Road Building in Antigua California

The following chapter from Miguel Venegas' great "Empressas Apostolicas..." is the first important document on road building in California. It is true that several Jesuits including Juan Maria Salvatierra, Francisco Maria Piccolo, Nicolás Tamaral, and Juan Baptista Maria de Luyando, have left reports of road making activities (indeed it is from their reports that Venegas worked). But none had the intention to describe the whole enterprise and none detailed the labors so graphically. Venegas occupies a curious position in California history. He never visited the land about which he wrote and his great historical work has been read by only a handful of people and never published. Venegas, himself a Jesuit, was given the task of reducing letters from California missionaries into a coherent history of Jesuit labors in those parts. Beginning in the early 1730s he worked with an enormous collection of letters from all the early California missionaries. He also had assorted reports on the founding of missions and at least one organized history begun by Father Sigismundo Taraval during his active and turbulent California service.

When Venegas had arranged all these documents, he apparently felt that many questions remained because he then wrote to several active and retired California pioneers for answers. One of these correspondences is extremely interesting in the present connection. Now located in the Biblioteca Nacional in Mexico City (under heading Californias, Legajo 53, year 1737) is a document, signed by Venegas, entitled, "Report of Father Juan Baptista Luyando, reducing to order the questionnaire which follows." Venegas, in a style characteristic of Spanish bureaucratic procedure, divided the many pages of his request into halves vertically. His questions are in the left column; the right was left for Luyando's answers. The latter, the founding missionary at San Ignacio, was queried about many things including road making. He answered at length and we find in his replies fully half of all which Venegas was later to report in Book X, Chapter 22 (presented in the following translation).

"Empressas Apostolicas..." is not, to modern eyes, an objective history. It was written at a time when the Society of Jesus was under heavy pressure from critics for its activities in the New World in general and those in California in particular. Venegas was aware of all the specific areas of attack and his work bristles with defenses. The chapter presented in the following translation is probably the most direct and succinct in the entire work yet it contains interesting evidence of these crosscurrents in early California history. The passage which refers to Salvatierra's letter to Ugarte (p. 44, footnote 8) somewhat misquotes the original and twists its meaning from the intent of its writer (in 1699) to the purposes of its user (in 1739).

The letter, penned on July 9, 1699, reported to Ugarte, who was still in Mexico, on the outcome of the first crossing of the California cordillera west of Loreto. The labors of clearing a trail are described but it was certainly not formal road building as yet. The quoted passage caught Venegas' eye because it followed these words, "... one of the men [a soldier] was so reluctant and opposed, so disgusted with the expedition that it would have been better had he not gone along. The man's presence caused the missionary to merit more on this trip which was undertaken entirely in honor of Saint Francis Xavier"1 Venegas then changed Salvatierra's original reference to "... independence from Admirals and others... ",2 to "... independently of admirals and captains and with the presidio entirely subject to the fathers... " This suited the propagandist's needs of the moment. California had sustained an Indian revolt in 1734. The presidio at Loreto, which was by license under Jesuit control, had not been able to cope with the insurrection. The governor of Sinaloa, Manuel Bernal de Huidobro, had been ordered in with troops and had finally succeeded in quieting the rebels. In the aftermath Huidobro made a report strongly critical of the Jesuit-dominated presidio. He proposed a new presidio near Cabo San Lucas which would be independent of Loreto.

Control of soldiers had been a unique feature of the Jesuit license for the conversion and colonization of California. When this prerogative was challenged they reacted in every possible way and used their influence in centers of power from Guadalajara to Madrid. Venegas' work was written at the height of controversy and it seldom misses an opportunity to depict soldiers in an unfavorable light. The message was perfectly clear, soldiers must not be left to handle any of their own affairs. For the good of the Indians, the missions, and the interests of the mother country, the priests must continue to exercise complete authority.

It is amusing to note that, in this passage, Salvatierra had originally intended a subtle message. In context, his "admiral" was clearly Admiral Isidro de Atondo y Antillon who, some fifteen years earlier, had headed an unsuccessful effort to colonize and convert California. It had rankled Salvatierra that Atondo had been lavishly supported by the crown while his own conquista had been approved only when he personally volunteered to raise the money for its costs. Less than a year after this letter, Salvatierra was to openly petition for royal funding of his California venture. During that and subsequent requests for money, he frequently made direct or oblique reference to the support which had been given to Atondo.

Venegas finished Empressas Apostolicas on November 7, 1739 (as he noted with an almost audible sigh of relief on the last page as well as the title sheet of the manuscript). It had been in itself almost an "apostolic endeavor" with its 671 tightly packed pages, 2047 numbered paragraphs and a twelve page table of contents.

