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Chihuahua Trail


By William H. Wroth

The Chihuahua Trail is the major land route from New Mexico through the state of Chihuahua to points in central Mexico. It is the northernmost portion of the Camino Real which in the colonial period connected northern Mexico and New Mexico with Mexico City. The trail, one of many routes to the Southwest, existed long before the Spanish conquest. In pre-Hispanic times there was much cultural interchange between the ancestral Pueblo Indians and the indigenous peoples in Mexico. Goods in abundance were exchanged through complex trading networks all through the Southwest and northern Mexico. In addition, tribes speaking related Uto-Aztecan languages spread in pre-Hispanic times from Colorado and New Mexico through northern and central Mexico, making up another network of cultural interchange.

In the sixteenth century prior to the settlement of New Mexico, the Camino Real ended in Valle de San Bartolomé, now the Valle de Allende in southern Chihuahua. After the Coronado expedition of 1540, the town of Santa Bárbara, founded in 1563 in the Valle de San Bartolomé, was the starting place for many later explorations into the uncharted north. From here the Rodríguez-Chamuscado expedition traveled a circuitous route following waterways to the future site of El Paso and then up the Rio Grande in the vain attempt to establish missions among the Pueblo Indians of New Mexico. In 1582 Antonio de Espejo, a merchant living in Santa Bárbara, followed the same route north, visiting most of the Pueblos along the Rio Grande. In 1593 the ill-fated expedition of Francisco Levya de Bonilla and Antonio Gutiérrez de Humaña traveled from Santa Bárbara as far north as San Ildefonso Pueblo, part of their journey over the Chihuahua Trail.

In 1598 the large colonizing expedition of Juan de Oñate paused for several months at Santa Bárbara for inspection by the government before setting out for the uncharted north. The present Chihuahua Trail was “discovered” and utilized by Oñate, traveling from Santa Bárbara to the present site of Chihuahua City, then directly north to the site of today’s Ciudad Juarez and then up the Rio Grande to Ohkay Owingeh (San Juan) Pueblo where he established the first Spanish capital of New Mexico.

For the entire colonial period (1598 – 1821) the Chihuahua Trail was virtually the only route between New Mexico and the outside world. Hispanic cultural forms and material culture were brought up the trail by wagon and cart from central Mexico. While New Mexico may seem to have been exceedingly remote, early inventories of goods brought north show that the entire range of European culture of the day was, as far as possible, transmitted to the frontier settlements of New Mexico. The inventories of the Oñate expedition surprisingly include a profusion of luxury goods, as well as the more basic necessities, such as tools, iron-working equipment, woven yard goods, and furniture. Among luxury goods carried on the expedition were fancy garments and other textiles of silk and brocade, gold and silver jewelry and table wear, fine majolica and Chinese porcelains, musical instruments, and religious goods often of precious materials for adorning the churches.

With the founding of Santa Fe as the new capital in 1610, regular supply caravans, operated under the auspices of the Franciscans, traveled from Mexico City up the Camino Real and the Chihuahua Trail to New Mexico at a minimum of every three years. The caravans usually consisted of 32 large four-wheeled wagons capable of carrying 4000 pounds each, accompanied by soldiers, a herd of cattle, and extra mules. In addition to goods for the missions and settlers, the caravans carried mail, government decrees, new officials and new settlers to New Mexico. Returning to Mexico City, they carried back retiring officials and friars, prisoners, traders, and large quantities of the New Mexican export goods, consisting mostly of textiles woven from wool produced on the large sheep ranches, as well as sheep and cattle herds, and the tanned hides of buffalo, deer and other animals.

By the middle of the eighteenth century the supply caravan had become an annual service operated now by the Spanish government, but in actuality controlled by a small number of merchants in the city of Chihuahua. A regular caravan left Santa Fe every November, after the annual Taos trading fair where hides bartered from the Utes and Comanches and other tribes were acquired to be sold in the south at trading fairs held in places such as the Valle de San Bartolomé and further south in San Juan de los Lagos, among other sites. With the development of textile and other industries in central and northern Mexico in the eighteenth century, the more valuable manufactured goods were traded to New Mexicans whose own raw produce had much less value. For instance, raw wool was sold at low prices by New Mexicans to textile manufacturers in Mexico who then sold clothing and yard goods back to the New Mexican at high prices. The result was that New Mexican merchants were constantly in debt to their counterparts in northern Mexico.

