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America's First Highway: El Camino Real
Article first published in Vol. 17, 1998.
El Camino Real, or the Royal Highway, began in Mexico City and ended in Santa Fe, becoming a major trading route and one of the longest highways in the Americas. No one ever officially named this trail, primarily because every main road of commerce during the Spanish exploration was a "camino real," or royal road, until Mexico received its independence.Image caption: Antique wagon reminiscent of those used on Camino Real can be found at West Studio, 6700 Doniphan. Photo by Danny Martinez
The highway began as a series of Indian footpaths connecting the western southern, and eastern regions of central Mexico with the cultures of Durango and Zacatecas. As the Camino Real moved north, it connected with the trading centers of Casas Grandes and Chihuahua.
One of the important parts of the Camino Real extended from Chihuahua, through El Paso, and northward to the upper portion of the Rio Grande where Santa Fe was established. Known as the Rio Grande Pueblo Indian Trail, it became the Chihuahua Trail when the Spanish gained control over New Mexico. The person largely responsible for establishing the Camino Real is the explorer Juan de Oñate. In 1598, Oñate began an expedition to discover a route to New Mexico that earlier explorers like Coronado had only glimpsed. The Oñate expedition made its way along the Indian trails, becoming the first European colonists in the Southwest to travel the Camino Real.Image caption: La Salinera, Camino Real paraje, or campsite, is located between Canutillo and Anthony. Photo by Danny Martinez
As the expedition made its way, Oñate would name the campsites or parajes that eventually ended up on maps. El Brazito, a tract of land within a horseshoe bend of the Rio Grande, is present-day Vado. Other campsites included San Juan, Robledo Mountain, Socorro, and Paraje de Fray Cristobal.
The Oñate expedition defined the Camino Real's full length. By the time Santa Fe was established in 1610, the Camino Real stretched 1,800 miles, connecting Mexico City with the farthest outpost of the Spanish Empire and for three centuries was the longest highway in North America.
During the seventeenth century, the Camino Real flourished when towns like Albuquerque and Chihuahua were founded. The trail was used for colonization, missionary supply, commerce, cultural exchange, and military campaigns.
The mission of New Mexico, established by the Franciscan friars who had accompanied and Spanish explorers, were linked in the 1600s to the rest of New Spain by wagon trains moving up and down the Camino Real. Almost everything the missions needed came by wagon train, and the Franciscans managed these trips expertly.
A round-trip from Mexico City to Santa Fe along the Camino Real took about 18 months by wagon train. A train consisted of 32 wagons divided into two sections of 16 wagons, each supervised by a majordomo, who drove the lead wagon. Mules pulled the wagons, and a wagon train needed 544 mules. Sixteen mules pulled each wagon, and two teams of eight were alternated. To replace the mules which died along the way, the Spanish brought 32 extra animals.
The wagon train crew included 52 people, 32 majordomos, four Plains Indians who served as scouts, droves and hunters and 16 Indian women working as cooks. The entire crew served under the Franciscan procurator-general for the province of New Mexico, who made every trip himself.
The wagons had iron tires, spoked wheels and looked much like the Conestoga wagons which would be built a century later in Pennsylvania to bring settlers west. Each wagon could carry at least two tons of freight and often were overloaded, carrying close to three tons along the rugged trails of northern Mexico.
New Mexico missions traded regularly with the Santa Barbara Parral area, sending antelope hides, piñon nuts, wheat, corn, raw wool and blankets to Mexico while trains going north included necessities for the missions such as table cloths, napkins, brass basins, tools, wine and church ornaments. Goods shipped to mission personnel included chocolate, cinnamon, sugar, raisins, dried shrimp, chile, beans, flour, oil and vinegar. The missionaries bought luxury items such as horses, musical instruments for the mass and gold and silver implements for the interior of the church from the income derived from trade.
The first breeding horses, cattle, and sheep entered New Mexico through the Camino Real, as well as written language, gun powder and iron. The Pueblo Indians traded turquoise, salt and macaws.
Historian W. H. Timmons says that after the founding of Chihuahua, the buying and selling of goods for profit took the place of trading goods for religious purposes, making El Paso an important trade center. A customhouse was established in 1835, to conduct detailed inspections of all cargo, seize contraband, and enforce prescribed procedures involving trade into El Paso.
Timmons says by the middle of the 1800s, Chihuahua had surpassed Santa Fe to become the principal center of overland trade in the area with over $1 million worth of goods being sold in Chihuahua Trail served to keep New Mexico alive in the 17th and 18th centuries.
The Santa Fe trail, beginning in Franklin, Missouri, and ending in the New Mexico town of the same name, originated in 1821, and joined the Camino Real to become "the veins through which the cultural lifeblood of both peoples [English and Spanish] flowed," according to historian Thomas E. Chavez. By the time Mexico had won its independence from Spain, another 800 miles of trade route had been added to the Camino Real, extending from Missouri to Mexico City.
Once Texas became part of the United States of America in 1845, El Paso divided into two sections: El Paso, Texas and El Paso, Chihuahua, or Juárez. The Camino Real still kept the communities thriving despite being officially divided. The Royal Highway continued to be the main trade route between the United States and Mexico until the expansion of railroads in the 1800s carved quicker paths and shorter distances.
Today the original Camino Real is covered over by railroad ties and highways in many places, but the Mexican Central Railroad follows the Camino Real up to Juárez. Likewise, I-25 in New Mexico still follows part of the trail. A small plaque commemorates Oñate's crossing of the Rio Grande on the southern portion of the trail behind what is now La Hacienda Restaurant on Paisano Drive.
Local historian Joseph Leach says that provided there is funding for the project, the El Camino International Heritage Center will be built along Interstate 25 just south of Socorro, New Mexico. Leach says that in Mexico, portions of the Camino Real have been declared zones of historic monuments, including Zacatecas, Guanajuato, Durango and Querétaro.
Today, El Paso motorists can zip up to Santa Fe in five hours or less in air-conditioned comfort. Gone are the adventure, danger and discomfort Don Juan de Oñate's party and subsequent wagon trains experienced hundreds of years ago when a good day meant traveling 10 miles, and they forged the longest highway in America: the Camino Real.