From the vast sweeps of the White Sands in the southern central area, to the lofty reaches of the Sangre de Cristo range in the north, New Mexico presents a varied and often spectacular landscape, the particular features of which have played an important part in the history of the state. For the early Spaniards the southern desert regions, including the famed Jornada del Muerto (Journey of Death), were not highly attractive and were to be passed by as quickly as possible in the trek toward the more fertile mountain river valleys. The valley of the Rio Grande provided a natural highway and is still the route of U.S. 85 from El Paso, Texas, to Bernalillo, just north of Albuquerque.
In 1598 the earliest settlement, at San Juan, was close to the junction of the Rio Grande and the Rio Chama. Although it seems evident that the explorers before Oñate were looking primarily for mineral riches and not for agricultural land, nevertheless, by the time of Oñate's arrival in 1598 it was clear that, in order to survive, agricultural settlements must be made. The majority of persons in Oñate's company were brought for just that purpose. Unlike the Indians in the Valley of Mexico, the