The manuscript was forwarded to Spain at an undetermined date. There it appears to have languished for some years before it was put into the hands of a second historiographer-priest, Andres Marcos Burriel. This man must have been told to edit Venegas' rambling style and pious asides, also to bring the story up to date.

Burriel finished in 1754 and submitted a much revised book to the Procurator General for the Society of Jesus in New Spain, Pedro Altamirano, the man who had first pushed for its publication. Altamirano kept the work for three years and had another round of editing done anonymously. The final result was published in 1757 in Madrid as Noticia de la California. Venegas was credited as the author (and the labors of Burriel, at his own request, were not recognized).

There is no doubt that Burriel created a more wieldy and readable book than the meandering Empressas Apostolicas of Venegas. However it is also important to remember today, when neither is exactly a news report or light summer reading, that for all its defects, Venegas' tome is one step closer to the sources and almost always gives more data. If we exclude documents in appendices or the material added to extend the coverage from 1739 to 1752, we can say categorically that Venegas is a better source of information than Burriel. Yet, in practice, Venegas is seldom used and Burriel has been a prime source of early California history for more than two hundred years. The reason is very simple. There were only a few manuscript copies made of the earlier work: four are known to exist today. The latter was published in Spanish and then translated into English, French, German, Dutch and probably other languages.

Of immediate interest is the fact that the chapter on road building was omitted by Burriel and, to the best of the present compiler's knowledge, has never before been printed. This version has been developed from the magnificent autograph manuscript in the collection of the Bancroft Library at the University of California at Berkeley and from a rough translation by M. L. Reynolds which accompanies it. These documents are located in a repository of that archive called "The Bolton Papers" of which they comprise Item 55. The manuscript is published here with the permission of the Bancroft Library.


The Apostolic Endeavors of the Missionary Fathers of the Society of Jesus of the Province of New Spain Performed in the Conquest of California Owed and Consecrated to the Patronage of Holy Mary, Conqueror of New Peoples in Her Sacred Image of Loreto.

Chronicled by the Father Miguel Venegas of the Same Society of Jesus. This Historical Account was completed on the Seventh of November of 1739.


Book X

Chapter 22: "Concerning the great extent to which the Missionary Fathers have labored in opening roads throughout the whole region."

Among the difficult problems of administering the California missions3 not the least has been that of doing battle with the roughness and inconvenience of the trails. Indeed, at all new foundations, this has been the first obstacle which has had to be overcome. As we have already noted, California is a hilly country, rough and broken, composed of an infinite number of stones heaped together or scattered over the rocky slopes. Both men and animals find their way blocked and are unable to traverse the land. Only the California Indians, because they had been brought up there and were accustomed to the country's extraordinary roughness, were able to move about as quickly as if they were deer. In their nudity they had a further advantage. They could travel light, and there was nothing to detain them in the narrow passes and along the precipices which are to be met at every step. Nevertheless the natives themselves did not escape great hardship. In walking barefoot over the rocks and thorns of the hills their feet were always cut and lacerated.

In the beginning Father Juan Maria4 took advantage of this circumstance in order by gentle persuasion to induce them to come to Loreto and to help in certain labors and tasks which had to be done, and in time of famine and stress to bring mezcales and yuccas and other roots and fruits which they used for food. In exchange for these things, or for their personal labor, he gave each of them a pair of sandals made of rawhide. These cactles5—such is the Mexican name for them in New Spain—are the usual footgear of the mainland Indians. They consist of a leather sole, somewhat larger then the sole of the foot, with thongs of hide to tie it above the instep and the heelbone. And so, when the Californians experienced the relief which these cactles gave them, enabling them to avoid injuries when they walked among rocks and thorns, they conceived a great liking for them and readily offered to work in order to get them. Therefore Father Juan Maria took pains to have a supply of them on hand using the hides of the cattle which were butchered and of the beasts of burden which died.

But it was not so easy to overcome the difficulty which the fathers encountered in opening trails to traverse the country. Nevertheless, the first enterprise at all the foundations was to open a road to Loreto,6 and after that to clear many other trails, making it possible to go to all the rancherias of each mission. But when there are so many of these, and when they are scattered so widely over the country, it will readily be understood what enormous labor the fathers had to expend in accomplishing a task so difficult and arduous. So enormous was it that Father Juan Maria, in a letter which he wrote to Father Juan de Ugarte,7 speaking of the difficulties which he had encountered in opening a road in the course of an expedition which was made, and of the opposition on the part of the soldiers to doing this work, remarks that if the settlement of California had not been made independently of admirals and captains, and with the presidio entirely subject to the fathers, it would have been impossible to achieve the conquest.8

It is this impossibility which the missionaries have surmounted by dint of their personal labor, the aid of the Indians already converted and civilized and the assistance of the soldiers. In order that the work might be fairly distributed among all the Indians, in proportion to the advantage which they would derive from the building of these roads, the fathers adhered to the following plan in making this distribution. First of all, they had a main highway camino real built through the center of the mission district extending through its entire area and running lengthwise from south to north. All the rancherias belonging to the mission worked together in building this road, for it was of common advantage to them all. Then each rancheria assumed the responsibility for building a special road leading from its settlement and joining the camino real which was, so to speak, the main trunk-line in which all the separate roads from the rancherias terminated. By this means connection was finally made with the headquarters of the mission.

