Reflections on the Three Trails

Ronald Kil, Down the Camino Real. Courtesy of the artist.

Hosting the Three Trails Conference in Santa Fe provides an occasion to reflect on how this rather remote, small city came to be the hub of such historically significant transportation arteries. It also makes for an appropriate time to contemplate the trails themselves and how we have chosen to commemorate them.

I have been researching, lecturing, and writing about New Mexico history for more than thirty years, and in many senses, I have been a traveler on the Camino Real, the Santa Fe Trail, or the Old Spanish Trail for all of that time. As the state historian of New Mexico since 2010, I travel all over the state and continue to experience one or more of these historic trails on many of my journeys.

I had been on the job for scarcely six weeks when I made a trip to see vestiges of the Camino Real near San Acacia, some fourteen miles north of Socorro. My guide for a day of mesa climbing and descending was the Rev. Larry Castillo-Wilson, a retired Methodist minister and seasoned trail enthusiast. With us was Dr. Dennis P. Trujillo, who was the assistant state historian. I am fairly certain that a test of Larry’s DNA would have shown evidence of mountain goat, a very useful trait for following the Camino Real nowadays.

The area south of the Rio Grande reach near San Acacia is one of the best places to cogitate on the Camino Real. You get a real feel for the notion that the location of the road responded to dictates of nature, particularly changes in terrain and weather. Here are traces where wagons moved in line and others where they traveled abreast. Here, too, are wet-weather routes and dry-weather routes. Most impressive are the steep sand hills that required unloading wagons and dragging them and their burdens up and over the dunes only to reload, move on, and repeat. The mental and physical strain on man and beast must have been excruciating. In addition to showing the Camino Real in full topographical diversity, this area is a prime spot for viewing rattlesnakes in their natural habitat; they relish a good sunning on the basaltic mesas. I suspect that travelers on the Camino Real quickly developed a respectful wariness of them.

When Juan de Oñate led colonists into New Mexico in 1598, he extended the Camino Real northward out of New Spain to New Mexico, effectively linking the viceregal capital, Mexico City, with its northernmost province. Oñate bypassed the area of present-day Santa Fe, occupied the pueblo of Yunque Yunque, and established the first capital of the colony as San Juan de los Caballeros. In 1600 he set up a new capital called San Gabriel at the confluence of the Rio Grande and the Chama River. Perhaps as early as 1605, but almost certainly by 1608, colonists began to drift south and resettle in the area where Governor Pedro de Peralta officially founded Santa Fe in 1610.

The reason for relocating the capital is something of a mystery. The place chosen for Santa Fe was not ideal or typical for the establishment of a Spanish town in the New World. Spaniards characteristically founded towns in or near Indian communities to ensure a source of labor and tribute. Mexico City, as it will be recalled, was established atop the Mexica capital of Tenochtitlan. Whether the Franciscans in New Mexico, who were never keen on Spaniards and Indians living in close proximity, had any influence on relocating the capital away from Pueblo communities is not known, but that would have been their wish, had anyone bothered to ask them. The site of Santa Fe also had water concerns: there was both too little and too much. The town was not located on a navigable river or even one that delivered a reliable supply of water year round. Some land on the chosen site, however, proved to be too wet, even swampy. Serious consideration was given to relocating the capital, if not to an entirely new spot then at least to higher, drier ground, but the move never took place.

My research on the Camino Real, however, focuses not on Oñate and the original settlement of the New Mexico colony but on the period following the Reconquest of 1692–93. From 1982 through 2001, I worked on the Vargas Project at the University of New Mexico. Over the course of nearly two decades, we transcribed, translated, and annotated the papers of Governor Diego de Vargas, who served from 1691 to 1697 and again in 1703 and 1704. We also visited many communities that sit astride the Camino Real in Mexico. One of our goals was to identify the origins of the people—more than 1,100 individuals—who resettled New Mexico in the Vargas era. Getting to know all these folks drove home what I consider to be the most important point about the Camino Real or any historic trail, for that matter. Such roads were human highways and often conduits for the transmission of colonial rule and culture.

Living for years with Vargas and company, we learned something about the way New Mexicans understood the term Camino Real. Today we hear that the Camino Real was the Royal Highway running from Spanish capital to Spanish capital, that is, from Mexico City to Santa Fe, and it is true that it did that. In local usage, however, the term appears to have meant the main road from one place to another. Documents of the period refer to the Camino Real to Taos, to Picuris, and even to distant Zuni. I have never seen a reference in a Spanish colonial document to “Camino Real de Tierra Adentro,” the mouthful by which we now know the road (thanks to Alexander von Humboldt). I eschew that usage but mean no disrespect to the Prussian savant.

From its founding until the Pueblo Revolt of 1680, Santa Fe was the largest town in New Mexico. In addition to the governor, the wealthiest and most powerful men in the colony, the thirty-five or so men who held encomiendas at any one time, maintained homes in Santa Fe. The governor and some encomenderos were heavily involved in commerce, with goods moving up and down the Camino Real. The Pueblo Revolt interrupted this activity, and Santa Fe became an Indian community. Following Diego de Vargas’s reconquest of New Mexico in 1692–93, Santa Fe quickly reemerged as the commercial capital of the Spanish colony. With the establishment of the presidio in Santa Fe, the villa also took its place as the military headquarters of the colony. The founding of Alburquerque (as it was spelled then) in 1706 and its subsequent growth did not displace Santa Fe as the official northern terminus of the Camino Real. This was due to the fact that Santa Fe remained firmly entrenched as the governmental headquarters of the colony.

