The Old San Antonio Road, popularly known as El Camino Real, is one of the state's oldest and most significant of the trans-Texas routes and most famous of the early historic trails.
Camino Real (royal road), variously known as the King's Highway, the Lower Presido road, and the San Antonio - Nacogdoches Road, hardly seems an appropriate description. In reality, it was more a network of Indian trails, natural stream crossings, and exploration routes than a single, fixed road. The several routes, shown on the accompanying map, served as early avenues of commerce, migration, and communication that frequently changed to meet their users' needs during the Spanish colonial period. Weather, Indian relations, terrain, and modes of transportation all exerted their influence.
Perhaps because it is readily identified today, many regard the Camino de Arriba route that later became known as State Highway 21, as the most important of the Old San Antonio Road routes. Rich in history as it may be, it is merely a fragment of a much larger network that actually included several widely varying segments that changed through time for a variety of reasons. The first known trans-Texas journey was recorded as early as 1691 when the Teran-Mazanet expedition crossed the Rio Grande and followed the route of Camino de los Tejas to far
East Texas. But it is not widely known that the portion that connected Eastrop and Crockett appeared after 1790, relatively late in the road's history. Yet another segment, between Nacogdoches and Alto, appeared about 1830.
Some routes certainly go back to the Indian mounds which follow their windings across what was to become Texas. The earlier Spanish entradas, or expeditions, traveled along the more westerly, or upper, route. The gradual shift of the Presidio del Rio Grande Road southeastward through the 18th and 19th Centuries (as shown on the map) may have been a direct result of the Apache and Comanche threat to Spanish travelers. Los caminos reales are recognized as among the most significant factors contributing to the conquest and colonization of pre-Republic Texas.
France's far-ranging and aggressive interest, such as the attempt in 1685 by Rene Robert Cavalier, Sieur de La Salle, to colonize Texas, alarmed Spanish authorities and prompted a series of military entradas northward across the Rio Grande. Communities were founded as way stations between these outposts and Presidio del Rio Grande. San Antonio de Bexar was the first of these, and became a hub for the roads of this region.
Until 1821 when Mexico gained independence, Spanish officials attempted to strengthen the Texas area by encouraging civilian settlements between the towns
of Bexar and Nacogdoches. Routes of frontier trails often shifted to better serve the new settlements. For a time, Indian nations from the north proved to be more threatening than the new Americans, who were beginning to covet Western lands.
Soon immigrants moved toward San Antonio from the east, settling alongside the rugged thoroughfare that had guided them. Ironically, this artery intended for defense proved to be a conduit for resistance to the Spanish empire and the evolving road network influenced the strategy of the Texas Revolution. Following the establishment of the Republic of Texas, immigrants from the U.S. poured into the area using every route possible, among these, the camino real.
Shortly after the Mexican-American War, the Camino de Arriba, now called the Old San Antonio Road, recovered some of its former prominence by guiding travelers from East Texas to San Antonio during the Gold Rush. Later, during the War Between the States, it again regained some significance in transporting cotton from East Texas to San Antonio and Laredo, and for movement of troops and supplies from San Antonio, Bastrop, Crockett, and Nacogdoches to Louisiana.
Following the Civil War and the resulting economic decline, large segments of the trans-Texas Spanish roads were abandoned in favor of other shorter routes going to new markets, and remaining segments of the caminos served principally local functions.
Today, the significance of the Old San Antonio Road lies in its historical role as the link in the oldest network of transportation, communication, and military forts in the Spanish colony, a short-lived republic, and, alter, the largest of the 48 contiguous states. The caminos were the arteries that kept Texas alive.
The Old San Antonio Road was a post road six decades before the Republic of Texas began developing its network of post roads, and a cattle trail a century before the legendary Chisholm Trail opened. The caminos served as military roads that connected a string of forts that marked New Spain's northern frontier, and ultimately became a principal avenue of immigration for Anglo-Americans who came to help forge a new Texas.
