Old Spanish Trail (trade route)
Old Spanish Trail
Nevada Historical Markers #31, 32, 33, 34, 139, 140, 141, 142
The route of the Old Spanish Trail.
|Location||New Mexico, Colorado, Utah, Arizona, Nevada, California|
|NRHP Reference #||88001181 (original)
01000863 (increase 1)
08000229 (increase 2)
|MARKERS #||31, 32, 33, 34, 139, 140, 141, 142|
|Added to NRHP||Utah: October 6, 1988|
|Boundary increases||Nevada: August 22, 2001
Nevada: March 21, 2008
The Old Spanish Trail is an historical trade route that connected the northern New Mexico settlements of (or near) Santa Fe, New Mexico with those of Los Angeles, California and southern California. Approximately 1,200 mi (1,900 km) long, the trail ran through areas of high mountains, arid deserts, and deep canyons. It is considered one of the most arduous of all trade routes ever established in the United States. Explored, in part, by Spanish explorers as early as the late 16th century, the trail saw extensive use by pack trains from about 1830 until the mid-1850s.
The name of the trail comes from the publication of John C. Frémont’s Report of his 1844 journey for the U.S. Topographical Corps., guided by Kit Carson, from California to New Mexico. The name acknowledges the fact that parts of the trail had been known to the Spanish since the 16th century. Frémont's report named a trail that had already been in use for about 15 years. The trail is important to New Mexico history because it established an arduous but usable trade route with California.
The trail is a combination of known trails that were established by Spanish explorers, trappers, and traders with the Ute and other tribes of Indians. The eastern areas of what became called the Old Spanish Trail, including southwest Colorado and southeast Utah, were explored by Juan Maria de Rivera in 1765. Franciscan missionaries Francisco Atanasio Domínguez and Silvestre Vélez de Escalante unsuccessfully attempted the trip to California, which was just being settled, leaving Santa Fe in 1776 and making it all the way into the Great Basin near Utah Lake before returning via the Arizona Strip. Other expeditions under another Franciscan missionary Francisco Garcés, and Captain Juan Bautista de Anza then explored and traded in the southern part of the region, finding shorter and less arduous routes through the mountains and deserts that connected Sonora to New Mexico and California, but did not become part of the Old Spanish Trail, with the exception of some of the paths through the Mojave Desert. The California section of the trail, from the Colorado River across the Mojave and into San Bernardino, was used by the first Americans to reach California by land, the expedition led by Jedediah Smith in November, 1826. The Mojave desert section of the trail is now a jeep trail called the Mojave Road.
A route linking New Mexico to California, combining information from many explorers, was opened in 1829-30 when Santa Fe merchant Antonio Armijo led a trade party of 60 men and 100 mules to California. Using a short cut discovered by Rafael Rivera the previous year, the Armijo party was able to stitch together a route that connected the routes of the Rivera and Domínguez-Escalante Expeditions and the Jedediah Smith explorations with the approaches to San Gabriel Mission through the Mojave along the Mojave River. After this date, the route began to be used by traders for usually a single annual round trip. Upon the return of Antonio Armijo, the governor of New Mexico immediately announced the success to his superiors in Mexico City. As a reward, the governor officially named Armijo “Commander for the Discovery of the Route to California.”
