The Road to Santa Fe: A Virtual Excursion

Taos and San Idelfonso Pueblos | El Camino Real: Royal Road of the Interior | Palace of the Governors, Santa Fe | Websites to Follow the Road to Sante Fe | Featured Lessons | Featured Websites | About the Image

I sing of arms and heroic man,
The being, courage, care, and high emprise
Of him whose unconquered patience,
Through cast upon a sea of care,
In spite of envy slanderous,
Is raising to new heights the feats,
The deeds, of those brave Spaniards who,
In the far Indian of the West,
Discovering in the world that which was hid
“Plus Ultra” go bravely saying
By force of valor and strong arms,
In war and suffering as experienced
As celebrated now by pen unskilled.
(From La Historia de la Nueva México, Canto 1, 1-13)

Perez de Villagra, Gaspar. Historia de la Nueva Mexico, 1610. Translated by Gilberto Espinosa


Statue of Juan de Oñate(Note: The Road to Santa Fe was inspired by Contested Homelands: Knowledge, History, and Culture of Historic Santa Fe, an NEH-funded workshop for K-12 teachers directed by Rebecca M. Sánchez of the University of New Mexico. Some of the benefits of this workshop, held in 2010, can be enjoyed by anyone wishing to take an exciting journey, either virtual or actual, to one of America’s oldest and most historic cities.)

Come along with EDSITEment this summer and discover the multilayered heritage of the peoples who call New Mexico their homeland. Our virtual road trip will take us through the terrain and annals of American history that characterize this remarkable landscape. Explore the history behind the oldest native and colonial habitations and roadways in our country, experience the unique mix of cultures and travel along El Camino Real (the Royal Road to the Interior), which was the great catalyst for cultural interactions.

Student Activities

From historic Santa Fe, we will stop at two Native American settlements, San Idelfonso and Taos Pueblo, and experience their rich art and cultural traditions — especially their world-famous pottery focusing on the artistry of María Montoya Martínez.

Next we will trace the route of El Camino Real, the ancient road in use for three hundred years (1585–1885) connecting Mexico City with Santa Fe, the capital of New Spain. Follow El Camino Real de Tierra Adentro, the first road in America and the longest for nearly a century via EDSITEment's interactive map of key points on the journey. UNESCO's World Heritage Committee inscribed the Camino Real de Tierra Adentro, otherwise known as the Silver Route, as one of its newest World Heritage cultural sites in August 2010.  Refer to our new companion worksheet of field notes for each trail marker to learn how this road transformed the Southwest.   

Coming full circle, we conclude our trip where we started, in Santa Fe, and explore the Palace of the Governors. Continuously occupied since 1610, it is one of the oldest governing structures in the country.

As we prepare for the trip, the NEH-funded resource, Southwest Crossroads: Cultures and Histories of the American Southwest, provides teachers with an excellent online matrix of primary source materials, such as original photos, maps, painting, poems, oral histories, and films that can assist you in bringing to life the stories of the diverse people who call this landscape home.

Extend your student’s understanding with our new creative writing activity by having them imagine themselves as one of the characters that experience life on the trail or as one of the residents living at a key point along it.  Students then craft their research into a first person account.

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I. Taos and San Ildefonso Pueblos

Native Americans were residing in New Mexico long before the Spanish arrived in the 16th century to settle the region. The earliest permanent communities were established in the Tesuque and the Santa Fe River Valley between 850 and 1000 C.E. by farmers who domesticated crops and designed pottery. The Pueblo people are renowned world wide for stunning contemporary pottery, the designs of which are still created according to the traditional methods. These aboriginal Americans lived in northern New Mexico with centers in the areas now known as Bandelier National Monument and Chaco Canyon, which are situated north-northwest of Santa Fe. When the Spanish encountered these residents, they called them “Pueblos,” Spanish for "towns". Many of these ancient Pueblo villages still remain in their original locations.

There are 19 Pueblos scattered throughout the state of New Mexico. These Pueblos are among the oldest habitations in the country, each with its own unique traditions, beliefs, and language. They serve as a reminder that the cultural roots of the present-day Americas are very deep, indeed. The Eight Northern Pueblos which lie between Santa Fe and Colorado are couched in a majestic landscape of mesas, flat mountainous tablelands with steep edges where the tribes often settled. The Santa Fe Official Travel Site gives targeted information and links to eight American Indian Pueblo sites, including our destinations, Taos Pueblo and San Ildefonso Pueblo. All Pueblos are open to visitors seeking a meaningful cultural experience. If planning to visit in person, there are strict rules in place governing the behavior of guests. The Indian Pueblo Cultural Center provides a detailed guide for teachers to orient students in a virtual environment to the different aspects of this culture.

Refer to EDSITEment lessons on related themes to gain insight into Native American traditions. In Not 'Indians,' Many Tribes: Native American Diversity, students learn about the different cultures and lifestyles of three major native groups, among them, the Hopi, part of the Pueblo considered by some to be the direct descendants of the most ancient Native Americans. For a lesson devoted to understanding what we can learn from artifacts that archaeologists recover, see EDSITEment lesson plan Traces: Historic Archaeology.