Travel Los Caminos Reales!
Visitors can experience a route similar to that of the famous Teran-Mazanet expedition recorded 300 years ago, starting their own trans-Texas trek from Eagle Pass on the Rio Grande, just north of the original Camino de los Tejas (or upper Presidio del Rio Grande Road), to historic San Augustine and Milam in far East Texas. Unlike travelers of years gone by, modern travelers will not be attacked by Indians, run out of water, or have to hunt for a meal. Nor will their means of transportation stampede into the hills. And although modern highways do not always follow the old routes exactly, travelers along El Camino Real are assured of miles of safe driving pleasure to historic sites and points of interest along the way.
Some of the important points of interest are listed below, but be on the lookout for the old markers scattered along the route. For more complete information about local attractions, consult the local chamber of commerce or your Texas State Travel Guide, available at no cost at any Texas Travel Information Center.
· Eagle Pass, the first U.S. settlement on the Rio Grande began during the Mexican-American War with the establishment of temporary Eagle Pass. In 1849, permanent Fort Duncan was established and occupied by three companies of the 1st U.S. Infantry Regiment. Today, many restored stone buildings form the center of a municipal park and spacious country club.
· The quiet community of Devine, right on the outskirts of bustling San Antonio, was created as a station on the International & Great North Railroad in 1881. In nearby Bigfoot, the Bigfoot Wallace Museum honors the famed frontiersman and Texas Ranger. Not open regularly, check locally.
· Although Pleasanton was established in 1858, settlement in this area was preceded by much earlier Spanish, Mexican, and Anglo-American ranching activities, thus giving cause for the city's claim as the "Birthplace of the Cowboy". The Longhorn Museum, on Texas 97 west, documents the development of the Texas cowboy from the 1500s.
· Castroville, "The Little Alsace of Texas", rich in European appearance and traditions, was founded in 1844 by Henri Castro, an empresario of the Texas Republic who brought a group of Alsatian settlers. A must-see attraction is the old Landmark Inn State Historic Structure at Florence and Fiorella Streets, just of U.S. 90.
· San Antonio grew from a mission established at an Indian village in 1718. Mission san Antonio de Valero (later called the Alamo) and an accompanying presidio (fort), San Antonio de Bexar, was the first and most enduring of communities founded as way stations. The Alamo was the first of five Spanish missions founded in San Antonio and became a shrine of Texas liberty in 1836 when a band of 189 Texas volunteers defied a Mexican army of thousands for 13 days of siege before dying to the last man. This, and many other historic missions, buildings such as the General Cos House and the Spanish governor's Palace, and features such as the Institute of Texan Cultures, bring history to life in this hub city of El Camino Real.
· New Braunfels was established in 1845 on the Comal river by German settlers led by Prince Carl of Solms-Braunfels. Successful farming, ranching, and abundant water from large springs contributed to the early prosperity of the settlement. German influence in tradition, culture, and language is still prominent in this Old World town, which is famous for its sausages, breads, and popular river resorts.
· San Marcos was once the temporary site of two Spanish missions being relocated from East Texas because of French and Indian difficulties. It was laid out for Anglo-American settlers in 1851. The clear, cold San Marcos River rised from mammoth springs within the town.
· In 1839, five mounted scouts ranged over a broad area of wilderness seeking a site for a new capital city for the Republic of Texas. A location was chosen on the north bank of the Colorado River, where rich blacklands meet scenic hills. Today, Austin is replete with visitor attractions, ranging from the massive pink granite Capitol to the historic French Legation and the modern Lyndon B. Johnson Library and Museum.
· A few miles to the east, Bastrop is one of Texas' oldest settlements. First called Mina, the town's name was changed about 1837 to a honor a man of fame an influence in early Texas. The man was Felipe Enrique Neri, Baron de Bastrop, a self-styled Dutch nobleman. Actually, he was a flamboyant imposter.
