Petroglyphs carved into basalt in the western part of the city bear testimony to an early Native American presence in the area, now preserved in the Petroglyph National Monument.
The Tanoan and Keresan peoples had lived along the Rio Grande for centuries before European settlers arrived in what is now Albuquerque. By the 1500s, there were around 20 Tiwa pueblos along a 60-mile (97 km) stretch of river from present-day Algodones to the Rio Puerco confluence south of Belen. Of these, 12 or 13 were densely clustered near present-day Bernalillo and the remainder were spread out to the south.
Two Tiwa pueblos lie specifically on the outskirts of the present-day city, both of which have been continuously inhabited for many centuries: Sandia Pueblo, which was founded in the 14th century, and the Pueblo of Isleta, for which written records go back to the early 17th century, when it was chosen as the site of the San Agustín de la Isleta Mission, a Catholic mission.
The Navajo, Apache, and Comanche peoples were also likely to have set camps in the Albuquerque area, as there is evidence of trade and cultural exchange between the different Native American groups going back centuries before European conquest.
Albuquerque was founded in 1706 as the Spanish colonial outpost of Villa de Alburquerque. Albuquerque was a farming community and strategically located military outpost along the Camino Real. The town was also the sheep-herding center of the West. Spain established a presidio in Albuquerque in 1706.
After 1821, Mexico also had a military presence there. The town of Alburquerque was built in the traditional Spanish village pattern: a central plaza surrounded by government buildings, homes, and a church. This central plaza area has been preserved and is open to the public as a museum, cultural area, and center of commerce. It is referred to as "Old Town Albuquerque" or simply "Old Town". Historically it was sometimes referred to as "La Placita" (Little Plaza in Spanish). On the north side of Old Town Plaza is San Felipe de Neri Church. Built in 1793, it is one of the oldest surviving buildings in the city.
After the American occupation of New Mexico, Albuquerque had a federal garrison and quartermaster depot, the Post of Albuquerque, from 1846 to 1867. During the Civil War, Albuquerque was occupied in February 1862 by Confederate troops under General Henry Hopkins Sibley, who soon afterward advanced with his main body into northern New Mexico. During his retreat from Union troops into Texas he made a stand on April 8, 1862, at Albuquerque and fought the Battle of Albuquerque against a detachment of Union soldiers commanded by Colonel Edward R. S. Canby. This daylong engagement at long range led to few casualties.
Downtown Albuquerque in the 1880s
When the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad arrived in 1880, it bypassed the Plaza, locating the passenger depot and railyards about 2 miles (3 km) east in what quickly became known as New Albuquerque or New Town. The railway company built a hospital for its workers that was later a juvenile psychiatric facility and has now been converted to a hotel. Many Anglo merchants, mountain men, and settlers slowly filtered into Albuquerque creating a major mercantile commercial center which is now Downtown Albuquerque. Due to a rising rate of violent crime, gunman Milt Yarberry was appointed the town's first marshal that year. New Albuquerque was incorporated as a town in 1885, with Henry N. Jaffa its first mayor. It was incorporated as a city in 1891.:232–233 Old Town remained a separate community until the 1920s when it was absorbed by Albuquerque. Old Albuquerque High School, the city's first public high school, was established in 1879. Congregation Albert, a Reform synagogue established in 1897, is the oldest continuing Jewish organization in the city.
Old Albuquerque High
, built in 1914 (Victorian and Gothic styles were used in the late 19th and early 20th centuries)
By 1900, Albuquerque boasted a population of 8,000 inhabitants and all the modern amenities, including an electric street railway connecting Old Town, New Town, and the recently established University of New Mexico campus on the East Mesa. In 1902, the famous Alvarado Hotel was built adjacent to the new passenger depot, and it remained a symbol of the city until it was razed in 1970 to make room for a parking lot. In 2002, the Alvarado Transportation Center was built on the site in a manner resembling the old landmark. The large metro station functions as the downtown headquarters for the city's transit department. It also serves as an intermodal hub for local buses, Greyhound buses, Amtrak passenger trains, and the Rail Runner commuter rail line.
