The San Antonio-El Paso Road, also known as the Lower Emigrant Road or Military Road, was an economically important trade route between the Texas cities of San Antonio and El Paso between 1849 and 1882. The road carried mail, freight, and passengers by horse and wagon across the Edwards Plateau and dangerous Trans-Pecos region of West Texas.
The Republic of Texas was annexed to the United States as the 28th state on December 29, 1845. The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, signed in 1848, established the Texas/Mexico border as the Rio Grande River.
The need to survey and develop transportation links between San Antonio, the Gulf Coast, El Paso, and Chihuahua, Mexico became a high priority for the U.S. Army. With the discovery of gold in California the next year, the need for immigrant roads and commercial freighting routes from Texas’ Gulf Coast to El Paso and points west provided additional impetus for the Army to establish and protect routes between Texas’ major cities and the Gulf coast.
During the early years of Texas statehood, the U.S. Army experienced numerous difficulties in establishing and protecting an efficient supply system — particularly for the mobile horse-mounted cavalry. Normally, a cavalry trooper’s horse carried a maximum of 250 pounds, including the rider, limiting supplies normally to 250 rounds of ammunition, a change of clothing, a bed sack, two day’s rations, and one day’s supply of grain. All other equipment and supplies were transported by pack or wagon trains following the expedition. The ordinary two and four-mule escort wagons carried 1,200 to 2,400 pounds of cargo. The largest of wagons, a six-mule jerk-line wagon weighing 1,950 pounds, was capable of carrying from 3,000-3,300 pounds of cargo. In contrast, a single pack mule could carry a maximum of 250 pounds; an average pack-mule train of 50 animals could transport 12,500 pounds of cargo. In short, while wagons could transport greater amounts of supplies using fewer mules, they were generally limited to flat terrain, were slower, and were difficult to hide. For terrains such as the Pecos and Devils River Valleys, pack-mule trains proved to be the most efficient.
In 1848 Colonel John Coffee Hays organized one of the first expeditions from San Antonio to El Paso to determine whether a practicable and convenient route for military and commercial purposes existed. Among the individuals accompanying Colonel Coffee were several Delaware Indian scouts, Richard S. Howard, a San Antonio businessman and ex-Texas Ranger; 35 Texas Rangers under the command of Captain Samuel Highsmith, and several dozen private citizens and businessmen from San Antonio. The group left San Antonio, following the Llano River to its source on the South Fork, and crossed the Divide, arriving at the San Pedro (Devils) River. After spending three days trying to cross it (at a location now submerged under Amistad Reservoir) the Hays Expedition renamed it the Devils River as it is known today. Portions of the modern-day roadbed for Texas Highway 163 from Comstock to Ozona follow the route originally mapped by the Hays Expedition.
On December 10, 1848, the Secretary of War reassigned Brevet Major General William J. Worth to Texas. With the arrival of General Worth, the U.S. Army established a major presence in what had been just a few years earlier the Republic of Texas. Worth was ordered to station troops along the Rio Grande River below San Antonio and along the frontier settlements in Texas. He was also directed to examine the country on the left bank (U.S. side) of the Rio Grande River and the area west from San Antonio to Santa Fe, New Mexico. In the following year, the U.S. Army made at least seven official reconnaissance trips in western Texas, the Rio Grande Valley, and the gulf coastal plain in an effort to establish reliable routes for the movement of troops as well as for commercial purposes. Most of these expeditions were commanded by officers from the Bureau of Topographical Engineers who carefully mapped the routes of march as well as locations and distances between watering holes, campsites, and major stream crossings.
With Texas firmly in the grip of California’s gold fever, the need for the U.S. Army to establish protected routes from Texas to California became ever more pressing. In January 1849, before the first of the engineering surveys by the Army for the San Antonio-El Paso Road, a party of 25 men, lead by a Mr. Peoples, followed the Hays Expedition route through Val Verde County (and the Amistad Reservoir basin) to became the first group from Texas to reach California. The following month, a group of 32 men calling themselves “The Kinney Rangers” made the trip to California over the same route.
The first of the Bureau of Topographic Engineering ventures was the Whiting-Smith Expedition of 1849. Under the joint leadership of Lieutenant W. H. C. Whiting and Lieutenant William F. Smith, both topographic engineers, the expedition left San Antonio on February 12, 1849, to explore a route of march to El Paso for military and commercial purposes.
With them went a large number of emigrants bound for California. The expedition began along the upper route which followed the San Saba River to its sources, then turned west to the Pecos River and on to El Paso.
At several locations along the San Saba and the Pecos Rivers, the party encountered friendly groups of Lipan Apache. But, west of the Pecos River, they were surrounded by a group of several hundred hostile Apache who eventually allowed them to continue unmolested to the arrival in El Paso on April 12, 1849.
For the return trip, the Whiting-Smith Expedition followed a more southerly route primarily because of a lack of water between the Pecos and San Saba Rivers.