Old Spanish Trail

In Heritage by JMorgan0 Comments

The Old Spanish Trail, which followed a sinuous route between the two Spanish centers, Santa Fe in New Mexico and Los Angles in California evolved slowly. It was not firmly established as an animal pack train route, largely encompassing well used Indian trails until about 1830. Few physical scars of the early treks remain along its 1200 mile length. River fords, water holes, forage for pack stock, terrain and relations with indigenous Indians dictated passable routes. Much has been written and documented about the main route of the Trail, 1which assumed a horseshoe shaped arc northwest from Santa Fe. After reaching a ford on the Colorado River, the trail continued on to its northern apogee 2 soon after another passable crossing of the Green River. Both these fords had been very heavily used for countless years. Soon after fording the Green River, the trail swung to the southwest, a direction it followed until reaching the California settlements.

While the route of the Main or South Branch of the Old Spanish Trail has been studied and documented for years, certain variants have been slighted. Specifically, these were shortcuts or spur trails which branched off the Main Trail, going almost due north from Santa Fe, and rejoining it hundreds of miles later. These routes led into the interior areas of northern New Mexico , western Colorado, and north central and eastern Utah. Used sporadically early on, these trail became very heavily traveled after the 1820s. Later known as the North Branch of the Old Spanish Trail, this route possibly predates the Main Trail by many years. The geographic area encompassed the river drainage of the upper Rio Grande, and the major upper Colorado River Basin. The major mountain ranges include the Sangre de Christo, San Juan, Elk, Uncompahgre, Grand Mesa, Roan/Bookcliff, and Wasatch.

The North Branch split off from the Old Spanish Trail north of Santa Fe, just prior to reaching the Taos Pueblo, an established trade center long used by the Indians. 3 A variant route, the first of many, was made at the San Juan Pueblo, where the North Branch split into an east – west route, following each side of the deep gorge of the Rio Grande. The two routes rejoined near present-day Saguache, Colorado, to continue northward over Cochetopa Pass where the trail split again, with various routes heading northward to present Delta, Colorado. Still heading in a northerly direction, the North Branch went on to one of the few fordable crossings of the Colorado River at present day Grand Junction, Colorado. Once across the Colorado River, the trail assumed a westerly direction to connect with the Main route of the Old Spanish Trail, as short distance before reaching the major crossing of the Green River, immediately above Green River, Utah.

  1. See Leroy R. and Ann W. Hafen, Old Spanish Trail (University of Nebraska Press, 1954; reprint 1993); C. Gregory Crampton and Stephen K. Madsen, In Search of the Old Spanish Trail (Salt Lake City: Gibbs-Smith Publishing, 1994), passim.
  2. The term apogee refers to…  the most distant or higher point.
  3. Moody, The Old Trails West, 153. Taos Pueblo has long been a trade center heavily used by the Utes and other desert and mountain Indians in their trading activities with the native groups from the plains. Taos, located as it was on a major trade route, was well-known by the Native Americans well before the founding of Santa Fe around 1600.

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