El Camino Real — originally part of 101 — runs the length of the Peninsula between San Francisco and San Jose. Its very name implies a regal history. Translated from the Spanish, it means “The King’s Highway.”

Legend has it that El Camino Real in Silicon Valley is part of the historic Mission Trail, an ancient road that connects the Spanish missions, which stretch like a string of pearls along the California coast.

But is that true?


Debbie Torrey of Campbell asked Bay Curious the question “What can you find about The El Camino Real history?”

We met up with American History professor Robert Senkewicz of Santa Clara University, which happens to host one of the Bay Area’s five Spanish missions, Mission Santa Clara.

Debbie Torrey of Campbell grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area. In fourth grade, she received a heavily abbreviated and overly rosy history of Spanish era California.
Debbie Torrey of Campbell grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area. In fourth grade, she received a heavily abbreviated and overly rosy history of Spanish-era California. (Rachael Myrow/KQED)

There, Senkewicz began to unravel a series of falsehoods that have been “common wisdom,” starting with the surprising truth that there were many El Camino Reals all over the land that Spain used to control in the New World, from 1769 to 1821.

“Technically, all of this belonged to the King of Spain,” Senkewicz says, and many major roads would have been called El Camino Real.

Then he makes a left turn I was not expecting.

“What happened in terms of the El Camino Real has more to do with Southern California than it does with Northern California,” Senkewicz says. “By about the 1870s, you get more and more Anglos, Americans, coming into Southern California. And the Anglo population really increases with the arrival of the railroads in Los Angeles in the 1880s.”

In America, there’s a rich tradition of just-got-here-yesterday people concocting romantic origin myths, and a number of influential Southern Californians wanted one of their own. They looked around and saw crumbling Spanish missions: 21 of them, from the Mexican border all the way north to Sonoma.

Professor Robert Senkewicz of Santa Clara University in Mission Santa Clara. Originally built in 1777, this mission was restored in 1822 and again in 1928.
Professor Robert Senkewicz of Santa Clara University in Mission Santa Clara. Originally built in 1777, this mission was restored in 1822 and again in 1928. (Rachael Myrow/KQED)

“The mission past that they construct was a fantasy past: heroic missionaries, happy, contented Indians, fandangos all over the place,” Senkewicz says.

Of course, what was really going on here was the enslavement of local tribespeople, who were reeling under the impact of European diseases, forced religious conversion and the destruction of their entire way of life.

Not that our question asker Debbie Torrey — or I — learned much of this in the fourth grade, which is when a lot of California schoolchildren study the subject.

“You’re right,” Torrey says. “They did glamorize it, thinking it was all wonderful.”

There were a number of ways the Spanish were given credit for things they didn’t do.

“Often enough you read in textbooks that they blazed trails,” Senkewicz says. “They didn’t blaze trails. They followed trails that had already been developed by indigenous people up and down the California coast.”

But at the turn of the 20th century, as Phoebe S. Kropp details in her excellent book, “California Vieja,” few people wanted that version of history. They wanted something fun, happy and exotic. Groups like the Landmarks Club, led by the Los Angeles historian Charles Lummis, and the Native Daughters of the Golden West pushed to reframe a collection of dirt roads into a “rediscovered” king’s highway.

In many ways, they were inspired by works of fiction like Helen Hunt Jackson’s 1884 novel, “Ramona.” Although Jackson meant to expose the mistreatment of the “Mission Indians,” the book fed the public’s desire for a romanticized vision of Spanish California.

Mission San Jose in Fremont once controlled a huge expanse of what we now know as the East Bay. An on-site museum tells the story of how the mission fulfilled its purpose of securing Spain's claim to the land and compelling local native peoples to convert to the Spanish way of life.
Mission San Jose in Fremont once controlled a huge expanse of what we now know as the East Bay. An on-site museum tells the story of how the mission fulfilled its purpose of securing Spain’s claim to the land and compelling local native peoples to convert to the Spanish way of life. (Rachael Myrow/KQED)

The myth spread further when the Automobile Club of Southern California decided that this fantasy past was a great way of getting people to buy and drive automobiles.

“They begin to push the notion that there was one central road, which they named the El Camino Real, that connected the missions. They began to push the notion that the missions were located a day’s journey from each other,” Senkewicz says. “Which kind of, when you kind of think about it, makes them motels, rather than what they actually were: agents of assimilation of the native peoples.”

If you think about it, the walk between Mission Dolores in San Francisco and Mission Santa Clara would make for a really long day.

This 1915 map from the Automobile Club of Southern California is one of three maps designed to show Spanish-era missions laid out as an appealing road trip, each a day's journey from each other.
This 1915 map from the Automobile Club of Southern California is one of three maps designed to show Spanish-era missions laid out as an appealing road trip, each a day’s journey from each other. (Photo: Courtesy of Stanford University's Warren Heckrotte Map Collection)

Also, look at this 1915 map from the Automobile Club of Southern California. Once you get north of Central California, it becomes much less clear how Bay Area missions are one day’s drive apart.  (Also, the mapmaker got the name of the mission in modern-day Fremont wrong. It’s Mission San Jose.)

So why did Northern California play along with this Southern California fantasy? Senkewicz says the concept caught on with wealthy Californians like Jane Stanford, wife of the railroad baron Leland Stanford, and prominent Catholics like San Francisco Mayor James Phelan. They wanted the Spanish missions restored to something like their former glory.

“A lot of them were really in sad shape,” Senkewicz says. “If you look at pictures from the 1860s and the 1870s, the missions are crumbling!”

Consider this: If the Spanish Revival movement had not happened, we might be looking at a string of ruins along the California coast.

Years ago, Debbie Torrey took her kids on a multi-mission tour, but told them a lot of stuff that turns out to be bunk.

Now she plans to take her grandkids. They’ll get the truth.

Special thanks to the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra for use of the last movement, Grave–Tempo di Fandango, of Boccherini’s String Quintet in D major, G 341. It was recorded in 2005, with Jordi Savall conducting and Tanya Tomkins playing the cello solo.

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Ask Bay Curious a question ...


El Camino Not-So-Real: The True Story of the ‘Ancient Road’ 11 January,2018Rachael Myrow

  • miquel95929

    Your researcher is totally correct about the Missions but it wasn’t a days walk but a days ride- on a Burro.

  • saimin

    My dictionary says “ancient” means civilizations that are more than 1000 years old. Nothing built by the Spanish in North America qualifies.

Author

Rachael Myrow

Rachael Myrow is KQED’s Silicon Valley Arts Reporter, covering arts, culture and technology in San Mateo, Santa Clara and Santa Cruz Counties. She regularly files stories for NPR and the KQED podcast Bay Curious, and guest hosts KQED’s Forum.

Her passion for public radio was born as an undergrad at the University of California at Berkeley, writing movie reviews for KALX-FM. After finishing one degree in English, she got another in journalism, landed a job at Marketplace in Los Angeles, and another at KPCC, before returning to the Bay Area to work at KQED.

She spent more than seven years hosting The California Report, and over the years has won a Peabody and three Edward R. Murrow Awards (one for covering the MTA Strike, her first assignment as a full-time reporter in 2000 as well as numerous other honors including from the Society of Professional Journalists, the Radio Television News Directors Association and the LA Press Club.
Follow @rachaelmyrow

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