San Ildefonso

Leaving Santa Fe and travelling 23 miles north on U.S. 84/285, then west on N.M. 502, we arrive at our first destination. Located at the foot of the Pajarito (“Little Bird”) Plateau and directly south of Black Mesa, is the San Ildefonso Pueblo known as Po-Who-Ge-Oweenge "Where the Water Cuts Through." National Park Service lists this Pueblo as one of its Historic Register sites. One senses something beyond the rustic beauty of this remarkable landscape, exuding the spirit of the ancient Native Americans who resided here, as we penetrate down to the deepest layer of the homeland.

San Ildefonso was the birthplace and home of María Montoya Martínez (1887– 1980), a highly celebrated native ceramic artist. For an up-close look at her art and life, see Touched by Fire an online exhibit from the Museum of Indian Arts & Culture. María’s pottery employs the same coiled-clay techniques that were used by her Pueblo ancestors a thousand years ago. Along with her husband, Julian, she experimented and discovered how to produce her signature technique black on black finish. Additional background illustrates her influence on the Pueblo and how even today it continues to shape daily life there. Students may view video of the artist at work in PBS/KNME's Notable New Mexicans: María Martínez and hear relatives and experts discuss her legacy. Students may view a representation of her magnificent black pots in the Picturing America portfolio, 1-A.3 Pottery and Baskets ca. 1100 – ca. 1960. As a supplemental activity students make their own Pueblo pot and read the story behind this art form.

Taos Pueblo

From San Ildefonso, we head to Taos, which is 68 miles north of Santa Fe. Traveling two and a half miles north of the Taos Plaza on U.S. 64, we arrive at the northernmost Pueblo in the state. Taos Pueblo, also known as Tau-Tah "The Place of the Red Willows” dates back to 1000 C.E. The National Park Service maintains this on its Historic Register and it is classified as a National Historic Landmark. Pueblo de Taos became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1992. 

Taos Pueblo is a living historic site. Here again we infiltrate the deepest homeland layer and begin to add several more. Native Americans have been living and performing ceremonies at this location for a millennium. This Pueblo’s spirited history reflects its reputation as a hotbed for resisting the imposition of foreign rule.

A mission church, San Geronimo, constructed in 1626 by Spanish priests at the Pueblo was burned as an act of resistance to colonial rule. Two centuries later, the Pueblo people led the Taos Rebellion (1847) during the Mexican-American War. The EDSITEment-reviewed The U.S.-Mexican American War from PBS has multimedia resources for study on this conflict. And in the 20th century, the Pueblo won back its most prized geographic feature confiscated by the U.S. government, a sacred entity named Taos Blue Lake, which was returned to the Pueblo in 1970 by order of President Nixon.

Have students refer to Picturing America 1-B.1 Mission Nuestra Señora de la Concepción, 1755 for a 1930s watercolor representation of our best-preserved Spanish colonial-period mission church. This painting shows the colorfully painted façade, now erased by desert winds. Although located in Texas, La Concepción exists as a window through time that allowing us to imagine the splendor a mission church offered its mixed-heritage community centuries ago. Turn to EDSITEment’s Picturing America lesson Mission Nuestra Señora de la Concepción and the Spanish Mission in the New World for further information about how missions were organized and the purposes they served.

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II. El Camino Real De Tierra Adentro

We turn from the Northern Pueblos now to peel back the many-layered skin surrounding the oldest thoroughfare in the country. We will be travelling along El Camino Real De Tierra Adentro, the historic 1500-mile “Royal Road of the Interior Lands.” This ancient artery follows the footpaths of Native Americans and extends from the port city of Vera Cruz up through Mexico City, Mexico. It continues, snaking all the way along the Rio Grande to the provincial town of Santa Fe. In 1598, Spanish explorer Juan de Oñate organized a caravan of 175 soldiers and their families, expecting to discover silver. Oñate’s colonists blazed the northern portion of the trail, leading into what is now New Mexico and claimed the land for Spain.  A first-hand account of that expedition in the form of a poem is found in Historia de la Nueva Mexico by Gaspar Pérez de Villagrá, one of the men who accompanied Oñate. It is tale of epic proportions.  La Historia by Palace of the Governors' Director Thomas Chávez, recipient of the New Mexico Endowment for the Humanities Service Award, cites it as one of the earliest accounts of America's European heritage. 

El Camino was responsible for carrying thousands of settlers to the Southwest. Riddled with history and lore, it operated as a highway for three hundred years until it was phased out in the late 19th-century by the railroad.  Today El Camino underlies much of New Mexico's north/south interstates I-10 and I-25. Only designated as a historic trail in 1993, the story of this road is not often featured in history textbooks. We enter the trail using the EDSITEment interactive marking several key places as use the companion field notes to trace the history along its route. At these watering holes or parajes we stop to fill our canteens with the conflicts, conversion, commerce, and crisis that transpired along it!

