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“The Old Spanish Trail”

Southwest Crossroads Spotlight

Less well known today than the Old Santa Fe Trail, the Old Spanish Trail was a dynamic feature of the early days in the Spanish American Southwest. Long before the explorers and missionaries from Spain worked their way up from Old Mexico into Alta California and Nuevo Mexico, Native Americans living in this region knew their way around. For hundreds, maybe thousands of years, they traveled a vast network of trails between settlements from the Pacific coast to the Rio Grande and beyond, extending towards the Atlantic coast. Along these trails, people carried trade goods, including slaves. They also brought their languages and customs.

Trails“Trails,” Deborah Reade (Artist)

During the 1700s, Mexican traders and fur trappers defined the Old Spanish Trail by forging shortcuts between portions of the old Indian pathways. The Old Spanish Trail extended for 1,200 miles from two trailheads. Those taking the southern fork started at Abiquiu, the last European settlement east of Santa Fe. Those taking the northern fork west began at Taos. The Mexican traders weren’t the only ones on the trail. Utes and other Native Americans traveled on it, and later Anglo American trappers, traders, entrepreneurs, and settlers used it to cross the continent. The Old Spanish Trail ran through desert floors and plateaus and followed river tributaries through the present-day states of New Mexico, Colorado, Utah, Arizona, Nevada, and California. It led north through Utah so that travelers could avoid the enormous Grand Canyon of the Colorado River.

By the 1800s, caravans set out from Santa Fe in October before the winter snows and journeyed for two and a half months to reach the village of Los Angeles on the Pacific coast. They often carried cloth, including blankets and serapes woven by Rio Grande people who had a surplus from their vast sheep herds. The traders returned to Santa Fe in April, before spring runoff from melting snow made the rivers impossible to ford. They brought back horses and mules from California ranchers. Along the way, traders sometimes bought or captured Indians to sell them at both ends of the trail as servants and laborers. At one time, Paiute boys brought in $100 and girls $150 to $200. In return, Native Americans captured and enslaved or sold Hispano children.

Use of the Old Spanish Trail declined after the Mexican War (1846-48), when the United States Army blazed a new southern trail to California. The Old Spanish Trail became one of many east-west routes. Although Mormon travelers improved the western length of the trail from Salt Lake City to Los Angeles so that wagons could travel over it in the mid-1800s, people stopped using the rest of the trail. Today a map of the trail exists for hikers and those who want to walk the footpaths of history.