Traipsin’, tradin’ and explorin’

Photo courtesy John M. Motter
During the early 1900s, this picturesque pioneer family and its team living on the West Fork of the San Juan River were all dressed up and ready to trot into Pagosa Springs, maybe to stock up with a sack of flour, a little coffee, some kerosene for the lanterns and, oh, yes, a little gossip exchange along the lines of, “Do you believe what she did?”

Santa Fe merchant Antonio Armijo is credited with making the first trip over what we remember as the Old Spanish Trail from New Mexico to California in 1829-1830. When Armijo returned, the governor of New Mexico immediately reported the success of his journey to his superiors in Mexico City.
As a reward, the governor officially named Armijo “Commander for the Discovery of the Route to California.” Armijo’s route was documented by him in a report to the governor and published by the Mexican government in 1830.
Traders began using his route for what was normally a single, annual round trip. However, due to hostilities with the Navajo Indians, the Armijo route west to the Crossing of the Fathers Ford of the Colorado River was abandoned and a new route was adopted which used the trails of the southern fur trappers headquartered in Taos through Ute lands. This route ran northwest to the Colorado and Green rivers, then crossed over to the Sevier River and followed it until crossing westward over mountains to the vicinity of Parowan, Utah. From there it ran southward to the Santa Clara River where it rejoined the Armijo route to California.
The venture normally consisted of one pack train of mules with from 20 to 200 packers and twice as many mules which left Santa Fe in early November with goods such as serapes and blankets hand-woven by Indians. California had many horses and mules, often running wild. The only market for these equines prior to the opening of the Santa Fe Trail was a long ocean journey around the southern tip of South America to Europe or the east coast of the United States.
Usually, two blankets were traded for one horse. Mules were worth more than horses. The trading parties normally left New Mexico in early November to take advantage of winter rains while crossing the extensive desserts.
They reached Los Angeles in early February, then left Los Angeles in early April to return over the same trails before the water holes dried up and melting snow made flooding rivers difficult to cross. The return party often included from several hundred to several thousand horses and mules.
Next week we’ll talk about the lucrative slave trade developed as the result of traipsin’ across the Old Spanish Trail.

This story was posted on May 21, 2019.