How did the early North American trails come to be? A few were built after Europeans arrived, but most trails already existed in some form. Some trails were made by buffalo herds that led to the best places to ford rivers or pathways to find water at any time of year. When the early Indians arrived they naturally used the buffalo trails as part of their extensive network throughout the continent for trading goods such as maize seeds, obsidian knives, shells, and tobacco.
When the Spanish came to North America they soon began exporting its resources, especially precious metals. Spanish miners used existing trails, along with newly built ones, to silver mines for hauling in the supplies and bringing out the silver ore. Spain’s main goal was to extract the silver and other mineral wealth of Mexico and ship it to Spain. The roads within Mexico linked the seat of government in Mexico City with mines, farms, missions, and military outposts.
Under Spanish colonial rule any road under the direct jurisdiction of the Spanish crown was considered to be a camino real (royal road). They
began improving the trails using the labor of soldiers, Indians, and any other help they could coerce. They cut and filled the roughest places and placed rocks alongside as markers.
Despite their grand name the Spanish royal roads were nothing fancy. Often they were no more than a series of crosses blazed into tree trunks or stone markers along an old Indian trail, showing travelers the right way to go, with no ferries or bridges crossing the rivers. Eventually Spain had a fragmented web of roads linking Mexico with Nacogdoches in East Texas, Santa Fe in New Mexico, and San Francisco in California. By 1779 a mail service was begun that delivered letters 1,138 miles from Mexico City to Nacogdoches in three months.
Once Mexico won its independence from Spain in 1821 the roads were no longer called Royal Roads but they continued to be important trade routes. Later in the twentieth century California reintroduced the term Camino Real along certain highways to promote tourism.
Three important examples of early Royal Roads are: the Royal Road of Texas, the Royal Road of Interior Lands, and the Royal Road of California.
Royal Road of Texas (El Camino Real de los Tejas)
In the eighteenth century Spain utilized Indian routes to move goods from Mexico City to settlements in Spanish Texas. Such roads provided routes for settlement from Mexico to lands north of the Rio Grande River. In the late seventeenth century the Spanish governor of Coahuila and Tejas promoted the route for the purpose of destroying a French fort established on what he considered to be Spanish lands. In 1718 he built a fort (presidio) along the route to guard the Mission of San Antonio de Valero and the surrounding settlement of San Antonio which became the first of many communities along the route to Nacogdoches. The old fort and mission church (the Alamo) can still be seen in the city of San Antonio.
Royal Road of Interior Lands (El Camino Real de Tierra Adentro)
Another trail used by indigenous tribes was a route from the Valley of Mexico (present day Mexico City area) into present day New Mexico for trading such goods as turquoise, obsidian, and salt. As early as AD 1000, a flourishing trade network existed from Mesoamerica to the Rocky Mountains.
In the early sixteenth century the Spanish began expanding their domain for the purpose of increasing wealth for the Crown. The northward trails led them into the area they called Tierra Adentro (interior lands).
In 1598 a military contingent led by Juan de Oñate, the newly appointed governor of the province of Santa Fe, was seeking the best route for crossing the Río del Norte (Rio Grande River). Along the way his group became seriously lost and only with the help of a local Indian did they eventually reach El Paso del Norte (present day site of El Paso, TX) which is one of the safest crossings along the Rio Grande River. This trail became the Camino Real de Tierra Adentro, connecting another distant outpost to Mexico City.
From El Paso del Norte Oñate continued northward to the site of the present town of Española, about twenty-six miles north of Santa Fe. He declared this the capital city of the new province. Twelve years later the capital was moved to Santa Fe.
To help promote trade the Spanish Crown established trade fairs along the route, major events that attracted merchants, craftsmen, and Indians from the region. Fairs in Jalisco, Saltillo, and Taos became important annual events where the Indians from the plains and Rocky Mountain areas traded their goods with the Spanish for weapons, ammunition, horses, and agricultural products. The Camino Real de Tierra Adentro remained of great importance for the next three hundred years. Today hundreds of trucks daily carry Mexican goods into the United States along highways that approximately follow each of the Royal Roads.
Royal Road of California (El Camino Real de California)
Unlike previous routes discussed here, the purpose of the Royal Road of California was to connect about thirty-four Spanish missions established to convert the natives to Christianity. It stretched 1,250 miles along the west coast from Mexico City to the present San Francisco Bay Area with another branch from the southern end of Baja California. Many other regional routes in Florida and Mexico were also used by the Spanish to build missions for the conversion of native peoples.
Between 1683 and 1834 Jesuit and, after 1768, Franciscan missionaries operated the missions coercing the tribes to live in settlements around the mission, adopt Christianity, and become farmers. The missionaries introduced European methods of raising fruits, vegetables, cattle, and horses, and construction skills. This move purposely disrupted the Indians’ normal way of life and made them substantially dependent on the Europeans.
Although the experiment lasted about 150 years, the results seemed to be good from the Spanish point of view but poor for the Indians. The missions have been accused by critics, then and now, of various abuses and oppression.
One important function of the Camino Real de California was to maintain communication among all the missions as well as with the authorities in Spain. They were placed a days’ horseback ride apart, or approximately thirty miles. The route between missions also stayed near the coast except where coastal cliffs prevented it.
Some of the original Camino Real de California has been continually upgraded until it is now part of the modern California highway system (US 101 and State highways 1 and 82) and is roughly traced by a series of state commemorative bell markers.
Crump, S. California's Spanish Missions: Their Yesterdays and Todays. Del Mar, California: Trans-Anglo Books. 1975.
Green, Carl R. The Mission Trails in American History. Berkeley Heights, New Jersey: Enslow Publishers. 2001.
Palmer, G. and S. L. Fosberg. El Camino Real de Tierra Dentro. Santa Fe, New Mexico: Bureau of Land Management. 1999.
Sundby, Edie. The Mission Walker. Nashville, Tennessee: Littlefield W. Publishing. an imprint of Thomas Nelson. 2017.
The Texas State Library and Archives Commission. The Kings' Highways. Austin, Texas. 2019. (Website: tsl.texas.gov/exhibits/highways/kingshighways)