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Rediscovering the old route from Santa Fé to LA

Article by Martha & Ed Quillen

Local History – June 1994 – Colorado Central Magazine

The French philosopher Voltaire once observed that the Holy Roman Empire “was neither Holy, nor Roman, nor an Empire.

According to Leroy R. and Ann W. Hafen, who wrote the definitive history in 1954, much the same observation could be made about the Old Spanish Trail. It wasn’t particularly old, was never really Spanish, and it wasn’t even much of a trail.

The Hafens called it “the longest, crookedest, most arduous pack mule route in the history of America.”

And it wasn’t so much a specific route as a general trend that arched northward between Villa Real de Santa Fé de San Francisco (present day Sante F) and El Pueblo de Nuestra Se$ora La Reina de Los Angeles (present day L.A.).

It began as an attempt to connect Spain’s unwieldy empire which spread north into the Rockies, and also up the west coast — with an appalling gap between the two extensions.

Linking those territories proved a formidable challenge. The shortest route, from El Paso to San Diego, crossed brutal deserts inhabited by fractious Apache. North of that lay the impassable Grand Canyon and unfriendly Hopi.

Although California was sighted in 1542, and explored a mere 60 years later, the Spanish didn’t establish settlements on the west coast until after 1769, when the Spanish viceroy grew alarmed about tales of trespassing by British and Russian fur trappers.

In the territory of the accommodating Utes and the generally co-operative Pueblos, the old city of Sante Fé had been established in 1610. But from Santa F the way west was blocked by slick rock, rattlesnakes, poor grass, and hostile Indians.

It is said that the victors write the history, and in the case of the American west, that has certainly been true. The story of the Old Spanish Trail embraces several centuries of Spanish exploration and conquest, Spain’s decline, Mexico’s independence, and the United States’ triumph.

The search for an accessible trail was not one of Spain’s more fortuitous ventures. But failure didn’t stop the Northwest Passage from garnering pages of history.

From start to finish, if one includes Spain’s first passages into Santa Fé as a necessary forerunner, the Old Spanish Trail took several hundred years to develop. But today, that 1,200-mile route seldom appears in the published histories of America.

And that’s something the Old Spanish Trail Association would like to change. The group was organized last January in Del Norte, and includes historians, archaeologists, land managers, writers, curators and regular folks who happen to be interested. Together, they want to study and preserve the entire route — and to gain support for legislation offered by Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell that will direct the National Park Service to conduct a feasibility study of the Old Spanish Trail for National Historic Trail status.

Development of the trail could provide a safe, clean industry for Saguache County. But perhaps more important, it could unlock a treasure trove of lost history.

The Spanish were meticulous record-keepers, but their archives languish in Sante Fé and Old Mexico — where many of them have never even been opened, cataloged, or translated.

The Spanish were consummate bureaucrats who kept records by the bale, and that tendency has seriously hampered the efforts of American scholars who have been encouraged to regard the Jamestown colony as the beginning of all U.S. history, anyway.

BY THE LATE 1700S, Spain’s holdings in the United States encompassed almost everything west of the Mississippi. And Spanish territory in the new world included not only southern Colorado, Texas, and New Mexico, but also Louisiana, Florida and several Caribbean islands. At that point, the Spanish actually controlled far more of the United States than did the fledgling colonies.

Today, not much of this history makes it into textbooks. But neglected or not, the story of the Old Spanish Trail began with the first Spanish settlements in the American west.

Early on, Spain spread its tendrils from El Paso to Santa Fé. Then, as Spain’s settlements on the west coast grew, a passage westward became imperative — because the poor, struggling mission at Los Angeles sorely needed support from Santa F.

Spain’s first real effort to reach California by land came in 1776, when priests Silvestre Vélez de Escalante and Francisco Atanasio Dom!nguez, along with a party of seven including a mapmaker, headed north out of Sante F on July 29.

Domínguez and Escalante followed the Rio Grande into the San Luis Valley, swung west at Taos and skirted along the southwest corner of Colorado toward Dinosaur National Monument. They pioneered the southern segment of the Old Spanish Trial, but they returned to Santa F after reaching western Utah — where the impending winter convinced them not to proceed.

The general outbound route taken by Domínguez and Escalante (Santa F, Tierra Amarilla, Arboles, Durango, Dolores, Moab) became the basis for the eastern segment southern branch of the Old Spanish Trail.

SPAIN CONTINUED to search for a land route to connect its coastal and mountain holdings. But the Spanish never found one. On the West coast, Spanish explorers penetrated as far inland from Los Angeles as Las Vegas, Nev.

But not until 1826 were the two routes linked, and that as a result of explorations by Jedediah Smith, a fur trapper and New England Yankee. The first expedition known to have reached Los Angeles from Sante Fé was led by a Mexican trader, Antonio Armijo, in the winter of 1829-30.

Thus the full route of the Old Spanish Trail isn’t all that old. Santa Fé was founded in 1610, 220 years before the trail was workable (and Mesa Verde and Pecos Pueblo are both much older than Santa F).

Since Mexico became independent of Spain in 1821, five years before Jedediah Smith connected the east and west segments, the Old Spanish Trail was never really Spanish, either.

