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Old Spanish Trail - Historical Overview

With the American takeover of California

With the American takeover of California, there was a strong interest in completing a railroad connection to the Pacific, and competition between proponents of different routes to make that connection. A number of expeditions followed various northern, southern, and central routes. In 1853, Congress authorized a government survey of all the principal routes under the direction of Secretary of War Jefferson Davis, who was to submit his report in January 1854.

Lieutenant Edward Fitzgerald Beale led a group along the North Branch and then down the main Old Spanish Trail to California in 1853. Beale had been appointed as Indian Commissioner to California. Senator Thomas Hart Benton secured Beale’s appointment and the funding for his trip. Gwinn Harris Heap, Beale’s cousin and a newspaperman, wrote a widely distributed account of the trip, which was very favorable to the route through Cochetopa Pass.

In 1853, Captain John Williams Gunnison led an expedition to explore a possible 38th parallel railroad route across Cochetopa Pass. After entering the San Luis Valley in Colorado, the group followed the North Branch of the Old Spanish Trail into western Colorado. In Utah, the group followed parts of the Old Spanish Trail. On October 26, after leaving the Old Spanish Trail, a group from the expedition was attacked, reportedly by Paiute Indians; Gunnison and others were killed, leaving only four survivors. The main party reached the scene two days later, and First Lieutenant Edward G. Beckwith led them to Salt Lake City.

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