El Camino De Agua

Husking corn at harvest time, Santa Clara Pueblo, New Mexico, ca. 1915. Photographer unknown. Palace of the Governors Photo Archives (NMHM/DCA), Neg. No. 042773.

Traditional Agriculture Along El Camino Real


Native people of the  Southwest and Mexico have used the corridor known as El Camino Real de Tierra Adentro (The Royal Road of the Inner Province) since prehistoric times. Before the arrival of the Spanish and other European settlers, this important trail system served as a communication and trade network, which was a link to the Aztec Empire and other indigenous civilizations in Mesoamerica.


The northern regional trade center of that time was in the present-day state of Chihuahua at Paquime (Casas Grandes) and was a contact point for other Indian groups throughout the region, including the Pueblos of the northern Rio Grande.

These indigenous trade routes supplied people and cultures with important goods from Mesoamerica and beyond. From the southern tribes came parrots, macaws, marine shells, and copper objects, important for ceremonial purposes in the Southwest. In exchange, Southwestern people sent locally produced trade items such as turquoise, peridot, garnet, and serpentine. Processed bison products, Alibates flints, clay and pigments for making pottery, salt, meerschaum (tobacco pipes made from white clay), and ceremonial pottery were also traded to the Aztec and Mesoamerican cultures from the north.

Many Native cultures have flourished in the region of New Mexico, Colorado, Arizona, and northern Mexico throughout history. All of these cultures developed and maintained innovative and thriving agricultural traditions, and they all relied on extensive systems of trade to disperse the goods that they produced. Anasazi (Ancestral Pueblo), Mogollon, and Hohokam trade routes connected ancient centers of trade throughout the region. The Ancestral Pueblo people of the four corners area built Chaco Canyon and connected it with important trade centers near present-day Aztec, New Mexico, and Chimney Rock, Colorado. The Hohokam, an agricultural society in southern Arizona, irrigated the basins of the Salt and Gila Rivers. The Mogollon culture in New Mexico and Arizona shared agricultural practices and pottery-making techniques they learned from Mesoamerican cultures with people in the north, specifically the Pueblo ancestors.

In the south, the Aztec and Mesoamerican cultures also built an economy based on agriculture and trade. These civilizations produced goods that were in demand in the north, including obsidian tools and weapons, cotton textiles, and chocolate. They also cultivated and introduced the staple foods of the New World—squash, beans, and maize, the “Three Sisters”—along with chile, all of which made their way north to the Pueblo cultures of New Mexico. By 1300, trade routes began to follow existing waterways such as the Rio Grande. Demand for turquoise throughout the region, but especially in Mexico, increased travel between the Galisteo Basin and Chalchihuitl (Turquoise Mountain), as it was called by the Aztecs. This increase in travel led to cross-cultural relations between the many diverse groups that lived in the region, including the Valley of Mexico, northern New Mexico, and southern Colorado.

This ancient network of trails predated the Spanish Camino Real and provided Spanish explorers with a wide choice of routes for exploration and eventual colonization. The West Mexican Interior Trail connected the western half of Mesoamerica with the Chalchihuites culture of Durango and Zacatecas. Around AD 1000, this trail connected to the major trading center at Casas Grandes and its network of trails north. This trail witnessed extensive travel in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. The Rio Grande Pueblo Indian Trail connected El Paso to the upper Rio Grande. When Casas Grandes collapsed in the fifteenth century, its roadways were no longer used. The Rio Grande segment then became the main corridor to Pueblo country. The West Mexican Coastal Trail was the main route from the Mexican heartland to southern Arizona and New Mexico. This trail passed through Zuni and connected with the Rio Grande Pueblo route. The intercultural exchanges and relations between these cultures led to innovations and exchange in agricultural techniques, architecture, communications, and religion.

Pueblo Agriculture

The use of irrigation systems to support agriculture began with the Ancestral Puebloans. These innovative people built communities for long-term occupation. Their indigenous technologies included solar-heated pithouses and kivas, cisterns for domestic water storage, and community outdoor hearths and ovens. They farmed on contour terraces, grid-bordered gardens, and canyon floors, and eventually developed a sophisticated and water-efficient system of agriculture. That system depended on natural precipitation and runoff that the Puebloans captured, stored, and distributed to their crops via intricate systems of canals, diversion dams, and headgates.

