The Origins of El Camino Real de los Tejas

The Origins of El Camino Real de los Tejas


The origins of Spain's royal road in Texas are closely tied with that country's efforts to establish Catholic missions among the native tribes of the Piney Woods. Spain's mission program, in turn, was prompted by French activity in Texas and Louisiana. The road that would later become El Camino Real was traveled by Spanish explorers who were searching for a French colony on the Texas coast. Once that colony was found, Spain established a mission in east Texas; that was later expanded to five in east Texas and one in western Louisiana. Each expedition increased Spain's understanding of Texas' geography and showed subsequent travelers which were the best routes to use.

This is not to say that a few Spanish explorers blazed the entire camino real from scratch while setting up a few missions. On the contrary, long before Europeans arrived, native tribes had traversed Texas for millennia, forming a network of well-worn trails. Some of the royal road's pioneers, including Domingo Terán de los Rios and Domingo Ramón, explicitly stated in their journals that they were following pre-existing roads and trails. Nevertheless, until these men traversed the trails, they were unknown to Spain. As each explorer went, he named the rivers, found the best crossings, determined distances and travel times, noted where water was available, and of what quality, and found preferred campsites. After several of these journeys, Spanish travel across Texas to and from the missions was no longer a matter of exploration.

Retracing the steps of these 17th and 18th-century explorers is an inexact science for numerous reasons. To begin with, their astrolabes were inaccurate, giving latitude readings that were commonly off by dozens of miles - a fact they seemed to be aware of, as they recorded so few of them. Although they used magnetic compasses to determine their direction of travel, they usually only recorded one bearing per day, and it was never more exact than 22.5 degrees, (e.g. "north-northeast"). Even worse, their directions were sometimes flatly wrong: Ramón, while journaling his expedition to the northeast, mentions traveling southwest for an entire day numerous times. The explorers typically stated how far they traveled each day, but these distances were calculated rather than measured, based on the number of hours traveled and the explorer's estimate of their speed, then rounded off to the nearest league - about 2.6 miles. These distances, therefore, leave plenty of room for error when trying to retrace an expedition's route on a map.1 To top it all off, while every explorer was scrupulous in naming the rivers he crossed, a later explorer would frequently mistake one river for another, confuse a river for a tributary, and vice-versa, or give a name to what he thought was a newly-discovered river, which had actually already been named. Their practice of naming rivers using generic words like "hondo" (deep), "frio" (cold), and "colorado" (red) probably did not help, since most rivers are liable to exhibit any number of these characteristics at different locations or different times of year. So, while determining an expedition's path to the nearest mile is rarely possible, we can nevertheless still arrive at reasonably good conclusions at least as to which counties each explorer traveled through, and in which general direction they went.

Finding La Salle's Colony, 1685-1689

News of a French Colony Reaches Spain

Spain had known about Texas since the early 1500's, but after explorations by Coronado, De Soto, and others failed to find either gold for the taking or vast native cities ripe for conquest, Spanish interest in Texas dwindled to nothing. That all changed when Spain captured a group of French pirates who were conducting a raid on Campeche in July 1685. During their interrogation, one of them, Denis Thomas, confessed that he had been part of an expedition led by Robert La Salle. This expedition had the aim of establishing a French colony in the New World. As Thomas had deserted from the expedition during a stopover at Santo Domingo, long before La Salle landed on the coast, he could not have known whether the expedition had succeeded or where the colony was located. After his captors concluded that they obtained everything Thomas knew about this French intrusion, he and his companions were hanged.

The news of La Salle's colony was reported to Spain, and then it spread like wildfire throughout the Spanish empire. Officials in Europe, Florida, Mexico, and the Caribbean quickly began organizing expeditions by sea and land to find the French colony, but all they really knew was that it was somewhere on the Gulf Coast between Florida and Mexico. Some interesting intelligence came from Indian contacts north of the Rio Grande, suggesting the colony might best be found via an overland expedition from northern Mexico. Alonso de León, who had already developed a reputation as a successful explorer along the Mexican Gulf Coast, was chosen to follow that lead. De León's first journey in June and July 1686 explored the Rio Grande. His second attempt in March 1687 up the coast made it to a large body of water - probably Baffin Bay near present-day Kingsville - before turning around.

