In the early 1500s, Friar Marc de Nice (Marcos de Niza) and the Moor Esteban claimed to have sighted the legendary “Seven Golden Cities of Cibola” in southern New Mexico, inspiring the legendary Coronado expedition.
The best-known early French settlers were Jacques Grolet, Jean L’Archevêque and Pierre Meusnier. After a series of extraordinary adventures, the trio joined a group of colonists as part of the second De Vargas expedition which followed the 1680 Pueblo Revolt. Grolet and L’Archevêque both founded New Mexico dynasties, the current Gurule and Archibeque families, respectively.
Between about 1695 and 1760, when New Mexico was under Spanish rule, the presence of any French was a cause for alarm. During that period, there were many reports of so-called “French intrusions” into Spanish territory.
From the 1760s to 1780s, two Frenchmen from Lille, working for the Spanish crown, had a major influence on what is now New Mexico: Charles-François (Carlos Francisco) de Croix who became viceroy of New Spain in 1766, and his nephew Theodore (Teodoro) de Croix, Commandant General of the Interior Provinces from 1776 to 1783.
In the 1780s, Pierre Vial, originally from Lyons, was employed by the Spanish government. Vial pioneered the overland trail from St. Louis to Santa Fe.
In the late 1700s, in the wake of the revolution in Saint-Domingue (now Haiti), many French people left the island, and some of them ended up in New Mexico.
Fur trappers and merchants came to New Mexico in the early 1800s. French and French-Canadians controlled the fur trade, making up 80% of the traders, with Taos one of their main centers.
The French presence was significant on the Santa Fe Trail, along which French was commonly spoken. In 1848, French-Canadian François-Xavier Aubry set a record for the fastest journey yet, traveling the 800 miles between Santa Fe and Independence, Missouri in just five-and-a-half days.
From 1850 until 1914, the French dominated New Mexico’s Catholic Church. The first New Mexico bishop, Jean-Baptiste Lamy, recruited legions of French priests to come to New Mexico, a tradition upheld by the succeeding four French archbishops.
In the 1860s, men of French origin fought in New Mexico on both sides of the Civil War. After France’s failed attempt to take over Mexico in 1867, a few French soldiers stayed behind and made their way to New Mexico.
From the mid-1870s to the early 1900s, French families came to New Mexico, and played major roles in business, agriculture and the wine industry. They settled in Las Vegas, Santa Fe, Albuquerque and Socorro, in the largest towns along the Rio Grande, and in many smaller places.
In the twentieth century, French business entrepreneurs and artists continued to arrive and make their homes here, but the French presence overall significantly decreased, notwithstanding the many French descendants still living in New Mexico.