For a short chronology of the history of the French in New Mexico, click here.
Starting in the 16th century, hundreds of French ships departed each year from the numerous harbors dotted along France’s western and northern coasts, loaded with people coming to trade, to find a new life or to fight wars. They settled or traversed the North Atlantic coast, the St. Lawrence Valley and the Great Lakes, the Caribbean Islands, the Mississippi Valley, the Great Plains and Mexico, and quite a few of them moved to the American West and New Mexico.
In the early 1500s, Franciscan friar Marcos de Niza (from Nice) and the Moor Esteban claimed to have sighted the legendary “Seven Golden Cities of Cibola” in what is now western New Mexico; in the mid 1700s, the brothers Pierre-Antoine and Paul Mallet traversed the Great Plains all the way to Santa Fe, with six other Frenchmen from Canada; in the 1780s Pierre Vial, from Lyons, was employed by the government in New Mexico and pioneered the way from St. Louis to Santa Fe; in the early 1800s, Thomas Jefferson, a lover of France, sent Lewis and Clark on their famous voyages, with Frenchmen in their team; in the mid 1880s, John Frémont, the “pathfinder”, and his famous scout Kit Carson, explored the American West through five expeditions; Francis Aubry, nicknamed the “Skimmer of the Plains”, made the fastest crossings, with a record 800 miles from Santa Fe to Independence Missouri in five and half days.
The fur trade was controlled by French and French-Canadians, at both management and field level, making up 80% of the traders. Taos was one of their main centers, illustrated by famous names such as Céran St. Vrain and the Robideaux brothers. Starting in about 1850, the French dominated New Mexico’s catholic church. Under the impetus of the first New Mexico bishop Jean-Baptiste Lamy, legions of French priests, some bringing relatives and friends, came to New Mexico, a tradition followed until 1914 by the succeeding four French bishops.
The French were no strangers to land grab and speculation. Gervais Nolan, a French fur trapper and resident of Taos, applied for his half million acre land grant in 1843 on the basis of his military service. Also in Taos the same year, Narciso Beaubien and S.L. Lee got a 1 million acre land grant. The famous Lucien Bonaparte Maxwell Land Grant, also known as the Beaubien-Miranda Land Grant, was one of the largest contiguous private landholdings in the history of the United States with 1.7 million acres mostly in present day New Mexico. And on a smaller scale, even the church was involved, with the Lamy land grant of sixteen thousand acres near Santa Fe.