- Historic Sites
Seeking the soul of America’s first superhighway
April/May 2004 | Volume 55, Issue 2
Our fortuitous guide explained what each walled section might have represented in Oñate’s day. He showed us how to climb over trees and through holes in the walls where vegetation had overgrown the pathways; he pointed out where the aqueduct ran in from the mountains. Hal took measurements, notes, and pictures; he clicked his GPS. We climbed halfway up a mountain for an eagle’s-eye view. Were this hacienda in the United States, historical preservation societies would have tagged, ticketed, and renovated it; it would not be inhabited by local fauna and ignored by humans. This was the home of a man who changed the course of history. For Jackson and me, it marked the end of a long journey, but for Juan de Oñate and his Camino Real, this place was just the beginning.
Built originally by the Spanish Empire to connect capital cities to one another, camino reals, or royal roads, snaked throughout what is now the Western United States and Mexico. But there is only one Camino Real de Tierra Adentro, the one Jackson and I drove; in addition to its incredible length, it predates the other camino reals by more than 200 years, according to George Torok, president of the Camino Real de Tierra Adentro ( CARTA ) association.
Beyond simply offering a way to get around, the Camino Real became a palimpsest of cultural, religious, economic, and ethnic crossovers. Skirmishes, business deals, wars, and treaties were wrought along its path. Like the old Route 66 of the United States, it was as much a cultural symbol as a practical method of travel. Unlike America’s modern-day expressways, which mostly skirt cities and often divide ethnicities and races from one neighborhood to the next, Oñate’s Camino Real, our country’s first superhighway, brought states, countries, and people together.
Because of it, Indians went from “hunting grubs to being warriors of the Plains in a single generation after the introduction of the horse,” Jackson says; he calls the animal a “technological revolution.” Mission churches replaced kivas as community centers, and villages began to gather around central squares. Catholicism flourished. Crops like corn, beans, and squash were introduced. The English and Spanish tongues mingled and eventually overwhelmed pueblo languages. Even food preparation changed, as the Spaniards taught Mexican Indians the concept of frying. Chickens, pigs, sheep, and goats arrived, along with new forms of architecture, new diseases, and new kinds of enslavement by the Spaniards. “There is constant traffic where the trail went up from Mexico,” Torok told me. “It’s still happening today, the migration, the immigration, the influence. It wasn’t a finite time period.” The Camino Real grew into a cultural system inscribed on the land itself. As we move forward in the present, it seems to say, we are bound to the past.
Its history can be loosely divided into six periods: 1598–1680, when Oñate and his successors connected the paths that led from village to village into what we recognize as the Camino Real today; 1680–93, when the Pueblo Indians revolted against the invasion of their culture and expelled the Spaniards from northern territories for 13 years; 1693–1821, with the Spaniards back again and the Camino Real once more a thoroughfare for commerce, culture, and war; 1821–80, when Mexico gained its independence and Americans were allowed to trade; followed by the Mexican War of 1846–48, which made the northern stretch of the Camino Real American; and finally, the 1880s when the rails replaced the road. A few paved parts of the Camino Real are still used unchanged today in pueblos and small towns, but for a purist like Jackson, the trail’s great days are gone.
Camino reals snaked all through the west, but there is only one camino real De Tierra Adentro. It’s far longer than the others and predates them by 200 years.
Jackson and I began our tour in early July, just about the worst time to do a lot of driving through the desert. Having retired as a professor from Humblodt State University, Jackson now spends his days on the trail. He serves as president of the Santa Fe Trail Association, and he wrote the revised version of Marc Simmons’s Following the Santa Fe Trail: A Guide for Modern Travelers . Last May he helped form the Camino Real Trail Association, and he’s now writing a guidebook about that trail, to be published this June by the University of New Mexico Press. He has been a political geographer, and he wrote his dissertation on a squatters’ village outside Mexico City, so his idea of place is inextricably linked to people and policy. He’s a diehard liberal, but his biggest complaint about archeologists, anthropologists, and sociologists—all of whose subjects overlap with cultural geography—is that they just don’t make good maps.