A Brief History
During the colonial years, New Mexico was tied to the outside world by a single thoroughfare that descended the Rio Grande valley from north of Santa Fe, dropped through the natural gate at El Paso, and wended its way via the provinces of the old Viceroyalty of New Spain to Mexico City, some twelve hundred miles to the south.
This artery of commerce and travel was known as El Camino Real, which meant Royal Road or King’s Highway. Of the great highways leading north, this was the oldest, having been extended by segments throughout the 16th century. For a time, it also enjoyed the distinction of being the longest road in North America.
Some of El Camino Real had its earliest beginnings as Indian trails. Later, sections of the route were traversed by Spanish conquistadors and colonizers. Finally, with the coming of Juan de Onate's expedition in 1598, the full length of the trail was defined. The northern end of that trail, and the primary Spanish settlement, was initially located at Ohkay Owingeh (San Juan Pueblo), but in 1600 it moved to nearby San Gabriel del Yungue, and ten years later the capital of the Spanish province of Nuevo Mexico was moved to Santa Fe.
Once these settlements were established, the trail became a lifeline back to central Mexico; it served as a principal avenue of communication, commerce, and religious conversion.by which goods flowed back and forth. Occasional caravans along the route typically consisted of 32 wagons, each of which was hauled by eight mules and carried about 4,000 pounds of freight. In addition, the typical caravan had other stock as well: cattle, sheep, goats, burros, and chickens. Royal decrees, mail, mission supplies, and private merchandise was included among the freight. People headed north included settlers and newly-appointed officials, while those headed south included retiring officials, friars, traders, convicts, and prisoners of war.
Traffic over the trail came to abrupt halt in 1680 when an Indian revolt, led by the San Juan Pueblo leader, Popé, forced all Spanish residents to leave Nuevo Mexico and retreat south to the Rio Grande valley. Three missions were built during their stay in that area: Isleta, Socorro, and San Elizario, all of which still stand. In 1692, however, the Spanish army, under Diego de Vargas, reconquered Nuevo Mexico and recolonized formerly-abandoned pueblos and missions. Over the next 200 years, the trail witnessed increasingly varied traffic as quantities of trade goods and representatives of different cultures traveled it, bringing with them currents of change that would forever alter the face of this land. The trail remained active throughout the Spanish period (until 1821). After that date, New Mexico was supplied by both this trail and the Santa Fe Trail, from the northeast, during the relatively brief Mexican period (until 1846), and for the first several decades of American rule. Long distance traffic over the trail ceased when the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad was completed from eastern Kansas to Santa Fe (in February 1880) and on to El Paso (in June 1881).