The Northwest area of the Old Spanish Trail is represented by the North Branch of OSTA.
Jonathan Carr, President, 970-260-6424
On a cool Spring morning, a group of elementary students step off a bus near Whitewater. One of them points excitedly and yells, “Look, there are two coyotes!”
Sure enough, less than 10 minutes from downtown Grand Junction, two coyotes are loping across a bluff heading for the Gunnison River. Only a few minutes away, centuries-old petroglyphs grace a cliff-side wall.* A few miles to the west lay the wide expanse of a campsite used in the 1850s by a military expedition of 300 men and a thousand horses and mules.
These are reminders of a wilder, more primitive time in our valley, a time where a rugged trail and Native Americans and early Spaniards made their mark on our area’s history. Welcome to the Old Spanish Trail – North Branch.
Centuries before there were buildings, highways, and malls, the North Branch was the path taken by early travelers. It crossed into Mesa County near the Delta county line before following the Gunnison River. At a point approximately 7 miles from Whitewater, on Orchard Mesa, early travelers headed almost due north towards the Colorado River at a well-known ford. After crossing the river, they then headed west (more or less), towards what is now Rabbit Valley before entering Utah.
From Orchard Mesa, however, to a point near Rabbit Valley, the trail is paved over, built on, eroded away, gone.
Certainly, 17th and 18th century Spaniards searching for gold and the fountain of youth criss-crossed the Southwest, but 19th century OST travelers who first set eyes on our Grand Valley were a blood mix of Spaniards and Native Americans – not conquistadors in gleaming armor on fiery destriers. They were scrappy fur traders, Catholic priests, and unscrupulous slavers of Native Americans, moving goods by mule trains from Santa Fe to San Gabriel, California and back again.
It was a difficult trail, not suitable for the large, heavy wagons of the day, with steep terrain sometimes clinging to the side of a perilous cliff. In many areas the trail sashayed around knolls or hills, to and fro across ravines and trending up to bluffs that would have provided travelers good advantage points, looking for something to eat, or unfriendlies.
The first well-documented description of our area came from the journey of Padres Dominguez and Escalante journey in 1776-1777. The two padres were primarily intent on converting the natives, but fortunately they had healthy curiosities about the lands they were traveling and claiming for the Spanish throne. Their detailed journal is a seminal work; the path they followed into Western Colorado would later be the basis of the North Branch of the Old Spanish Trail.
The padres left Santa Fe in July of 1776 heading north by northwest following trails that had been used for centuries by Native Americans; a month later, near the present Utah-Colorado border, the group turned northeast over the Uncompahgre before coming into what is now Delta and Mesa Counties. They followed a trail that would take them over Grand Mesa – which would have been especially enticing after the hot desert treks with its lakes, an abundance of edible plants and of course game. They descended (possibly) Plateau Creek down to the Colorado River before entering Utah.
Some years later, the North Branch would follow more of a northerly direction from Santa Fe, to Taos, then into Colorado via Saguache, over Cochetopa Pass into Gunnison, and on to Montrose, Delta and Mesa Counties.
Three wars helped shape the Old Spanish Trail:
- The war for Mexican independence from Spain, ending in 1821. This marked the beginning of tremendous pressure to exploit the Southwest. While a young America in New England was struggling with creating a new country, the Spanish and then Mexican governments were looking for ways to increase trade and consolidate land interests.
- The Mexican-American war of 1849. America wins and is anxious to put its military stamp on the new lands it has acquired. Several military/survey expeditions in the 1850s and subsequent maps and journals help to round out the picture of the OST, including the North Branch: all of them follow the trail or its segments. Bonus: gold is discovered in California the year before and now there’s a rush the Pacific coast.
- The American Civil War, 1861-1865. Military and railroad surveys of the Southwest are interrupted, but are taken up at a furious pace following the war’s end. The gold rush is replaced by a land rush and building railroads becomes a high-stakes priority. Much of our modern-day road and rail systems follow the nation’s historic trails and the Old Spanish Trail is no exception. A century later, I-70 follows or parallels much of the OST.
While the “glory” days of the OST, including the North Branch, encompassed a little more than 20 years, compare it with the much-vaunted Oregon Trail, the subject of innumerable novels, histories, TV shows and movies. That trail saw its peak from 1846 to 1869, about…20 years.
Making the various historical connections using 150-year-old letters, journals, diaries and whatnot is made even more challenging by the lack of what can only be called standardization. For example, some documents from the 1850s refer to the Blue River. That river would later be called the Grand, which would eventually be called the Colorado. During that same period, the Grand River was mentioned – but wait, the name of that river eventually became the Gunnison. What’s in a name, anyway, since professional and amateur historians alike have had to contend with pieces and parts of the Old Spanish Trail being called, at various times, the Great Salt Lake Trail, Trappers Trail, even the Mormon Trail.