The very first road builders in Texas were the American bison, whose scientific classification is the very Roadrunner-esque Bison bison and who might have belonged to one of two subspecies in North America, the Bison bison bison.
Here’s something you might not know about the beautiful Texas Hill Country and, as pioneer Boerne settler John G O’Grady wrote of Kendall County for the 1867 Texas Almanac, it’s “timber, cypress, cedar, live-oak, post-oak, white-oak, black-jack, elm, poplar, walnut, hackberry, with a good variety of apple, plum, cherry, etc.,”: it didn’t used to be that way at all, except up the mountainsides and down the riverbanks, where the bison couldn’t easily go. But everywhere they could go, they went, and everywhere they went, they ate, and they ate everything, from the native grasses that covered North America- grasses that grew six, eight, ten feet high, tall enough to hide a man- to every hopeful sapling whose seed had been dropped by a bird in the midst of those amber waves of grain. One might think of a herd of bison cutting a swath through the places they migrated to and from, but these weren’t any old herds of bison, and they cut much more than your plain-old swath. These were MEGA herds, whose numbers were almost beyond our present-day comprehension. In 1839, a guy named Thomas Farnham made his way through a herd of American bison along the Santa Fe Trail for about forty-five miles, for three days; he estimated that he could see about fifteen miles in each direction- nothin’ but bison. Do the math on that one and you’ll find that Farnham’s one herd covered at least 1,350 miles. MILES. Another guy, one Luke Vorrhees, rode over two hundred miles in Nebraska in 1859, through one enormous herd of buffalo. The whole time. In 1871 a fella by the name of Colonel RI Dodge traveled along the Arkansas River through a herd of American bison he estimated to have been at least twenty-five miles across and fifty miles long. Again, these weren’t acres or yards or any measly little unit of measure, these were MILES. One begins to see why some awestruck zoologist simply called them Bison bison bison. They roamed the continent for millennia, maybe, and where they roamed they ate everything in sight and of course, they spread immense amount of homegrown fertilizer to nourish the grass so that when they came back ‘round again in another year or two, the grass would be tall and healthy again, and ripe for the eating, and so would those brave little saplings, and they gobbled those up too. The circle of life. So trees, back before the first Europeans came and the bison began to disappear, were scarce since they didn’t have the chance to grow, and the great forests of the Hill Country wouldn’t come along for a while, and this world was a very different place. Think of that!
The buffalo instinctively discovered and followed the most direct and least difficult ways to navigate the hills and mountains and river valleys, to ford the rivers and streams, to avoid whatever pitfalls might await them along their route, and they always knew the straightest way to fresh water. The native people of this continent honored the buffalo and lived in harmony with them, respecting the great herds and using every part of the slain animal in almost every part of their own lives. Given their relationship to the bison and the ways in which their lives intertwined, it was natural that the buffalo trails were followed by these indigenous people, and over time the paths evolved into a whole system of foot trails that stretched across the continent and connected the natives of Texas to other tribes with whom they traded.
Then the Spanish arrived circa 1500, and pretty much ruined everything, but that’s a whole ‘nother story for another time. What matters in this case is that they brought with them a couple of new things that would become big hits, the wheel and the horse. I think all of us have this idea, culled from every cowboy and Indian movie ever made, of native Americans more or less growing out of the back of a horse, more natural atop his steed than on foot, sporting a pair of buckskin trousers with fringe and an enormous feathered headdress and that’s just not how it was you see. In real life the indigenous people hadn’t ever even seen horses til the Spanish explorers showed up with them, but that’s actually another long roundabout story- see, the early ancestors of the natives used to have the early ancestors of horses, but they were very different creatures and only got to about the size of a biggish dog, and the native ate those horses, they didn’t ride them. Well, they were teensy, after all, and the Indians would’ve sooner thought of riding around on a coyote as a horse the size of a Labradoodle, and anyway the native people living in 1500 didn’t have a memory of those tiny prehistoric horses anyway, those had been millennia ago, back int he forgotten mists of time. Even after the Europeans showed up with this new brand of enormous, weird horse, the native population still didn’t even start riding them until about a hundred years later, and a lot of the European newcomers made it illegal for the natives to ride horses anyway. I think it’s all really fascinating, and it’s things like this that’ll sidetrack you off down a rabbit hole and cause you to seriously overshoot the deadline for your article, but since I realize that none of this has anything to do with the story I’m telling I’ll move on…Right after I mention that some of those Spanish horses inevitably escaped from their Spanish owners and ran off into the wilds, and eventually all met up with one another and started their own big families of wild horses. At one point, Texas had something like a million- one million!- wild mustangs roaming around the place! You know Mustang Island, the destination of choice for loads of us every summer when we make our annual pilgrimage to Port A? A lot of those wild horses had the island practically to themselves for hundreds of years. On old maps of Texas, whole huge chunks of the state were sometimes labelled ‘Wild Horse Desert’, or simply ‘Wild Horses’.
So these horse-and-wheel bearing Spanish explorers showed up around 1500 or so and built a few what-you-might-call roads, just enough to haul silver out of their mines in Mexico, but it wasn’t until Alonso De Leon led his expeditions starting in 1686 that anybody really started thinking about laying down some trails in earnest. De Leon’s exploratory team noted some of the old native footpaths as well as some of the spots they believed would work pretty well for setting up trading posts- San Antonio, San Marcos and Laredo, to name a few, and around 1690, the Spanish in Texas started to get to work on the first roads. These would become the caminos reales, or royal roads, or King’s highways, since they were under the authority of the Spanish crown, which at that point in time was sitting atop the head of a certain King Carlos II, who’s a fascinating study in his own right, but I can’t get into that right now or else this thing will never get written- but look him up.