When these roads were being built it was necessary for the father missionaries to be present and to direct the work. And they had to spend many days in moving about, circling hills and climbing peaks, in order from the summits to spy out the stopping places which were least inaccessible. Moreover, many tools were needed for distribution among the Indians-pickaxes, crowbars, hoes, sledge hammers, shovels, ordinary hammers, levers, ropes, and other tools of this sort. There was least work to be done in the stony areas on the hills and slopes. Yet even here the labors were very great. For the road had to be made wide enough for the passage of animals and pack-trains. The work crews spent many days in removing the loose stones from which they formed low walls or borders along both sides. Nor did they stop until they struck bedrock; thus in some places they dug to the depth of a vara9 and in others went even deeper, so that some of the roads were shaped like ditches or the canyons of streams.

Then came the harder work—the smoothing, insofar as that was possible, with sledge hammers, pickaxes, and crowbars of the outcroppings and jutting points of solid rock which barred the passage of travelers. When their tools did not avail they had recourse to fire in order to split the rocks and break them up; then they used levers and ropes in order to remove them and set them rolling into the barrancas and over the precipices. But the work was most painful and the difficulty greatest when they had to pass over the hills and mountains. This happened very often, since there would be no other place where they could build the road. Here they had to follow routes on steep slopes which fell away into barrancas. In such places they had to contend with the solidity of the mountains and the hardness of the rocks while they labored to break off outcroppings and sharp points and to clear away the stones great and small which lay in the way. In many narrow passes between the hills, where the powers of man were insufficient to break a trail, they were obliged to set thick stakes along the sides and to fill the intervening space with branches and the trunks of trees, putting earth on top, forming bridges, as it were, which would make it possible to pass from one side to the other in these ravines.

Now to obtain an idea of the total effort expended, all the labor which it has cost to build each road must be considered along with the length of the country thus far explored and conquered (which extends for three hundred leagues). Also there must be considered the multitude of roads built at each mission, from each rancheria to the head mission-not to mention others built in various localities for the purpose of crossing the country from coast to coast. (In the year 1717 these were already twelve in number, according to the report presented by Father JaimelO to the Viceroy). In all it will be found that the Father Visitor Joseph de Echeverríall did not exaggerate when in his letter of February 10, 1730, written to the Marques de Villapuente,12 he said, "on the building of roads—roads that were really passable—more work had been done in California in those thirty-four years than had been done in New Spain in the two centuries since its conquest was begun."


Harry Crosby graduated from Occidental College in 1948 and taught in San Diego Unified Schools until 1963. As a photographic illustrator he went to Baja California in 1967 to photograph the Portola-Serra Route for Copley Books' The Call to California. Since that time he has written as well as photographed two additional books: The King's Highway in Baja California and more recently The Cave Paintings of Baja California. Mr. Crosby is now involved with researching and writing a book on Mexican pioneer families in Baja California.




l. Juan Maria de Salvatierra by Ernest J. Burrus, S. J., Dawson's Bookshop: Los Angeles. pp. 159-160.

2. Ibid., 160.

3. The missions to which Venegas refers would be those whose terrain extended from Cape San Lucas to 28° N. Lat., the present boundary between the states of Baja California.

4. Juan Maria Salvatierra, founder (in 1697) and leader of the Jesuit enterprise in California until his death in 1717.

5. Cactle, or the more modern cacle, is derived from the Nahuatl cactli: sandal.

6. The mother mission and headquarters of the California colony.

7. Juan de Ugarte at time of this letter was in Mexico City serving as financial coordinator of the California enterprise. Later (1699) he came to California as missionary and served there with great distinction until his death in 1730.

8. See analysis of this passage in preceding article (page 40).

9. About 33 inches.

10. Jaime Bravo, Brother Assistant (1705-1720) and Father (1720-1744) in California. One of Venegas' informants (see p. 40).

