The Old Spanish Trail is known to have been the longest, crookedest, most arduous pack mule route in the history of America. It was approximately 2,700 miles of high mountains, deserts, deep canyons and changing climate. It ran through what is now New Mexico, Colorado, Arizona, Utah, Nevada and California. Some caravans lost their way and all of the suffered, men and animals.
The Native peoples who lived in present New Mexico, Colorado and Utah were the first to use a system of trails in the region for hunting, trading and travel. It could have just as easily been called the Old Ute Trail.
Juan Antonio Maria de Rivera in 1765 with his group of unarmed men traveled north from Abiquiu to the “Piedra Parada” (Standing Rock) that is now known as Chimney Rock in the Pagosa Springs, Colorado area. Then they traveled west along the south edge of the San Juan Mountains to present Animas River where they headed west to a big bend in the Dolores River at an “important” trail junction. The route eventually became part of the Old Spanish Trail.
Father Francisco Atanasio Dominguez and Father Silvestre Velez de Escalante traveled as an expedition to establish an overland route between Santa Fe and the Catholic Mission at Monterey, California. Their route took them through some the country that would also be part of the Old Spanish Trail. They were unable to make it to California because of the lateness of the season and returned to Santa Fe by a southern route.
These expeditions did create amicable relationships with the Native people that they encountered.
The middle part of the trail through Nevada and California was worked out by trappers led by Jedediah Smith about 1827.
Santa Fe area had been a long-time hub of trading starting back in the 1700s with the trading fairs and then the trappers.
With the Mexican Independence from Spain in 1821, trade between the eastern United States and Mexico was flourishing. The Santa Fe Trail was established in 1822 bringing United States merchandise into the Santa Fe and Taos areas and then down into Mexico by the El Camino de Tierra Adentro, a popular wagon, immigration and trade route that the Spanish had used since 1598 and probably longer than that. The trading hub was Santa Fe for both the Santa Fe and the Old Spanish Trail.
The Old Spanish Trail was officially traveled in 1829 when Antonio Armijo, a Santa Fe merchant, combined information from previous explorers and led a trade party of sixty men and one hundred mules to California. Santa Fe was no longer “land locked” for trading and selling goods. California had their sea ports to be able to trade. Now, the North American markets were extended across the Pacific to Asia. This was in the plans when the exploration on the Santa Fe Trail has started.
The Old Spanish Trail’s primary use was to have a trade route between Los Angeles and Santa Fe. Sheep and high quality woven goods such as the Rio Grande blankets were traded for horses and mules raised by the California ranchers. These animals brought high prices in New Mexico and on the western frontier of the United States.
Armijo avoided the worst part of the Mojave Desert by traveling south of Death Valley. He followed intermittent streams and located new springs to support the party. He did successfully get his expedition to San Gabriel Mission at Los Angeles with his group intact, but they did have to survive on mule meat during the last days of the trip.
After trading blankets and other goods, they returned to Santa Fe. Armijo was rewarded by the recognition of being the “Commander for the Discovery of the Route to California.”
With the successful trip, more expeditions with regular trips were done. Some emigrate travel occurred as well. Not everything was legal along the trail with criminal activities including raiding California ranchos for horses and for an extensive Native slave trade with trading at both ends of the trail even though this practice was officially discouraged.
Caravans usually left Santa Fe in the fall so the deserts could be crossed when temperatures were lower and return in the spring for the new grass to fed the large herds of animals be driven back to New Mexico. Mules were loaded with goods and they had to climb up narrow paths, swing across streams and rivers and at times drag their muleteers across roaring, flooding rivers.
Over the years with more use, several main routes and alternate routes were developed. One route was following the Colorado River to Needles, California. This route became the preferred route. If trading with the Utes was the purpose of the trip, then the route further to the north to Salt Lake was the chosen route.
