Jornada del Muerto -- The Journey of Death
The Jornada del Muerto was one of the most feared sections along El Camino Real. It was a dreaded 90-mile waterless shortcut
bypassing the 120-mile long westward "bend" of the Rio Grande. Following the river in this region was also treacherous with deep
arroyos, canyons, and even quick sand -- very slow for travel.
At 8-10 miles per day for a caravan, this shortcut saved
several days on the trail. Many would transverse the flat, dry desert passage in a forced march -- traveling all day and all night
to shorten the trip to three days. This short cut would often claim some of the draft animals for want of water, fulfilling
it's name Journey of Death. Occassional attacks from the Apaches was yet another hazard along this portion of the trail, making the
Jornada del Muerto one of the most deadly stretches of El Camino Real.
The Apache lived in this region between the San Andreas
and San Mateo mountains. The Spanish called this region Apacheria.
Caravans would often time their arrival at the
Jornada del Muerto in Spring or Autumn to avoid the blazing 100 degree Summer temperatures.
Northbound travelers would cross
the river at the Robledo crossing and stop at the paraje (camp site) for several days to rest for the journey, ensure
their animals were well watered, and fill every container they had with water. Beginning their march at sundown, the caravans
would begin their forced 3-day journey across the flat and nearly featureless Jornada del Muerto. The next reliable water was
at Paraje Fra Cristobal, 90-miles to the north. The trail connecting the main trail to Paraje on the river was called
the Paraje cutoff.
The U.S. Army. In the later days of the trail, beginning in 1848, the U.S. Army built numerous forts to protect travelers
along El Camino Real. Fort Craig was built in 1854, south of Socorro, to primarily protect travelers through the Jornada del
Muerto. Fort Selden was added in 1864 near the San Diego river crossing and paraje. Both forts provided soldiers to escort
caravans and travelers through the Jornada, and patrols looking for those in distress. Buffalo soldiers were often used for
escort service through the Jornada del Muerto.
The Name. There are numerous stories how this dreaded portion of El Camino Real
got it's name, often translated as Journey of the Dead Man. This is incorrect. The genesis of the name is well documented
to the late 1600s Governor of New Spain (New Mexico), Antonio de Otermin.
In August 1680, Pueblo Indians discontent with
Spanish rule erupted into what became known as the Pueblo Revolt, forcing a retreat of the Spanish. Governor Otermin found 2,520
refugees congregated at Paraje Fra Cristobal (see map #5). Most were suffering from exposure, starvation and sickness. Otermin
had no choice except to order the continuation of the retreat to El Paso, 120 miles distant, the next inhabited settlement where they
would find food and relief. On September 14, 1680, they entered the waterless desert passage for what turned into a grueling
nine day death march. Over 500 perished on the trail. Governor Otermin called it a Journey of Death, or in Spanish, Jornada del Muerto. They arrived in El Paso with 1, 946, for which 317 were Pueblo Indians from Isletta to Socorro -- a total
loss of 574 souls.
In 1698, when the reoccupation of New Mexico began, the deadly march had become legend, and the name of the
desert expanse, Jornada del Muerto, firmly christened. For over 300 years, this deadly portion of the trail lived up to
it's name. How many graves there must be along the infamous Jornada del Muerto.
Quick facts about
Jornada del Muerto
The Jornada del Muerto was the route taken by Juan de Onate in 1598. The expedition suffered greatly during the waterless passage.
Piro Indians offered the colonists food and relief for which Onate renamed one of the pueblos to Socorro for the help, or
"succor" they received. This is today's town of Socorro
There are several springs along Jornada del Muerto. They are not
a reliable source of water, often dry, and seldom sufficient for a caravan.
The Jornada del Muerto is a flat, desert expanse
between the Rio Grande and the San Andreas mountains, over 100 miles in length.
The Jornada is a seemingly endless expanse.
Winds fanning the creosote and mesquite bushes gave many the illusion of traveling across the waves of an ocean.
In 1945, the
U.S. Army chose the desolate Jornada del Muerto to detonate the first atomic bomb at the Trinity Site.
1. West Bank trail served the settlements and missions along the west side of Rio Grande.
Craig, est. 1854 to protect travelers through the Jornada.
3. Mesa de Contadero (Black Mesa) -- major landmark, signifying only three
weeks to go to reach Santa Fe.
4. El Camino Real
International Heritage Center location.
5. Paraje Fra Cristobal, river campsite as
old as the trail; first water in 90 miles for northbound travelers.
6. Jornada lava flow (malpais) -- many square miles of rough
lava, impossible to travel.
7. Lava Gate - trail passes through narrow gap between the lava and the mountains.
8. Fra Cristobal
mountains bounded the trail on the west, preventing access to the river.
9. Fort Selden, est. 1864 to assist Ft. Craig (#2) in
providing Army escorts to travelers and caravans. Built near the San Diego paraje and river crossing.
10. Robledo river
crossing and paraje --the southern entrance to Jornada del Muerto
Today, the Jornada del Muerto contains some of the best preserved sections of El Camino Real.
The AT&SF railroad closely
follows El Camino Real, including through the Jornada del Muerto.
Map of Jornada del Muerto
El Camino Real. Jornada del Muerto