Now Camino Real sounds like a wide, brick-paved road designed mainly for the King’s comfort on those rare occasions on which he deigns to allow his subjects a brief glimpse of his delicate hand in a flutter of linen and lace as he is borne past them in a gilt sedan chair, but this is Texas and the monarch wouldn’t come near the place for love nor money. This neck of the woods was literally an untamed wilderness, chock full of bears and lions and outlaws and other things that would kill you, including some of the native people who were understandably angry and prone to murderous attack, and back in Spain, King Carlos II, El Hechizado (for ‘the Bewitched’) had his own set of problems, and wasn’t about to visit Texas if his reign lasted a million years, and it wouldn’t. By the time poor Carlos, the last of the Hapsburgs on the throne of Spain, died in 1700, (kicking off the War of Spanish Succession), road crews of Spanish soldiers and native “laborers”- quite possibly, and even likely, slaves- were just beginning to dig out the royal roads along the old Indian trails, marking the paths with big rocks or even just burning the figure of a cross into a tree trunk to point travelers in the right direction.
You know how you see a road crew working on I10 sometimes when it gets to be so miserably hot and those little waves are wafting up off the pavement and you get to seeing water mirages up ahead on the road, and you feel so awful for those guys working out there in the merciless Texas heat? If you take away all of their power tools and smoke breaks and sunscreen and bottled water and any sort of medical knowledge about heat stroke, you’ve pretty much got an 18th century road crew experience. They had to cut down the trees on all those paths, first of all, and pull out the stumps, and let me relate this one small thing: last weekend I pulled out the stump- actually I think you would call it the very shallow root system, but let it stand- of a rosebush that was pining for the fjords so to speak, and I thought I would probably die. Granted, I’m a Woman of a Certain Age somewhat past my physical peak, but after that one measly experience I can more easily imagine a 1,300 square mile herd of buffalo than I can a team of guys getting an oak stump out of the ground sans dynamite. There was also digging a roadbed and removing the rocks and boulders which they then set up as markers or used for retaining walls, and when they got to a river or creek they had to figure out- and construct- some way across, over or through it. Seriously, the men who built the caminos reales would probably make The Rock look like a 90-pound weakling, and if they somehow came back to life right now and got a load of one of those memes with Garfield bitching about Mondays they’d probably punch us all in the head, and then go find Garfield and punch his fat ass too.
Anyway, in spite of the kind of back-breaking labor that went into every mile of road, by the time Carlos IV, El Cazador (‘the Hunter’), got ahold of the Spanish throne, his subjects in Texas had managed to build a system of roads sufficient to link their major outposts, Santa Fe, St. Louis, Natchitoches, and San Antonio, which came to be called The San Antonio Road or simply the Camino Real, and by 1779 this road system was far enough along to start a monthly mail service, which went to weekly in 1792, even though a letter mailed from Mexico to Texas still took about three months to get here. But something went sideways with Spain’s Texas plans. A combination of things ended Spain’s real involvement here, including the fact that nobody in Spain wanted to come to Texas and be murdered or catch some new disease or wither to death in the heat and the wilderness or otherwise bring down the already dismal average life span. The whole Spanish population of Texas only grew by nineteen souls from 1777 to 1809. Around that time, too, Spain ran into some serious cash-flow problems and slashed their mission and military budgets in the Texas territory, and the Comanches took full advantage of their absence. By 1820, without the manpower to maintain the hard-won Camino Real, the wilderness reclaimed the roads, and eventually even the mules had a hard time navigating the King’s Highway.
The one very permanent and most important legacy of the Spanish era in Texas was the founding of the first city in Texas. On June 13, 1691, a group of Spanish explorers and missionaries came across a community of Payaya Indians living at a very pleasant spot the natives called Yanaguana, for ‘refreshing waters’ and which a later expedition of Spaniards would re-christen San Pedro springs. Now June 13th happened to be the feast day of St Anthony of Padua so the Spaniards, in an endearing way they had of pretending like the Indians hadn’t already named the place, called the site, and the river, after the saint: San Antonio.
And then nothing happened for another twenty years, until an expedition of Spanish missionaries including Father Antonio de Olivares and Father Isidro Félix de Espinosa, came exploring in 1709, and decided the place would make a great spot for a mission and a settlement. These are the dudes who renamed the springs, and Fray Espinosa reported his favorable impression of them, giving his opinion that the waters “could supply not only a village but a city which could easily be founded here….” He was right of course, though I doubt he could’ve imagined the beautiful city that would eventually grow here. Olivares- with his propitious Christian name- finally got permission from the Spanish viceroy to establish his village and mission, but a guy named Martín de Alarcón, since he was the governor of Coahuila and Texas and all, got the credit for founding San Antonio on May 1, 1718. It was Fray Antonio de Olivares, though, with the help of the Payayas who already lived there, who got down to work and eventually built the Misión de San Antonio de Valero- which would come to be known as the Alamo- the Presidio San Antonio de Bexar, which was the fort where the settlers would live, and the Acequia Madre de Valero, the irrigation canal for the Alamo complex.
And that was all three hundred years ago this month.
So we have that main road, the King’s Highway, starting at the Sabine River and passing through Nacogdoches and San Antonio before ending up at the Rio Grande thirty miles south of today’s Eagle Pass. And there was another road out of San Antonio, this one too having begun life as a native footpath itself evolved from the early buffalo traces. This road started in San Antonio and wended its way north, through Sisterdale and Fredericksburg and on up to the Llano River, deep in the heart of Indian country, crossing the Guadalupe and Pedernales Rivers, the Spring, Sabinas and Wasp Creeks on it’s way. This was called the Pinta Trail, and it would become a very important road indeed, and would end up having everything in the world to do with Boerne, and I’ll tell you all about it next month.
Happy birthday San Antonio!