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Jornada Del Muerto — 90 miles of hell

By Sally Bickley

Last updated on Friday, January 10, 2003

Jornada del Muerto signpost along Highway One between Elephant Butte and Socorro. Photo by Sherry Fletcher.
Jornada del Muerto signpost along Highway One between Elephant Butte and Socorro. Photo by Sherry Fletcher.
The roughest and deadliest part of the Camino Real, from Mexico City to Santa Fe, was the stretch between Las Cruces and Socorro called Jornada del Muerto or Journey of the Dead. A broad, flat valley with no water, grazing or firewood, it offered no amenities to travelers for 90 miles.

Caravans left the comparative ease of the Rio Grande River at Points of Rocks, north of Las Cruces, and prepared for a brutal, three day march with little rest and no water. Oñate, first blazing the trail in 1598, wrote that his group suffered for lack of water until someone's dog appeared with muddy paws. The travelers followed the dog to temporary water where animals and people slaked their thirst. Known from then on as Los Charcos del Perillo, the pools of the little dog, it became a paraje, or camping place, where caravans watered, preparing for the harsh trip ahead.

After three days of anxious passage, Oñate reached the river near present day San Marcial. Pueblo dwellers of the village Teipana, gave food and succor to the strangers. Oñate promptly changed the village name to Socorro, meaning help.

Points of Rocks, landmark where caravans left the river and climbed onto the Jornada. Photo by Sherry Fletcher.
Points of Rocks, landmark where caravans left the river and climbed onto the Jornada.  Photo by Sherry Fletcher.
Why did the travelers leave the river and journey into the arid wasteland? For 100 miles, the river was too difficult to follow, especially for livestock and wooden carts. Huge canyons led from eastern and western mountains, creating gigantic ridges to climb and descend, one after another.

The river often changed its course and left quicksand in its wake. What had been a safe passage on an earlier trip might lead to suffocating quicksand or be completely washed away. Despite hardships, travelers made better time on the flat, dry valley.

In 1680, the desert route earned the name of Jornada del Muerto. That year, the Pueblo Indians revolted against Spanish rule, killing many foreigners and driving the rest out. Survivors gathered at Fra Cristobal paraje, the campsite at the northern end of the desert. More than two thousand colonists and loyal natives attempted the route to El Paso. Almost six hundred of the weak, ill or exhausted refugees died on the journey.

Atop Points of Rocks, the immense empty desert. Photo by Sherry Fletcher.
Atop Points of Rocks, the immense empty desert.  Photo by Sherry Fletcher.
The Jornada was in the middle of Apache territory, and the Indians were always a threat to the safety of the caravans. Soldiers usually accompanied the traders and settlers. Caravans searching for temporary water sites made easy ambushes for the Apaches, another reason the treacherous route was given the label of death.

By the 1880s, railroad crews were building a track through the area. One of the biggest railroad towns was Engle, built right in the middle of the Jornada. Livestock and people now traveled safely over the Jornada del Muerto. Ranches were established and people built homes.

Drive east of Truth or Consequences to Engle, get out of your car and feel the weather - the parched air, or the cold wind. Imagine 400 years ago, traveling step by step, with no relief for your swollen tongue or empty belly, praying to God not to be one of the ones taken by the Journey of the Dead.

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