El Camino Real International Heritage Center provides additional information in El Camino Real De Tierra Adentro, a brief historical overview with quick facts about the Trail. Scenes from the trail allow students to see contemporary pictures of historic trial markers. The Camino Real Virtual Tour Interactive produced by Bureau of Land Management offers a historical view of trail photographs and audio commentary. New Mexico History Museum podcast entitled Women on the Camino Real allows students to experience the life on the trail from the female perspective.

A host of educational materials and lesson plans are available through El Camino Real International Heritage Center. Cultural information about the trail is covered in more depth in two articles, Part 1. El Camino Real heritage where students go to learn what would it have been like to travel the Camino Real from Mexico City to Santa Fe in the 17th century and Part 2. El Camino Real where students can uncover the 1680 Pueblo revolt and the role of the trail in establishing the Rio Grande Valley. Colorful folklore associated with the trail can be found local history articles. Also SRI Foundation, a non-profit historic preservation foundation located in New Mexico offers THE GRAND ADVENTURE! El Camino Real de Tierra Adentro: The Royal Road from Mexico City to Santa Fe contains lessons free scripted pdfs in English and Spanish in 4 CDs directed at middle school students.

For those who want to trace the route by car, audio tours of the Camino Real, Journeys on an Ancient Road, a 3-disk audio CD set, Portrait in Sound of an Ancient Road, is for sale at, allowing travelers to customize the experience as they journey along one leg or the entire trail.

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III. Palace of the Governors

At the end of El Camino we arrive back at our starting point in Santa Fe, which celebrated its four-hundredth birthday in 2010! Here your students will learn about the cultures and history of these homeland peoples who melded to compose “The City Different,” Santa Fe’s nickname for itself. Students may look Through the Lens: Creating Santa Fe, an online exhibit of the New Mexico History Museum, for a visual history of this the oldest capital city in North America.

In the Santa Fe downtown Plaza we enter the Palace of the Governors, a complex of buildings in continuous occupation since 1610. Constructed under the direction of Governor Pedro de Peralta, the palace served as seat of Spanish crown’s government in the American Southwest, a storehouse and even a jail at different points in its history! The adobe structure, which includes houses and grounds, chronicles the colorful history of the capital and serves as the state museum. Listed by the National Park Service as a historically registered site, the palace was also designated as a National Historic Landmark and National Trust for Historic Preservation has classified it as an American Treasure.

The Palace of the Governors complex includes: the Fray Angelico Chavez History Library (non-lending and closed stack); the Portal Native America Artisans Program, in which native New Mexican artists make and sell their products to the public; the Palace Press; and the Photo Archives — a collection of over 750,000 historic photographs that can be searched online. Students may enjoy delving into a detailed discussion of the Palace in the 17th century.

Encourage students to dig further under archaeological layers and historic roots in Santa Fe Found: Fragments of Time at New Mexico History Museum. Three interactive exhibits to deepen their understanding of the colonial peoples who claimed and fought for this homeland: The two Segesser Hides, painted by settlers and depicting expeditions; Shifting Boundaries that discusses the relationship of the peoples who settled in New Mexico up through the time it became a state; The Treaty of Guadalupe Hildalgo (1848) ended the Mexican-American War and ceded almost half of Mexico to the U.S. explores how the treaty, still in force, affects the relations of the U.S. with Mexico; catalogues valuable records of early colonial life in New Mexico. The PBS website U.S.-Mexican American War has a section on the importance of this treaty to the various participants written by by Richard Griswold del Castillo.

The Mexican-American War was a defining event for the southwestern United States, producing what is now New Mexico, Arizona, California, Texas, and sections of Utah, Colorado, and Nevada, and taking fifty-five percent of a territory formerly in the hands of Mexico. In this exhibit from The Price of Freedom: Americans at War from the National Museum of American History, learn about the war and the principle players roles. Use this resource to consider the effects of the war on the Mexican and Native American inhabitants of the new homelands.

Other Santa Fe museums cover additional aspects of these homeland cultures. Visit them with your students to expand on these introductory notes, the collections at the Museum of Spanish Colonial Art and the Wheelwright Museum will surely inspire! The Museum of Indian Arts & Culture contains a number of podcasts where students can hear experts speak on the art and culture of these homeland people.  The Museum of International Folkart exhibit Hispanic FolkArts and the Environment serves as an educators’ guide to the folklore of the region giving historical overviews of the Pueblo and Spanish heritage of the land, adobe, weaving and foods in both English and Spanish.

To view the origins of Santa Fe in the context of other early North American settlements, visit the National Museum of American History’s Jamestown, Québec, Santa Fe: Three North American Beginnings draws connections between early settlements in the U.S. and Canada. This explores the similarities and differences in which the English, French, and Spanish colonies adapted to the New World re-shaping the native peoples and landscapes according to their visions of culture.

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Selected EDSITEment Websites to Follow the Road to Sante Fe

Featured Lessons

Featured Websites

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Statue of Juan de Oñate, Capitan General and First Govenor of New Mexico 1598 - 1610. Image courtesy of SLV Native.