11. Provincial and Visitor of Jesuit missions in Northwest New Spain in 1729-1730. (Visited California in 1730).

12. José de la Puente Peña y Castejón, pioneer and foremost financial benefactor of Jesuit California. (died 1738).


I. Individual Brief Documents The principal sources of early information on El Camino Real in Baja California (c. 16981740) are the writings of the priests who supervised or reported its construction. These documents are found in several large repositories, the Archivo General de Indias in Seville, The Archivo General y Ptiblico de la Naci6n in Mexico City, and the Biblioteca Nacional in Mexico City have particularly good holdings. Many however are in smaller institutions in Mexico, Italy, the United States and elsewhere. Probably the most convenient place to consult most of them is at the Bancroft Library in Berkeley, California, where facsimiles or copies are held in a collection known as the Bolton Papers. The names of Father Missionaries whose letters or reports yield pertinent information are: (in order of arrival in California)

Juan Maria Salvatierra
Francisco Maria Piccolo
Juan de Ugarte
Jaime Bravo
Clemente Guillen
Nicolas Tamaral
Sebastian de Sistiaga
Juan Baptista
Maria de Luyando
Sigismundo Taraval

II. Major Unpublished Sources

Echeverría, José [The Report of the Visitor and Provincial of his 1729-1730 visit to California].
Several authors seem to have had access to this document (e.g. Venegas and Clavijero) but it may not be extant; this author has not been able to consult it. If it can be found it could prove to be a superlative source for this early period, particularly if it should be as detailed as that of the later Visitor Lizasoain (1761-1762) see below.

Ganster, Paul B. [Field notes and sketch-maps made from February to June 1967 while traversing part of the route presumed to have been used by Portola and Serra in 1769.]

These notes cover two stretches; the first, from San Jose de Comonda to Mission San Borja was a part of El Camino Real. The second, from San Juan de Dios to Rancho San Jose de Meling was a route little used after Portola's time in California. These notes incorporate over 200 placenames, riding times between them and much valuable data on cross trails, ruins, remains of the old road, elevations above sea level etc.

Gulick, Howard E. "The Baja California Mission Trail - Loreto to El Rosario." Unpublished paper made available by the author.

Encompasses intelligent and informed suppositions about the route of El Camino Real. Although it is supplanted by first-hand field research, it remains a model preliminary study, marshalling all manner of indirect evidence of the trail.

Lizasoam, Ignacio. Noticia de la visita general del Padre Ignacio Lizasoatn, Visitor General de las Missiones de Nueva Espaila, que comenzo dia 4 de Abril 1761 y se concluye a fines de Henero de 1763, con algunas notas v adiciones. University of Texas Library at Austin, Texas, W. B. Stevens Collection, manuscript of 46 pp.

The single most important source of authentic information on the whereabouts of El Camino Real in the late Jesuit period. Also contains numerous valuable statistics and odd bits of factual information. (A facsimile of the page of this diary which covers Lizasoain's travels from Loreto to Santa Gertrudis may be found on page 5 of The King's Highway in Baja Calffbrnia by Harry Crosby).

Luyando, Juan Baptista Maria. "Report of Father Juan Baptista Luyando, reducing to order the questionnaire which follows." Manuscript located in the Biblioteca Nacional in Mexico City (under heading Californias, Legajo 53, year 1737).

Source of much of Venegas' information on Jesuit roadbuilding. (See text above).

Venegas, Miguel. The Apostolic Endeavors of the Missionary Fathers of the Society of Jesus of the Province of New Spain Performed in the Conquest of California Owed and Consecrated to the Patronage of Holy Mary, Conqueror of New Peoples in Her Sacred Image of Loreto.

Manuscript of 1739 at Bancroft Library, Berkeley, California. (Included in the Bolton Papers as Item 55).

III. Printed Sources

Barco, Miguel del. 1973. Adiciones y correciones a la Noticia de Miguel Venegas. Edited by Miguel Leon-Portilla and published under the title: Historia Natural y Cronica de la Antigua California. Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico, Mexico 1973.

Castillo Negrete, Francisco. "Geografia y estadistica de la Baja California, 1853." In: Boletin de la Sociedad Mexicana de Geogrylia y Estadistica de Mexico, 1st Ser., Vol. 7, pp. 338-359,1859.

A brief but valuable account of the transpeninsular routes in use in 1853; it also describes missions and has a few asides on economic and social conditions.

Longinos Martinez, Jose. Journal of Jose Longinos Martinez (1791-1792). Translated and edited by Lesley Byrd Simpson. San Francisco: John Howell Books. 1961.

Contains a Baja California itinerary which is useful in the light that it casts on El Camino Real during the mid-Dominican period.

Meigs, Peveril. The Dominican Mission Frontier ofLower California. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1935.

Most of the data for my map of El Camino Real northwest of Mission San Fernando is derived from Dr. Meigs' definitive study. His text and map resulted from field work carried out when both memories and muestras of the old road were fresher than today.