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Crestone Eagle, April 2007:
Crestone was a stop along the Old Spanish Trail
by Mary Lowers
has been designated as a stop on the Northern Branch of the
Old Spanish Trail, part of an ancient trading road, with roots
in native trade routes, at the furthest northern reaches of
the territories of Spain and later Mexico. Why were the Spanish
and Mexicans interested in our obscure and very unpopulated
area? What motivated them to travel and explore the northern
Valley, and what evidence do we have of their presence here?
As all students of history know, boundaries of nations come
and go over time. From the late sixteenth to the mid nineteenth
centuries the area of Crestone was the furthest northern boundary
of Spain and, after the Mexican Revolution, of Mexico. The
first European exploration of the Valley and the Southwest
was the work of Spanish explorers searching for the elusive
“seven cities of gold”. This legend, which proved
inaccurate, said incredibly wealthy cities lay to the north
of the desert lands of the modern Mexican border.
We often forget that the northern territories became the
first permanent European settlement in the American Southwest.
As with all empires the border areas were vital to security,
and the Spanish kept a close watch on their territories in
“el Norte” to protect them from the French, English
and later the American interests.
The first wave of Spanish settlement was the victim of the
Pueblo Revolt of 1680. This cleverly contrived rebellion successfully
removed the European presence from the Valley and New Mexico
until 1692, when Diego de Vargas began a slow reconquest of
the Rio Grande pueblos culminating in the last Pueblo Revolt
in 1696. Many records were lost after the first Pueblo Revolt.
Census data from 1790 estimates that 15,000 Spanish settlers
lived in the northern territories. Census data estimates the
entire population of Spain’s New World Territories in
1790 at 27,709, a total which shows the decimation a European
disease such as small pox had on the population. The Royal
Road, or Camino Real del Norte, joined up in the Valley with
the main branch of the Camino Real going south to the capitol
of Mexico City. Pieces of this road can be identified in the
Valley; in fact I have cut firewood on the Royal Road high
up in the mountains between Taos and Picuris Pueblo. The track
of this trade route is still discernable. The northern Valley
was more sparsely settled than the southern section due to
the vast wetlands which crossed the Valley north of San Luis
and La Jara. In fact our end of the Valley had large tracts
labeled the San Luis Lake by Spanish explorers!
The place names in the Valley give evidence of Spanish and
Mexican influence. Del Norte, Monte Vista, La Garita, La Jara,
Antonito, San Luis are just a few town monikers in the northern
Valley that indicate Spanish roots. Petroglyphs up and down
the Valley show Spanish adding to ancient Native rock art.
A stunning example of this is the Guadalupe located near Penitente
Canyon on the west side of the Valley.
There is indirect evidence of mining activity by the Spanish/
Mexican settlers all along the La Garita, San Juan and Sangre
de Cristo Mountains. An Old Spanish arrastre, a primitive
system for extracting ore, was located in Cedar Gulch just
south of Crestone, indicating mineral milling operations there.
Some of the white honeycombed quartz rocks from the site are
headstones in Crestone Cemetery today. Legends of Old Spanish
mines abound around here. The phantom Spanish mine is allegedly
somewhere between the Sand Dunes and the Wet Mountain Valley,
waiting to make some lucky treasure hunter rich.
After Mexico achieved independence from Spain in 1820, more
energy was expended in reinforcing the Mexican claim on the
northern territories, and large land grants were issued in
the 1830s and 1840s to encourage settlement. An early land
grant was the Baca Land Grant, which at the time extended
from Las Vegas, NM to Crestone. The treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo,
which ended the Spanish American war in 1846, caused the further
division of the Baca land grant into four sections, the section
closest to Crestone being Baca grant #4.
By the mid 1800s many settlers from the south had established
“cordillera” or plaza farming settlements in the
northern Valley. Mexican authorities patrolled the northern
reaches of their territory for smugglers, who were mainly
fur trappers looking for a wealth in beaver pelts and trying
to avoid the hefty duty the Mexican government imposed on
trapping in their territory. Trappers and explorers, like
Zebulon Pike who established a stockade in Mexican Territory
near Conejos, were often taken prisoner and transported to
Santa Fe or Mexico for questioning by suspicious authorities.
After the Spanish American War (1846-1848) made the Valley
part of United States, American explorers used the northern
branch of the Old Spanish Trail to explore and map their new
territory. Searching for mail and railroad routes in 1850,
Capt. Gunnison followed the Old Spanish trail, camping on
Blanca Creek, Medano Creek, Sand Creek (where they encountered
a herd of wild horses), Deadman’ s Creek, Crestone Creek
and Rito Alto Creek. In 1853 the Fremont Party crossed the
Sangres via Medano Pass, traversing the east end of the Sand
Dunes and camping in the vicinity of present day Crestone,
where they picked up the Old Spanish Trail. In his journals,
Fremont speaks of “a camp selected in an immense natural
deer park,” that is assumed to be Crestone.
The first mail routes in the Valley followed the Old Spanish
Trail. The first post office here was established in 1872.
Called Crestonie, this post office was located in a three
room adobe house on the Baca Ranch, built originally by Luis
Maria Baca in 1823. In the complex historical layers that
comprise historical human settlement of the northern Valley,
evidence of the area that is now present day Crestone as a
stop on the Old Spanish Trail and a once proud outpost of
the Spanish Empire is compelling. Viva el Norte!
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