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Jack of All Trails

By Rick Hendricks

Keynote Address

Three Trails Conference, Santa Fe, NM, 18 September 2015

I consider myself something of a Jack of All Trails. In the course of what is beginning to seem like a rather long career, I have been researching, lecturing, and writing about New Mexico history for more than thirty years, and in many senses, I have been a traveler on the Camino Real, the Santa Fe Trail, or the Old Spanish Trail for all of that time. As the state historian of New Mexico, I travel all over the state and continue to experience on many of my journeys one or more of these historic trails we are here to celebrate., so they are never far from my mind. This morning I want to share some thoughts on these three trails and on Santa Fe as both their terminus and starting point.

But first, let’s talk about trails in more general terms for a few minutes. A trail provides a reliable and time-tested connection between geographic points. People, livestock, goods, and ideas move over trails. They are one of the principal ways that cultures come into contact and are diffused over vast expanses. Knowledge of a trail is gained through experience and becomes an essential part of the lore of a place. A trail often offers the path of least resistance, avoiding natural obstacles such as steep inclines, raging rivers, or impassable mountain ranges. In the Southwest, travelers over its historic trails enjoyed all the advantages that the trails offered for moving through a formidable landscape. At other times a trail might offer the most expedient way forward, in spite of inherent risks of the passage, such as crossing the Jornada del Muerto, a parched desert, to save many miles of overland travel. Trails are frequently evolutionary, transforming themselves over millennia from Indian footpaths into horse trails, wagon routes, beds for railroads, and modern interstate highways. Today, many traces of historic trails have faded away, but fortunately in many places through which these trails passed from Missouri to California to Mexico and places in between, physical evidence of historic trails, such as wagon ruts, can still be seen and appreciated.

Let’s turn now to our three trails. Here they are in a nutshell. For two centuries before Europeans arrived to colonize New Mexico in 1598, no indigenous people permanently inhabited the site of Santa Fe. Juan de Oñate bypassed the spot, establishing his first settlement some twenty-five miles north. Perhaps as early as 1605, colonists began to occupy the area where Governor Pedro de Peralta officially founded Santa Fe in 1610. The place was neither ideal nor typical of Spanish towns in the Americas, which characteristically were established in or near Indian communities to ensure a source of labor. Mexico City, after all, established atop the Mexica capital of Tenochtitlan. Whether the Franciscans in New Mexico, who were never keen on Spaniards and Indians living in close proximity, had any influence of relocating the capital away from Pueblo communities is not known, but that would have been their wish, had anyone bothered to ask them. The site of Santa Fe also had water concerns: there was both too little and too much. The town was not located on a navigable river or even one that delivered a reliable supply of water year round. Some land on the chosen site, however, proved to be too wet, even swampy. Serious consideration was given to relocating the capital, if not to an entirely new spot then at least to higher, drier ground, but the move never took place. Nevertheless, the town endured, and the Camino Real linked the Spanish government in Mexico City with its counterpart in Santa Fe. The governor and leading citizens maintained homes in Santa Fe and participated in commerce over the Camino Real before the 1680 Pueblo Revolt. Following the 1693 Reconquest of New Mexico, Santa Fe reemerged as the colony’s governmental and commercial capital. With the establishment of the presidio, it also became the colony’s military headquarters.

Mexican independence in 1821 coincided with the opening of the Santa Fe Trail. This trail linked Missouri and the United States to Santa Fe and Mexico, reorienting commerce from southward to Chihuahua and Mexico City to eastward to Missouri. New Mexico was eager to obtain manufactured goods, and the Missouri traders were just as eager to open new markets because of poor commercial conditions back home. Mexico also avidly sought to collect tariffs and fees, which provided most government revenue during the Mexican period. Trade was regulated from Santa Fe, initially the only official port of entry, so it was essential for Santa Fe traders to have contacts there. It is also true that many men from the United States found in Santa Fe attractions and delights not to be missed. Some elite local families were keenly interested in the Missouri trade, and not a few saw their daughters married to Santa Fe traders. In much the same way as the Camino Real transferred the Spanish way of life to New Mexico, the Santa Fe Trail brought the culture and rule of the United States.

In 1829 Antonio Armijo led an expedition from Abiquiu to California, establishing a difficult but viable trade route. The trail came to be called the Old Spanish Trail because John C. Frémont referred to it as the “Spanish Trail” in his 1844 published report of his trip back to the United States from California. He may have hit upon that epithet because that is how people he met in California referred to the trail, since it incorporated portions of trails blazed in the eighteenth century by Spanish explorers, but we don’t know how the people who blazed the trail referred to it. I suspect they would have said they were following the ruta (or sendero) de California, a name now confusingly associated with a more northerly historic trail from Missouti to the California gold fields, known as the California Trail, which may go some way toward explaining why it has the name it has.