While De León searched by land, others continued the search by sea. A naval expedition found a wrecked French ship in Matagorda Bay in April 1687, but the small colony in the distance was overlooked. By that time, there wasn't much of a colony left to find - not that there ever was much of one to begin with. Plagued with discord, disorganization, and desertions before ever reaching land, the band of about 180 settlers suffered every calamity imaginable, from disease and Indian raids to drownings, fatal rattlesnake bites, and deaths by poison from eating unfamiliar food. Their numbers had dwindled to 45 by January 1687, when La Salle left with half of the survivors to try to reach Illinois Territory on foot. Unknown to those who stayed, La Salle would be murdered by his own men on that journey.

Map: The Birth of El Camino Real de los Tejas, 1690-1717

De León's Fourth Expedition

Spain's big break in finding La Salle's colony came in May 1688 when De León, now governor of Coahuila and on his third expedition to Texas, found a naked, heavily tattooed Frenchman living among a band of Coahuiltecan natives in present-day Kinney County. The man, Jean Gery, was a deserter from La Salle's colony. He went with De León back to Monclova, where he was interrogated. Gery's answers under questioning were so confusing and contradictory that his interrogators concluded he suffered from a mental illness, but they did learn that he came from a French fort on a big river to the east, and he claimed he could lead them to it. De León then organized another expedition, with the demented Frenchman serving as his guide and interpreter.2 They were joined by two Franciscan friars - Damian Massanet and Bachiller Toribio Garcia - a crew of mule drivers and servants, and a detachment of about 80 soldiers. There were 115 persons in all.

De León's expedition left Monclova on March 24, 1689. On their way to the Rio Grande, they were joined by a native from Friar Massanet's mission, who served as another guide. They crossed the Rio Grande on April 1 at the south end of present-day Maverick County. It was the same crossing De León had used the previous year when he found Gery, and it would later serve as the main crossing of the Rio Grande for the next 150 years. It was the beginning of El Camino Real de los Tejas.

De León made his way generally eastward across Maverick, Dimmitt, La Salle, and McMullen Counties. In Live Oak County, he crossed the Nueces River and turned to the northeast, crossing Bee and Karnes Counties to reach the Guadalupe River in DeWitt County. He set up a base camp there on April 14. He then took 60 of his men on a trip to explore the area. He encountered some natives who told him that they weren't far from the location of La Salle's colony, but, alas, it had been wiped out. With Gery interpreting, the natives related the woes of the pathetic little French village, ending with its destruction by the fierce Karankawa tribe three months earlier. The natives told De León that four Frenchman had escaped the massacre and lived with them for a while, but they had left for Hasinai territory four days before his arrival. De León then had one of his men compose a letter in French, asking the survivors to rendezvous with him at La Salle's colony. De León signed the letter and gave it, with some pieces of blank paper for a reply, to a native to take to the Hasinai.

De León took his group back to the base camp, and on April 21, they departed together to finish their search. With Gery guiding them, they marched down the Guadalupe into Victoria County, then traveled eastward to Garcitas Creek. There, on April 22, De León found the remains of the colony. There were three decomposed bodies out in the open. All of the houses had been thoroughly ransacked. All of the colonists' furniture had been broken, and their chests opened and looted. The Spanish party said Mass for the bodies and buried them.

On either the 23rd or 24th, De León took 30 men down the creek to the bay, where they found the remains of the shipwreck that the naval expedition saw in 1687.

