Magazine article The Hispanic Outlook in Higher Education

El Camino Real - 2,580 Miles of American History

Magazine article The Hispanic Outlook in Higher Education

El Camino Real - 2,580 Miles of American History

Article excerpt

Long before the 1776 signing of the Declaration of Independence and more than 150 years before 59 Texans signed a Declaration of Independence from Mexico, which was 1836, Spanish explorers, friars, soldiers and royal Mexican subjects traversed "El Camino Real de los Tejas" trail.

The 2,580-mile route, which stretches from Mexico through Texas and Louisiana, is one of only a handful of designated historic trails in the United States. In 2004, Congress officially designated the El Camino Real de los Tejas a National Historic Trail.

"For some people, 1836 is where Texas history begins. They know about the Alamo and five missions. But they don't know much about the trail, and they should know because it's part of Texas history," said David Rex Galindo, who holds a doctorate in history, specializing in U.S.Mexico borderlands, from Southern Methodist University (SMU) in Dallas.

To grasp the complexity of El Camino Real de los Tejas, which is the focus of a historical exhibit and a Texas nonprofit's efforts to enhance tourism, it is important to understand the trail's equally complex colonial history.

Officially, El Camino Real de los Tejas was the primary overland route used by the Spanish and Mexicans from 1680 until 1821 when Mexico declared its independence from Spain. After Mexican independence, the trail continued to be traversed until the 186Os, when it was replaced by the railroad system.

Unofficially, the tangle of footpaths, fords and river crossings was used by explorers, missionaries and settlers soon after the conquest of Mexico in 1521. It is one of the oldest historic routes in the Lone Star State.

The original trail blazers were Native Americans from a number of tribes, including the Adaes, Nacogdoches, Natchitoches and the Tejas Indians, for whom the trail is named. Thus, El Camino Real de los Tejas has been both a witness and silent participant in this nation's history.

"We call it El Camino Real, but it's really a network of Indian trails. They were really just rough paths called "traces" used to traverse, but which shifted depending on weather conditions," said Jesús Francisco "Frank" de la Teja, regents and university distinguished professor, Department of History, Texas State University (TSU)-San Marcos.

As early as 1716, Spain had established six missions and a presidio, or fort, in East Texas. Following Mexico's independence from Spain, the trail continued to be the main route for services, commerce and communication between Mexico and far-flung Texas settlements.

Monclova and Saltillo, towns in the Mexican state of Coahuila, played a major role in commerce during the colonial era. From Mexico north, the trail meandered to Laredo, Guerrero or Villa de Dolores. From there, it crossed the Rio Grande, wound its way to San Antonio and continued to eastern Louisiana.

The lengthy trail is part of a Spanish colonial legacy of "royal roads" or caminos reales along with the old mission roads of New Mexico and California. Now, the old Spanish trails are referred to as "mission trails," "royal roads" or "king's highways" by historians and travelers alike.

Technically, caminos reales were roads connecting royal posts or seats of government, such as Monclova and Mexico City, with Spain's northern-most settlements. The royal roads were not straight and narrow paths. Weather conditions often forced detours. So the trail didn't begin at a specific place.

"That would be like saying that I- 10 starts in Houston. So you could say El Camino Real de los Tejas was that part of the royal road network that connected Texas to the rest of New Spain, including the viceroyalty of Mexico City," said de la Teja, a native of Cuba who earned his doctorate at the University of Texas-Austin, and who teaches the history of Mexico, Texas and borderlands at TSU.

Historical accounts repeatedly refer to "New Spain" in recounting the history of Texas and the Southwest. And both Galindo and de la Teja agree that this refers to Spain's "viceroyalty," a vast and expansive domain colonized by Spain. …

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