Spanish Exploration and the Old Spanish Trail

In 1540, Francisco Vazquez de Coronado crossed what is now Arizona and New Mexico in search of silver and gold; according to his diary, his Captain Garci-Lopez de Cardenas may have led the first Spaniards to enter Utah. Coronado’s venture was the first of several explorations that established the Old Spanish Trail, the “longest, crookedest, most arduous pack mule route in the history of America” as the primary thoroughfare across the Colorado Plateau.

To finance disputes with its European rivals and strengthen its control over Mexico, Spain desperately needed silver to finance its disputes with other European competitors. Established trade routes already reached Santa Fe to St. Louis, but Spain needed a supply route to its missions in Alta California. The Old Spanish Trail was one of a trio of overland routes that carried trade, connecting with the Santa Fe Trail to St. Louis and with the Camino Real de Tierra Adentro to Mexico City. The trail traversed 1,200 miles between Santa Fe and Los Angeles and took from 1765 to 1829 to be firmly established as a viable commercial route.

The 1765 expeditions led by Juan Antonio Maria de Rivera ventured into western Colorado in search of silver and Teguayo, a land local Native Americans believed to be the home of bearded, European-looking people. The expeditions were launched because Spanish authorities in Santa Fe desperately needed to locate silver deposits and determine if the “strange bearded men” were French or Russian explorers. The party established cordial relations with Ute- and Paiute-speaking people during their travels through southwestern Colorado to Grand Junction and onto Green River [UT], establishing the North Branch of the Old Spanish Trail.

In 1776, an expedition led by Franciscan priests Dominguez and Escalante also set out to find Teguayo and an overland route from Santa Fe to find an overland route to Monterey in Alta California. The expedition was stymied by conflicts goals – Church authorities sponsored the trip and assigned Dominquez to the task, while Escalante sought to find Teguayo. Though the approach of winter weather forced the padres to return to Santa Fe, the Dominguez-Escalante route became an early template for the Old Spanish Trail.

In November 1829 Spanish merchant Antonio Mariano Armijo led the first commercial caravan between Abiquiu, New Mexico and arriving in San Gabriel California 10 weeks later. Following the northern border of Nuevo Mexico and Arizona, the route crossed Navajo and Paiute lands into the Mojave Desert, and later became known as the Armijo Route of the Old Spanish Trail. The Northern Route passed through Cortez [CO] and Monticello [UT], crossed the Colorado River at Moab, and headed toward Green River.

Military Exploration

The second half of the 1800s saw an increase in military and scientific exploration, primarily to map unknown regions of the American West. Partly following the Old Spanish Trail, the 1859 expedition led by Captain John Macomb of the U.S. Corps of Topographic Engineers sought a route to move military supplies from Santa Fe to Utah. Along the way – and in search of the confluence of the Green and Colorado rivers – Macomb and noted botanist and geologist John Newberry collected plant and animal specimens, including Jurassic bones and other natural history specimens.

The National Park Service has designated the Museum an official Old Spanish National Heritage Trail Interpretive site. We’re proud to be affiliated with the many organizations and institutions dedicating to interpreting the history of the Old Spanish Trail in the American Southwest, and the cultural and economic history of the region through which it passes.