The California gold rush, triggered by the 1848 discovery of placer gold at Sutter’s Mill on the American River, had a significant influence on Pagosa Country history. Among the trails across the Rocky Mountains followed by fortune seekers headed for their California Eldorado was the Old Spanish Trail.
In fact, there are many trails by that name in the western United States. The trail by that name we are interested in connected Santa Fe, N.M., with Southern California. On its way westward, this trail crossed the southwestern corner of today’s Archuleta County. The first white settlement in the county, maybe in the southwestern corner of Colorado, may have been at Carracas, where the Old Spanish Trail crossed the San Juan River.
Tourists visiting Pagosa Springs are not pointed to Carracas and many of our community’s more recent settlers may not know Carracas exists, or at best, may not know of its significant participation in our early history.
The best description of the Old Spanish Trail was written by Dr. Leroy R. and wife Ann W. Hafen in 1954. It is titled “The Old Spanish Trail, Santa Fe to Los Angeles.” Hafen’s illustrious career included 30 years, 1924 to 1954, as the Colorado state historian.
The origin of the old trail is lost in the murky years of old New Mexico history. We know that early explorers of the Southwest such as Juan Maria Rivera, led by Native American guides, used portions of the trail as early as 1765. The Dominguez-Escalante party followed the trail into central Utah in 1776. There are sketchy remnants of stories about trade between New Mexico’s early settlers and the Native Americans living along the route.
Following is an account of an 1813 trading expedition: “An expedition of seven men, under the leadership of Mauricio Arze and Largos Garcia, left the frontier settlement of Abiquiu on the Rio Chama on March 16 to trade with the Utes. Upon the party’s return, five months later, they were immediately apprehended and brought before Manuel Garcia, Alcalde of the Villa de Santa Cruz de la Canada (now a part of Española), for failing to have proper trade credentials, as well as having twelve Indian captives in their possession. The notarized accounts of the hearing relate that the Arze-Garcia expedition had proceeded to Utah valley(the general Provo area) where they remained three days waiting for the Indians to assemble, so that trade could commence. When the Utes finally gathered, according to Arze and Garcia, the Utes would barter nothing but Paiute slaves — ‘as they had done on other occasions.’ When this offer was rejected, the Indians became infuriated, and before their chiefs succeeded in quieting the tribesmen, eight horses and one mule belonging to the Spanish had been killed.”
Continued next week.