Word spread about the successful trade expedition and some commerce began between Santa Fe and Los Angeles. This commerce usually consisted of one mule-laden pack train from Santa Fe with 20 to 200 members, with roughly twice as many mules, bringing New Mexico goods hand-woven by Indians, such as serapes and blankets, to California. California had many horses and mules, many growing wild, with no local market, which were readily traded for hand-woven Indian products. Usually two blankets were traded for one horse, more blankets were usually required for a mule. California had almost no wool processing industry and few weavers, so woven products were a welcome commodity. The trading party usually left New Mexico in early November to take advantage of winter rains to cross the deserts on the trail and would arrive in California in early February. The return party would usually leave California for New Mexico in early April to get over the trail before the water holes dried up and the melting snow raised the rivers too high. The return party often consisted of several hundred to a few thousand horses and mules. Low-scale emigration from New Mexico to California used parts of the trail in the late 1830s when the trapping trade began to die. The trail was also used for illicit purposes, namely to raid the California ranchos for horses and for an extensive Indian slave trade. These horse raids were made by Mexicans, ex-trappers and Indian tribes who together stole hundreds to thousands of horses in one raid. Native Americans, usually women and children, were captured and sold to Mexican ranchers, etc., in both California and New Mexico for domestic servants. Mexican traders and Indian raiding parties both participated in this slave trade. The consequences of this human trafficking had a long-standing effect for those who lived along the trail, even after the trail was no longer in use. Intermittent Indian warfare along the trail often resulted from these slave raids by unscrupulous traders and raiding Indians.
John C. Frémont, "The Great Pathfinder," took the route, guided by Kit Carson, in 1844 and named it in his reports written up in about 1848. New Mexico-California trade continued until the mid-1850s, when a shift to the use of freight wagons and the development of wagon trails made the old pack trail route obsolete. By 1846 both New Mexico and California had become U.S. territories as a result of the Mexican-American War of 1846-1848, and after 1848 large numbers of Mormon immigrants were settling in Utah, Nevada and California all along the trail, affecting both trade interests and tolerance for the slavery of American Natives.
Place names used in this article refer to present-day states and communities. Few (if any) settlements existed along the trail before 1850, although many of the geologic features along the Trail retain their Spanish designations.
Description of the trail route
The Armijo Route of the Old Spanish Trail, established by Antonio Armijo in 1829-1830. Leaving on November 7, 1829 Armijo's expedition traveled a route northwest and west of Santa Fe from Abiquiu following the Chama River, Puerco River, and crossed to the San Juan River basin. From the San Juan they entered the Four Corners area, passed north of the Carrizo Mountains to present day Kayenta. The trail then ran to Marsh Pass and north through canyon country to the Colorado River, (called the Rio Grande), where the travelers forded at the Crossing of the Fathers above present day Glen Canyon Dam. Continuing west to Pipe Spring and on to Virgin River above present day St. George, Utah, the route then followed the Virgin to the mouth of the Santa Clara River which they followed up to the vicinity of the Shivwits Reservation, then crossed southward over the Beaver Dam Mountains to the Virgin River again, which they then followed down to the Colorado River before turning west to the Las Vegas Wash. From there the Armijo route passed southwestward through Jean Pass to Goodsprings Valley, then through Wilson Pass, across Mesquite Valley and California Valley, through Emigrant Pass to Resting Springs, followed the Amargosa River from near Tecopa to Salt Spring, and crossed a two day long waterless stretch to Laguna del Milagro [Lake of the Miracle], (possibly Silver Lake), then to Ojito del Malpais [little spring of the badlands] on Soda Lake, then another waterless day beyond Soda Lake, where it reached the only intermittently dependable Mojave River. Although if parts of the Mojave River were dry, travelers could sometimes find water by digging in the old river bed. The river was followed for six days to Summit Valley east of Cajon Pass where they passed through what Armijo called "San Bernardino Canyon", (probably what is now Crowder Canyon and lower Cajon Canyon) to the mouth of Cajon Pass where the trail reached the coastal plains, where they turned west along the foot of the San Gabriel Mountains for two days reaching the Mission San Gabriel Arcángel in California on January 30, 1830. Armijo returned by the same route between March 1 and April 25, 1830. He submitted a brief journal of his journey, (itemizing the days with names of places where camps were made but with no distances), to the government of New Mexico and it was published by the Mexican government in June 1830. 
