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The opening of the Old Spanish Trail from Santa Fe to Los Angeles circa 1820 started a flow of U.S. citizens along the route to California. The history of the trail is relevant to Pagosa Country history because the trail crossed the southwestern corner of Archuleta County at Carracas.
Many of those first Anglos who followed the trail helped lay the groundwork for the U.S. takeover of California during the 1846-1847 Mexican/American War. Many of the first U.S. inhabitants of Los Angeles and San Bernardino first crossed what would become Archuleta County. Some of these early Californians had been trappers. In 1841, William Workman and John Rowland led a large immigrant party, including women and children, to California via the trail.
Mexican trappers and traders often frequented Abiquiu, a New Mexico frontier jumping-off place for the San Juan Mountains and Great Basin states. Many accounts remain of American traders buying furs at Abiquiu.
The transportation of woolen goods, slaves and California horses and mules was started by Manuel Armijo in 1829/1830. He led a caravan of traders from Abiquiu to Los Angeles and back during those years, traveling in winter. He followed a southern branch of the trail, passing northwestward from the Tierra Amarilla area through Largo Canyon, then followed the traditional route. The journey required 86 days.
In their book titled “The Old Spanish Trail,” the Hafens described the trading journey this way: “These caravans reached California yearly at the same time. They brought the woolen fabrics of New Mexico, and carried back mules, silk and other Chinese goods.
“Los Angeles was the central point in California of the New Mexico trade. Coming by northern, or Green and Virgin river routes (Motter-rivers in Utah), the caravans came through Cajon Pass and reached Los Angeles. From thence they scattered themselves over the country from San Diego to San Jose, and across the bay to Sonoma and San Rafael. Having bartered and disposed of the goods brought, procured such as they wished to carry back, and what mules they could drive, they concentrated in Los Angeles for their yearly return.”
Unlike the Oregon Trail, the Old Spanish Trail was not passable for wagons. The journey going and coming was made on four-legged transportation — mules, horses and donkeys. The Hafens also leave us a description of the mules and their packs. From 50 to 200 mules were used for each journey. They had to be packed and unpacked each day.