The main route began at Santa Fe, looped northward through Colorado and Utah to avoid the deep river gorges of the Grand and Glen Canyons on the Colorado River before dropping down to the area that now has present Las Vegas, Nevada. From here it crossed the Mojave desert before reaching the San Gabriel Mission.
In 1830-31, William Wolfskill and George Yount developed another route, but used some of the same landmarks. Their route followed the Colorado River to Needles, California and up the Mojave River to Cajon Pass.
In research work written by Angie Krall, archeologist for Rio Grande National Forest, she explains that the “North Branch” of the Old Spanish Trail is identified as a variant to the “Northern Route” that was blazed by George C. Yount and William Wolfskill in 1831. The North branch ran through the San Luis Valley and the Gunnison River Valley of Colorado into eastern Utah, and then crossing Nevada and California. The North branch was largely open during the winter when other passes were snowed in. It then went up the Gunnison River Valley, rejoining the Northern route near present Green River, Utah. The North Branch is the one that is focused on primarily as it relates to the history and development of the settling of the San Luis Valley and the Plaza areas in and around the present Del Norte and Monte Vista.
The Americans became aware to the trail after John C. Fremont published his report of the 1844 expedition from California to the United States which was the final leg of the expedition to Oregon for the United States Topographical Corps. His report helped to trigger more Manifest Destiny excitement in the United States. Fremont had taken the trail across Utah. In his report, he called it the “Spanish Trail”. Some says that Kit Carson gave the trail the name.
After the Mexican-American War, the use of the trail for trade diminished. There were less dangerous and shorter routes that became available. Because there were better emigration routes to the north and the south, it was not other used for the purpose.
Two ancient routes ran the length of the San Luis Valley. The East Trail followed the Sangre de Cristo mountain range through the sage covered land at their base. It stayed close to the base of the mountains for the availability of firewood and protection from enemies. It also kept the travelers and their animals out of the marshy areas of the middle part of the San Luis Valley. North of the present town of Crestone, the trail turned west and headed to the area of present town of Saguache. It then went over Coochetopa (Cochetopa) Pass.
The other ancient route was the West Fork that came across the San Luis Valley through the open area in the western part. It crossed the Rio Grande and then continued along the foothills of the San Juan Mountains to the junction of the east branch at present Saguache.
According to Krall, the West branch is still under study and yet to be classified as part of the Old Spanish Trail because of insufficient data. However, it is documented as a trail or road on various maps. Many local historians feel that this branch does exist and are calling for more studies.
For thousands of years, these trails were well use by ancestral natives, then the Spanish colonists and military, fur trappers, explorers, herdsmen, prospectors, invaders, slave traders and settlers. In the Gunnison-Beckwith expedition in 1853, they traveled this area. One name for these trails could be “The Ancient Way”.
In his book, “Retracing the Old Spanish Trail” author Ron Kessler shows the West Fork coming through Ojo Caliente to Tres Piedras to a small unnamed spring just west of Tres Piedras where travelers could fill their water supply for the trip across the arid, dry land, the “No Agua Land” ahead of them. The trail would come across land that now has the settlements that would have started as people ventured into the “Land of the Yutas” starting in the 1840s with the Conejos or Guadalupe Land Grant. This was a Mexican land grant given to a large group of individuals.
Eventually, the Rio Bravo del Norte or Rio Grande del Norte was reached, crossed at good fords and the trail continued on through the wild and untamed country following the low mountains that define the edge of the Valley.
The West Fork is probably the route that families who settled in present Rio Grande County would have used. Historians disagree as to where they actually settled after they arrived and made their permanent homes, farms and ranches in area that were called “plazas”. Several maps made in 1870s show a major plaza called “San Jose” at the location of present Swede Lane and County Road 3 West area. A map done by the Rio Grande County Surveyor in 1875 also shows a “plaza” in this area with the legal description appropriate for this to be the San Jose Plaza.