· Caldwell was founded in 1840 and named for Mathew "Old Paint" Caldwell, noted Indian fighter and signer of the Texas Declaration of Independence. In the 1880s, the town was a rendezvous for immigrants, and had one of the finest hotels on the Old San Antonio Road.
· Among the oldest towns in Texas and site of many historic structures, Crockett is named for frontiersman Davy Crockett who died at the Alamo. Two houses of note are the Downs-Aldrich House, a restored three-story Victorian home, and the elegant 1854 Monroe-Crook House. A historical plaque marks the site of Davy Crockett Spring, said to be the campsite of Col. Davy Crockett and his small detachment of men on their way to the Alamo in San Antonio.
· The 118-acre Mission Tejas State Historic Park, southwest of Weches on Texas 21, commemorates Mission San Francisco de los Tejas, the first Spanish mission in East Texas. It was established in 1690 to stem the tide of French settlement. Also in the park is the Rice Family log home-stagecoach inn, one of the many constructed along El Camino Real.
· Originally a stop on the Old San Antonio Road, Alto derives its name from the Spanish work for "high" (the highest point between the Angelina and Neches Rivers). The grave of Helena Kimble Dill, believed by many to be the mother of the first Anglo child born in Texas (1804) is here. Caddoan Mounds State Historic Site, six miles southeast on Texas 21, is a chief archaeological site in Texas, and includes a full-size replica of Caddoan house built with Stone-Age-type tools, visitor center with exhibits, and interpretive trail.
· Nacogdoches was the site of an Indian settlement for centuries before the first European arrived and is named for the Nacogdoche Indians. A Spanish mission was founded here in 1716, and for more than a hundred years, the town was the major eastern gateway to Texas. Some of the state's most historic landmarks are here. La Calle de Norte is believed to be the oldest public thoroughfare in the U.S. the original Old Stone Fort was built in 1779 as a trading post. The reconstructed fort stands on the campus of Stephen F. Austin University.
· San Augustine, known as the "The Cradle of Texas", is one of Texas' most historic towns. Sam Houston walked here; Davy Crockett was feted on his way to the Alamo, and J. Pinckney Henderson, Texas' first governor, lived here when San Augustine was an eastern gateway to Texas.
· Some 21 miles to the east is Milam, eastern terminus of the Old San Antonio Road and El Camino Real where it crossed the Sabine River into Texas. Nearby, a portion of the old road can still be seen in front of the restored Gaines-Oliphant House, built about 1820 as a way station and perhaps the oldest log cabin in Texas.
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· A major crossing on the Old San Antonio Road or El Camino Real, the Rio Grande was a natural barrier. To the south lay the restless Spanish empire, while to the north was the harsh and wild region that became Texas.
· The Governor's Palace in San Antonio became the seat of Spanish government in 1772. Many commandants of Presidio de Bexar as well as Spanish governors lived and ruled here. At Cameron Street and Military Plaza.
· San Antonio, first and most enduring of the communities founded as was stations between Presidio Rio Grande and the outposts in East Texas, is replete with historic Spanish missions.
· The Ezekiel Cullen House in San Augustine was home to an early judge of the First District Court of the Republic of Texas more than a century ago. Open Mon. - Sat. 1-5 p.m. at Congress and Market Streets.
· Fascinating displays of household items of the pioneer ere, Indian artifacts, and personal effects are on exhibit at new Braunfels Sophienburg Museum. At 401 West Colt Street, it's open daily.
· The replica log structre of Mission San Francisco de los Tejas, first Spanish mission in East Texas, is in Mission Tejas State Historic Park, just southwest of Weches off Texas 21.
· A group of 19th Century buildings, furnished with antiques and pioneer memorabilia, enchants visitors to Millard's crossing in historic Nacogdoches. Open daily at 6020 North Street.
· For more information about places to visit, things to see and do along the way, consult the Texas State Travel Guide. It's available without charge at any Texas Travel Information Center, or by writing: Texas P.O. Box 5064 Austin, Texas 78763-5064