The Main Route (also referred to as the Central Route or the Northern Route) of the Old Spanish Trail avoided territory of the Navaho, (who had become hostile after Armijo's trip), and the more difficult canyon country traversed by the Armijo Route. First traveled in 1830 by a party led by William Wolfskill and George Yount, this route ran northwest from Santa Fe through southwestern Colorado, past the San Juan Mountains, Mancos, and Dove Creek, entering Utah near present day Monticello. The trail then proceeded north through difficult terrain to Spanish Valley near today's Moab, Utah, where a ferry crossed the deep and wide Colorado River and then turned northwest to a ferry crossing on the similarly sized and dangerous Green River near present day Green River, Utah. The route then passed through (or around) the San Rafael Swell, the northernmost reach of the Trail. Entering the Great Basin in Utah via Salina Creek Canyon, the trail turned southwest following the Sevier, Santa Clara, Virgin Rivers to the north bank of the Colorado River. There they could follow the Colorado River to Las Vegas Wash, then south through the Eldorado Valley and Piute Valley to join the Mojave Trail, west of the Mohave villages (below modern Laughlin) and followed the route between the springs along the Mojave Trail to Soda Lake and the Mojave River. Later caravans could alternatively follow the Armijo Route diverting southwestward from the Colorado at Las Vegas Wash, to Resting Springs and to the Mojave River where it joined the Wolfskill/Yount Route, following that river upward to and over the San Bernardino Mountains and across the coastal valleys to Los Angeles.:11–12
The North Branch of the Old Spanish Trail was established by traders and trappers using Indian and Spanish colonial routes. It ran from Sante Fe north to Taos and on north into the San Luis Valley of Colorado. Caravans then headed west to today’s Saguache, crossing over the Continental Divide at Cochetopa Pass, and then through present day Gunnison and Montrose to the Uncompahgre Valley. The trail then followed the Gunnison River to today's Grand Junction, where the Colorado River was forded, and then on west to join the Main Route just east of the Green River. The North Branch later became an interest of explorers seeking viable routes for a transcontinental railroad along the 38th parallel. In 1853 alone, three separate expeditions explored the North Branch over Cochetopa Pass. These groups were led, in order, by Lieutenant Edward Fitzgerald Beale, Captain John Williams Gunnison, and John C. Frémont.
Use of the Old Spanish Trail between 1829 and 1848 resulted in numerous variations as travelers adopted or blazed easier paths. But regardless of the route taken, the Old Spanish Trail crossed several mountain ranges, passed through dry sections with limited grass and sometimes limited water, crossed two deserts, and was often littered with the bones of horses that had died of thirst. The western portions of the Old Spanish Trail could only be used semi-reliably in winter when rains or snows deposited water in the desert. In summer, there was often no water and the oppressive heat could kill. A single round trip per year was about all that was feasible. After 1848, parts of the trail were used for winter access to California when other trails were closed by snow.
Modifications to the Trail before 1844
Sometime before 1844, a cut off developed on the Old Spanish Trail that cut the distance traveled along the upper river, by cutting across what is now Victor Valley, from the Cajon Pass to a crossing just below the Lower Narrows of the river. John C. Frémont intercepted this route to the river, riding east southeast from Lake Elizabeth, north of the foot of the San Gabriel Mountains on April 20, 1844.:258-259
Additionally another cutoff to the Old Spanish Trail had developed before 1844, where the trail forked northeastward from the Mojave River and Mohave Trail, east of what is now Yermo, California running up Spanish Canyon over Alvord Mountain, to Bitter Spring, then through Red Pass, to join the Armijo route near Salt Spring in the Silurian Valley.:261-264 The fork of the trails there on the Mojave River, later became known as Fork of the Road.
One last modification to this route was that followed by John C. Frémont eastward in 1844. His expedition left the Armijo Route at Resting Spring and turned northeastward after crossing the Nopah Range through Emigrant Pass, through California Valley and across Pahrump Valley to Stump Spring and into the mountains to Mountain Springs, to Cottonwood Spring, to Las Vegas Springs. He then crossed the dry 50 miles to the Muddy River before rejoining the Main Route on the Virgin River. This route saved the large distances caused by the diversion of the Armijo and Main routes to follow the Colorado River, and would later become the route of the Mormon wagon road through southern Nevada between Salt Lake City and Los Angeles.:12
See Also: National Trail map of Old Spanish Trail
Historic preservation and commemoration
In 2001, the section of the Trail that runs across Nevada from the Arizona border to California was placed on the National Register of Historic Places as the Old Spanish Trail/Mormon Road Historic District.
