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

Table of ContentsIntroductionThe King's HighwaysBy Raft, Oxcart, Horseback, and CanoeGood Roads for TexasGet the Farmer Out of the MudCreation of the Highway DepartmentThe Highway Department in Depression and WarThe Great Age of BuildingThe Third GodOnline Finding AidsFor Further ReadingMore Exhibits

The Kings' Highways - Page 2  | 1 | 2 |

Lost Trails

Map detail, Map of Texas by Stephen F. Austin, 1833

Detail, Map of Texas with Parts of Adjoining States, by Stephen F. Austin, 1833. This map is acknowledged as being one of the first finely detailed and accurate maps of Texas published.
Texas State Archives Map Number 0409a
More details and full-sized image

Eventually, Spain developed a disjointed web of caminos that linked their major North American outposts—Santa Fe, St. Louis, Natchitoches, and San Antonio—with a spidery network of trails. By 1779, the road system was sufficiently advanced that a monthly mail system was introduced. By 1792, mail service had increased to once a week. (A letter mailed from Mexico City to Nacogdoches took three months to arrive.) And new roads were in the works, including an east-west Camino Real and a wide military road between Laredo and San Marcos.

These plans stalled, as did the Spanish settlement of Texas. In 1777, the entire Spanish population of Texas was 3103; in 1809, it stood virtually unchanged at 3122. (By contrast, there were 40,000 Spanish inhabitants of the Mexican state of Coahuila and 20,000 residents in New Mexico; the Louisiana Territory had 50,000 European inhabitants.) Only two settlements in Texas, San Antonio and La Bahia, could be called towns, and Nacogdoches was a mere trading post.

I cannot help seeing the advantages which would result if we admitted honest, hard-working people, regardless of what country they came from ... even hell itself. – Francisco Ruiz of San Antonio, 1820s.

A slump in the silver market in 1810 marked the end of any real Spanish involvement in Texas. The strapped Spanish crown cut funding for both the military and missions, and within a few years most of the territory was in the hands of the powerful Comanche Indians. Nature began to overtake the caminos so that by 1820, even mules could scarcely negotiate the main highway that ran from Saltillo through Monterrey, Laredo, San Antonio, and Nacogdoches.

Jose Antonio Saucedo to the Alcalde of Nacogdoches, 1827
This 1827 circular to the mayor of Nacogdoches called for contractors to lay and open roads

After Mexico won its independence from Spain in 1821, the new national government embraced a policy of making land grants for Anglos from the United States to colonize Texas. Mexico also wanted to restore road travel into Texas. Because of the extreme hostility of the Indians on the Texas coast, the Spanish had never developed any seaports, and roads were the only way to move mail, stagecoaches, wagons, and troops.

In 1828, a crew of Mexican boundary surveyors discovered the true state of the main camino real when they lost the trail completely and found themselves hacking their way through what one writer called an “immense wilderness.” 

The Old San Antonio Road

The Old San Antonio Road, often called the King’s Highway or the Camino Real, was the best known of the Spanish roads in Texas. Like all of the caminos, it was not a fixed, paved highway as we know them today. Rather, it was a changing trail that snaked through the wilderness, shifting as necessary to accommodate changes such as new settlements or missions, natural disasters, or patterns of Indian attacks.

Over the centuries, the Old San Antonio Road followed at least five different routes. All of the routes originated at Presidio del Rio Grande, meandered across South Texas, and converged in San Antonio. The route to East Texas varied over the years.

In 1836, Santa Anna’s army took the Old San Antonio Road on its fateful march to Goliad, the Alamo, and San Jacinto. In fact, the “endless and everlasting mud” of the road, as General Vicente Filisola described it, had a major impact on Texas history. It allowed the Texans time to fortify the Alamo, leading to the prolonged siege with its legendary and tragic conclusion.

The old road also saw service during the Gold Rush and the Civil War, before being abandoned and mostly lost during the late 19th century. In 1915, the state of Texas joined forces with the Texas Society of the Daughters of the American Revolution to resurvey and mark the trail with granite markers. Today Texas State Highway 21 and Texas State Highway OSR follow closely one historic route of the Old San Antonio Road, and other parts were incorporated into portions of I-35, U.S. Highway 81, Texas State Highway 16, and Texas State Highway 57.

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Page last modified: July 11, 2019