A Dangerous Point
Exploring the Point of Rocks, historic landmark along the perilous Jornada del Muerto.
by Jay W. Sharp
Point of Rocks, which the early Spanish sometimes called "las peñuelas," or "rocky hills," stood as a familiar landmark beside the fabled Camino Real de Tierra Adentro's notorious passage known as Jornada del Muerto, or Journey of the Dead.
Point of Rocks on the northern horizon, and the road that
leads to the site. (Photos by Jay W. Sharp)
Of course, the Camino Real, with roots thousands of years old, was the 1,600- to 1,700-mile-long trek through a corridor of braided trails that extended northward from Mexico City to New Mexico's San Juan Pueblo, about 25 to 30 miles north of Santa Fe. Much of the corridor remains an important route for travelers to this day. The segment from the El Paso area to the pueblo, about 400 miles in length, was declared a national historic trail in the year 2000.
The Jornada del Muerto, which skirted the western escarpment of Point of Rocks, ran through the Chihuahuan Desert basin that lies between south-central New Mexico's Caballo and Fra Cristobal Mountain ranges to the west and the San Andres and Sierra Oscura ranges to the east. The southern end of the Jornada lay at a paraje, or campsite, near Fort Selden, 15 or 16 miles north of Las Cruces and Mesilla; the northern end, at a paraje called Fra Cristobal, 15 or 16 miles south of today's Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge.
The Jornada, marked along its way by stone-covered graves, ranked as perhaps the most feared passage of the entire El Camino. It is seldom followed across its full length in this day.
A Journey Through Hell
For most of the way, those who followed El Camino through Texas and New Mexico paralleled the Rio Grande, with its life-sustaining water. But those who led caravans of wagons, carriages, carts, cargoes, livestock herds, and families — which often covered no more than 10 to 20 miles per day — faced a challenging decision when they came to the Jornada passage.
On one hand, you might attempt to continue following the river. For the next 100 miles, the Rio Grande took a bow-shaped course through broken and sometimes almost impassable terrain along the western foothills of the Caballo and Fra Cristobal ranges. The river route offered the advantage of generally available water, but raised the forbidding risk of cracked axles, broken wheels, wrecked vehicles, injured draft teams and lost cargo.
Rock ring on the peak of the westernmost hill of Point of Rocks, looking northward across the basin. Presumably built by the Apaches, who would have used it as a protected vantage point for tracking caravans and travelers on the trail below. (Photos by Jay W. Sharp)
On the other hand, you could leave the river and follow the 90-mile-long Jornada, which ran north/south through the desert, effectively "stringing the river's bow." It traversed comparatively level ground, over a shorter trail. It promised at least some forage for livestock. But it offered no dependable sources of water for man or livestock. It held little firewood for campfires. It posed the constant threat of Apache ambush. The Jornada tortured travelers with heavy winds and sandstorms, oppressive summer heat and piercing winter cold.
"The bleaching bones of mules and horses testify to the dangers to be apprehended from the want of water and pasture," wrote George A. F. Ruxton, in Adventures in Mexico and the Rocky Mountains 1846-1847, "and many human bones likewise tell their tale of Indian slaughter and assault."
The dangers notwithstanding, most travelers chose to follow the Jornada rather than the rugged Rio Grande arc. They often opted for the rainier months of the year — July through September — hoping to find water pooled in trailside playas and arroyos. Many traveled during the cooler evening hours and moonlit nights and rested through the day.
The passage still came hard. As Susan Shelby Magoffin wrote of her crossing during a winter month in 1846, in her classic Down the Santa Fe Trail and into Mexico, "I am not an advocate… for night traveling when I have to be shut up in the carriage in a road I know nothing of, and the driver nodding all the time, and letting the reins drop from his hands to the entire will of the mules. I was kept in a fever the whole night, though every one complained bitterly of cold."
Reaching the Point
Point of Rocks, a cluster of unimposing, low, 25 to 40 million-year-old basaltic hills, lies roughly 20 miles north of Fort Selden. It would come to symbolize the hope and despair and the life and death that characterized El Camino's Jornada.
Point of Rocks as seen from the loop trail. It was from
the peaks of these hills that the Apaches, from secreted vantage points, tracked the progress of caravans and travelers
across the Jornada del Muerto.
If you traveled up the Jornada from the Fort Selden area, you and your livestock had probably already spent a long hard day on the trail by the time you reached Point of Rocks. You could already be suffering from thirst. And you still faced at least another 70 miles and several days of hardship and uncertainty before you rejoined the Rio Grande and water. Conversely, if you traveled down the Jornada from the Fort Craig area, you likely came to Point of Rocks thirsty and weary, but at least you knew that, with luck, you had only another day to go before you reached the Rio Grande. You could feel hope rising.
From either direction, you also knew that, from its peaks, Point of Rocks offered marauding Apaches a commanding view of the southern half of the Jornada. It gave them the opportunity to track the progress of north- or south-bound caravans or travelers as they struggled along the punishing corridor below. You could feel the tension rise as you approached those black rocky hills bristling with cacti, yucca and thorny shrubs. You could feel the relief once you had passed.
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