A long wind down the OSR

Posted 10/13/20

Last week’s Musings focused on some of the local historical markers, including the one commemorating the establishment of Madison County plus others recognizing historical cemeteries. This week I am writing about a local roadway that is recognized by more than one such marker and also not only locally. Call it OSR, The Old San Antonio Road, King’s Highway, or El Camino Real (pronounced “re-al”), its marble markers were probably the first historical marker many of us locals ever noticed. In places it is also marked with cast metal markers. They are not all inscribed the same, but the following is a typical inscription:

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A long wind down the OSR

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Last week’s Musings focused on some of the local historical markers, including the one commemorating the establishment of Madison County plus others recognizing historical cemeteries. This week I am writing about a local roadway that is recognized by more than one such marker and also not only locally. Call it OSR, The Old San Antonio Road, King’s Highway, or El Camino Real (pronounced “re-al”), its marble markers were probably the first historical marker many of us locals ever noticed. In places it is also marked with cast metal markers. They are not all inscribed the same, but the following is a typical inscription:

“El Camino Real. Great thoroughfare of frontier Texas stretched 1008 miles from Saltillo, Mexico, to present Louisiana. The general route followed ancient Indian and buffalo trails, but the oldest marked portion, called the ‘Trail of the Padres’, was blazed in 1691 under Domingo Teran de los Rios, first governor of Texas. This part joined Monclova, then capital of the province, to the Spanish missions of East Texas and San Antonio, military nerve center of the region, was a major stop.

“Over the centuries, explorers, traders, smugglers, armed men, and civilians traversed this road. In 1820, Moses Austin traveled it to San Antonio to request a land grant from Spanish officials. The colony that he ultimately started later brought thousands of Anglo-Americans over the road to settle Texas.

“In 1915, the Texas Legislature appropriated $5,000 to survey and mark the route. The Daughters of the American Revolution and other patriotic groups sponsored and endorsed the project, and V.N. Zivley was commissioned to make the survey. In 1918, the Texas Daughters of the American Revolution placed granite markers approximately every five miles along the Texas section of the road. Today many modern highways, especially State 21, follow the original route of El Camino Real.”

As it says above, Spanish explorer Alonso de Leon crossed the Rio Grande in 1691 on his way to East Texas to start missions, effectively blazing the Old San Antonio Road. The next year, generally accepted as the road’s “birth year”, Domingo Terran de los Rios took the same route as de Leon while escorting more missionaries to East Texas. Gregorio de Salinas Varona further defined the road’s course in 1693 while delivering relief supplies form Monclova.

In those days, the Old San Antonio Road was not a single road, but a network of trails, with slightly different routes used at different times. The path was dictated by things as diverse as weather and Native American Indian threats.

When Texas was a Spanish state, then a Mexican State, the road was used as a major thoroughfare from Mexico City to East Texas. When Texas gained its independence, trade waned between Texas and Mexico, though trade between Mexico and the United States began to increase. The old route from San Antonio to Louisiana went by the name Camino Arriba and was still an important link for Texas to the United States. During the Civil War, the old road into Mexico regained importance as a supply line from the Texas interior to the Confederacy. The flow of cotton to Mexico made it possible to circumvent the tightening Union blockade. After that war ended, the name Camino Arriba faded and the road was designated the Old San Antonio Road. When the railroad hit South Texas in the 1870, the roadway between San Antonio and Mexico all but disappeared. It was then called the Lower Presidio Road.

In Volume II of our local history, Cecil Neely stated that The Camino Real (Old San Antonio Road) is, according to one source, the “oldest regularly traveled highway of civilization in Texas. He also noted that, for the purpose of Z.N. Zivley’s survey and the historical markers, the route was reconstructed from a 1778 diary of Juan Augustin Morfi. Neely noted that Normangee, just outside Madison County, has the distinction of being home for the Old San Antonio Road Association.

Neely also stated that many legends have been told about OSR, and he shared one particularly interesting one. Supposedly an early Spanish caravan, including mules laden with silver, was traveling a section of OSR that now borders Madison County. It stopped to camp for the night. After dark, Indians attacked the sleeping men. The Spanish feared for their lives, and they dumped the silver in a lake before they fled. Only three escaped. Years later one returned to search for the silver, but he never found it. Neely included, “coins, called Spanish sovereigns, have been found along the road. One coin was dated 1775, which predated the American Declaration of Independence.” (If any of you readers ever learn more about old coins found along OSR or anywhere in our county, please let Museum folks know.)

There was another road, La Bahia Road, of importance here. It broke away from OSR somewhere between the Trinity River and Midway and continued in a southwesterly direction. A map of old Spanish Texas shows that in 1689 Alfonso de Leon laid out the La Bahia Road while on an expedition searching for survivors of La Salle’s group. Today there is no physical trace of La Bahia in Madison County, but it is traceable on old maps.

Old San Antonio Road and La Bahia were of utmost importance to early Texans in February 1836, when Santa Anna began his conquest of Texas. Fearing for their lives, settlers from Refugio San Patricia, San Antonio, and other south-central areas began moving towards east Texas. Many had traveled westward via OSR and La Bahia when they arrived in Texas to start with, so they reversed direction in The Runaway Scrape. With it February and the Trinity crossable via only one ferry, the frantic families scattered all over the area east of Midway to the Trinity. When only few had crossed, word arrived that Santa Anna had been defeated at San Jacinto. They reversed directions and headed back to their homes.

In the United States today, 540 miles of the historic roadway lie in Texas and 47 miles in Louisiana. The northern end is at Natchitoches, Louisiana, and the southern end is about 35 miles southeast of Eagle Pass, Maverick County, at the Rio Grande River. Remnants of the road then continue into Mexico through Monclova and to Mexico City.

In many cases, modern highways follow alongside the ancient highway. Louisiana Highway 6 follow mostly alongside Old San Antonio Road for the entirety of its route through that state, from Natchitoches to west of the town of Many. State Highway 21 follows the old road to Midway, Texas, and State Highway OSR follows it around Bryan and College Station. The it goes back to Highway 21 to the eastern outskirts of San Marcos. Modern-day OSR the follows the Old Bastrop Road until it intersects I-35. Then it leaves the Interstate at New Braunfels and follows Solms Road, then Nacogdoches Road, then Mission Road through San Antonio. South of San Antonio the road follows old Pleasanton Road, then varying local and county roads and merges with State Highway 97 to Cotulla. The road crosses private property and then follows State highway 13 to Catarina. After that, it is back on private property again.

Old San Antonio Road is now 329 years old. Hopefully you noticed above that it is NOT just a local thing. Also, it’s surprisingly busy for its age! Next time you travel it, you might think of silver bars or coins or Indian and buffalo trails.

THE MUSEUM HAS BEEN OPEN FOR A FEW WEEKS and we plan to keep it that way! We sure would appreciate your visit! It is open to the public Wednesday through Saturday, from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., and it is located at 201 N. Madison Street. The mailing address is P.O. Box 61, Madisonville, TX 77864. You also might enjoy the Madison County Museum Facebook page, which has been full of fascinating photos and facts lately.

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