The Old Spanish Trail – Tracking Down a Trail: Part 1

Filed under: Archives,Hiking,Living on the Earth |

by Lorrie Crawford & Angie Krall,

SLV Public Lands Center

Native Americans in the San Luis Valley pioneered an extensive network of routes and trails for the purpose of hunting, trade and travel.  Spanish, and later other Euroamericans, traveling through the Valley likely utilized, modified and expanded Native American trails in efforts to locate water, grazing areas, smoother terrain, and shorter distances between newly created point locations.  It is a combination of these existing Native American trails and newly created Spanish/Euroamerican trails that ultimately came to be known as the Old Spanish Trail (OST).

The Old Spanish Trail was pioneered by trader Antonio Armijo and was used from 1829-1848 as a trade route from Santa Fe, New Mexico to Los Angeles, California. Woolen textiles, woven in Northern New Mexico, were traded for strong Californian mules and horses. The Old Spanish Trail was designated a National Historic Trail by Congress in 2002.

Bunker Site artifacts clockwise: Belt keeper, knife fragment, possible awl, possible coscojo, metal fragment, unfired musket ball and another metal fragment.

The Old Spanish Trail had three branches (Map 1). A portion of the North Branch passed through the San Luis Valley and includes two forks, the East Fork and the West Fork on either side of the San Luis Valley. The East Fork of the North Branch trail variant travels from New Mexico into the San Luis Valley of Colorado and generally follows the west flanks of the Sangre de Cristo mountains through Ft. Garland, CO, north past the Great Sand Dunes and the town of Crestone. Soon thereafter, the trail appears to have turned abruptly west to the present day town of Saguache, CO. It then winds its way over Cochetopa Pass into the Gunnison Valley and on west to Los Angeles, CA. The West Fork, still being evaluated for National Historic Trail designation, ran from the Antonito and Conejos area, crossed the Rio Grande east of Del Norte, ran north to La Garita and then on towards Saguache where both forks likely met.

Textiles traded on the Old Spanish Trail were made from the wool of Churro Sheep. The wool was desirable because of its water resistance, warmth and multiple colors. Churro wool allowed weavers to create beautiful blankets, shawls and rugs with mixtures of black, white, grey, tan, rust, cinnamon, and brown.

Mules were not only a trade item but were also the primary mode of transportation used during the Old Spanish Trail period. Carrying up to 400 pounds of merchandise, mules traveled the approximately 2,400-mile trail (round trip), in caravans of 50-200 animals. Traveling 12-15 miles per day, a round trip would take from 180-225 days, assuming that nothing went wrong along the way.

The journey on the trail was difficult. Travelers had to deal with water issues—both the lack of it for drinking and the over-abundance of it for river crossings. Food for the journey had to be dried and gathered along the way. While jerky, piñon nuts, berries, and posole are enjoyable treats for many of us today, eating these foods day after day for months would not be desirable. Another concern was hostile people. Understandably, not everyone was happy to have these travelers passing through. The journey along the Old Spanish Trail was long, dangerous, tiring and very challenging. The primary trade period of the Old Spanish Trail ended when the Southwest became part of the United States, as a result of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848.

Finding traces from the Old Spanish Trail period today is difficult. Mule caravans and returning herds of horses and mules did not follow the type of trail that we are familiar with—a trail only a few feet wide. Instead, they likely wandered along wide corridors, leaving only scattered hoof prints that have since been blown or washed away. However, there are high potential segments within the San Luis Valley that have the benefit of few land developments relative to other places and constraining features such as mountains, sands and marshes that likely relegated the trail to discreet areas. Part II of Tracking Down a Trail will discuss these topographical constraints that have focused archaeologists toward long-used campsites with some exciting results.

Archaeologist Robert Wunderlich metal-detecting possible trail trace north of Crestone. photo courtesy RMC Consultants, Inc.

In 2009, the San Luis Valley Public Lands Center applied for state Bureau of Land Management (BLM) funding to inventory sections of BLM lands surrounding the East Fork of the North Branch of the Old Spanish National Historic Trail corridor north of Crestone.  RMC Consultants, Inc. was contracted by the BLM to complete an intensive cultural resource inventory of possible OST segments between Crestone and Wild Cherry Creek in Saguache County (Map 2). The Bunker family of Moffat, Colorado, alerted researchers to a site that they had found back when they ran cows on “The Baca”.  Now known as “The Bunker Site”, it is quite potentially the best potential “type site” for the Old Spanish Trail in the nation. The site has yielded artifact data that includes musket balls, metal points, trade beads, metal tinklers, metal knife handles, a fragment of a possible scrolled Spanish bit and a possible coscojo that would have adorned a bridle. All of these artifacts date nicely within the OST era of significance (1829-1848). However, it is important to note that tribal people may have been traveling the trail separately, camping in the same location, and carrying similar items with them during this period. Metal detecting on other potential segments also yielded what appear to be very old metal fragments. We will discuss more about this site in Part II of this series.

Archaeologist Robert Wunderlich metal detecting possible trail trace north of Crestone. photo courtesy RMC Consultants, Inc.

The San Luis Valley Public Lands Center works in partnership with the La Vereda del Norte Chapter of the Old Spanish Trail Association (OSTA) that sponsors events and activities around the history of the Trail. For more information or to become a member visit the OSTA website: www.oldspanishtrail.org. For more information about membership and activities sponsored by the La Vereda del Norte Chapter, you can also contact Ken Frye at 719-852-6233.

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