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Old Spanish Trail - Historical Overview

About the Old Spanish Trail

Oro Grande Wash, Victorville, Old Spanish Trail
Oro Grande wash, Victorville, CA

The Old Spanish National Historic Trail was designated as part of the National Trails System in 2002. The trail connected New Mexico’s frontier colonies to their counterparts in southern California in the early 19th century.

There was money to be made in transporting New Mexico serapes and other woolen goods to Los Angeles, and in wrangling California-bred horses and mules back to Santa Fe. But a viable overland route across the remote deserts and mountains of Mexico’s far northern frontier had to be found. Spain’s colonists had sought an overland route between New Mexico and California for more than 50 years.

Mexican trader Antonio Armijo led the first commercial caravan from Abiquiú, New Mexico, to Los Angeles late in 1829. Over the next 20 years, Mexican and American traders traveled variants of the route that Armijo pioneered, frequently trading with Indian tribes along the way.

The complex network known today as the Old Spanish Trail evolved from a combination of indigenous footpaths, early trade and exploration routes, and good pasture and water for the pack trains and stock drives. After the United States took control of the Southwest in 1848, other routes to California emerged, and use of the Old Spanish Trail sharply declined.

The Old Spanish Trail was primarily a mule pack route between Santa Fe and Los Angeles, which developed partly from a network of American Indian and Hispanic trade routes. Although primarily a trade thoroughfare, it also was used by explorers, trappers, prospectors, and immigrants. In 1847, Mormons initiated wagon travel along the western half of the trail while traveling between Salt Lake City and Los Angeles. The Mormon wagon route replicated or paralleled the Old Spanish Trail for most of the distance between the present-day communities of Paragonah, Utah, and San Bernardino, California.

Two main routes emerged—the Armijo (Southern) Route and the Northern Route. The North Branch of the Old Spanish Trail through the San Luis Valley and Gunnison River country of Colorado and eastern Utah was a variant of the Northern Route. Fur trappers were the predominant users of the North Branch. It is commonly said that the Old Spanish Trail was neither “old” nor “Spanish.” The first documented use of the name came from John C. Frémont in the 1840s, and the name was picked up and used by others, principally Anglo-American travelers. Nineteenth-century Mexican traders in New Mexico referred to it as the "Camino de California," and Californios referred to it as the "Camino de Santa Fe"

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About the Old Spanish Trail

American Indian groups

Spanish colonial interest

In late summer of 1826

A major variation of the Old Spanish Trail

The major reason for travel

There was considerable legal trade

Some of the vast fur trade

Hispanic New Mexican families

Americans and other foreigners

With the American takeover of California

Over the years a number of military groups

Overall, use of the Old Spanish Trail

Detail from Fremont's 1848 explorations map

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These items are historical in scope and are intended for educational purposes only; they are not meant as an aid for travel planning.
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