New Mexico became a state in 1912; however, humans settled the region thousands of years ago. Prior to first contact with Europeans, Meso-American tribes in Mexico traded with Native American tribes in the north. Trails existed from Mexico to the Pacific Northwest to facilitate travel. The Camino Real was one of the most famous routes. It played a critical role in the settlement and conquest of the region.
El Camino Real
When the Spanish migrated north from Mexico City, they needed a route that would accommodate hundreds of people, horses, heavy-wheeled carts, and herds of livestock. In 1598, Don Juan de Oñate led a group of settlers north, following ancient footpaths. The path would become known as El Camino Real, aka the Royal Road. It was a dangerous 1500 mile trek, extending from Mexico City to San Juan Pueblo, north of Santa Fe. The trip took approximately 6 months, with 2–3 weeks of rest. Ultimately, this trail transformed the region.
El Camino Real initially served as a trade route, connecting the pueblos on the Rio Grande with indigenous tribes further south. Centuries later, the Spanish arrived via this trail, bringing the first breeding horses, cattle, sheep, the wheel, gunpowder, and iron to the American West. The U.S. Army used the El Camino Real to invade Mexico in 1846. They seized Chihuahua before moving on to Mexico City, provoking the Mexican-American War of 1846–1848. Though the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo ended the Mexican-American war, Mexico lost 50% of its territory to the United States, including the land that would become California, Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, Texas, Utah and Wyoming. Today Interstate 25 parallels the Camino Real, serving as a modern trade route between the United States and Mexico.
El Rancho de las Golondrinas
The last rest stop on the trail, prior to arriving in Santa Fe, was El Rancho de las Golondrinas, the Ranch of the Swallows. As of 1972, El Rancho de las Golondrinas became a living history museum. The museum is dedicated to the history, heritage and culture of 18th and 19th century New Mexico.
The museum provides insight into the vocations and traditions of territorial New Mexico. Original colonial buildings on the site date from the early 1700s. Guides provide presentations and are available to answer questions.
Historic buildings from northern New Mexico were reconstructed on the property. The Sierra Village area features an 18th century placita house, a 19th century home, and outbuildings. It is surrounded by numerous primitive water mills, a defensive tower, a blacksmith shop, a molasses mill, a vineyard, and a winery. The morada (Penitente meeting house), descansos, Campo Santo, and Oratorio are a testament to the role of Catholicism in the territory.
El Rancho de las Golondrinas allows visitors to roam the past in a tangible and visceral way. In addition to educating the public about New Mexico’s past, the museum highlights the importance and complex history of the Camino Real.
Check their website for details about upcoming events and festivals.