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Old Spanish Trail - Historical Overview

Over the Years

Bitter Springs - Fort Irwin
Over the years, a number of military groups and expeditions followed portions or all of the Old Spanish Trail.

At the forefront of exploration of the West was the U.S. Army Corps of Topographic Engineers—and the most famous member of that group was John C. Frémont. Like most of his colleagues, Frémont was a firm believer in manifest destiny. Already renowned for his earlier explorations, Frémont led a wideranging expedition across the West in 1843-1844. His primary objective was to travel from Missouri to Oregon. When he reached Fort Vancouver, his official duty was done, but he chose to head south into California, exploring along the way. In southern California the expedition picked up the Old Spanish Trail. It left the trail in southwest Utah, continued north to Utah Lake, went east along the Uinta Mountains and into Colorado, south to Pueblo, and then east back to St. Louis. In his writings, Frémont referred to the trail as the “Spanish Trail,” a designation that was picked up by others, thus leading to the popular name for the trail. Frémont published maps and detailed descriptions of the Amargosa River variant of the Old Spanish Trail.

Kit Carson carried military dispatches on several trips, some of them along the Old Spanish Trail. In late 1847, he carried dispatches west along the Old Spanish Trail. In 1848, Carson again traveled with dispatches east from Los Angeles along the Old Spanish Trail to Santa Fe and on to Washington, D.C. George Brewerton, who accompanied Carson, kept an account of the trip, which contains some of the most detailed stories of travel along the trail.

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.

Senator Thomas Hart Benton of Missouri, who was a strong proponent of the 38th parallel route for the railroad, secured private funding and sent a survey party led by John C. Frémont behind Gunnison. They followed Gunnison’s tracks on the North Branch and continued into Utah, following parts of the Old Spanish Trail. Entering the Rocky Mountains in December 1853, the group encountered difficulties, forcing them to first walk while the animals carried their supplies, and then to cache all but their most important baggage in order to ride. Eventually, as the animals gave out, they were eaten and their riders had to walk. The travelers suffered severe hardships and one man died. Solomon Carvalho, who wrote the account of the trip, lost 44 pounds. The party finally reached Parowan, Utah. Frémont had also led a previous expedition in 1848 for Benton exploring a 38th parallel route for the railroad in Colorado, which was not on the Old Spanish Trail, and which ended in the deaths of many of the party when the group encountered severe weather and heavy snow.

From November 1857 to January 1858, Captain Randolph B. Marcy’s party of 40 soldiers and 25 mountain men traveled a portion of the North Branch of the Old Spanish Trail en route from Fort Bridger to New Mexico to procure supplies for Army troops under General Albert Sidney Johnson, who was poised to suppress a possible insurrection in Salt Lake City. Marcy’s group suffered from severe winter weather and lack of food. After reaching Fort Union, they obtained supplies and returned via a longer, safer route.

In the summer of 1858, Colonel William W. Loring and 300 men with 50 wagons used part of the Old Spanish Trail and the North Branch to return from Camp Floyd in Utah to Fort Union. Captain John N. Macomb led an exploration into southeastern Utah in 1859. The expedition was looking for a military road and seeking the confluence of the Green and Grand Rivers. They followed a section of the Old Spanish Trail and then deviated from that route, rejoining it farther along. The expedition entered Utah near present-day Monticello and set up a base camp. They returned to Santa Fe across the San Juan Basin. A major accomplishment of the expedition was the scientific observations of geologist John S. Newberry.

In 1860, several civilians were killed, and the Paiute Indians were blamed for the deaths, although the identity of the killers and their tribes was actually unknown. Brevet Major James H. Carleton was put in command of a military unit sent forth to punish the Paiute. The troops reached the Mojave River on April 19, and scouted for Indians in the area and along parts of the Old Spanish Trail until July 3. Two groups of Indians were found and five individuals were killed. The troops found evidence of the Timbisha Shoshone tribe but did not encounter them.

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