The History of the Old Spanish Trail

Local News

(As part of Hispanic Heritage Month, is presenting stories of that heritage in Western Colorado. This is the first in a series of stories we will be doing over the next month.)

One local trail is a symbol of the sacrifices early settlers made that marked an historical route. Today it is a prime destination for mountain biking, hiking and horse back riding. 

A system of trails spread across New Mexico to California tell us the struggles early frontiers faced in an effort to transport goods and open trade between Spanish settlers.

“It’d be the dream of the Spanish for decades, even centuries. to open up a land route between their provinces in Central Mexico up to New Mexico and also along the Pacific Coast, open a land route to California,” said Peter Booth, Executive Director of the Museums of Western Colorado.   

The attempts of trying to find a route began in 1765 by a Spanish explorer, Juan Maria Antonio Rivera. He left Santa Fe, NM to present-day Colorado passing through regions inhabited by tribes. But Rivera fell short and never found the route to California. 

In 1776, two Franciscan Priests, Silvestre Velez Escalante and Franscisco Atanasio Dominguez, took the Spanish exploration in the northern frontier further. 

Booth said, “They were also interested in locating various rumors and stories of people that didn’t fit the the normal mold of what they thought Native people would be.” 

But because of the harsh trail conditions, their expedition was brought to an end. However the Fathers made it to modern-day Utah and Northern Arizona. 

“Their journals that they recorded that way went a long way to further in the Spaniards knowledge what this area had and what it had to offer.” 

Spanish authorities banned citizens from the U.S. from trading with the northern frontier of New Spain. But once Mexico gained its independence from Spain in 1821, the embargo was lifted. 

“Traders started filtering into and then later pouring into Northern New Mexico, Taos, to Santa Fe, opening the Santa Fe trail.” 

The Santa Fe trail sparked an explosion of trade in Northern New Mexico which inspired Antonio Armijo, a Santa Fe merchant, to once again seek a land route that would become known as the Old Spanish Trail , a 1,200 mile route from New Mexico to California. 

What became known as the first successful route, was named the Armijo Route. It is one of three corridors that was established to make it to the West Coast. 

“The Northern Route that went through what is now Moab and the Northern Branch which is the route that comes through modern-day Grand Junction.” 

Armijo led one of the most legendary expeditions resulting a significant trade market. 

“You could sell that same mule that cost you 2 pesos in California, for 20 pesos in New Mexico.” 

John C. Fremont, who wasn’t aware of the trail’s history, is credited with the naming of the established route. Today a small portion of the trail can be found in Whitewater as it remains an historical and important part of Western Slope history. 

In 2002, George W. Bush signed a legislation that made the route a national historic site. 

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