New Mexican traders returned from their annual caravans in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries loaded with manufactured goods made in Mexico and abroad which then provided wealthier New Mexicans with a material connection with the larger Hispanic world. The caravans also provided a spiritual and cultural connection. New Mexicans who went south on the trading expeditions also visited a series of pilgrimage shrines along the way from which they brought back the devotions to such miraculous patrons as Our Lord of Mapimí in Durango, Our Lady of San Juan de los Lagos and Our Lady of Talpa in Jalisco, and Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City. Prints of these miraculous images and other saints were brought home and served as models for the making of santos (religious images). Churches and chapels in New Mexico were dedicated to them; for instance in the Taos valley, Our Lady of San Juan de los Lagos and Our Lady of Talpa were the patronesses of two community chapels, and in both Santa Fe and Taos churches were dedicated to Our Lady of Guadalupe.

With Mexican independence in 1821 the strictures of the Spanish government against foreign trade were dropped, and the Santa Fe Trail was opened, establishing a land route from Missouri to New Mexico. The influx of manufactured goods from the United States soon broke the power held by Chihuahua merchants over trade in Santa Fe because the Americans offered merchandise of equal or higher quality at much lower prices than comparable items from Mexico. But the American traders found that there was a limit to the amount of goods they could easily sell in New Mexico, due to the small population and the poverty of many inhabitants. By 1824 some American traders were continuing their journey southward over the Chihuahua Trail to sell their goods in Chihuahua and elsewhere in northern Mexico. They soon were in direct competition with the Mexican merchants and with English and French entrepreneurs long established in northern Mexico. In spite of these difficulties, in the 1820s and later many Americans established their own businesses in Chihuahua and other cities.

After 1821 Hispanic New Mexican merchants also kept up their large annual caravans down the Chihuahua Trail, consisting of hundreds of mules, horses, ox carts, and many men to accompany them. They continued to carry the same kinds of local produce as they had in the colonial period, including sheep, wool, blankets and other woven goods, hides and skins, and even piñon nuts, to markets in northern Mexico. The most popular destinations were the cities of Chihuahua and Durango and places in Sonora such as Hermosillo and Guaymas, but many went further south to Zacatecas, Aguas Calientes, San Juan de los Lagos, Guadalajara, Guanajuato, Mexico City, Puebla, and other destinations. The caravans returned with some domestic goods, but also with iron, steel, and silver which were still scarce commodities in New Mexico. By the 1830s New Mexican merchants were traveling not only the Chihuahua Trail but also the Old Spanish Trail to California and the Santa Fe Trail to Missouri and other points in the eastern United States.

The Chihuahua Trail played an important role in times of civil disturbance and war. In the Rebellion of 1837 officials and some prominent citizens of Santa Fe escaped the rebels by evacuating the city and going down the trail to El Paso. Later in defeating the rebels, the local forces under Manuel Armijo were augmented by over 150 dragoons from Veracruz who had been stationed in Zacatecas and marched up the Chihuahua Trail to Santa Fe. In August 1846 during the Mexican-American War, Armijo, then governor of New Mexico, retreated with his military escort down the trail all the way to Chihuahua City in advance of the arrival of the American army in Santa Fe. In December 1846 Col. Alexander Doniphan, leading the 1st Missouri Volunteers, marched down the trail and engaged and defeated Mexican troops at the Battle of Brazito, near El Paso, and the Battle of Sacramento, twenty miles north of Chihuahua City.

After the American occupation, the Chihuahua Trail continued to serve as the major trade route between Mexico and New Mexico with goods flowing freely back and forth. In addition, the trail served as the route taken north by many Mexican artisans and other emigrants who were drawn to the economic opportunities in New Mexico and who breathed new life into the trades in New Mexico. The censuses of 1860 through 1880 of New Mexican towns show many blacksmiths, carpenters, leatherworkers, jewelers and other craftsmen who list their places of birth as Chihuahua, Sonora, or other Mexican states. In 1880 the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad was opened all the way to Santa Fe, which brought the end of the Santa Fe Trail as a freighting route to New Mexico. In 1882 the railroad completed its tracks between Santa Fe and El Paso where it connected with the newly opened Mexican National Railroad which ran from Mexico City to Ciudad Juarez. In this way the entire Chihuahua Trail and the Camino Real were superceded first by the railroads, and then in the twentieth century by automobile roads.

Sources Used:

Boyle, Susan Calafate. Los Capitalistas: Hispano Merchants and the Santa Fe Trade. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1997.

Moorhead, Max L. New Mexico’s Royal Road. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1958.

Palmer, Gabrielle G., et al.. El Camino Real de Tierra Dentro. Santa Fe: Bureau of Land Management, 1993.

Palmer, Gabrielle G. and Stephen L. Fosberg. El Camino Real de Tierra Dentro. Santa Fe: Bureau of Land Management, 1999.

Preston, Douglas and José Antonio Esquibel. The Royal Road. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1998.