Four hundred years ago, Spanish explorers measured success by the amounts of silver and gold they found. After a 700-mile miracle trek through the Chihuahuan desert, Don Juan de Oñate sent small search parties in all directions to search for treasure. None was found, but the expedition continued into what is now New Mexico with optimism that gold would be found.
The Camino Real, the trail which he forged, would become the backbone of travel and commerce between two countries.
Oñate came from both a wealthy and adventurous family. His father, Don Cristobal de Oñate, came to New Spain and became wealthy from his stock ranches and farms, but made his fortune from silver mines in Zacatecas. He fought against the Chichimeca Indians who regularly attacked the area. Don Juan and his twin brother, Don Cristobal, named after their father, grew up relishing the advantages and the prestige that came with being the sons of a silver baron. The Oñate family included four other children, two boys and two girls.
As a boy, Don Juan began accompanying his father in the raids against the Indians and joined New Spain's army. He soon began to lead campaigns against the Indians himself, paying the expenses of the battles out of his own pocket. His experiences would prove helpful later when he began the great expedition to New Mexico.
Oñate married Doña Isabel Cortez Tolosa, the daughter of a mine owner, the granddaughter of Hernán Cortés, and the great-granddaughter of Montezuma. The marriage added to Oñate's prestige, and they had two children. Author Lynn Perrigo and others suggest that it was the death of his wife at a young age that helped motivate his decision to request permission to explore and govern New Mexico.
Having heard the tales of the Seven Cities of Cíbola and the Kingdom of Quivira, Oñate was in search of legendary riches when he proposed an expedition to the Viceroy Luis Velasco. The two men were friends, having served together against the Chichimecas, and Velasco knew Oñate's leadership skills. Although Oñate received permission on August 24, 1595, to conquer and govern New Mexico, it would take another two and one-half years before the expedition left Santa Barbara. According to Southwestern historian Marc Simmons, Oñate would have to fight several rivals as well as political bureaucracies both in Spain and Mexico for the privilege to explore New Mexico.
In return for recruiting and equipping 200 soldiers and their families, assembling livestock and purchasing supplies needed to build homes, Oñate was to received the titles of governor and captain general for five generations of all the land he discovered and colonized. In addition, he would receive a yearly salary, the right to distribute land and to collect tribute from the Indians, a system known as encomienda.
Oñate also asked for 30 leagues of land (90 miles) with all of the Indians on the land, as well as exemption from the Crown tax for all the working mines of gold and silver that he would find. The terms were granted, and his brothers, Don Cristobal, Don Fernando, and Don Alonso, and other noblemen helped Oñate finance the expedition. Juan de Oñate expedition had over 400 courageous men, including 130 who brought along their families. Their belongings and supplies for settlement were packed into 83 wagons, accompanied by over 7,000 horses, oxen, sheep, goats and cattle. The expedition also carried with it seeds and proper tools to plant them and tools to repair their wagons.
Although many of the men accompanying Oñate had sold most of their possessions to make the trip, one of the expedition's captains required 22 wagons to carry his imported satin and velvet clothes, plumed and tasseled hats, leather boots and gloves, hand-carved bed, mattresses and linen bedding and fine equipment for his horses. The caravan, over four miles long, must have been a tremendous sight.
The expedition began at Santa Barbara, but their route differed from those of other explorers. Oñate turned north through the desert and mountains of Chihuahua, carving a shorter trail to present day El Paso. This trail was later to become known as the Chihuahua Trail, part of the famed Camino Real.
On March 20, the caravan rested at Sacramento, Chihuahua, to celebrate Good Friday. Oñate's nephew, Vicente Zaldivar, left with several men to check out the land ahead of them. Three captive Indian guides told Zaldivar that they knew the location of the Rio Grande. The small party became lost in the desert, but luckily a band of nomadic Indians found them and guided them to the Rio Grande. In gratitude for saving their lives, Zaldivar released the captives and headed back to the expedition. The entire caravan followed the trail of the nomadic Indians.
Reaching the edge of the Samalayuca sand dunes south of Juárez, called Los Medanos, Oñate's expedition ran into more trouble. During the long trip, many people were disillusioned and wanted to return to Spain. Exhausted and starving horses refused to carry them and their belongings, forcing riders to walk. Oñate, a military disciplinarian, refused to let them return and even had several people executed for being a bad influence on the caravan.
One of Oñate's lieutenants, Gaspar Pérez de Villagrá, wrote that as the group crossed the desert, they ate roots, cactus, berries and weeds, for their food supply had dwindled to nothing. The travelers' clothes and shoes were worn out, the hot sand burning their feet, and they were so thirsty that their tongues swelled up and their throats dried up.
Villagrá notes that "the horses suffered most…they were almost frantic with thirst and their eyes nearly bulged from their sockets." The expedition did without water for four days before they arrived at the Rio del Norte - the Rio Grande. Humans and animals fell into the water, unable to get water, unable to get enough of the delicious liquid. A few of the horses drank until they literally burst and died.
Three months and 700 miles after they began their journey, the people rested under the cottonwood trees for ten days, swimming in the Rio del Norte, feasting on fish and preparing for a thanksgiving. Little did Don Juan de Oñate known he had already made history for having the fortitude and vision to doggedly cut a path through the desert to reach the Pass of the North. And to do it with women, children, animals and miles of wagons only adds to his deserved title of "The Last Conquistador," as Marc Simmons calls him.
Oñate's expedition traveled several miles west to ford the Rio Grande at a place where the Hacienda Café stands. Oñate called the site "El Paso," or "The Pass," naming a city that would not exist for a couple of centuries. It took them four more months to reach their final destination north of present-day Santa Fe, but the history of El Paso as we know it had begun.