One of my papers this semester was on the history of Albuquerque, specifically in relation to theories of city location and form drawn from urban geography. I’ll post the full paper later, but for now I just want to say a bit about the main source I used, which was Marc Simmons’s book Albuquerque: A Narrative History. Simmons is one of the most prominent historians of New Mexico, and the book is a very good summary of the whole sweep of Albuquerque’s long history. As the subtitle implies, the focus is narrative, and rather than a long, dry list of decisions made by developers and politicians the book is mainly a series of interesting stories that shed light on what life was really like in Albuquerque during various periods. Simmons is something of an old-fashioned historian, not given to theorizing, so there is very little attempt to put any of this into an explicit explanatory framework. That’s okay, though, because the information is presented clearly enough that it could easily be used to evaluate its fit with a variety of theoretical approaches.
Simmons is a specialist in the Spanish colonial period, and his coverage of Albuquerque’s history is therefore more detailed and focused for the early period, from the establishment of the city in 1706 to the coming of the railroad in 1880. The documentation of this period is pretty scanty, but Simmons makes excellent use of it. One of his major claims to fame as a New Mexico historian is his discovery that Governor Francisco Cuervo y Valdés cut a lot of corners when he founded Albuquerque, though he claimed to have followed all the applicable laws to the letter when he wrote his dispatches to his superiors. Before Simmons, historians had generally taken him at his word, since his letters were pretty much the only source available on the matter. Simmons, however, discovered records of an investigation into Governor Cuervo’s various claims about his accomplishments that shed new light on this and other issues. Conducted just a few years after he left office, the investigation involved extensive interviews with Albuquerque residents who said that the founding of the town basically consistent of a few families being granted land in the area and ten soldiers being sent to protect them. This is in stark contrast to the way a town was supposed to be founded, and the way Cuervo claimed to have founded this one. A plaza, streets, and boundaries were supposed to be surveyed, and the people were supposed to build and live in houses along those streets, near a church facing on the plaza. The church does seem to have been built, but aside from that not much else happened to change the Albuquerque area from a rural agricultural valley to a town of any sort.
Simmons describes these events in great detail, and this is probably the most interesting part of the book. As he gets to the later periods, he seems to rely very heavily on newspapers as primary sources, which gives him a lot of interesting stories to tell but doesn’t do much to place them in context. He kind of rushes through the whole twentieth century at breakneck speed after lingering for a while on the period between 1880 and 1900, when the new Anglo railroad town around the train station began to outshine the old town around the plaza. For my specific purposes in writing this paper it would perhaps have been better for the book to have paid more detailed attention to the period after World War II, when the city grew enormously and changed into the sprawling monstrosity it is today, but it’s not like I’m the only potential audience. One issue is that the book was written in 1982, and while not a whole lot has changed since then in the grand scheme of things, it would be interesting to see an updated account putting more recent events into perspective.
Anyway, despite those small quibbles, this is a very good introduction to the history of Albuquerque, and I’d definitely recommend it to anyone interested in the subject.