For decades, Robert Hicks of Robertson County has had a scholarly obsession with the Camino Real de Los Tejas, the trail that Indians, Spanish explorers, Mexican authorities and Texan settlers carved through the wilderness.
Now he’s going on the warpath against the National Park Service to defend what he thinks its correct route.
The park service, along with state and Robertson County leaders, are preparing to put up signs for the Camino Real de Los Tejas National Historic Trail along U.S. Highway 79 in Robertson County. Congress in 2004 designated the trail, actually a network of parallel routes running more than 2,500 miles from northwestern Louisiana to San Antonio and on to the Rio Grande.
But when it came to Robertson County, the NPS got the route wrong, Hicks alleges in an Oct. 11 lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in Waco.
“(The National Park Service) and (Texas Department of Transportation) are armed and ready to erect permanent highway signage in the county wrongly declaring and anointing official national historic trail status to this imposter route while possessing not a single shred of historical evidence to hide its nakedness,” he states in the lawsuit, which he filed “pro se,” without help of attorneys.
“It will inflict irreparable harm to the plaintiff and to the American people now, tomorrow and forever into the future,” the lawsuit states.
It so happens that Hicks’ preferred route passes near his family land east of Calvert, which he calls El Camino Real Ranch. The route veers north from there to Groesbeck in Limestone County, then east to Teague and Fairfield in Freestone County before hooking back up with the NPS-designated trail.
Hicks said he doesn’t have documentary evidence, such as explorers’ diaries or centuries-old maps, to establish that route. Nor does he have archaeological evidence, such as eroded wagon trails or artifacts.
But, he says, the National Park Service doesn’t have that kind of evidence for its route either. He says that route is arbitrary and illogical, passing through flood-prone creeks, dense woods and unstable “sugar sand.”
Hicks has been developing his theory of the route since he began researching the Camino Real in 1969, based on the terrain mounted explorers would have chosen. He said explorers would have relied on native guides to lead them along the highest ground with the most open prairie and the fewest streams to ford.
“We don’t have any Spanish diaries, and we don’t have any artifacts,” he said. “So we have to ask, where is the logical place they would have gone, knowing it’s easier on horseback to go through prairies than woodlands.”
Hicks has given presentations on the trail in Freestone and Limestone counties, winning favorable press attention and leading local officials to consider posting signs commemorating the Camino Real through the area.
The park service this June sent a letter to Freestone County’s county judge cautioning her not to install such signage.
The letter came from Aaron Mahr, superintendent of the NPS National Trails Intermountain Region, which is based in Santa Fe, New Mexico.
In an interview this week, Mahr said he was unaware of Hicks’ lawsuit but was disappointed to hear of it. He said he has spoken with Hicks many times and thinks the Robertson County resident raises interesting points about the geography of possible trail routes.
But Mahr said Hicks is asking the NPS to do a major rerouting that would change the scope of what Congress ordered in 2004.
An act of Congress
The authorized routes were based on studies NPS and the state of Texas did in the 1990s, and major changes would literally require an act of Congress, Mahr said.
“The National Park Service is not the deciding entity,” he said. “We can make minor modifications to it, but when we make modifications, they have to be based on solid archaeological or documentary evidence.”
He said he would encourage Hicks and communities with historical attractions not directly on the designated trail to work with the NPS to promote that history.
Mahr said that in establishing national trails it’s rare to find someone with Hicks’ passion and persistence in advocating for a certain route.
But for Hicks, the Camino Real is worth making a big deal.
“The El Camino Real was absolutely a major component in us getting the Louisiana Purchase, Texas annexation and the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo,” he said. “I’ve told people it’s America’s greatest untold story.”
Beginning in the 1680s, Spanish explorers and colonists began using existing Indian trails to travel among provincial capitals and missions. The route stretched from Los Adaes in western Louisiana to Nacogdoches, then southwest to San Antonio. The “Tejas” in the name referred to a tribe of native Americans for which the state was later named.
The route remained important to the Spanish and Mexican governments over the next century and a half as they struggled to settle the sparsely populated expanses of present-day Texas.
It was along this network of trails that Moses Austin traveled to San Antonio to seek an empresario grant in 1820, resulting in the first Anglo colony, which was soon established by his son, Stephen F. Austin. Soon thereafter, parts of the trail were used by other Anglo settlers and Americans coming to fight at the Alamo.
Hicks, 66, who traces his ancestry in the area to the 1830s, said he grew up hearing stories about the trail, and his studies have led him as far afield as Louisiana and Spain.
“I have an intimate knowledge of it,” he said. “That’s what has always scared the National Park Service, because I do know history.”
Lance Simmons, district engineer for the Texas Department of Transportation’s Bryan-College Station district, has visited Hicks and gone on some field trips around Robertson County with him.
‘Passion for history’
“It was fascinating,” Simmons said. “He has a passion for history.”
Simmons said TxDOT is installing the trail signs with funding from the NPS and Robertson County, but it doesn’t control the trail route.
“We’re following the lead of the National Park Service,” he said.
Robertson County Judge Charles Ellison said Hicks’ arguments “sound reasonable,” but he doubts anyone can know the true alignment of the original Camino Real. He intends to go forward with the NPS route.
“There’s a lot of different theories,” Ellison said. “There’s merits on both sides.”
Hicks said a local acquaintance recently compared him to Native American protesters blocking the Dakota Access pipeline, and he didn’t disagree.
“I’m not trying to fight every battle,” Hicks said. “I’m just saying, I’m drawing a line in the sand in this county. Unless you can show me any kind of evidence that I’m wrong, I’m going to fight for it. If they can show me that, well, I guess I’ll have to pick out a well-fattened crow to eat.”