Spanish Trail, Utah

The History of the Spanish Trail

The Spanish Trail was a 1,200-mile long northward-looping trade route mainly utilized in the early 19th century. It traversed six states along its northward-looping course: New Mexico, Colorado, Utah, Arizona, Nevada, and California. A direct route proved impossible because hostile Indian tribes, such as the Apaches, Mojaves, and Navajos, and the spectacular canyons of the Colorado River system, such as the Grand Canyon, stood in the way. To try to avoid these obstacles, the trail pushed north from Santa Fe to present-day Green River, Utah, in order to pass through open country. From Green River, it proceeded at nearly a 45-degree angle through today’s Washington County on its way to Los Angeles. In southwestern Utah, the trail passed through Mountain Meadows, known in the trail’s heyday as “Las Vegas de Santa Clara.” From Mountain Meadows, it turned south down two tributaries of the Santa Clara River, Magotsu Creek and Moody Wash, until it reached the main river. The trail left the river where it bends to the east and climbed over the Beaver Dam Mountains, following nearly the same course as old U.S. Highway 91. Utah contained the longest portion of the trail at 460 miles.

New Mexican traders traveled the route the most. They carried items such as woolen goods, blankets, bedspreads, rugs and serapes to the California settlements. They exchanged these textiles for horses and mules, which they marketed in New Mexico. They often drove as many as 1,000 animals, or more, some of them stolen from California missions and ranchos. Passing through the Pauite country of Utah and Nevada, some traders took Indian women and children with them to sell as slaves in California and New Mexico, where slaves were in demand. Other travelers along the trail (following it to California) included government agents, entrepreneurs, American trappers, and settlers from New Mexico. Mounted Indians were common along the eastern section of the route.

The trail is somewhat misnamedbecause it was only in use during the time the region it covered was part of Mexico. In their writings, American explorers such as John C. Fremont referred to it as the Spanish Trail because they thought Spain had opened it. It appears as the Spanish Trail on maps of the time. When the region became part of the United States in 1848, travelers referred to it as the “Old” Spanish Trail. Wheeled vehicles did not use the trail until 1848, when Mormon pioneers developed the southern section to travel by wagon from Salt Lake City to southern California.

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