On the 25th, De Leon returned to the encampment at the French colony. There was a reply to his letter. Two of the four Frenchmen living with the Hasinai expressed a desire to leave. De León ordered the main camp to return to the Guadalupe River while he set out with twenty men to look for the Frenchmen. They found them some 65 miles to the north, with a Hasinai group that was visiting another tribe's village. The two men subsequently stated that they were absent from La Salle's colony when the massacre occurred. They came back to the colony after the massacre and discovered what had happened. They said they buried 14 bodies before leaving to live with the Hasinai.

The Hasinai were one of the three large tribes making up the Caddo confederation. The Caddo tribes, governed independently but sharing a common language and folklore, occupied a large area on both sides of the Red River in Louisiana, Arkansas, Oklahoma, and Texas. The Hasinai were the main Caddoan group in east Texas. While De León was with them, he took notice of their sedentary, organized culture, their wooden houses, and their use of agriculture. Friar Massanet took notice of their apparent familiarity with Christianity. Not only did the Hasinai chief worship the God of Heaven, but he had with him a cross with a figure of Christ painted on it, a portable altar adorned with the images of four saints, and many other religious emblems. Friar Massanet wondered whether they had been visited by Mother María de Agreda, the "blue nun" who had reportedly been transported by angels to west Texas in the 1620s to evangelize the Jumano tribe. When asked, the chief confirmed that some of his elders had been visited by a woman in blue who was dressed similarly to Friar Massanet.3 The chief asked De León and Massanet to send missionaries to live among his people. De León assured him he would relate his request to the viceroy. Massanet promised to return.

De León returned to Coahuila along the same route he had arrived. The expedition was considered a complete success. Not only had La Salle's colony been found, but much of Texas' interior had been explored, its rivers named, and the seeds of Spain's east Texas mission program had been sown. About the first hundred miles of De León's route would become part of the future kings highway. To commemorate De León's success, his Rio Grande crossing would henceforth be known as Paso de Francia, or "France Pass".

The First Missions, 1690-1693

De León's Fifth Expedition

After their return to Mexico, Governor Alonso de León and Friar Damian Massanet did not forget their promises to the Hasinai chief. They obtained the viceroy's approval to establish a mission among the Hasinai, who the Spanish called "Tejas" - a Spanish form of taysha, the Caddo word for "friend". Their expedition - De León's fifth and last into Texas - left Monclova in March 1690. Crossing the Rio Grande at Paso de Francia, the group visited La Salle's colony again, presumably following the same route used the previous year. At the colony, they burned the buildings. They then began the long trek northeast to Hasinai territory. Along the way, they found two French boys who had been in La Salle's colony. They were part of the group who left the colony with Robert La Salle in 1687. After La Salle's murder, the youths were left in a Hasinai village while the remainder of the party went on to Illinois Territory.

The expedition reached Hasinai territory on May 22. The Spaniards built the mission buildings on the west bank of the Neches River in northeastern Houston County. The Mission San Francisco de Los Tejas was dedicated on June 1, 1690. Even though Friar Massanet was responsible for the mission, he did not stay, leaving it instead in the care of three other friars. De León left three soldiers with them. The next day, De León, Massanet, and the remainder of the expedition began their return to Coahuila.

Terán Expedition

In January 1691, the viceroy appointed a new governor of Coahuila, Domingo Terán de los Ríos. (Alonso de León died two months later at age 51.) At Friar Massanet's urging, Governor Terán was immediately tasked with establishing seven more missions among the Hasinai tribes and with investigating rumors and reports of foreign (i.e. French) settlements nearby.

On May 16, 1691, Terán departed from Monclova, with Massanet as guide. Another veteran of De León's 1689 expedition, Captain Alférez Francisco Martínez (the same man who wrote De León's letter to the four French refugees), was Terán's second-in-command. Pierre Meunier, one of the French boys recovered from the Hasinai the previous year and who knew the Hasinai and Karankawa languages, went along as interpreter. There were also 50 soldiers, 9 other friars, and 3 religious laymen in the entourage. The group crossed the Rio Grande at Paso de Francia on May 28.

