Mile after mile, the old El Camino Real twists its way through vast East Texas forests toward the Sabine River, a river that did not used to serve as a border.
These days, the old highway goes by the alpha-numeric moniker of Texas Highway 21 as it stretches from San Marcos in the west past the tiny hamlet of Milam, resting on the west bank of the Toledo Bend Reservoir; that’s about as deep a person can go in East Texas.
Road signs along the way mark it as the El Camino Real, but travelers would have to get off the main highway to see the true signs of a bygone road of a bygone empire, the wagon swales and trails left by thousands of horses and thousands of people over the centuries.
On the East Side of Toledo Bend, in Louisiana, the highway changes from 21, to Louisiana Highway 6; with even more signs marking it as the trail of the old El Camino Real. The road links Louisiana and Texas, and has for nearly 350 years as the history of the two states intertwine.
“There is no Louisiana without Texas,” said St. Jean Baptiste State Historic Site historian Jeremy McCormic. “And, there would be no Texas without Louisiana.”
About 30 miles inside Louisiana an historical marker sign points to a site known as Los Adaes, and the historian’s declaration begins to prove it self. The non-descript sign with a brown background and white letters fails to signify the importance of the site it’s meant to identify. It points to an important, but forgotten piece of Texas history – and it’s not even in Texas.
Back in the late 1600s and early 1700s, the Spanish sought to solidify their vast holdings in the New World – lands they claimed for their own nearly 200 years before. The Spanish claimed the Cane River and Red River confluence running through present-day Natchitoches as their eastern border and to solidify that claim they put a presidio and mission complex on the eastern edge of their territory.
They made it a government post and in 1717, this establishment on the edge of their empire eventually became the capital of Texas.
It served to protect the trade route along the El Camino Real; and also the mission system the Spanish established throughout East Texas, with the first being the Mission San Francisco de los Tejas, commissioned in Houston County in 1690. The Spanish also hoped to stop any French incursions into their territory with the establishment of these missions and settlements.
While Los Adaes is a long-forgotten piece of Texas history, the role it played in the life of early Texas – the Texas that existed before the first American adventurer set foot on Texian soil – must be told. On that piece of land two vast colonial empires collided, yet never fired a shot at each other and the way of life of this stretch of land belies the clash of cultures that took place there more than 300 years ago.
Los Adeas, officially for the Spanish marked the terminus of the El Camino Real, though the road extended to Natchitoches, where the French established a settlement under the direction of a French-Canadian named St. Denis. Just upstream from this French settlement, a log jam along the Red River backed up water and made the entire region navigable by water, from the Texas city of Jefferson all the way to New Orleans.
These days Los Adaes exists under the direction of the Cane River National Heritage Area, seeking to preserve a treasure of two different states. The Spanish built their mission there in 1717, giving it the name San Miguel de Cuellar de los Adaes. The Adaes name came from a local branch of the Caddo Indians living in the area.
Los Adaes, according to Cane River National Heritage interpreter Michael Mumagh, was the second attempt at a mission in the area; the first being located about 3 miles west of the site. It was raided by the French in 1718 in what became known as the Chicken War. A lieutenant from Fort St. Jean Batiste in nearby Natchitoches led a raid at the nearest Spanish outpost. According to Robert S. Weddle in a report with the Texas State Historical Association, the French lieutenant, Philippe Blondel sought to take part in the War of the Quadruple Alliance taking place in Europe.
Blondel, according to the report, arrived at the mission in 1719 to find only one soldier and a lay brother. So, the lieutenant gathered up the vestments at the mission and raided a nearby henhouse; tying the chickens to the pommel of his saddle, the chickens made a ruckus and Blondel’s horse threw him and the lay brother got away – there ending the Chicken War between France and Spain in the New World.
The Spanish fled in fear, but eventually came back and followed their typical form of colonization which existed in two parts, the establishment of a mission in the area to convert the local people to Catholicism, and also a military presence. The Spanish military presence came to Los Adaes in 1721 with the establishment of the presidio; a star shaped structure with wood palisade and buildings located inside the walls, located roughly an eighth-of-a-mile from the mission.
The site officially became the capital of Texas in 1729, with the governor having his headquarters constructed inside the presidio. These days, we look at a capital as a place with imposing buildings and a strong governmental presence – that was not the case 300 years ago, according to Mumaugh.
“At its peak they had about 600 people living here,” Mr. Mumaugh noted. “The soldiers here were not equipped well, as they were poorly supplied being so far from their nearest supply post. They began here with 100 soldiers, but by 1730, there were just 60; they had very few weapons, they were poorly clothed, and the ground here was not conducive to farming.”
The poorly supplied outpost helped create trade between the Spanish and French people, although it was illegal for the Spanish to trade with the French – it was prevalent out of necessity.
Los Adaes served as the capital of Texas until 1770 when Spain moved the missions and their headquarters into what is now Texas to San Antonio. The reason for the move, when the French lost the French and Indian War against the British and the American colonies, France was forced to cede all their holdings west of the Mississippi River to Spain.
With the French threat gone in the New World, Spain decided to centralize their forces around San Antonio. By 1773 Spain had abandoned Los Adaes, a few settlers remained, but most retreated back toward San Antonio. Even though Louisiana was a Spanish holding, it continued to be a haven for French and Acadian culture, but folded the Spanish colonials and culture into theirs – one of the aspects making Louisiana such a special place.
Nowhere can this clash of cultures be seen as well as it can in Natchitoches. Natchitoches is the oldest continually inhabited city in the area of Louisiana and the Louisiana Purchase, being founded in 1714 by Louis Antoine Juchereau de St. Denis; after leaving Canada.
According the history of the area, St. Denis was on his way to Mexico from the French settlement of Mobile to establish trade relations between the colonies when he stopped at the Natchitoches Indian encampment on the banks of the Red River. He left a detachment of soldiers at the place making the first permanent settlement in the area.
Located not more than 12 miles from Los Adeas, the French built their own fort, Fort St. Jean Batiste des Natchitoches in 1716 – a year before Los Adaea was founded.
In 1762 when Spain took over Louisiana, the fort continued to be occupied by the French troops, who according to Justin French, an historian at Fort St. Jean Batiste, was not uncommon, as countries and people during that time in Europe traded nations and alliances quite regularly.
“One day they were French troops and the next they were Spanish,” French explained. “Then a few years later they went back to being French, before becoming American in 1803.”
By the time the United States acquired Louisiana in 1803, the Fort St. Jean Batiste had been abandoned, but the city of Natchitoches thrived due to the robust trade between the French, Spanish and Caddo culture.
The stories of these long-forgotten episodes from the early life of Texas are often forgotten, but they form the basis of Texas and its development of a nation; as Texas rose from a Mexican province, to a nation, to a pivotal state in a young nation’s quest of manifest destiny.
This is just part of the history uniting Texas and Louisiana, next month Texas Farm & Home will wrap up the Texas-Louisiana connection with a look at No Man’s Land, the disputed Spanish and U.S. territory that turned ordinary settlers into outlaws.