And since the route diverged into a North Branch and a South Branch, with only the northern branch accessible by wagon, the southern route was actually a pack road — not a trail in the manner of the Oregon and Santa Fé trails, and never a route of American migration like those routes, either.

More accurately, the route might have been called the Relatively Modern Mexican Pack Path and Northern Stock & Wagon Road. But Old Spanish Trail is the name that history has given it, and it’s certainly more charming than “U.S. 285.”

The North Branch was a variant, necessary because the forage on the South Branch was unreliable, and the terrain was difficult. Its approximate route was Santa Fé to Taos, Alamosa, Saguache, and then over Cochetopa Pass to Gunnison, Montrose, Delta, and Grand Junction, before it joined the South Branch at Green River, Utah.

The North Branch was probably developed by Antoine Robidoux, who was born in 1794 in St. Louis to a family of trappers and traders. His brother Joseph founded St. Joseph, Mo.

BEFORE THE BENT BROTHERS came along, Antoine Robidoux was the premier fur trader in the Colorado region. He built Fort Uncompahgre on the Gunnison River in southwestern Colorado, and Fort Uintah, also known as Robidoux Rendezvous or Fort Robidoux, in northeastern Utah.

Antoine’s trade route started in St. Louis, where he made up pack trains which followed the Arkansas River to its junction with the Huerfano River (present-day Boone, east of Pueblo), then up the Huerfano to Mosca Pass.

Mosca later became a toll road, and is today a gravel road on the Huerfano side and a scenic hiking trail leaving the Great Sand Dunes National Monument.

After edging around the sand dunes, Antoine’s caravans worked their way to the headwaters of Saguache Creek, went over Cochetopa Pass, and thence through some rough country to Fort Robidoux, near present-day Delta.

Given the vagaries of travel in those days, problems with shriveled grass and swollen creeks made Robidoux’s northern crossing an alternative to the regular Old Spanish Trail route through Durango — in spite of the northern trail’s length.

Yet, how often the North Branch was used, and whether it served primarily as a wagon road or as a pack route, is still a matter of debate.

Either way, the journey took the better part of a season. The Orville C. Pratte party of 1848 left Santa Fé on August 28, and arrived in Los Angeles on October 25, almost two months later. In spite of the difficulties, however, the Old Spanish Trail reached peak usage in the 1840s.

Sane people avoided the trail in the summer and winter, but it functioned as a regular route of commerce in the fall and spring. In its day, the route facilitated a significant commerce in sheep, mules, cattle, horses — and slaves.

Silk and tea from China arrived on the West Coast and made their way to New Mexico, and its silver went west in payment.

Most of the westbound traffic, though, was woolen goods like blankets, because New Mexico had plenty of sheep and skilled people to weave their wool. California had horses and mules, and they formed much of the eastbound traffic. The famous “Missouri Mule” of American lore was often a California mule who crossed the Old Spanish Trail to New Mexico and then the Santa Fé Trail to Independence, Mo.

So it went for about 20 years, from 1830 to 1850, when the Old Spanish Trail fell into disuse — mostly because it was superseded by a better route.

During the Mexican War of 1846, General Stephen Watts Kearney led his Army of the West from Santa Fé to southern California on a more direct, southerly route that quickly evolved into a wagon road. Then came the California gold rush of 1849, making San Francisco a more popular destination than Los Angeles.

The northerly Overland Trail, a more direct route into the booming Bay area, thereby ascended into history — while the Old Spanish Trail faded in both memory and historical recognition.

FOR THE MOST PART, historians have ignored the Old Spanish Trail. Over the years, publishers have neglected the trail, and many local writers have never even heard of it.

To remedy that situation, the Old Spanish Trail Association is actively seeking members and will hold its first official meeting in Del Norte on June 4. In the meantime, the group is collecting printed and photographic archives, and establishing a non-circulating library and a newsletter. They’re interested in forming local chapters all along the 1,200 miles of trail through New Mexico, Colorado, Utah, Nevada and California. And they’re trying to reach any knowledgeable parties who know of Old Spanish Trail-related research, studies, and sites.

Without markers or monuments to promote public interest, the Old Spanish Trail has largely faded from public consciousness.

Yet the West chronicled by Zebulon Pike in 1806 had been influenced by Europeans for more than 200 years.

The American West was never empty in the sense that our schoolbooks implied. When Zebulon Pike, and Lewis and Clark, “discovered” it, the West already had towns, people and commerce.

Long before the Spanish explorers arrived, the West was home to Anasazi cities and Pueblan towns.

To that West, the Spanish brought horses, metals and Catholicism. The trappers brought beads, kettles and blankets. The traders brought flour, sugar, wagons, and that precursor of today’s shopping mall, the trading post.

The completed Old Spanish Trail only served for twenty years, but it bridged the progression of New Spain, Mexico and the United States.

The trail was established as a trade route, but it was also a place where Spanish, American and Indian cultures came together.

The resurrection of the trail should encourage research and interest — for there couldn’t be a better time, to explore one long, rocky road that made us into one nation, and one people, albeit diverse, but all of us Americans.

And then, perhaps, someday our textbook manufacturers will consider consolidating all of us into one history that includes everyone — in both the eastern and western United States.