Terán's 1691 expedition is generally considered the birth of the Camino Real de los Tejas. For the first 100 miles, Terán followed De León's eastward path through Maverick, Dimmitt, and La Salle Counties. Around present-day Fowlerton, however, Terán crossed the Frio River and turned north-northeast, passing through Atascosa and Bexar Counties. There, on June 3, the feast day of Saint Anthony of Padua, the expedition encountered a group of Payaya natives around a pleasant spring. In his expedition journal, Friar Massanet described the Payaya as friendly to the Spaniards and very receptive to adopting the Spanish language and dress. More important, he noticed the wooden cross the Payaya had erected in their village and observed their belief in God. Terán named the nearby river San Antonio because of the date he discovered it. Every subsequent east Texas expedition passed through San Antonio, and Massanet's report on the Payaya natives was remembered very keenly when new mission sites were proposed a few years later.

At San Antonio, Terán set a northeastern course and traveled to the Guadalupe River, probably closely following the Comal-Guadalupe county line along the way. There, the group received some bad news from natives about the San Francisco de los Tejas mission. An epidemic was raging, and many natives and one of the three friars stationed there had died. In response, the natives were turning against the mission. After receiving this news, the expedition moved forward, again most likely staying close to the boundary between Hays and Travis Counties on the north and Caldwell and Bastrop Counties on the south. By the time the expedition reached the Colorado River, it had traveled approximately 250 miles. All of Terán's route to that point was part of the future Camino Real.

At the Colorado River, Terán took a planned detour. Prior arrangements had been made for Gregorio de Salinas Varona, another De León expedition veteran, to bring in reinforcements and supplies by sea at Matagorda Bay. So, Terán took the expedition down the Colorado River for two days and made camp. His second-in-command, Captain Martínez, then took a contingent down to Matagorda Bay. With the French youth interpreting for him, Martínez learned from the natives that no ship had been seen in the bay for months. Martínez did manage to recover two more French children who were living at La Salle's colony at the time of the massacre, but had been spared and taken in by the Karankawa. After a few days, Martínez took his group on July 12 back to Terán's base camp to report that the Spanish ship had not yet arrived. Unfortunately, he just missed the ship that arrived the same day he left.

When Martínez reported back to Terán, he asked for permission to return immediately to the coast to wait for the ship. Terán favored the idea, but Friar Massanet - who was never shy about disagreeing with Spanish officials - would not have any more delays. Terán yielded to him, and on July 16, the expedition broke camp and began moving again. Terán's route from the Colorado River to the Brazos River is not known and may have been a little off of the future Camino Real, but after crossing the Brazos, he was probably on course for the last hundred miles from there to the Neches.

At the Trinity River, the impatient friars pressed ahead of Terán and the main party, who had to tend to hundreds of head of weak and weary horses, cattle, sheep, and goats. Massanet learned that in his absence, a second mission named Santisimo Nombre de Maria had been founded about twelve miles east of San Francisco de los Tejas. Sickness was rampant at both missions, however, and the natives were rejecting the Gospel. No doubt the missionaries hoped that their arrival, with plenty of animals and supplies, would revitalize the missions.

Terán stayed in the area for about a month, observing that the natives seemed more interested in stealing horses from the missions than in partaking of their spiritual offerings. In the late summer, he went to Matagorda Bay to meet up with Salinas Varona, who had been waiting for him there since July 12. Terán and Salinas came back to the mission with new orders to explore the area to the northeast, around Caddo Lake and the Red River in Arkansas. They returned from this trip on December 30.

The six months Terán spent in east Texas were filled with disaster and failure. In addition to the dire situation of the missions, the summer's drought was so hard on the expedition's horses that for part of the journey, the soldiers had to ride mules and let the horses follow behind them at their own pace. Terán failed to provide any new information from his side trip into Arkansas. He made journal entries complaining about Captain Martínez for missing the meet-up with Salinas and even criticizing the late Alonso De León for the crookedness of his trail. Terán had had enough of the Hasinai, Friar Massanet, and east Texas, and it was obvious to everyone, even the missionaries, that no new missions were going to be established on this expedition.

