Generations of Native Americans – including unknown tribes – would have used the well-trodden trails their ancestors traveled, and the Old Spanish Trail is no exception. Beginning in the 17th century, as Spaniards saw opportunity for growth and expansion north of Central America and Mexico, trails leading north would have been tempting.
One of the earliest documented expeditions into these areas were Friars Dominquez and Escalante, whose well-known travels established not only routes but also intriguing details about the areas now known as Colorado and Utah.
By the mid 1820’s Antione Robidoux established a small fort on the banks of the Gunnison River a short distance below the mouth of the Uncompahgre River. Only a few years later, Antonio Armijo, a merchant from Santa Fe, led 60 men and 100 mules north from Sante Fe.
These areas were ripe not only for exploration but also exploitation and fur trappers and slavers – buying or capturing Native Americans to sell in California – moved into the region. One of the better-known was Kit Carson, who was certainly one of the better-known adventurists of his time.
Puebloan Douglas Knudson’s interesting book, “Characters of the Old Spanish Trail,” introduces the reader to some of the less-famous, and in some cases unnamed and unknown, people who traveled along the Old Spanish Trail between Santa Fe, N.M., and Los Angeles. These traders took woolen goods from New Mexico to the West Coast and brought back mules and horses, during the years 1829 to 1848. The trail crossed the present states of New Mexico, Colorado, Utah, Nevada, Arizona and California.
Knudson writes that his stories of the trail involve Mexican citizens; Anglos from the U.S., Canada and England; and native peoples, including Utes, Pueblos and Navajos. The tribal groups both suffered from the trail’s impact and benefited from it, Knudson says.
Among the characters he introduces are the muleteers or arrieros who fed and watered the mules — sometimes as many as 200 of them — and who also were responsible for navigating through rivers, mountains and deserts with few maps; choosing routes that didn’t overtax the pack mules; hunting, fishing and preparing food twice a day.
Another of the trail personalities is William Gambel, a botanist, ornithologist and physician, who collected specimens along the trail (Gambel oak and Gambel’s quail) and treated gold miners suffering from typhoid fever in California.