Traveling the Trail
The question we hear most is "Where's the trail?" It's a good question. This national historic trail weaves through communities as well as wildlands. There are many stops along the way from south of El Paso, Texas to Ohkay Owingeh (San Juan Pueblo), north of Santa Fe, New Mexico.
Return to this page often to find more videos that will help you travel the trail, and experience an incredible heritage that dates back to 1598. Over time colonizers brought silver, chiles, silks, and other products from Mexico City; items that we still use across America today.
Take a Journey along El Camino Real de Tierra Adentro National Historic Trail
Welcome! ¡Bienvenidos! My name is Brooke Safford and I’ll be taking you on a short journey along the oldest European American trade route here in the United States, El Camino Real de Tierra Adentro National Historic Trail. I am standing outside of El Camino Real International Heritage Center; a New Mexico State Monument located 30 miles south of Socorro. This center offers a variety of award-winning exhibits on the Camino Real and also overlooks a pristine and historic section of this national historic trail.
El Camino Real de Tierra Adentro, Spanish for the Royal Road to the Interior Lands, was one of many roads supported by the Spanish Crown to link Old Spain, which is Spain in Europe to New Spain, which is now present-day Mexico and New Mexico.
Extending over 1,500 miles, this Royal Road began in Mexico City and continued north through Zacatecas, Chihuahua onto the region of El Paso and Las Cruces, making its way up the Rio Grande Valley, through the historic Santa Fe Plaza and eventually to Ohkay Owingeh Pueblo for the first 10 years and then finally to Santa Fe for the remainder of its lifespan.
For more than 300 years, the trail served as a major artery for trade, commerce, and settlement. Lured by potential riches and territorial expansion, Spanish explorer Juan de Oñate led the first recorded expedition up this route in 1598.
Sections of the Camino Real already existed as a series of Indian footpaths and trade routes among native tribes. Oñate followed many of these footpaths as he made his six month journey into unfamiliar territory and eventually to the confluence of the Rio Grande and Chama Rivers where he established the first Spanish settlement at Ohkay Owingeh Pueblo.
Over the next three centuries, thousands of merchants, soldiers, friars, women, and children traveled along this route looking to settle in new territory, establish missions or simply to make more money. Occasionally, American Indians familiar with the area would accompany them and serve as guides.
Goods moved up and down this route. Some of the most common items included: corn, sheep, cattle, woven goods, hides, salt, piñon nuts, and cow and antelope hides. Luxury goods such as satin sheets, beds, silk, musical instruments, chocolate, and precious stones were also transported or sold.
In addition to exchanging material goods, the trail was a primary conduit for change, introducing new cultures, ideas, materials and conflict with the American Indians who had inhabited areas along the route for thousands of years.
You may be lucky to travel in a car today but back then the main mode of transportation along this route was via the two-wheeled carreta, the four-wheeled carro or by horse, mule, or foot.
A yoke of oxen would typically pull the vehicle — averaging around 10 to 15 miles per day. A typical caravan consisted of 20-30 wagons followed by mule trains and flanked by thousands of pigs, sheep, horses, and cattle.
We are now walking along a dreaded yet unavoidable section of El Camino Real. This section is called the Jornada del Muerto or Dead Man’s Journey. Due to rugged and impassable terrain along the Rio Grande, the caravans were forced to leave the comforts of the river and tread across this 90-mile stretch of waterless and desolate terrain.
As you can see the land is parched, it’s exposed and there’s really nowhere to hide from the elements. The travelers likened this to traveling across a barren sea. The temperatures were extremely hot in the summer time and bitterly cold in the winter time.
For days on end, the air resounded with the screeching of wagon wheels as the drivers pushed the caravans further into Tierra Adentro.
It took about two to three days to traverse the Jornada before travelers could quench their thirst at the first paraje or campsite located at the end of this no man’s land.
The arrival of the railroad in 1880 eventually replaced the need for wagon transportation and ultimately the use of El Camino Real.
Physical traces of this trail provide a tangible link between our modern times and the historic people, places, and events that are associated with this ancient transportation corridor.
What we’ve seen today is just a glimpse of what El Camino Real de Tierra Adentro National Historic Trail has to offer. Although much of the trail has been replaced by modern roads, the trail corridor is still remains alive today. There is much to see and do along the trail. Come and travel the trail and experience firsthand the people, places and culture, and events that have shaped this part of the United States.
The past — touching your life today.
Along El Camino Real de Tierra Adentro during Spanish Colonial times — from the late 1500s to the early 1800s — what were children doing to contribute to their community; and how did they have fun?
At El Rancho de las Golondrinas, a Spanish Colonial ranch from the 1700s, life as it was then is still alive in the setting, the buildings, and the activities that take place here. Several times a year, children come to the Ranch of the Swallows to experience and to perform the duties of the children from the 1700s.
They learn that Churro sheep were brought up El Camino Real from Mexico City in the late 1500s — and that the wool of the sheep became invaluable to everyday life. Once sheep were sheared, the wool needed to be washed to get it ready to be dyed with brilliant colors. To wash the wool, the family dug up a yucca plant and used the root to obtain soap.
They would take the bark off the root with a mano and metate or a knife. They squeezed the root and swished it in a pan of water to make the water soapy. Swirling the wool in the water cleaned off all of the oil. Now it was ready to be dyed.
