The area of modern Bogotá was first populated by groups of indigenous people who migrated from Mesoamerica. Among these groups were the Muiscas, who settled mainly in the regions that we know today as the Departaments of Cundinamarca and Boyacá. With the arrival of the Spanish colonizers, the area became a major settlement, founded by Gonzalo Jiménez de Quesada and later capital of the Spanish provinces and the seat of the Viceroyalty of New Granada. With independence, Bogotá became capital of the Gran Colombia and later the capital of the Republic of Colombia.
The first populations inhabiting Bogotá were the Muiscas, members of the Chibcha language family. At the arrival of the conquerors, the population was estimated to be half a million indigenous people. They occupied the highland and mild climate flanks between the Sumapaz Mountains to the southwest and Cocuy's snowy peak to the northeast, covering an approximate area of, comprising Bogotá's high plain, the current Boyacá department portion and a small Santander region. Most fertile lands were ancient Pleistocene lake beds and regions irrigated by high Bogotá, Suárez, Chicamocha and some Meta affluent river beds.
In this area, the population was organised in two large federations, each commanded by a chief. The southwest area was dominated by the Zipa with the center located in Bacatá, currently Bogotá. He was the strongest leader, occupying two-fifths of the territory. The northeast zone was the Zaque domain and the center was Hunza region, currently Tunja. Unlike the Tayronas, the Muiscas did not develop large cities. Muisca, eminently farmers, formed a disperse population occupying numerous small villages and hut settlements. In addition, some free isolated tribes also existed: Iraca or Sugamuxi, Tundama, and Guanentá.
From 1533, a belief persisted that the Río Grande de la Magdalena was the trail to the South Sea, to Peru, legendary Dorado. Such was the target of Gonzalo Jiménez de Quesada, the Spaniard conqueror who left Santa Marta on 6 April 1536 with 500 soldiers, heading towards the interior of current Colombia. The expedition divided into two groups, one under Quesada's command to move on land, and the other commanded by Diego de Urbino would go up river in four brigantine ships to later on meet Quesada troops at the site named Tora de las Barrancas Bermejas. When they arrived, they heard news about Indians inhabiting the south and making large salt cakes used to trade for wild cotton and fish. Jiménez decided to abandon the route to Peru and cross the mountain in search of salt villages. They saw crops, trails, white salt cakes and then huts where they found corn, yucca and beans. From Tora, the expedition went up the Opón River and found Indians covered with very finely painted cotton mats. When they arrived to Grita Valley, of the expedition leaving Santa Marta, only 70 men were left.
Along their trip, they took a large amount of gold and emeralds. In Hunza, they captured the Zaque Quemuenchatocha and headed towards Sogamoso, where they plundered and set the Sun temple on fire and obtaining immense prize.
On 22 March 1537, they arrived from the north crossing Nemocón and Zipaquirá salt villages to a place they named Valle de los Alcázares (Valley of the Fortress). Already in Chibcha territory they found goods roads and moved southwest. In the next few days, they came across several villages, among them Lenguazaque and Suesca. They continued through Cajicá, Chía and Suba, the start of Bogotá Kingdom, where they fought Bogotá Chief Indians, who tried to prevent them from entering their town, and saw Muequetá or Bacatá fenced ranch village, built on a swampy ravine, and Tisquesusa Zipa capital on the right margin of the Tisquesusa River.
Following the conquerors motto to found and to populate, Quesada decided to build an urban settlement to live in good order and under stable government. To the east on the foothills, they found an Indian village named Teusaquillo near the Zipa's recreation residence, supplied with water, wood and planting land and protected from winds by Monserrate and Guadalupe hills.
In 1553, the Main Plaza —now Plaza de Bolívar— was moved to its current site and the first cathedral construction on the eastern side began. On the other sides, the Chapter and the Royal Audience were located. The street joining the Major Plaza and Herbs Plaza —currently Santander Park— was named Calle Real(Royal Street), now Seventh Carrera.
Formed by Whites, Mestizos, Indians, and slaves, from the second half of the 16th century, the population began rapidly growing. The 1789 census recorded 18,161 inhabitants, and by 1819, the city population amounted to 30,000 inhabitants distributed in 195 blocks. Importance grew when the diocese was created. Up to 1585, the only parish was the Cathedral, later on Las Nieves to the north and Santa Bárbara south of the Main Plaza were created.
The city mayor and the chapter formed by two councilmen, assisted by the constable and the police chief, governed the city. For better administering these domains, in April 1550, the Audience of Santafé de Bogotá was organized. At that time, the city became the capital and the home of New Kingdom of Granada government. Fourteen years later in 1564, the Spanish Crown designated the first Royal Audience chairman, Andrés Díaz Venero de Leyva. The New Granada became a viceroyship in 1739 and kept that condition until Liberator Simón Bolívar achieved independence in 1819.