When these settlements were abandoned around AD 1100, this unique agricultural technology did not disappear, but was passed on to modern Pueblo cultures who occupied the Rio Grande Basin and its tributaries. The agricultural and irrigation practices begun by the Ancestral Puebloans evolved into even more efficient methods of soil and water conservation. Pueblo agriculturalists invested an enormous amount of time, energy, and resources to construct a network of water harvesting and conservation systems that were innovative and ingenious. These remarkable conservation accomplishments and engineering techniques included dense coverage of low mesas by the installation of gravel-mulched fields, complexes of rock-bordered rectangular grids and cobble-step terraces on high mesas, stone-lined ditches to channel water from one depression to another, and placement of rock alignments as check dams for designated planting areas within the irrigated floodplain.

Pueblo people learned to cultivate corn in many different environments. Different strains of corn were a result of the collective understanding of Pueblo farmers and the local ecology in which they lived. Corn was and still is a blessed sacrament and a symbol of life that represents the Pueblo relationship with the land. Corn and other staple crops such as squash, beans, and other native plants have come to represent the sacred relationship that Pueblo culture has with the earth. Corn dances, for example, are still performed in modern pueblos and continue the cycle of spiritual ecology of place that is passed on from one generation to the next. This passing on strengthens the concept of sustainability in traditional Pueblo agriculture and creates a harmonious balance for individual and community Pueblo agriculture and gardening.

The Pueblo ancestors developed many different gardening techniques to grow vegetables and wild plants in the high, arid, desert plateaus of the Southwest. Many of these practices were a direct result of the extensive trade and exchange of ancient technologies and ideas which arrived in Pueblo country because of the early trail network. Two of these methods are often found adjacent to the present-day path of El Camino Real.

Waffle gardens, or sunken gardens, also known as eras, are one of the most ingenious and practical methods of growing vegetables in a dry environment with limited water for irrigation. This method of planting is still in use in many pueblos, and it is easily adaptable to small areas with limited water supplies. It begins with the construction of growing holes called waffles, because the garden plots look like a waffle. Plants like corn, beans, and squash thrive in waffle gardens. Planting in a small space conserves the precious, small amounts of rainfall that come to the dry environments of the Southwest. The leaves of each plant, along with the shade they produce, provide a natural mulch that keeps the plants cool and free of weeds and maintains moist soil for longer periods of time. A different type of vegetable can be planted in each of the waffles, providing a variety of produce in a small space. Another advantage of waffle gardens is that manure, compost, and topsoil can easily be added to each individual cell, even as the plant matures. Over time, traditional gardeners can develop a large network of waffle gardens that can be adapted for different crops and conditions. Today this form of gardening is ideal for people with small spaces, such as urban gardeners, and it is especially productive where water is scarce. Farming in the foothills is another innovative gardening technique mastered by the Pueblo ancestors.

Pueblo farmers treated the land like a huge sponge throughout the year. They realized that they had to capture and conserve any water that came during the summer’s brief monsoon. To prevent runoff from stealing valuable water from their gardens, they built terrace gardens on sloped hills. They used the four sources of moisture available to them to make their gardens thrive: direct precipitation, intermittent runoff, groundwater, and flowing water such as rivers, springs, and seep water. Chinampas (Aztec wetlands practices), weed gardens (wild plant and herb gardens), and irrigated milpas (maize fields) were also established by the Pueblos who lived along El Camino.

Spanish-Mexican Agriculture 

When Juan de Oñate led the first colonizing expedition to Ohkay Owingeh (Village of the Strong People) and established the first Spanish capital, San Gabriel del Yunge, in 1598, El Camino Real de Tierra Adentro was the principal route to the province of Nuevo México. The road was then also called El Camino de Agua by the people on the expedition from Zacatecas, because they had to make sure that there was water for their livestock and their families on the journey north. The route of El Camino de Agua can be traced by the place-names on the southern road in settlements such as San Juan del Río, Aguas Calientes, Ojo Caliente, and Ojo de Talamantes. Place-names like Jornada del Muerto also identified places where water was scarce. As the caravan traveled north, the travelers were also aware of chupaderos (small water bowls made by hand), arroyos, tinajas (rock formations containing water), and socavones (water holes) along the road. If there was a puddle of water on the camino, these people knew about it, because it was a matter of their survival.

Once the community of San Gabriel was established, Oñate realized that the settlement needed water for agriculture in order to survive. The Spanish were amazed to find the sophisticated agricultural systems developed by the Pueblo farmers. Unlike the Pueblos, however, Spanish-Mexican agriculturalists did not limit their settlements to areas dependent on captured runoff and consistent rainfall. Spanish colonization and the establishment of ranchos and land grant settlements necessitated the use of much larger tracts of land, requiring the colonists to engineer larger diversions and water-delivery systems from the Rio Grande, the Rio Chama, and their tributaries. These systems came to be known as acequias, a word derived from the Arabic for “community ditch.” The farmers of Ohkay Owingeh called irrigation by canal kwi onu, kwi on. These traditional irrigation practices eventually merged, creating an Indo-Hispano system known as acequia culture today.