Although few traces of the early traders' trail remain, the Trail is now commemorated in many[which?] local street and road names, and numerous[which?] historical markers in the states that it crossed. Portions of US 160 in Colorado and US 191 in Utah are similarly designated.
- History of The Old Spanish Trail MuseumTrail.org, San Luis Valley Museum Association. Retrieved on 2008-08-05.
- Old Spanish Trail Association. Retrieved on 2008-08-05
- Le Roy Reuben Hafen; Ann Woodbury Hafen (1954). Old Spanish Trail: Santa Fé to Los Angeles : with Extracts from Contemporary Records and Including Diaries of Antonio Armijo and Orville Pratt. University of Nebraska Press. pp. 109–129. ISBN 978-0-8032-7261-3.
- Smith, Jedediah S., [Harrison G. Rogers], and George R. Brooks (ed.). The Southwest Expedition of Jedediah S. Smith: His Personal Account of the Journey to California, 1826–1827. Lincoln and London, University of Nebraska Press,  1989. ISBN 978-0-8032-9197-3
- Warren, Elizabeth von Till. "The Old Spanish National Historic Trail." Old Spanish Trail Association. Reproduced from Pathways Across America. (Summer 2004) by the Partnership for the National Trail System.
- National Park Service (2001). Old Spanish Trail National Historic Trail Feasibility Study and Environmental Assessment.
- LeRoy R. Hafen and Antonio Armijo, Armijo's Journal, Huntington Library Quarterly, Vol. 11, No. 1, (Nov., 1947), pp. 87-101, University of California Press, DOI: 10.2307/3816035 from jstor.org accessed 10/28/2015
- Diario que formo yo el ciudando Antonio Armijo, como comandante, para el descubrimiento del camino para el punto de las Californias (Diary made by citizen Antonio Armijo as commandant for the discovery of the route to the Californias), Registro Oficial, Del Gobierno De Los Estados Unidos Mexicanos, Ano 1, Tom. II., Sabado 19 de Junio de 1830, Num. 54., pp 205-206
- Keith Myhrer, William G. White, Stanton D. Rolf, ARCHAEOLOGY OF THE OLD SPANISH TRAlL/MORMON ROAD, From Las Vegas, Nevada to the California Border, TECHNICAL REPORT 17, BUREAU OF LAND MANAGEMENT, NEVADA, FEBRUARY 1990
- Hafen, LeRoy, op. cit; pp131-154;Trail Makers
- John Charles Frémont, John Torrey, James Hall, Report of the Exploring Expedition to the Rocky Mountains in the Year 1842: And to Oregon and North California in the Years 1843-44, Gales and Seaton, printers, Washingon, 1845
- New Map Of The Territory Of Arizona, Southern California And Parts Of Nevada, Utah And Sonora., Payot, Upham & Company, San Francisco, 1877. from davidrumsey.com accessed November 19, 2015.
- National Trail map of Old Spanish Trail
- "National Register of Historic Places". Retrieved 2007-05-30.
Period of significance (1750-1849)
- Mehls, S.F. (1986). "Old Spanish Trail" (PDF). Classified Structure Field Inventory Report-National Register of Historic Places Registration Form. National Park Service. Retrieved 2009-05-03.
- "National Register of Historic Places". Retrieved 2007-05-30.
- McBride, Terri with Stanton D. Rolf (2001). "Old Spanish Trail-Mormon Road Historic District" (PDF). National Register of Historic Places-Registration Form. National Park Service. Retrieved 2009-04-26.
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