New Mexico's dry climate brought many tuberculosis patients to the city in search of a cure during the early 20th century, and several sanitaria sprang up on the West Mesa to serve them. Presbyterian Hospital and St. Joseph Hospital, two of the largest hospitals in the Southwest, had their beginnings during this period. Influential New Deal–era governor Clyde Tingley and famed Southwestern architect John Gaw Meem were among those brought to New Mexico by tuberculosis.
The first travelers on Route 66 appeared in Albuquerque in 1926, and before long, dozens of motels, restaurants, and gift shops had sprung up along the roadside to serve them. Route 66 originally ran through the city on a north–south alignment along Fourth Street, but in 1937 it was realigned along Central Avenue, a more direct east–west route. The intersection of Fourth and Central downtown was the principal crossroads of the city for decades. The majority of the surviving structures from the Route 66 era are on Central, though there are also some on Fourth. Signs between Bernalillo and Los Lunas along the old route now have brown, historical highway markers denoting it as Pre-1937 Route 66.
The establishment of Kirtland Air Force Base in 1939, Sandia Base in the early 1940s, and Sandia National Laboratories in 1949, would make Albuquerque a key player of the Atomic Age. Meanwhile, the city continued to expand outward into the Northeast Heights, reaching a population of 201,189 by 1960. In 1990, it was 384,736 and in 2007 it was 518,271. In June 2007, Albuquerque was listed as the sixth fastest-growing city in the United States. In 1990, the U.S. Census Bureau reported Albuquerque's population as 34.5% Hispanic and 58.3% non-Hispanic white.
On April 11, 1950, a USAF B-29 bomber carrying a nuclear weapon crashed into a mountain near Manzano Base. On May 22, 1957, a B-36 accidentally dropped a Mark 17 nuclear bomb 4.5 miles from the control tower while landing at Kirtland Air Force Base. Only the conventional trigger detonated, the bomb being unarmed. These incidents were classified for decades.
Albuquerque's downtown entered the same phase and development (decline, "urban renewal" with continued decline, and gentrification) as nearly every city across the United States. As Albuquerque spread outward, the downtown area fell into a decline. Many historic buildings were razed in the 1960s and 1970s to make way for new plazas, high-rises, and parking lots as part of the city's urban renewal phase. As of 2010 , only recently has Downtown Albuquerque come to regain much of its urban character, mainly through the construction of many new loft apartment buildings and the renovation of historic structures such as the KiMo Theater, in the gentrification phase.
During the 21st century, the Albuquerque population has continued to grow rapidly. The population of the city proper was estimated at 528,497 in 2009, up from 448,607 in the 2000 census. During 2005 and 2006, the city celebrated its tricentennial with a diverse program of cultural events.
The passage of the Planned Growth Strategy in 2002–2004 was the community's strongest effort to create a framework for a more balanced and sustainable approach to urban growth.
Urban sprawl is limited on three sides—by the Sandia Pueblo to the north, the Isleta Pueblo and Kirtland Air Force Base to the south, and the Sandia Mountains to the east. Suburban growth continues at a strong pace to the west, beyond the Petroglyph National Monument, once thought to be a natural boundary to sprawl development.
Because of less-costly land and lower taxes, much of the growth in the metropolitan area is taking place outside of the city of Albuquerque itself. In Rio Rancho to the northwest, the communities east of the mountains, and the incorporated parts of Valencia County, population growth rates approach twice that of Albuquerque. The primary cities in Valencia County are Los Lunas and Belen, both of which are home to growing industrial complexes and new residential subdivisions. The mountain towns of Tijeras, Edgewood, and Moriarty, while close enough to Albuquerque to be considered suburbs, have experienced much less growth compared to Rio Rancho, Bernalillo, Los Lunas, and Belen. Limited water supply and rugged terrain are the main limiting factors for development in these towns. The Mid Region Council of Governments (MRCOG), which includes constituents from throughout the Albuquerque area, was formed to ensure that these governments along the middle Rio Grande would be able to meet the needs of their rapidly rising populations. MRCOG's cornerstone project is currently the New Mexico Rail Runner Express. In October 2013, the Albuquerque Journal reported Albuquerque as the third best city to own an investment property.