The Old Spanish Trail made it possible to transport woven goods from New Mexico to California and drive equine stock back to New Mexico. Such expeditions typically involved one round trip a year. With the opening of the Old Spanish Trail, Santa Fe became the hub of a trade network that extended from Missouri to California to Chihuahua and Mexico City until the three trails fell out of use, beginning in about 1850. While in use, the Old Spanish Trail linked small Native American and  Hispanic producers in northern New Mexico to Santa Fe  and to a new market in California.

Because my permanent home, my family, and my dogs are in Las Cruces, I have an intimate relationship with the general route of the Camino Real from Santa Fe south, and on my frequent drives up and down the road, I often find my mind wandering to days of yesteryear and the everyday challenges of travelers on the Camino Real. I have concluded that they were tough, and we are not, a view reinforced by numerous hikes over the years on these historic trails. They walked, rode on horse or mule, or sat uncomfortably in a wagon. I drive in an air conditioned if very old car as I recreate, after a fashion, their journey week after week.

But this weekend, we are focused not on one trail but on three, the three trails that converged on Santa Fe or departed from Santa Fe, depending on your perspective. Each of the three historic trails converged on Santa Fe for different reasons. The Camino Real reached Santa Fe because it was an important provincial capital of the Spanish Empire. The Santa Fe Trail passed through the town on the route between Missouri and Mexico because trade regulations demanded it. For the Old Spanish Trail, Santa Fe was the staging center for local men engaged in trade with California.

All roads lead to Santa Fe. So what? Why all the fuss? I grew up in a small town in the mountains of western North Carolina, nestled between the Smokey and Blue Ridge Mountains. Between my hometown and the next small town over lay the truly tiny town of Clyde. But, as the saying goes, “You can leave Clyde and go anywhere in the world.” If all roads lead to Santa Fe, don’t they lead away too? Can’t the same be said of any town anywhere in the wide world, including Santa Fe?

Well, no, not really. When, in the early decades of the nineteenth century, the Camino Real, the Santa Fe Trail, and the Old Spanish Trail came together in Santa Fe, it was already “a city different,” not different from all the other cities in the world, not unique in that regard, but different from most towns and cities. Santa Fe was for a relatively brief moment in time an entrêpot, a place where trade goods were gathered for transit trade to California, Mexico, and the States. It was also an emporium where imported goods were distributed to the local economy. In this sense, it was similar, at least in function if not in size or global impact to Antwerp in northern Europe, Byzantine Constantinople, or Mecca on the Arabian Peninsula in their day.

Here in Santa Fe was an intersection of trade routes. It formed the hub of a binational, quasi-transcontinental, inter- and intraregional trading network. Let’s say it again: binational, quasi-transcontinental, inter- and intraregional trading network. Hallelujah! It was and is an intersection of art and cultures, autochthonous and foreign. Today, it is still a place where traditional art forms coexist with modern fine art, and markets for both thrive, and I encourage you to do your part to see that that continues. Local art was here, of course, but art forms foreign to the region and the artists who created them often traveled over one of the three trails as they made their way to New Mexico.

As you listen to the presenters in this conference over the next few days, you will hear reinforcement for the idea that the three trails were a human highway. Several presenters will be talking about the remarkable stories of individuals such as Bernardo de Miera y Pacheco and families such as the Bacas from New Mexico’s and California’s past, all travelers on one or more of the three trails. European and later Mexican and US cultures and all their components, including practitioners and purveyors of art in all its forms, made their way to Santa Fe over the three trails and from there to the rest of New Mexico. Newcomers to this region encountered, sometimes peacefully, sometimes violently, the native peoples.

From time out of mind, empires, successful empires that is, have used roads and networks of roads and trails to expand and control subject peoples. I would mention the Roman Empire and the Inca Empire as but two examples of road-building empires of ancient times. So, too, were our historic trails tools of empire, of Spanish imperial expansion and of Manifest Destiny, in other words, of colonialism. As empires spread, the trappings of empire spread as well. It is important to remember as we reflect on the significance of these three trails that not all that arrived was welcomed by the people who were here first. Nevertheless, and in spite of how it happened, the varied peoples have learned to live together.