Terán was ready to leave, but so many of the expedition's horses had died or been stolen that he had to commandeer some from the mission just to be able to get home. An outraged Friar Massanet, who was staying behind this time, protested vigorously, but to no avail. Terán's party, which included six of the friars who had come to serve at the new missions, moved out on January 9, 1692. Soon after they left, Mission Santisimo Nombre de María was destroyed by a flood. When Terán reached Matagorda Bay on March 5, he was met with new orders to explore the Mississippi River by ship. He and Salinas embarked on that project, but they were deterred by bad weather and returned to Veracruz on April 15.

Terán's expedition was a failure in every respect but one. No new missions were established, no French settlements were found, and no new water routes were discovered. The future of east Texas as a viable mission field was dim. Terán wrote of the area that "no rational person has ever seen a worse one." Salinas agreed, describing east Texas as the worse possible site for missions, preferring the Brazos or Colorado Rivers for future ones.

The one major area in which Terán made an important positive contribution to Texas was regarding El Camino Real. Approximately 350 miles of Terán's route was used by later explorers, including the first 250 miles from the Rio Grande to the Colorado River and the 100 miles between the Brazos and Neches Rivers. Perhaps most important of all was his discovery of San Antonio. Within two decades, it would become the most important place in Texas, and would remain that way for more than a hundred years.

Salinas Expedition

Domingo Terán de los Rios resigned from his brief term as governor after his return from east Texas. The viceroy named Gregorio de Salinas Varona as his successor. Even though Salinas had agreed with Terán about the unsuitability of east Texas as a mission field, the viceroy was not keen on abandoning the only Spanish outpost between Monclova and the Mississippi River. Salinas was ordered to reinforce and resupply Mission San Francisco de los Tejas.

Salinas left Moncolva on May 3, 1693 with 20 soldiers and 96 mules loaded with provisions. He followed Alonso De León's eastern route, which crossed the Guadalupe River in DeWitt County, and arrived at the mission on June 8, after only 36 days of travel. This was significantly quicker than any previous expedition.

Salinas found that conditions at the mission had continued to deteriorate in the 17 months since his last visit. So many natives had died at the mission that the natives were blaming the baptismal waters, and were either refusing baptism or refusing to congregate at all. Another friar had died. Salinas's supplies were welcomed, but were insufficient. When he departed six days later, two friars went with him, leaving just Damian Massanet and two others, along with four soldiers.

On his return, Salinas followed Domingo Terán's route through Madison, Brazos, Burleson, Lee, and Fayette Counties. Rather than staying on Terán's route and going up the Colorado River, however, he kept going straight southwest through Bastrop County and into Gonzales County. He then cut a more westerly path to San Antonio River. Instead of turning south at that point, however, Salinas found an easier route to the Rio Grande by turning south in Medina County and passing through Dimmitt and Zavala Counties to get home. A variation of Salinas's route from San Antonio to Paso De Francia would ultimately prove to be more popular than the one used by De León and Terán.

After completing this journey, Governor Salinas Varona had been part of three major expeditions to Mission San Francisco and had traveled on more of El Camino Real than any other Spaniard.

Friar Massanet's Return

In October, the missionaries heard rumors of an impending attack by the natives. Friar Massanet decided it was time to leave. One of the other clerics, Friar Francisco Hidalgo, disagreed, but on October 25, they buried the mission bell, burned the building, and returned to Mexico. At the Colorado River, one of the four soldiers in the party suffered an accident and had to stop the march. The other soldiers elected to remain with him, while Massanet and the two other friars kept moving. The small party then lost its bearings for several weeks and did not reach Monclova until February 17, 1694, spending almost 4 months en route. Upon Massanet's return, the viceroy asked him to recommend sites for additional missions in northern Coahuila. Massanet declined while complaining, characteristically, about inadequate government support.

