From Pioneer Paths to Superhighways - The Texas Highway Department Blazes Texas Trails 1917-1968

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Mexican Silver, Spanish Caminos

Map detail. Spanish province of Texas 1700-1821

Detail, The Spanish Province of Texas, 1700-1821
Texas State Archives Map Number 2748
More details and full-sized image

The buffalo blazed the earliest trails in Texas. Through the implacable laws of nature, the great herds were the first to discover the best places to ford rivers, wind through mountain passes, and find water at any time of year. As Indian culture began to develop in Texas about 3000 years ago, the Native Americans naturally used the buffalo traces. Eventually they developed a sophisticated system of foot trails that tied Texas in with a continent-wide trading network in small but highly valuable goods such as maize seeds, obsidian knives, shells, and tobacco.

Around 1500, the Spanish arrived in the southwest with new technology—the wheel and the horse—and new goals—the exploitation of Mexico for its wealth in silver. Within 15 years of a huge silver strike near Zacatecas in 1546, Mexico was honeycombed with rough but serviceable highways to bring supplies into the mines and haul silver out. But Spain was not the only European power with its eye on Mexican silver. By the 1680s, French trailblazers had begun to trade guns and ammunition to the Indians in exchange for furs, buffalo robes, and information about the best routes to the mines. It was this competition from France that led the Spanish to launch the first serious surveying expedition into Texas in 1686.

Either the government occupies Texas now, or it is lost forever. – General Manuel Mier y Terán, 1820s

In a series of four expeditions, Alonso De León explored most of the future state of Texas, noting sites that would make good trading centers (Laredo, San Antonio, San Marcos, La Grange) and marking old Indian trails for the construction of “caminos reales” (royal roads).  Within the next few decades, survey teams that included missionaries, officers, and craftsmen, would lay out the highways with stakes, then supervise soldiers and Indian laborers who dug out roads and placed large rocks along the sides as markers. Considering the technology, vast distances, and Indian attacks, the Spanish made considerable headway. By 1759, they had completed a rudimentary Camino del Norte from the Rio Grande Valley to the Red River—a distance of some 650 miles.

Despite their grand designation, the Spanish caminos reales were nothing fancy. Often they were nothing more than a series of crosses blazed into tree trunks along an old Indian trail, showing travelers the right way to go. No services such as inns, bridges, or ferries helped the adventurous traveler on his way, though the Spanish did develop a list of parajes (campsites recommended for their proximity to amenities such as water).

Why Didn’t the Spanish Build Better Roads?

The Spanish never intended to develop permanent settlements in Texas and were unwilling to invest in infrastructure that would be used by very few travelers. Spain’s main goal was to extract the silver and other mineral wealth of Mexico and ship it to Spain. Spain’s roads in Mexico linked the government center at Mexico City with the mines, and a network of roads connected farms, missions, and military posts. Texas had none of these assets and was important to the Spanish only as a vast and hostile buffer zone to protect their silver mines and their trading center at Santa Fe from French and British competitors.

In addition, the Spanish roads were not significantly worse than the state of European road-building in general in that era. The great age of road building had ended centuries before with the fall of the Roman Empire. Few medieval governments had built any roads at all, and rough, potholed, unmapped trails would have been business as usual for travelers.

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Page last modified: July 11, 2019