Old Spanish Trail
Near Monte Vista, Colorado
The Old Spanish Trail was one of the routes
that led settlers and traders from Santa Fe, New Mexico, to Los
Angeles, California, during the 1800s.
The Old Spanish Trail Association
The North Branch of the trail runs through the San Luis Valley of Southern
Because of the rich history of this trail, the Old Spanish Trail
Association was formed to help locate long buried or hidden information
regarding the trail.
The Association would
appreciate hearing of any research or historical records available
on The Old Spanish Trail. Zip over to the official OSTA web site to
input you may have.
The letter below is from Charles W. McClanahan
to Hon. T.H. Benton, describing the Trail and McClanahan's travel
across the West. This letter has answered many questions for
researchers, and at the same time has raised additional
LETTER FROM MR. CHARLES W. MC CLANAHAN
Published in the National Intelligencer [Washington, D.C.], November 7, 1853
Fort Massachusetts [NM], August 28, 1853
Hon. T. H. Benton:--
Knowing that you feel interested
in the middle route for the great Pacific Railroad, and believing
that any information in regards to it would be acceptable, no mater
how humble the source from which it comes, I have determined to
state what I know about it. This information is from traveling
the route just behind Captain Gunnison.
I left Virginia the
first of April, went to Missouri and Illinois to purchase sheep for
the California market. After purchasing, I started to take
them by Salt Lake, the Humboldt River, &c., feeling assured that
I would have to winter at Salt Lake. I had gotten the sheep as
far as St. Josephs, [Missouri] Having some business in St.
Louis, I met with Captain Gunnison, and learned from him that there
was a better route by way of Utah Lake, and that he was going to
open it, and that, from what he knew about it, it would be much
better for me to take it. After thinking a good deal over it,
I determined to take it, as there was a very large number of stock
on the old route, and a good prospect of getting to California this
I read you address with a great deal
of interest; and feeling assured these statements about the route could be
relied on, I left Missouri at Westport, on the 18th of June,
with a large number of sheep
[2,000 head] and some [3-4 hundred head of] cows - - Mr. Crockett,
of Virginia, a partner with me. At Westport, I met with the
two Mr. Rosss, of Iowa, with their families, going the old route;
they also determined to accompany me the new route.
After traveling a few days, I fell in with the two Mr. Burwells, of
Franklin City, Virginia, with a large number of cattle, who also
were persuaded to join me.
We traveled the Santa Fe [Trail]
road twenty-five miles above Bents Old Fort, and crossed the
Arkansas River at the mouth of Apispah [Apispah River] Creek,
crossing over the Huerfano, up that stream about twenty miles, and
crossing the Sierra Blanca [Sangre de Cristo] Mountains through
Captain Gunnisons [Sangre de Cristo] Pass, about twelve miles south
of Lerouxs Pass to this fort. The distance given by Captain
Gunnison is 693 miles from Westport, Missouri.
over the mountains of Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Tennessee, over
several of the passes of the Sierra Nevada in California, and I have
never seen a better or more easy Pass for carriages and wagons than
the one found by Captain Gunnison, through the Sierra Blanca [Sangre
de Cristo Mountains] just opposite to Fort Massachusetts, and
distant from it fifteen miles. I traveled the old route to
California in 1849, and can speak of the two routes from actual
experience, having gone over both with wagons. I look upon
this route as far superior, and feel confident that as soon as it is
known it will and must be the great thoroughfare from the Atlantic
to the Pacific.
On this route, there is an abundance of grass
and water, so much that stock will travel and keep fat; the
large majority of our sheep are as fat as any mutton in the
Philadelphia or Baltimore market, and a very large number of Mr.
Burwells cattle are fine beef; and I have never seen any
stock, after having traveled so far, look half as well.
of the Mr. Rosss have carriages, and as yet nothing has in the
least given way. I can say without fear of contradiction that
this is one of the finest natural roads in the world, combining
everything necessary to sustain stock; and I am confident
that, if its advantages are fully made known to Congress, it will be
adopted for the great Pacific Railroad. One this line, almost
the entire route can be settled; as all the land from Missouri to
Bents Fort is rich and very fertile, equal to the best lands of
Missouri and Illinois, and no land can beat the Sierra Blanca
[Sangre de Cristo Mountains] for grass; even to the very summit it
stands as thick as the best meadows; many acres would mow at
least four tons per acre.
Then comes the large and beautiful
valley of San Luis, said to be one of the most fertile in New Mexico
(now Colorado); indeed, fine land is upon the whole
route, and the climate such that stock can live all winter upon the
I will here state the route I think best for emigrants
to travel: Leave Westport, Missouri, take the road to
Uniontown, then to Fort Centre, then take Captain Gunnisons trail,
which leads from the Kansas to the Arkansas, near the mouth of
Walnut Creek, up the Arkansas above Bents Old Fort, thirty-two
miles; then up the Huerfano, through Captain Gunnisons Pass
to Fort Massachusetts; then to Little Salt Lake Walkers Pass,
Sierra Nevada; then down the valley of the San Joaquin to
Stockton or San Francisco.
There are settlements at different
points all along this route, where emigrants can get supplies, none
farther apart than two hundred miles. After leaving Missouri,
you pass first Council Grove, next the Fort on Walnut Creek, next
Green Horn, next Fort Massachusetts, Little Salt Lake, Santa Clara,
Vegas de Santa Clara; at each of these supplies can be
I feel confident, when Captain Gunnison makes out his
report, that this route will be adopted. The pass through the
Sierra Blanca [Sangre de Cristo Mountains] is so low and gradual
that a railroad can be made over it, and the grade will not exceed
fifty feet to the mile. Captain Gunnison is doing his whole
duty, and well deserves the thanks of the whole country, for the
very well laid out road through this almost unexplored country.
I will write you again after getting through to California,
and describe the rest of the way.
Charles W. McClanahan