Hand spinning of the wool turned it into yarn for Colcha embroidery. Children as young as 6, 7, or 8 learned this skill. Mothers would teach the girls to embroider blankets, bedspreads, and rugs. Colcha embroidery is easy. It’s just one stitch repeated over and over.
Corn had long been an important crop for pueblo Indians and Spanish people. Children shucked the corn and used a mano and metate to grind the corn, which was then made into cornmeal for tortillas.
The people who settled here didn’t have stores along El Camino Real to buy sugar. They made their own sweetener by boiling down sorghum cane. The sorghum mill you see here is from the 1900s. In the 1700s, children would take a mallet and pound the sorghum cane in a trough to squeeze juice out of the cane. The juice was boiled for 5 or 6 hours to make sorghum molasses, which tasted very sweet and a bit smoky.
Children also helped make rope — and bake bread in a traditional adobe oven called an horno.
But what did they do for fun? Fun then and fun now are relatively different. In the 1700s, chores and free time were interwoven in every day life. Boys may have enjoyed hunting but it was also essential to survival.
Some activities included spiritual beliefs. Ojo de Dios or the Eye of God is a weaving made across two sticks. The spiritual eye has the power to see and understand things unknown. They were placed in places where people worked or where they walked along a trail — where the eye can watch you do your work or inspire you. Today children place Ojo de Dios by their homework so they’re inspired to do good schoolwork.
During down time in the winter, girls might make ramilletes, a beautiful bouquet of paper flowers. Cutting vibrant patterns of paper into various shapes, the ramillete was layered and secured. This was an excellent chore to achieve good hand and eye coordination.
The children of Spanish Colonial times were intimately involved in daily family life. Bring your family to El Rancho de las Golondrinas and many other points along El Camino Real de Tierra Adentro National Historic Trail. You may be surprised to find family traditions that look and feel familiar. The past — touching your life today.
A Child’s Story of Socorro
By Sheri Armijo
Sixth grade actor:
Socorro is kind of basically the story of our ancestors and people who have been here from since a long time ago, 1598 and before that, so
New Mexico is full of great historical events. The town where I live, Socorro, was the setting for a very special interaction between the native people of the area and the Spanish-speaking colonists that came here in 1598. They came up El Camino Real. I wrote this play when I moved to Socorro in 2004. I was teaching first grade at the time and I was looking for a child’s version of the story and to my surprise I couldn’t find one. So I felt it was very important for the children of Socorro to know this story because it’s about history about their home town. So what better way than to have them act out the story for themselves and for others. The play has been presented by several of my classes since 2004. This year it will be presented by sixth graders from Cottonwood Valley Charter School where I’m their Spanish teacher. We are excited to present this play for the National Park Service. We hope that you will enjoy learning about Socorro.
Long ago the Pueblo people lived by the river in a large village called Teypana, which meant “Village Flower” in their language.
In June of 1598 a group of over 500 Spanish-speaking people, including Indians and slaves, came from Mexico. There were 130 soldiers & families.
Oñate knew they would find Indios de los pueblos because of the records of the Rodríquez-Chamuscado Expedition in 1581.
They had traveled hundreds of miles on El Camino Real. They would walk or ride horses. Some of the men, women, and children got sick and some died.
They brought horses, cows, oxen, mules, donkeys, goats, pigs, Churro sheep, dogs, and a cat.
Their leader Juan de Oñate carried a banner of “Nuestra Senora de los Remedios” known as Socorro, which means Our Lady of Succur.
They were ragged after coming out of the Jornada del Muerto, a 90-mile stretch of land without water. They were hot and tired and hungry and thirsty. They thought they were going to die. They prayed for help.
Colonists and others:
Socorro! Socorro! Socorro!
They stopped and camped across from Qualacu on the east bank of the Río Grande.
Qualacu was a Piro-speaking pueblo settlement. The people there were farmers. The people of Qualacu were not certain they wanted anything to do with newcomers. They fled from their pueblo.
The Piros heard them speaking a different language. They didn’t understand Spanish but they could tell that the Spanish speakers needed help.
The Piro crowded on the rooftops of their houses to see the strangers. They believed these strangers to be “children of the sun.”
The leader Letoc was not afraid. Through signs with his hands, he showed that he wanted to be friendly. He offered them a huge gift of com.
The Piro people gave them water to drink.
They also had squash and pumpkins.
The Piros showed them plants for making dyes for cloth and herbs for medicines.
The Spanish-speaking people were so happy to be helped. They gave the Piro people the wonderful things they brought with them.
They gave them sheep and lambs.
They showed them how to make cloth out of the wool from the sheep. They also brought other things to trade.
They acted out a play for the Piro people to teach them different ways to pray.
The Spanish speakers taught the Piros how to build a church.
They named the church Nuestra Señora de Socorro de Pilabo, because of the relief that they received.
The colonists and Piros learned from each other. New ideas, new foods, and new ways to farm helped both cultures achieve succor.
And everyone learned to be friends in Socorro.
La Bajada Mesa
La Bajada Mesa is a cultural landscape about 16 miles south of Santa Fe, New Mexico. As you will see in this video, the landscape was the "last hurdle" on the trail for caravans heading to Okhay Owingeh. Enjoy.
The Last Hurdle: El Camino Real de Tierra Adentro from New Mexico PBS "Moments in Time"