Tlaxcalteca Indians who accompanied the Oñate expedition to San Gabriel laid out the acequia systems around the new colony. A month after settling at Ohkay Owingeh, Oñate had around 1,500 Pueblo Indians and the new settlers dig what is believed to be the oldest acequia in New Mexico, on the Chama River, in the modern-day community of Chamita. Wheat was the first crop planted by the Spanish farmers. New World crops planted in these first Indo-Hispano gardens and farms included corn, sunflowers, tobacco, beans, squash, pumpkins, gourds, and capsicum peppers, which eventually evolved into New Mexico chile. Besides wheat, Old World crops brought by the Spanish to New Mexico included barley, artichokes, cabbage, lettuce, carrots, garlic, onions, radishes, turnips, cucumbers, garbanzos, peas, and cumin. Fruit trees brought from the Old World were also planted by the Spanish; apricots, cherries, nectarines, and peaches were among the first to be established.

Several places along El Camino Real were used by these first colonists to cultivate their agricultural skills. One of these places, in southern Chihuahua, was El Valle Allende, where Oñate and these same settlers spent several years (1596– 1598), planting the seeds and cultivating the crops that eventually made their way to the Rio Arriba of Nuevo México.

The people who settled the far reaches of the Camino Real quickly became very creative and self-sufficient in times of scarcity. Everything that the people of this remote and isolated frontier could not produce locally had to be transported over this vital link to the outside world. Missionaries, government officials, and colonists desperate for supplies anxiously awaited the arrival of caravans from Mexico City to bring them products from the outside world. In exchange, products from the north were imported to Spain and other parts of Europe. The New World and the Old World became interconnected in ways that no one at the time could have anticipated.

The Columbian Exchange

The slow-moving, global exchange between two worlds known as the Columbian Exchange took decades, centuries, to unfold. The European discovery of the New World, motivated by the quest for empire, trade, God, and gold, slowly transformed the global environment, including northern New Spain, as the province of Nuevo México was called. Crops such as wheat, barley, and turnips had never grown in what is today New Mexico. There were no horses, cattle, sheep, or goats in New Mexico, and, with the exception of turkeys, no domesticated birds. When they did arrive, over El Camino Real, their presence changed the hunting, dietary, migratory, and social structures of the Native cultures forever. Once the Columbian Exchange began, it never ceased, and it still continues at an accelerated pace today.

Michael Miller served as director of the New Mexico Records Center and Archives and was founding director of the Center for Southwest Research at UNM. He is a contributor to Chronicles of the Trail and a member and former director of CARTA. A writer and poet, he lives on his family farm in La Puebla, New Mexico.



Mexican Archives of New Mexico, NMSRCA, Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Spanish Archives of New Mexico, Series I (SANM I), NMSRCA, Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Published Sources

Juan Estevan Arellano. Enduring Acequias: Wisdom of the Land, Knowledge of the Water (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2014).

Felipe Fernández-Armesto. Near a Thousand Tables: A History of Food (New York: Free Press, 2002).

Alfred W. Crosby. The Columbian Exchange: Biological and Cultural Consequences of 1492 (Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood, 1972).

William W. Dunmire. Gardens of New Spain: How Mediterranean Plants and Foods Changed America (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2004).

Florence Hawley Ellis. San Gabriel del Yungue (Santa Fe: Sunstone Press, 1989).

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Stephen H. Lekson. The Chaco Meridian: Centers of Political Power in the Ancient American Southwest (Walnut Creek, California: Alta Mira Press, 1999).

Charles C. Mann. 1491: New Revelations of the Americas before Columbus (New York: Vintage Books, 2005).

Joseph P. Sánchez and Bruce A. Erickson. From Mexico City to Santa Fe: A Historical Guide to El Camino Real de Tierra Adentro (Albuquerque: Rio Grande Books, 2011).

David E. Stuart. Anasazi America: Seventeen Centuries on the Road from Center Place (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2000).

Robert J. Torrez. “The Organization and Management of Caravans on the Camino Real.” Chronicles of the Trail 11 (winter 2015).


Joe Maestas, manager, Santa Cruz Irrigation District, 1998–2003.

Wilfred Rael, mayordomo, Questa, New Mexico, Santa Cruz Irrigation District, 1998–2000.

Cleofas Vigil, mayordomo, San Cristóbal, New Mexico. Northern Branch College, University of New Mexico, 1977.