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Retracing the Old Spanish Trail: North Branch by Ron Kessler

Review by Ed Quillen

Local history – August 1995 – Colorado Central Magazine

Retracing the Old Spanish Trail: North Branch , Today’s OST Travel Guide
by Ron Kessler
Published in 1995 by Adobe Village Press
ISBN 096440561X

As Monte Vista historian Ron Kessler points out near the start of this book, the Old Spanish Trail, though little known to mainstream American history, made possible the more famous trails. It connected New Mexico to California, source of horses and mules that were herded east to Santa Fé, then via the Santa Fé Trail to Missouri, where the livestock were pressed into service for the Oregon Trail.

If it hadn’t been for that infusion of hardy draft animals (the Missouri Mule of yore was likely a product of California), the United States could never have fulfilled the dream of “Manifest Destiny.”

The Old Spanish Trail looped northward between Santa Fé and Los Angeles. It had two major branches. The South Branch skirted the San Juan Mountains through the Four Corners region; the North Branch climbed the San Luis Valley and turned west at Cochetopa Pass. They joined near Green River, Utah, to continue west to the Pacific.

Historians have generally focused on the South Branch, primarily a pack trail. The lesser-known North Branch, which was very likely the first real wagon road in the mountains, had two forks, east and west, which diverged near present Espa$ola, N.M., and came back together at Saguache.

Trail nomenclature can be tricky at first. Kessler is writing about the North Branch of the Old Spanish Trail. Moffat and San Luis are on the East Fork of the North Branch; Antonito and Monte Vista are on the West Fork.

Kessler traces east and west forks through New Mexico, Colorado, and Utah, and organizes the book geographically, starting at Santa Fé and proceeding north and west to Green River. It is divided into sections, each suitable for a day-long drive. He provides not only Old Spanish Trail information, but brings up other accounts as well: Anza’s 1779 expedition, Frmont’s 1846 trip, Gunnison’s 1853 exploration, etc.

So, at any given spot, you get its relationship to the Old Spanish Trail, along with what early visitors had to say about it, and pointers to trail ruts, old buildings, ruins, petroglyphs, and other items of historic significance.

For example, you might follow the West Fork from Antonito north some afternoon. You’d get some Cumbres & Toltec Railroad lore and a suggested side trip to Conejos, home of the oldest church in Colorado, built in 1858. He provides detailed Trail information (i.e., it “followed the contour of the hill instead of the straight north direction direction of” the county roads, and you should “exercise some caution when roads are wet from snow or rain.”)

Proceed on, with possible side trips to Diamond Spring and Pike’s Stockade, or perhaps the ghost town of Piedra, where Anza camped on Aug 22, 1779. There are lime kilns and quarries, trail ruts and stage stops. A map (one of several by Yvonne Halburian) keeps you from getting lost in a maze of country roads.

The best way to think of this book is as an informed companion, a guide, who explains the history and historic significance of each site, shares an old-timer anecdote or two, and suggests interesting side trips, all the while providing you with your bearings so that you don’t get lost.

Kessler’s history seems pretty solid, and the book has attractive typography; the only flaws I noticed were minor lapses, the kind you find in daily newspapers.

Those can be annoying, but in general, this book is an excellent contribution to our regional lore. I know it will be in my glovebox the next time I head south with some spare time, because Kessler will show me a lot of things that I’ve driven by but never really seen.

— Ed Quillen