Traipsin’, tradin’ and explorin’


Photo courtesy John M. Motter
County Judge Fil Byrne is showing his age here in his courthouse office circa 1932. Byrne was one of the early county pioneers, having arrived circa 1878, when he served as the first local school teacher and first superintendent of county schools. Throughout his long career in Pagosa Country, Byrne served the community in almost every position, ending as you see him after serving eight years as county judge. Byrne was born in Ohio in 1858 and passed away in 1932.

The Old Spanish Trail is a historic trade route connecting northern New Mexico settlements in the Santa Fe vicinity with Hispaño settlements in southern California, especially in the Los Angeles area, first known as El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora la Reina de los Angeles, which translates into English as the Town of Our Lady the Queen of the Angels.
This 700-mile-long trail is an important part of Pagosa Country history because for decades traders clip-clopped back and forth across the southwestern part of Pagosa Country, mostly to sell cotton in Los Angeles and horses in New Mexico.
Traveling on the Old Spanish Trail was not a task for cowards. The trail ran through areas of high mountains, deserts and deep cañons. Many historians consider it to have been one of the most arduous of all trade routes ever established in the United States.
First traveled in part by the 1776 Dominguez-Escalante expedition, the trail saw extensive use by pack animals from about 1830 until the mid-1850s.
The name for the trail comes from the publication of John C. Fremont’s report of his 1844 journey for the U.S. Topographical Corps, guided by Kit Carson, from California to New Mexico. Fremont’s report named a trail that had already been in use for more than 15 years. Fremont became known back east as “Pathfinder of the West” for his western adventures, but Kit Carson was more deserving of that honor.
In truth, Fremont was responsible for one of the more infamous blunders out West when he led an exploration party. Fremont was looking for a railroad passage across the Rocky Mountains during the dead of winter with the intent of proving the pass could be used summer or winter. Several mountain men refused to guide Fremont when they learned he intended to cross the mountains a little north of today’s Creede during the dead of winter. Freemont finally convinced Old Bill Williams to be his guide. The expedition on Fremont’s frozen course began with 33 men and 120 mules. When Williams recommended Cochetopa Pass, Fremont fired Williams and hired guides unfamiliar with these particular mountains and continued on his chosen course. Ultimately 10 men and 120 mules surrendered their lives to the deep snow and bitter cold.
Next week we continue by describing contributions to the Old Spanish Trail made by others such as Father Garces and Jedediah Smith.