The history of the Southwest provides a long and detailed look at the interaction of different cultures over a long period of time in the same location.

In regard to more recent United States’ history, the American Southwest is the setting for the mythic American West. Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday are associated with Tombstone and Tucson. Cochise, Geronimo and the Apaches conducted thirty years of guerilla warfare here. Charles Goodnight and Oliver Loving drove cattle from Texas to Montana and Colorado along the Goodnight-Loving trail through New Mexico.  John Wayne and John Ford celebrated and popularized the myth in the films they shot in Monument Valley in the ‘40s and ‘50s. Zane Grey (Riders of the Purple Sage) reinforced the myth in his novels as did Louis L’Amour (Lonesome Dove) and an uncounted number of lesser novelists over the last 100 years. The myth has defined the character of America and Americans as courageous, individualistic, fearless problem-solvers who fight for what is right no matter the odds. Ironically, the American Southwest, long excluded from the mainstream history of the United States, is the very area that has given birth to the way we define ourselves in the world today.

Finally, the history of the Southwest is becoming more and more important as the 21st century progresses. The Southwest is home to more Native Americans than any other region. It is also home to more people of Hispanic ancestry than any other section of the United States. Hispanics are the fastest growing ethnic group in the US today. By 2050, the Hispanic population is projected to comprise forty percent of the US population. Those in charge of the government and those involved in the economy are beginning to understand the importance of this ethnic group, and the necessity for understanding its values and its history. The story of both lies predominantly in one region, the American Southwest.