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National Trail Day is this Saturday, and because San Antonians take great pride in their rich history it’s fitting to commemorate the sprawling network of roads and trails that helped establish our fair city. Unfortunately, no such celebration exists.
The San Antonio Missions National Historic Park has become a well preserved treasure for the community and for visitors. The four park missions, however, only tell a piece of San Antonio’s history. Missions Park fails to include the rich story of El Camino Real, the historic trailway that solidified San Antonio’s central role in the sprawling Spanish colonial empire that stretched across Texas and beyond.
The network of trails and paths that made up the Old San Antonio Road predated San Antonio and the city’s beloved missions. Preservation efforts have focused on the ailing missions — leading to their designation as a National Historic Park and leading to a local push for status as a World Heritage site—but the remarkable roads that fueled their existence have drifted into historical amnesia.
A road by any other name is still forgotten
El Camino Real stretched from present day Guererro, Mexico to Natchitoches Parish in Louisiana. As the National Park Service map illustrates, El Camino Real evolved into four main routes: El Camino Real de los Tejas, Lower Road, Old San Antonio Road, and Laredo Road.
The variety of roads allowed Spanish to choose the safest route to avoid Indian threats and bad weather. Soon the multiple options for travelers made El Camino Real one of the most highly utilized systems of roads in the Spanish colonial period, linking the rugged Texas frontier to distant colonial Mexico.
While Texas was a Spanish province, El Camino Real provided a network for transportation, communication and defense from European and Indian invaders. Archivist Jesús F. de la Teja examined how best to describe El Camino Real. He proposed it be considered as a living organism, “ever changing in its humors, taking on new roles and responsibilities, responding to the needs of a developing frontier province.”
Peak use of El Camino Real’s network was from the late 1680s to around 1845—roughly thirty years before the first permanent Spanish mission in San Antonio and twenty years after the Spanish colonial period ended. Spanish settlers, clergy, and soldiers travelled the trails to establish missions, trade, transport supplies, and explore. Along El Camino Real, the Spanish established no fewer than thirty six missions and presidios between 1690-1793, including the five missions in San Antonio (Comprehensive Management Plan, National Park Service).
European Rivalry in Texas
In 1688, rumors of a French settlement in east Texas reached Spanish explorer Alonso de León. The possibility of a French claim on the soil of a Spanish province alarmed de León and he quickly moved his men farther into Texas to investigate.
Outside of present day Uvalde, the Spanish were met by a group of Indians who took them to their buffalo skin lodge. Inside the lodge, they found a tattooed white man with gray hair. “Yo frances,” said the eccentric seated figure. The Frenchman, Jean Géry, told de León of a French settlement near the river banks further east.
De León continued travelling eastward using Indian trails, until he found the abandoned Fort St. Louis on Matagora Bay. This failed settlement attempt by French explorers renewed Spanish interest in securing the Texas province against French claims.
The Indian trails de León used grew into a 2,500 mile network of roads as Spanish settlement increased, and all the trails and roads merged in San Antonio. The network took on many names, including El Camino Real de Tejas, the Old San Antonio Road, and the King’s Highway.
In 1915, the Daughters of the American Revolution commissioned V.N. Zively, a professional surveyor, to place markers along the route of El Camino Real. Zively examined old land grants and diaries of Spanish missionaries to plot the roads and trails. His efforts marked the route of over 500 miles of the Old San Antonio Road.
Then, the Texas Daughters of the American Revolution commissioned pink granite markers for installation every five miles along the road in 1918. Most of the markers were moved to make way for highways and private property. At most recent count, only nine markers remained in their original location.
A decade later, in 1929, the Texas legislature adopted the Zively route of the Old San Antonio Road for status as a Texas Historic Trail. However, the designation did little to improve efforts to preserve the road, and by 1949, much of the route was paved over with other highways (Handbook of Texas Online).
In 1991, the Texas Legislature commissioned a study to mark the 300th anniversary of El Camino Real. The study provided the most comprehensive exploration into the network of roads, and the committee of researchers made recommendations for a plan to preserve the remains of the historic trail.
The committee, led by archeologist A. Joachim McGraw, concluded the Old San Antonio Road ran eastward from the Mission San Antonio de Valero (now commonly referred to as Alamo Plaza) underneath present day Commerce Street, then northward on Main to Broadway and Nacogdoches roads. The route eventually paralleled modern IH 35.
McGraw and his committee recommended the preservation plan become a continuous activity of the State Department of Highways and Public Transportation through creating an Old San Antonio Road Preservation Commission. They also suggested pursuing designation as a national historic trail.
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In 1993, the preservation commission ended their activities without fully executing McGraw’s plan. The Old San Antonio Road did not receive designation as a National Historic Trail until 2004. Today, the Old San Antonio Road and its networks are recognized under the name El Camino Real de Los Tejas.
El Camino Real de los Tejas National Historic Trail Association, founded in 2007, hopes to increase tourism of the trail and “protect the historic integrity.” Locally, the historic trail will lead visitors through parts of the Mission Trail, announced by sporadic brown signs.
On National Historic Trail Day, the absence of commemoration for El Camino Real speaks volumes about how history is lost and remembered. The San Antonio Missions press on towards World Heritage site status, and the El Camino Real is omitted almost entirely. The full significance of San Antonio in world history may disappear just like the trail that helped forge its prominence.
Melanie Call is an independent grant writer working with local nonprofit agencies and Adjunct Professor of History at San Antonio College.