The advent of Mexican Independence in 1821 coincided with the opening of the Santa Fe Trail, linking Missouri and the United States to Santa Fe and Mexico. Mexico was eager to open trade with the United States because of demand for manufactured goods and the potential of collecting tariffs. During the course of the Mexican period in New Mexico, from 1822 until the United States occupation in 1846, most government revenue came from tariffs. All trade was regulated from Santa Fe, so it was essential that Santa Fe traders establish contacts there. It is also true that many men from the United States found in Santa Fe attractions and delights not to be missed. Some elite local families were keenly interested in the Missouri trade, and not a few saw their daughters married to Santa Fe traders. In much the same way as the Camino Real transferred the Spanish way of life to New Mexico, the Santa Fe Trail brought the culture and rule of the United States.

Beginning in the late 1990s, I provided research assistance to W. H. Timmons on traders on the Santa Fe Trail for what became James Wiley Magoffin: Don Santiago, El Paso Pioneer (1999). After Timmons’s death in 2008, I continued to research and write about Magoffin, focusing on the Mexican side of his binational family. Students of New Mexico history know Magoffin best for his role in negotiations with Governor Manuel Armijo that led to the so-called bloodless conquest of New Mexico in 1846, but he was active in the Santa Fe trade almost from its inception in the 1820s. Like many traders operating between Missouri and Chihuahua by way of Santa Fe, Magoffin became a Roman Catholic, at least nominally, and took a Mexican wife—two in fact, marrying sisters in succession but only after securing a dispensation from Pope Pius IX.

In 1829 Antonio Armijo, a Santa Fe merchant, led an expedition from Abiquiu to California, which established a difficult but viable trade route. The trail came to be called the Old Spanish Trail because John C. Frémont referred to it as the “Spanish Trail” in his 1844 published report of his trip back to the United States from California. He may have hit upon that epithet because that is how people he met in California referred to the trail, since it incorporated portions of trails blazed in the eighteenth century by Spanish explorers.

One of the earliest of these intrepid men was Juan Antonio María de Rivera, who made two trips from New Mexico into the Ute and Paiute country in present-day southwestern Colorado in 1765. Two Franciscan fathers, Francisco Atanasio Domínguez and Silvestre Vélez de Escalante, had a copy of Rivera’s journals with them on their more famous 1776 expedition and retraced many of his steps. Since 2007 I have been engaged in translating Rivera’s journals and examining places mentioned in the documents as part of a comprehensive study of his explorations to be published this year by Stephen G. Baker. Although Spaniards were definitely involved in opening the trail, documents relating to New Mexicans who further developed the route in the Mexican period are, to my knowledge, silent on what those traders called the trail. I suspect they would have said they were following the Ruta (or Sendero) de California, a name now confusingly associated with a more northerly historic trail from Missouri to the California gold fields, known as the California Trail, which may go some way toward explaining why it has the name it has.

The Old Spanish Trail made it possible to transport goods woven by New Mexicans to California and drive horses and mules, available in excess, back to New Mexico, where they were coveted. The trade expeditions typically involved one round trip a year. The historical record supports the idea that the market for New Mexico woven goods was largely the population of California missions. In other words, at least some of this transaction was Indian-to-Indian trade, carried on through intermediaries who likely included New Mexico traders and Franciscan missionaries in California. This exchange supplied desired trade goods, but the people who transported the products were not always welcome. From time to time California officials took measures to control the considerable outlaw element among New Mexican traders and tried to keep illegal immigrants from becoming permanent residents of California, proving that “cuanto más cambia algo, más se parece a lo mismo” (a Mexican twist on an old Gallic saw).

The trail linked small Native American and Hispanic communities of weavers in northern New Mexico around Santa Fe and larger-scale producers in and around Albuquerque to a new market in California for woven goods. By the time of the opening of the Old Spanish Trail, there were several potential supply lines for woven goods within New Mexico. Pueblo Indians and Navajos were actively involved in producing high-quality textiles. Hispanic weavers in the Rio Abajo, much more numerous than those in the north, were producing on a commercial scale.

With the opening of the Old Spanish Trail, Santa Fe had become the hub of a fairly sophisticated trade network that extended from Missouri in the east to California in the west and to Chihuahua and points farther south. This trade continued to boom for about twenty years, until the trail fell out of use about 1850. Each of the three historic trails had a different principal reason for having Santa Fe as its starting point and terminus. For the Camino Real, Santa Fe was the governmental, commercial, and military capital of a remote Spanish province. For the Santa Fe Trail, the city was where trade was regulated, permits were granted, and tariffs were collected. Anyone wanting to participate in this lucrative trade had to pass through Santa Fe. For the Old Spanish Trail, Santa Fe was the regional center and logical staging area for local New Mexico communities small and large that supplied woven goods for the trade with California. By the late 1820s, three trails had come together in Santa Fe and forever linked it to the outside world. There can be no doubt that this convergence contributed to making it the singular city it is today.

Rick Hendricks is the New Mexico state historian.