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.