Other evidence for this to be San Jose includes the San Jose Ditch which was adjudicated April 30th, 1866 with priority #3. One of the original people to claim the water right was Manuel Lucero. The ditch later became known as the Lucero Ditch. The legal description for the Lucero Ditch at the headgate is “takes its supply of water from a natural stream known as the Rio Grande River and its headgate is located in the southwest quarter, section 16, township 39, Range 7 New Mexico Meridian.
The Atencio Ditch was Priority #2, dated April 15th, 1866 with the legal description shown as being located in the southwest quarter of section 22, township 39, range 7, 31 degrees 58 feet e. 4028 feet from the northwest corner of said section 22. It also shows that the water is taken from the Rio Grande.
The #1 priority on the Upper Rio Grande was the Silva Ditch was a date of March 12th, 1866. The water was taken from the Rio Grande with a legal description of the location of the headgates as follows: N. 39 d. 50” E. 36 chains from corner to sections 6-7 1 &12, township 30 N. Ranges 5 and 7 New Mexico Meridian.
Native people would have traveled these ancient trails to follow game for hunting, for trading and for travel. Governor de Anza pursued the Comanches north in 1779 along this trail.
It was not by chance that these families would have found the location for their homes along this trail. They would have followed a major trail used for years. With the coming of modern conveniences such as the stage coach, the railroad and finally motorized vehicles, the use of these trails decreased and they became roads for transporting people and goods. The Old Conejos Road was what was left of the Old Spanish Trail.
In Krall’s article in the Crestone Eagle about the Bunker site on the East Branch, she states “that this site would have been as a camp site on the Old Spanish Trail, but has history much older than the 1828-1848 period of time”. She states that it is difficult to distinguish sites occupied by Native people participating in Euro-American trade networks from other Native people sites during the early contact period. Jicarilla Apaches often had a similar material cultural to early Hispanic settlers. A diverse assemblage of artifacts at the site pre-dates the use of the Old Spanish Trail, suggesting it has been a popular campsite for hundreds, if not thousands of years. The entire article is attached.
The site gets its name from Bob and Judy Bunker, local ranches in the Baca Ranch. Bob Bunker is an “old cowboy” who rode on the Baca Grande when it was private land prior to becoming Federal Lands. He discovered many sites in the area.
The Old Spanish Trail of Today
Interest in the trail was only sporadic over the years. In 1921, with the publication of an article by Joseph J. Hill and the 1930 and 1931 work of Eleanor F. Lawrence, and the publication of George Brewerton’s “Overland with Kit Carson” in 1930 interest was sparked in the trail. William R. Palmer of Cedar City, Utah organized the Spanish Trail Association in 1946. This group placed one hundred markers along the trail between Santa Fe and Los Angeles. By 1950, the organization disappeared.
Leroy and Ann Hafen published their book with a definitive history of the trail in 1954. This work inspired other research and with the use of post WWII jeeps, the general public could follow the routes.
Efforts to mark the trail were revived. Nevada marked the Fremont Route in 1964-65 to celebrate the State’s centennial. Emory County Historical Society in Utah placed markers in the Green River area in the early 1990s. This all focused on the North Branch of the trail.
Beginning in 1992, a strategy for attaining National Historic Trail designation was laid out by individuals connected with the Riverfront Commission at Grand Junction, Colorado and the Colorado Board of Parks and Outdoor Recreation.
In 1993, this group convinced Colorado’s Senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell and Representative Scott McGinnis to introduce a bill authorizing the National Park Service to study the feasibility of including the Old Spanish Trail in to the National Trail System as a National Historic Trail.
In 1994, Colorado supporters founded the present Old Spanish Trail Association. This group teamed up with the Colorado delegates and senators from New Mexico, Utah and California kept the bill alive.
After several years of work, Congress passed the Old Spanish Trail Recognition Act in 2002. Locally, the La Vereda del Norte Chapter is active and is helping to keep the Old Spanish Trail history alive and is working on the documentation of the West Fork of the North Branch to have it added to the trail system.