An Intermission, 1693-1716

The failure of Domingo Terán de los Rios's 1691 expedition, the poor opinion Governor Salinas Verona had of east Texas, and Friar Damian Massanet's effective resignation as leader of the east Texas mission project all contributed to a period of Spanish inattention to Texas. Additionally, Spain had problems in Europe. The ineffective King Charles II died in 1700, leaving no heirs and bequeathing the Spanish crown to the grandson of King Louis XIV of France. Spain and France became allies against the rest of Europe in the War of the Spanish Succession, which lasted from 1700 to 1714. Defending their overseas territorial claims from encroachment by their new ally simply was not one of Spain's priorities at this time.

There was at least one person who was eager to return to Texas, however - Friar Francisco Hidalgo, one of Damian Massanet's priests at Mission San Francisco de los Tejas. Hidalgo could not convince either his superiors or Governor Salinas to permit another expedition to Haisani country, but he did get approval to found a mission at the Rio Grande. Mission San Juan Bautista was dedicated on January 1, 1700 five miles from the south bank of the Rio Grande at Paso de Francia. Captian Diego Ramón, who had been with Alonso de León on his third Texas expedition, was the military officer charged with the mission's protection. Two years later, another mission was built nearby, and in 1703, a presidio - that is, a fort - was added, with Ramón as its commander. San Juan Bautista - located in the present-day town of Guerrero - thus became Spain's most northeastern outpost in Mexico. Since it was 110 miles closer to east Texas than Monclova, it became the new staging area for future expeditions. It was the first bona fide Spanish settlement on El Camino Real de los Tejas.

Despite having his new mission on the Rio Grande, Friar Hidalgo still longed to reestablish missions in east Texas. Spain conducted exploratory trips into south and central Texas in 1707 and 1709, respectively, but these did nothing to change Spanish policy towards east Texas. Frustrated by Spain's lack of support, Hidalgo wrote the French governor of Louisiana in 1711 for assistance. The governor obliged Hidalgo by sending Louis Juchereau de St. Denis, an explorer in present-day Mississippi and Louisiana, to see him. St. Denis stopped at the Red River to establish a trading post at present-day Natchitoches, Louisiana and then traveled to San Juan Bautista, arriving there in July 1714 with three companions, two of whom were young survivors of La Salle's colony who Alonso de León had recovered from natives in 1690. St. Denis's route is not recorded,4 but he and his companions were likely the first people to travel the full distance of El Camino Real from Natchitoches to the Rio Grande in one journey. The fact that he made the trip along a road that Spain had not used in 21 years is evidence of how well-traveled the trail must have been even before Spain entered the picture.5

Even though St. Denis's arrival at San Juan Bautista had been instigated by Friar Hidalgo, the sudden appearance of four Frenchmen deep inside their claimed territory startled Spanish officials. Captain Ramón, unsure whether to treat St. Denis as a spy or an ally, placed him under a comfortable house arrest for bringing contraband goods into Spain. St. Denis made the best of the situation by courting and becoming engaged to Ramón's granddaughter, Manuela. He then went to Mexico City to stand trial.

Seeing the return of the French was enough to make the viceroy change his position and approve of Friar Hidalgo's request to re-establish missions in east Texas. Captain Ramón's son, Domingo, received orders to found six new missions and a presidio. St. Denis, obviously a persuasive and charming individual, managed to secure an appointment as the officer on the expedition in charge of supplies. He returned to San Juan Bautista to make preparations for the trip. These preparations included marrying Manuela.

The Second Wave of Missions, 1716-1717

Captain Domingo Ramón assembled his expedition party at San Juan Bautista. There were to be two leaders from the Franciscan order - Friar Isidro de Espinosa from the College of Querétaro, and Friar Antonio Margil from the College of Zacatecas.6 Friar Espinosa, who had been on earlier expeditions, was Ramón's official guide. Friar Margil ended up being seriously ill and was unable to make the journey. Eight other friars joined Espinosa, including Hidalgo. Twenty-five soldiers and approximately forty others - mostly civilian colonists and servants - were also in the party. Seven of the party were wives of the soldiers; an eighth woman was a soldier's fianceé. There were two children - a six-year-old boy and a four-year-old girl. The group departed on April 27, 1716.

