The Old Spanish Trail

Map of the Old Spanish Trail
Detail from Central America, a map published by the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge, 1846.

“The longest, crookedest, most arduous pack mule route in America.” So described by LeRoy and Ann Hafen, the Old Spanish Trail is the red line running through the center of this image. The trail has a fascinating history as a route used for commerce, slave-transportation, and emigration. Some sections were used in the eighteenth century by Spanish expeditions for trade and the movement of Native American Indian slaves. The full trail as a regularly used commercial route from Santa Fe, New Mexico to Los Angeles, California, however, was created about 1830. From its origins in the Spanish colonial era through its Mexican-era uses for commerce and emigration, the Old Spanish Trail is significant in the history of today’s American Southwest.

In late 1841, the Rowland-Workman expedition was the first group consisting largely of emigrants to enter California from an eastern-based land route by traveling on the Old Spanish Trail. While its co-leaders John Rowland and William Workman settled on the La Puente rancho and became well-known southern California residents, there were others in the group who also became prominent, including Lorenzo Trujillo, founder of the Agua Mansa settlement near present Riverside; Benjamin D. Wilson, politician, rancher and agriculturist in the western San Gabriel Valley; William Knight, whose Knight’s Ferry and Knight’s Landing are place names in the gold country of the Sierras; and Manuel Vaca, for whom Vacaville, near San Francisco, is named. The Old Spanish Trail Association, based in Colorado, is leading efforts to have the National Park Service recognize the trail as a National Historic Trail.
 

Web sites on the Old Spanish Trail

Old Spanish Trail Association at http://museumtrail.org/OSTA.asp
Santa Fe, New Mexico: Santa Fe Visitors and Convention Bureau at http://www.santafe.org
Las Vegas, Nevada: Las Vegas Springs Preserve at http://www.springspreserve.org/
El Monte, California: City of El Monte at http://www.elmonte.org/
San Gabriel, California: Mission San Gabriel at http://sangabrielmission.org/
Los Angeles, California: El Pueblo de los Angeles at http://www.ci.la.ca.us/ELP/
 

Selected bibliography

Armijo, Antonio. “New Mexico to Upper California” in David A. White, News of the Plains and Rockies, 1803-1865, Vol. 2 (Spokane, The Arthur H. Clark Company, 1996), 125-134.
Chavez, Thomas E. “Albert Toomes (1817-1873): Pin Feather on the American Eagle,” The Pacific Historian 22:2 (Summer 1978), 173-183.
Crampton, C. Gregory and Steven K. Madsen. In Search of the Spanish Trail: Santa Fe to Los Angeles, 1829-1848 (Salt Lake City: Gibbs-Smith Publisher), 1994.
Given, Isaac. Immigrant of ’41, unpublished interview for Hubert Howe Bancroft, Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley, ca. 1880.
Hafen, LeRoy R. and Ann W. Hafen. Old Spanish Trail: Santa Fe to Los Angeles (Reprint ed., Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press), 1993.
Lawrence, Eleanor. “Mexican Trade between Santa Fe and Los Angeles, 1830-1848,” Quarterly of the California Historical Society 10:1 (March 1931), 27-39.
—————. The Old Spanish Trail from Santa Fe to California, unpublished M. A. thesis, University of California, Berkeley, 1928.
Robinson, John W. “Traders, Travelers, and Horsethieves on the Old Spanish Trail,” Overland Journal 15:2 (Summer 1997), 27-41.
Spitzzeri, Paul R. “To Seduce and Confuse: The Rowland-Workman Expedition of 1841,” Southern California Quarterly 80:1 (Spring 1998), 31-46.
Sanchez, Joseph P. Explorers, Traders, and Slavers: Forging the Old Spanish Trail, 1678-1850 (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press), 1997.
Toomes, Albert. “The Pioneer Overlanders,” Los Angeles Republican, 28 November 1868.
White, Michael, California All the Way to ’28 (Los Angeles: Glen Dawson), 1956.
Wilson, Benjamin D. The Narrative of Benjamin D. Wilson [interview for Hubert Howe Bancroft] in Robert G. Cleland, Pathfinders (Los Angeles: Powell Publishing Company, 1929), 371-416.