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Last week, we introduced Capt. John M. Macomb, the army’s chief topographical engineer in New Mexico, who was in command of an 1859 expedition tasked with exploring the eastern portion of the Old Spanish Trail that ran from Santa Fe to Los Angeles years before there was any settlement in western Colorado. Macomb gives us our first written description of Pagosa Country.
Macomb’s group left Santa Fe in a northerly direction following the Rio Grande River in the middle of July, soon turned up the Chama River, passed through Abiquiu, and crossed the Chama at El Vado. We are describing Macomb’s route using present-day place names that, for the most part, did not exist in 1859.
Macomb’s party, judging from the map he left, split just south of Tierra Amarilla. The western group continued northward past Horse Lake and through Edith, camped on the Navajo River on the 10th day, camped the next night north of the junction of the Blanco and Little Blanco Rivers, and on the 12th day camped at Pagosa Springs.
The other group followed an eastern route along the Chama River upstream. Near the present location of Chama, the party appeared to follow the west fork of that river to the Navajo River, then continued north but east of the first party until they reunited at the Blanco River. Macomb’s route west of Pagosa Springs approximated the current route of U.S. 160 until reaching the vicinity of Mancos, where it tuned in a northerly direction.
After leaving Pagosa Springs, they camped at the east end of the Nutria River (Stollsteimer Creek), then on successive nights on the Piedra River and probably Beaver Creek. After continuing westward to the vicinity of Mancos, they veered to the northwest to the junction of the Green and Colorado Rivers in Utah. They returned to New Mexico by a route south of their original route, crossed the San Juan River near the mouth of Largo Canyon, and followed the canyon back to the Chama River north of Abiquiu.
Macomb’s trip added much to the knowledge of the San Juan Mountains and Pagosa Country. Firstly, he pretty much proved that no wagon road or railroad should be built to follow the Old Spanish Trail to California. A civil engineer attached to the party, C.H. Dimmock, made a sketch of the route. Another staff member of the party made sketches of geographical features such as the Pagosa Hot Springs and Chimney Rock. Secondly, gold was found in the San Juans precipitating a gold rush and settlement.