How Did New Mexico Get Its Name? Origin and Meaning

Written by Angie Menjivar
Updated: September 6, 2023
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It’s where multiple Native American tribes settled, where European and Spanish explorers arrived to colonize, and where Native Americans defended themselves against oppressive colonial policies during the Pueblo Revolt. With its rich history, striking landscapes, and deeply embedded culture, New Mexico continues to emanate a vibrancy all its own. Discover the origin and meaning of New Mexico!

The Meaning and Origin of New Mexico

10,000 years before European settlers stepped foot in the state of New Mexico loved and cherished today, Native Americans settled on the land. Pueblo Indians made their mark in New Mexico, creating advanced irrigation systems. Later in the 15th century, different groups like the Navajo and Apache arrived to settle in the area and live alongside the other Native American settlers. They managed to live harmoniously with one another.

Ancient dwellings of UNESCO World Heritage Site named Taos Pueblo in New Mexico. Taos Pueblo is believed to be one of the oldest continuously inhabited settlements in USA.

Taos Pueblo is believed to be one of the oldest continuously inhabited settlements in the U.S.

©Nick Fox/

New Mexico’s Nicknames

New Mexico has several nicknames. The official one is the Land of Enchantment. New Mexico has an impressively rich history and the kind of beauty you marvel at. The first time this nickname was used on license plates was in 1941. It didn’t become the state’s official nickname until April 8, 1999, however. Another nickname New Mexico has is the Cactus State. Throughout the region, cacti proliferate, which makes the nickname perfectly apt. New Mexico receives abundant sunshine as well, so it’s also known as the Land of Sunshine.

San Juan River and Farmington, New Mexico

New Mexico’s official nickname is the Land of Enchantment.

©MonaMakela/ via Getty Images

When Did New Mexico’s Name Change and Why

Europe first heard about the land in the 16th century and in 1540, both Spanish and European explorers set out to find the revered location. In 1595, Juan de Onate of New Spain established Nuevo Mexico and named Santa Fe the official capital. This name came about because of the Aztec Valley of the Rio Grande River, which was known as the “Place of Mexitli.” The establishment of New Mexico occurred well over 200 years prior to the country of Mexico coming into existence. Though many believe that New Mexico was originally a part of Mexico, this is not the case. New Mexico was finally introduced as the United State’s 47th state in 1912.

Santa Fe New Mexico

Santa Fe is the capital of New Mexico.

©Sean Pavone/

Does New Mexico Have Meanings in Other Languages or Cultures?

New Mexico is an English translation from the original name appointed of Nuevo Mexico. The Aztec spelling for the Upper Rio Grande in Mexico is “Place of Mexitli.” “Mexitli” is but one of several different Aztec gods.

The photo featured at the top of this post is © allandp/

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About the Author

Angie Menjivar is a writer at A-Z-Animals primarily covering pets, wildlife, and the human spirit. She has 14 years of experience, holds a Bachelor's degree in psychology, and continues her studies into human behavior, working as a copywriter in the mental health space. She resides in North Carolina, where she's fallen in love with thunderstorms and uses them as an excuse to get extra cuddles from her three cats.

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