Ramón crossed the Rio Grande in present-day Maverick County upriver of Paso de Francia, at "Diego Ramón's Pass", a ford named after his father. Crossing the river took an entire day because of a fierce storm that scattered the supplies and animals. Ramón wrote that the wind was so furious that it lifted a horse and its rider "and carried them, and everything they had, more than three to four yards." Fortunately, the expedition suffered no serious losses and moved on through Dimmit, Zavala, Frio, Medina, and Bexar Counties in more or less a northeast course the whole way. It reached San Pedro Springs in present-day San Antonio on May 14. Like his predecessors, Ramón was impressed with what he saw of the land and wrote, prophetically, "This is sufficient to support a city."

After a day to let the horses rest, Ramón led the expedition northeast. It appears that he followed the route used by some before him that went along the boundary between present-day Comal, Hays, and Travis Counties on the north side, and Guadalupe, Caldwell, and Bastrop Counties on the south side. He probably then kept going northeast through Williamson County and into Milam County. There, three members of the party got separated and lost from the others. After two days of waiting and searching, Ramón declared them missing. A religious service was held for them, and then the expedition moved on.

After marching northeast all the way to Milam County, Ramón made a course correction and turned the expedition to the south-southeast. He had apparently gotten off the road; he wrote that the woods were so dense, the men had to dismount and clear a path with their axes and knives just to move forward. Even one of his native guides who was familiar with the area told Ramón "he was bewildered and did not know where he was." When a horse loaded with supplies ran off, an officer and three soldiers went after it. The following day, the officer returned to the main group with the horse and two of the soldiers; the third soldier had also gotten lost.

Having found their way back to the road, the expedition crossed two branches of the Brazos River in Burleson and Brazos Counties. The group encountered and socialized with numerous native clans throughout their journey, but in the neighborhood of Madison County, they began to see Hasinai clans who, Ramón wrote, welcomed them heartily. On June 26, in a location Ramón did not record, the Hasinai held a formal peace pipe ceremony for the Spaniards. Two days later, deeper in Hasinai territory, a large assembly was held in which Ramón announced his intentions to build missions among the Hasinai to save their souls. He asked them to acknowledge the authority of the king and the viceroy and had them nominate someone of their own who the Spanish government would recognize as their president. Ramón confirmed their nominee and gave him one of his good jackets, "which made everyone very happy and content." These introductions took several days and attracted onlookers from several neighboring tribes.

With the formalities duly taken care of, the expedition began choosing the site for its first mission. Mission Nuestro Padre San Francisco de los Tejas, the successor to the old Mission San Francisco de los Tejas, was founded on July 3. Historical estimates of its location vary from Leon County to Houston County to Cherokee County, but Ramón's record that the next mission was nine leagues (23 miles) to the northeast should narrow it down to northeast Houston County, a few miles west of the Neches River. Friars Espinosa and Hidalgo were stationed there, making it the unofficial mission headquarters of east Texas.

The second mission established on Terán's expedition was Nuestra Señora de la Purisima Concepción de Acuña. Friar Espinosa established this Quereteran mission on July 7 on the east bank of the Angelina River, near present-day Douglass in Nacogdoches County.

Next, Ramón's expedition traveled to the southeast to establish the third mission of the six. Mission Señora de Guadalupe de los Nacogdoches was established to serve the Nacogdoches tribe on July 8. It was to be administered by the Zacatecan college, whose leader, Friar Antonio Margil de Jesús, had not yet arrived. The future city of Nacogdoches grew around the location of this mission.

In founding the fourth mission, Ramón backtracked a bit, founding Mission San José de los Nazonis in northwest Nacogdoches County near present-day Cushing on July 11. It was established to serve the Nazoni tribe.