Important institutions, such as the organized church, eventually in various expressions, and western-style government, came over the trails as did languages, most notably for their influence, Spanish and English. Over the trails came trade goods otherwise unavailable, forever altering the material culture of the peoples of New Mexico. Of no less importance, ideas traveled over historic trails. Oftentimes new ways of thinking and news of events were late in arriving to New Mexico over his historic trails, but arrived they did, with transformative force.

I mentioned earlier that I believe it is important to note that while all trails lead to Santa Fe as the three trails certainly do, they also lead away. I am reminded of Governor Tomás Vélez Cachupín, one of New Mexico’s most effective if lesser-known Spanish colonial governors. During his first term of office, from 1749 to 1754, he accomplished much of what the later and more celebrated governor, Juan Bautista de Anza, achieved regarding Spanish-Indian relations with the exception that in the case of Vélez Cachupín, his successors utterly destroyed the lasting peace he had established. They made such a hash of things that he had done, that Vélez Cachupín, who had returned to Spain in the meantime, was recalled to take up the governorship for a second five-year term in 1762. Thus he traveled the entire length of the Camino Real from Mexico City to Santa Fe and back on at least two occasions. But Governor Vélez Cachupín was a relatively young man. Older and with a persistent illness that made it difficult to sit a horse, Diego de Vargas made even more trips up and down the Camino Real, although not always from beginning to end. Both governors covered easily, well nor really easily, probably with considerable saddle sores, five thousand miles on horseback.

What, other than the sense of duty of these public officials, drew people to or from New Mexico over these historic trails? In the Spanish colonial period, we know that early explorers came in search of precious metals. They did not find them, but the Franciscans who accompanied them found a bounteous harvest of souls--or so they believed--and kept coming. Later colonists came from central New Spain, which was suffering famine and want, and from teeming mining areas in the north for the promise of land and opportunity. In the US period people came from the East and from Europe by way of the East and moved to the West, propelled by a seemingly inexorable drive for land and opportunity not unlike Spanish colonists. And New Mexicans relocated from their native land to southern California where they created a satellite colony that exists to this very day.

This weekend, as you quaff your favorite beverages and talk trails, you will doubtless hear differences of opinion and alternative interpretations of facts. This is because this will probably be the largest gathering of experts—professional and avocational—on these trails ever assembled. A friend, for whom I have much admiration, recently remarked when we were discussing this very conference, that Santa Fe was one of the easiest and most delightful places to have a disagreement. This is, I believe, because we take our history seriously, and there are many of what I refer to as “constituencies” for those who do New Mexico history to be mindful of.

Speaking personally, I find that one of my fascinations with these historic trails is that to a greater or lesser extent, I can still use them or at least experience them viscerally. I can walk on them, following in the footsteps of historical figures important to me and my research. There are also enough unanswered questions to keep my intellectual curiosity up. I have an abiding interest in Santa Fe Trail merchant James Wiley Magoffin and his two Mexican wives, who happened to be sisters. Did he really become a Mexican citizen? When he met with Governor Manuel Armijo in 1846, did he really pay a brief to facilitate the abandonment of New Mexico to US troops without a fight? What did Armijo really intend to do when he skedaddled down the Camino Real? How many of members of Magoffin’s family traveled from Chihuahua to the States by way of Santa Fe? What did the intrepid souls who blazed and used the Old Spanish Trail really call it? Where were the woven goods traded to California produced? How did that trade work? Did contraband figure into this trade? Were New Mexicans in California the first illegal immigrants? Most important, who, exactly, was Antonio Armijo? And as my family might say, who were his people? I have many questions and as yet few answers.

By the late 1820s, three trails had come together in Santa Fe and forever linked it to the outside world. There can be no doubt that his convergence contributed to making it the singular city it is today. I suspect that most of you are interested in one of these trails more than the other two, that you belong to one organization but not to all three. But for this weekend I ask you to consider opening your hearts and minds to the other trails. I began by confessing to being something of a Jack of All Trails, but by Jack of All Trails I do not mean master of none. What I would like to suggest is that knowing something, or rather, something more, because all of you gathered here know something about all three historic trails, by taking a multidisciplinary or even generalist approach to what I am going to call “multi-trail trail study,” your appreciation for your favorite trail may be deeper. Or you may find yourself surrendering to the siren song of another trail if for no other reason than by comparison that one looks more enticing or more of a challenge than your old squeeze. So I will close by saying I hope you thoroughly enjoy your weekend of study, field tripping, and conviviality. And I invite you to become a Jack of All Trails too.