Political uneasiness felt all over Spanish colonies in America was expressed in New Granada in many different ways, accelerating the movement to independence. One of the most transcendent was the Revolution of Comuneros, a riot of the inhabitants started in Villa del Socorro —current Department of Santander—in March 1781. Spanish authorities suppressed the riot, and José Antonio Galán, the leader was executed. He left an imprint, though. He was followed in 1794 by Antonio Nariño, precursor of independence by translating and publishing in Santa Fe, the Rights of Men and the Citizen, and by 20 July movement leaders in 1810. Independence outcry originated in an apparently slight dispute between Creole and Spaniards over the loan of a flowerpot, but became a popular uprising.
The period between 1810 and 1815 is known as "La Patria Boba" (The Foolish Fatherland), because during those years Creoles fought among themselves seeking ideal government forms, initial ideological struggles began and the first two republican political parties —federalists and centralists—were formed.
Between 1819 and 1849, there were no fundamental structural changes from the colonial period. By the mid-19th century, a series of fundamental reforms were enacted, some of the most important being slavery abolition and religious, teaching, print and speech industry and trade freedom, among others. During the decade of the 70s, radicalism accelerated reforms and state and social institutions were substantially modified. However, during the second half of the century, the country faced permanent pronouncements, declarations of rebellions between states, and factions which resulted in civil wars: the last and bloodiest was the One Thousand Days War from 1899 to 1902. After independence, Bogotá continued to enjoy the privilege of being the main educational and cultural center of the new nation.
In 1823, a few years after the formation of Gran Colombia, the Public Library, now the National Library, was enlarged and modernized with new volumes and better facilities. The National Museum was founded. Those institutions were of great importance to new republic's cultural development. The Central University was the first State school, precursor of the current National University, founded in 1867 and domiciled in Bogotá.
On 25 December 1884, the first tramway pulled by mules was inaugurated, and covered the route from Plaza de Bolívar to Chapinero, and in 1892, the line linking Plaza de Bolívar and La Sabana Station started operating. The tramway ran over wood rails, though since it easily derailed, steel rails imported from England were installed. In 1894, a tramway car ran the Bogotá-Chapinero line every 20 minutes. The tramway provided services until 1948, and was then replaced by buses.
President Rafael Núñez declared the end of Federalism, and in 1886 the country became a centralist republic ruled by the constitution in force – save some amendments – up to 1991. In the middle of political and administration avatars, Bogotá continued as the capital and principal political center of the country.
From a base of only 20,000 people in 1793, the city grew to 117,000 in 1912. Population growth was rapid after 1870, largely because of immigration from the eastern highlands.
Early in the 20th century, Colombia had to face devastating consequences from the One Thousand Days War, which lasted from 1899 to 1902, and the loss of Panama. Between 1904 and 1909, the lawfulness of the liberal party was re-established and President Rafael Reyes endeavored to implement a national government. Peace and state reorganization generated the increase of economic activities. Bogotá started deep architectural and urban transformation with significant industrial and artisan production increases. In 1910, the Industrial Exposition of the Century took place at Park of Independence. Stands built evidenced industrial, artisan work, beaux arts, electricity and machinery progress achieved. The period from 1910 to 1930 is designated conservative hegemony. Between 1924 and 1928, hard union struggles began, with oil fields and banana zone workers' strikes, leaving numerous people killed.
Bogotá had practically no industry. Production was basically artisan work grouped in specific places, similar to commercial sectors. Plaza de Bolívar and surroundings lodged hat stores, at Calle del Comercio –current Carrera Seventh– and Calle Florián –now Carrera Eight– luxurious stores selling imported products opened their doors; at Pasaje Hernández, tailor's shops provided their services, and between 1870 and 1883, four main banks opened their doors: Bogotá, Colombia, Popular and Mortgage Credit banks.
Following the banana zone killings and conservative party division, Enrique Olaya Herrera took office in 1930. The liberal party reformed during 16 years of the so-called Liberal Republic, agricultural, social, political, labor, educational, economic and administrative sectors. Unionism strengthened and education coverage expanded. In 1938, the fourth centenary of Bogotá foundation, the population had reached 333,312 inhabitants, a celebrated event.
The celebration produced a large number of infrastructure works, new construction and work sources. Following the 1946 liberal party division, a conservative candidate took presidential office again in 1948, after the killing of liberal leader Jorge Eliécer Gaitán, Bogotá's downtown was virtually destroyed as violence reigned. From then, Bogotá's urban, architectural and population sectors were substantially reorganized.
In January 2012, Gustavo Petro became Mayor with a pledge to ban carrying weapons on the city's streets.
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