For a brief period in the 19th century, an arduous winding trail that took merchants from the arid deserts of New Mexico through the rocky plateaus of Colorado, eventually leaving them on the southern California coast, was the most popular trading route in the country.
The Old Spanish Trail, the name stemmed from John C. Fremont's 1844 report for the U.S. Topographical Corps, is a roughly 700-mile network of various footpaths used extensively by traders from its establishment in 1829 until the mid-1850s. Indigenous people living in the area had already established some of the paths by the time Spanish colonists came to explore the territory of New Spain in the 18th century and Fremont's report highlights that the trail had already been in use for roughly 15 years before he traveled it with guide Kit Carson.
The eastern portion of the Old Spanish Trail, which winds through southwest Colorado and southeast Utah, was initially traveled by Juan Maria de Rivera, a Spanish colonist, in 1765. Other colonists and friars attempted to forge a path from New Mexico to southern California but failed.
Francisco Garces, a missionary in the vice-royalty of New Spain, used a portion of what would become the Old Spanish Trail to get from the southwest village of Mohave up to Monterey on the California coast.
However, the Mexican merchant and trader who officially established the route from New Mexico to Los Angeles was Antonio Armijo.
In 1829, Armijo led 60 mules and 100 men across the rocky arid plateaus in northwest New Mexico and northeast Arizona before cutting back south through the bottom tip of Nevada, eventually settling in the isolated territory of Los Angeles. Armijo used a combination of pathways including Indigenous hunting paths, Jedediah Smith's 1826 and 1827 routes and Rafael Rivera's 1828 route to the San Gabriel Mission along the Mojave River. Armijo documented his route on a report that was published by the Mexican government in June 1830.
Later that year, however, the Armijo route west of the Colorado River was no longer viable because of increased tensions with the native Navajo who were continually pushed out and purged by Spanish and American settlers.
The trading parties along the path were relatively small, often consisting of as few as 20 people and rarely more than 200, and mostly carried hand-woven baskets, blankets and other goods. Since horses and mules were wild and abundant in California at the time, the goods would often be traded for wild horses. Trading parties would usually leave New Mexico in early November and arrive in California in early February. The return party would usually leave California in early April before the snowmelt made the rivers too high to traverse.
A small number of immigrants traveled along the Old Spanish Trail, eventually settling in Alta California. A few of them eventually became politically influential early in the state's history like John A. Rowland, William Wolfskill and Benjamin Davis Wilson.
Much of the Indigenous resistance along the trail stemmed from the insidious slave trade that was bolstered by the original route. Women and children in Paiute tribes were often taken as servants for Mexican rancheros.
Despite the more insidious side of trade on the trail, the network of paths weaving the throughout the southwest served as one of the first trading paths to the isolated territory of California. The trade and culture commonly understood as Californian today would not have been possible without early traders traversing the difficult paths of the Old Spanish Trail. Similarly, much of the culture and many of the goods commonly associated with the southwest would not have been as easily dispersed without the advent of the Old Spanish Trail. The network of pathways that took traders from the high desert to the California coast laid the groundwork for modern American culture and trade.
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