After establishing the fourth mission, Ramón wrote that his assignment to build four missions was "completed, and I returned to my presidio." This would not be Presidio San Juan Bautista, but the newly-founded Presidio Nuestra Señora de los Dolores de los Tejas. Ramón does not otherwise mention this presidio in his journal, but it was near Mission Concepción in Nacogdoches County, and thus may have been built on July 7.

Ramón's orders were actually to build six missions and a presidio, but he paused for six months before building the last two missions. He may have simply been waiting for Friar Margil to arrive, for the two not-yet-founded missions were to be under his administration. In January 1717, an expedition led by Ramón, Margil, and St. Denis founded Mission Nuestra Señora de los Dolores on Ayish Bayou in San Augustine County. The city of San Augustine was later established near the old mission site.

The last objective of the expedition was completed across the Sabine River. Mission San Miguel de Linares de los Adaes was founded at present-day Robeline, Louisiana on January 15, 1717.

While El Camino Real de los Tejas was born in the late 1600s, it was Captain Ramón's expedition that enabled the royal road to survive past its infancy. Ramón not only extended the route from the first mission in Houston county another 120 miles to the east, but some of the missions he founded endured for more than sixty years. His work, therefore, enusred that the road was not just an infrequently used expedition route, but a significant avenue for official, religious, and civilian traffic.

To continue reading about the history of El Camino Real de los Tejas, please see the next article in this topic.

Page last updated: January 4, 2015

1For example, various explorers reported the distance from Monclova to Paso de Francia along the same well‑known route as either 47, 49, 51, or 52 leagues - a variation of 13 miles. The actual distance is 48 leagues, or 115 miles.

2Despite Gery's supposedly deteriorated mental condition, De León himself found him to be extremely resourceful and useful. In his expedition diary, De León noted that he could not have located La Salle's fort without Gery. It cannot be ruled out that Gery's reputed mental disorder was a product of some malingering on his part while under questioning, combined with a predisposition for his Spanish interrogators to slur him for being French.

3Spaniards had been visiting and evangelizing natives in west Texas for decades before the French incursion focused their attention eastward. These western tribes are known to have traded with other natives from all over the state. It would be no surprise if some of the items Spanish missionaries distributed to the western tribes found their way into Hasinai hands. All of the native tribes in New Spain probably learned pretty quickly that displaying their Christian symbols upon meeting Spaniards and showing interest in their religious talk was a good way to demonstrate friendly intentions.

4It is usually taken for granted that he followed one of the routes popularized in the 18th century that went through San Antonio, but William C. Foster, in his thorough work, Spanish Expeditions Into Texas 1689-1768, doubts that this is the case. Foster contends that St. Denis followed a coastal route that would have taken him near the old French fort, but misled the Spanish, who would have been hyper-sensitive about any French interest in the Matagorda Bay area, about his route so as not to arouse their suspicions even further.

5Although St. Denis' journey along El Camino Real is notable for the reasons explained in the text, its importance is often exaggerated. Contrary to the statements made on some historical markers, St. Denis did not pioneer, establish, or even document the road. He simply traveled on it.

6Each Franciscan college had its own administration and operated independently of the other. Ramón's 1716 expedition was the first journey into Texas by the Zacatecan college; Friars Damian Massenet and Francisco Hidalgo and the earlier two missions in east Texas were all from the Queretaran college.

  • Foster, William C. - Spanish Expeditions Into Texas: 1689-1768, 1995.
  • Weddle, Robert S. - The French Thorn: Rival Explorers in the Spanish Sea, 1682-1752
  • Texas State Historical Association - The Handbook of Texas Online
  • McKeehan, Wallace L. - "Alonso de León Expedition into Future DeWitt Colony"
  • Cunningham, Debbie S. - The Domingo Ramón Diary of the 1716 Expedition into the Province of the Tejas Indians: An Annotated Translation, published in Southwestern Historical Quarterly, July 2006.