The recorded history of Aztec does not start until the summer of 1776. The arrival of Father Francisco Atanosio Dominquez and Father Francisco Velaz de Escalante, two friars who were seeking a shorter trail route from Santa Fe to the missions in California. On route to find a suitable trail, the two friars and several explorers passed through the San Juan Basin. Don Bernardo de Miera y Pacheco, a mapmaker and surveyor, was a member of the exploring party. It is from his maps that many of the names of the rivers and the valleys were documented and are still in use today. Such names as Rio Florida (River of Flowers), Rio de Las Piedras (River of the Stones), Rio de Los Pinos (River of the Pines), and Rio de San Juan (River of St. John). Despite their efforts, Father Dominquez and Father Escalante never did find a suitable trail to the missions of California. However, their efforts did provide a route for all other explorers and early settlers into the San Juan Basin region.
Aztec was established in the late 1800’s. In its infancy, it was only a trading post in Taos County in the 1880’s. It was not until 1887 that Aztec became an established community. San Juan County was formed by cutting the west portion of Rio Arriba off. By 1890, the Aztec Town Company was formed and was in need to divide 40 acres of land for laying out a town. Aztec was born. Unlike the rest of the Wild West, the earlier Anglo-settlers of Aztec were of agriculture and horticultural backgrounds.
The name of Aztec can be attributed to the misguided notion of Escalante’s visit to the San Juan Basin and finding large ruins, now known as Aztec National Monument, that were thought to have been built by the Aztec Indians. However, we know today that the Anasazi were responsible for the construction of the ruins. Yet with an early Mexican population settlement, the name remained with the city.