Driving Old Roads to Reach Back In Time

El Camino Real Marker provided by the Daughter's of the American Revolution.  Courtesy Billy Hathorn, via Wikimedia

El Camino Real Marker provided by the Daughter’s of the American Revolution. Courtesy Billy Hathorn, via Wikimedia

I love old roads.  I love poring over old maps and seeing where the original roads went.  I especially love driving those old roads because it takes me back to a time before our modern interstate highways were built and it makes me wonder what those previous drivers thought and felt and experienced.

I also love driving them to see if can reach back through the years and make some kind of connection with those previous travelers.

Way back in the day, over a hundred years before before Mexico gained her independence from Spain in 1821, a road was created that connected Mexico City to Natchitoches, Louisiana.  It was called the El Camino Real (the King’s Highway) and it went north out of Mexico City through Saltillo and Monclova to cross the Rio Grande River near present day Guerrero, Coahuila.  From there it passed near Cotulla and Poteet and entered San Antonio and continued northeast through San Marcos, Bastrop, Bryan/College Station, Nacogdoches, and San Augustine to the Sabine River where it crossed at Gaines Ferry to end at Los Ades, the capital of Tejas on the northeast frontier of New Spain.  Los Ades is gone now, having been swallowed up by present day Natchitoches, Louisiana.

Factoid:  The El Camino Real in Texas was also known by other names: Camino Real de los Tejas, Camino Pita, Camino Arriba, Camino de en Medio, King’s Highway or the Old San Antonio Road.

El Camino Real Texas AlmanacThe El Camino Real, or whatever you want to call it, was actually one of many roads and they all were major arteries for travel northward into Texas from Mexico.  They served as a lifeline for the missions by enabling the transport of freight supplies and military protection.   Later, its path from the Brazos to the Trinity rivers helped defuse the threat of Indian nations armed by and loosely allied to the French and transformed those groups into an uneasy buffer between the divergent cultures.

Settlements established along the road were among the state’s earliest cities and communities.  During the 18th century Spanish ranchers conducted travel drives along the route from Texas to Saltillo, Coahuila. In the 19th century, the road enabled immigration from the United States.  In 1820, Moses Austin, father of Stephen F. Austin, traversed it en route to San Antonio to request an empresario grant from the Spanish government.

Parts of these roads were not only used for travel, they also formed some of the earliest political boundaries. Near San Antonio for example, it once separated thousands of acres of ranch land claimed by the missions of Espada and San José. In the 19th century, it formed the boundary of many empresario grants throughout Texas and later, it became the county line of many of the state’s first subdivisions.

The ruts of the trail can still be found in many areas.

El Camino Real, East Texas.  Courtesy Christopher Talbot, via National Park Service

El Camino Real, East Texas. Courtesy Christopher Talbot, via National Park Service

In my neck of the woods, below the confluence of the Blanco and San Marcos rivers near present-day San Marcos, a portion of the old road and its river crossing were identified in 1991. Several years later at the crossing, archaeologists located the remains of the first townsite of San Marcos, San Marcos de Neve, which was established near the end of the Spanish Colonial period.

San Marcos River

El Camino Real crossing at the San Marcos River

Nowadays the original El Camino Real still mostly exists as a current roadway.  Other parts, because of the shifting of property, are now either on private property or in a national park area, but there is a “new road” close by that took the place of the old.  So if you’re someone like me who likes to take the old roads and reach back into the shadowy folds of time, you can still do so.

There is no longer a direct link from Guerrero, Coahuila to Cotulla, Texas.  However from Cotulla one can get to Poteet then San Antonio via a series of lesser state highways.  Once in San Antonio, Interstate Highway 35 can be taken to San Marcos where you’ll need to jog east on Texas Highway 80 for just a minute or so until you reach Texas Highway 21.  From there just stay on 21 until you approach Bryan/College Station where you’ll come across a road called the OSR, which stands for Old San Antonio Road.  It’s a nice little segment that skirts north around the area and re-joins Texas 21 to the northeast.

Factoid: In Texas, every single road under the state’s jurisdiction has an official number. We have Farm to Market Roads (FM), Ranch to Market Roads (RM) and state highways such as Texas 21.  They all are known officially by a number, save one:  the OSR in the Bryan/College Station area.

Once back on Texas 21 keep on until you reach Louisiana.  There it turns into Louisiana Highway 6 which will take you Natchitoches.

I mapped it out the best I could using Google Maps and the total distance from Mexico City is only 1375 miles; not quite half of that, 628 miles, is from the Rio Grande River to Natchitoches, Louisiana.  Imagine riding that trail on the back of a horse.

For further reading:

Texas Almanac: Origins of the El Camino Real in Texas
Texas State Historical Association:  Old San Antonio Road
Texas Escapes: El Camino Real; AKA King’s Highway, Royal Road, Old San Antonio Road
VisitUSA.com:  El Camino Real de los Tejas National Historic Trail
National Park Service:  El Camino Real de los Tejas National Historic Trail

El Camino Real, northeast of San Marcos

El Camino Real, northeast of San Marcos

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