It all started in Montana. Hot on the trail of Lewis and Clark we discovered that the Shoshone provided horses to Lewis and Clark in a time of need. But where did these horses come from? The only plausible explanation is that they were traded north from the Spanish. I didn’t understand. The Spanish? What did they do in North America? Only now, after three months in Mexico, am I truly beginning to understand the influence of Spain.
Lewis and Clark traveled west in 1804. Large portions of the United States were unknown prompting Thomas Jefferson to develop the Corps of Discovery. This is what I learned in school. What I didn’t learn, is what the Spanish had succeeded in doing to our South long before Jamestown or Plymouth. Or what Native Americans had been doing on this continent since before the birth of Christ.
When we reached Santa Fe, we began to hear about the Camino Real. A trade route reaching south into Mexico or Nueva Espana as it was known by the Spanish.
In Baja California, we had the chance to see a beautiful example of a Jesuit Mission, an example of the Spanish attempts to colonize the region. Remote oases surrounded by desert characterize the missions in Baja. Small refuges attempting to bring the local population under the crown of Spain and opening additional trade routes. But the Baja never grew much beyond that. It was too remote, too dry, and not on any major trade route. Most of the missions there have since crumbled or been destroyed and used by the locals for other purposes. San Ignacio is one of the best preserved in Baja and also my favorite.
Upon landing in mainland Mexico it quickly became apparent that things were very different from Baja. There was more money here. More people. The cathedrals larger and more ornate. Historic centers larger and older. Banners in Durango celebrating its 450th anniversary. We began to hear about the Camino Real once again.
In Zacatecas, our host took us to Guadalupe, one of the northern most Convents in Mexico. Used as a jumping off point, this Convent helped support the missions in Northern Mexico. It was also a part of the Camino Real.
The Camino Real, originally a loose network of trails used by Native Americans, was improved by the Spanish as they saw fit. The silver mines in Zacatecas and the surrounding area were a significant reason for its expansion. The road stretched from the port city of Veracruz to as far North as Santa Fe. Significant riches removed from the earth of Mexico traveled this road and were loaded on boats for Spain, for the King. The Missions continued to grow and amass new subjects for the king, as well as labor for the mines. Any resistance was dealt with quickly and harshly. Under Spanish rule the church and state were seemingly one entity.
Over time the road continued to expand and Spain profited greatly up until Mexican Independence in 1810. This was an enormous blow to Spain which soon lost control of nearly all its colonies up and down North and South America. While the Spanish Aristocracy has not been in control of Mexico for over 200 years, their presence is still heavily felt in the culture of Mexico.