North Branch of the
Old Spanish Trail

[January 2020 | San Juan Silver Stage | By Jon Horn, Alpine Archaeological Consultants, Inc., Montrose CO ]

Even before Montrose was established in 1882, our place in the Uncompahgre Valley was an important crossroads. The Uncompahgre Valley was in the heart of the homeland of the Ute Indians. Their trails—first, footpaths used for millennia by prehistoric people and, later, by horse-mounted Utes—became the trails used by Spanish explorers, New Mexican traders, fur trappers, and government exploration parties beginning in the mid-1700s. Juan de Rivera passed through the Montrose area in 1765, as did fathers Dominguez and Escalante in 1776, resulting in increased awareness of New Mexico’s northern frontier. Following the “Mexican War of Independence” (from Spain) in 1821 and the opening of the Santa Fe Trail from Missouri that same year, trade with the Utes became more accessible. Fur traders emanating northward from Taos fanned out through western Colorado and into Utah and beyond and eventually to California.

In 1829, the first trade caravan from Santa Fe to California was carried out by a group headed by Antonio Armijo. The route they took wound westward through rugged terrain, clipping far southwestern Colorado and zigzagging back and forth through the canyon country of what is now the far reaches of Arizona and Utah into southern Nevada, eventually ending at the plaza of Los Angeles. Although their route was used only once, its success stimulated subsequent annual trade caravans over the next 20 years. The later trade caravans followed a route that was pieced together from long-used Indian trails that passed through a larger portion of southwestern Colorado. Heading northwestward from Abiquiu, New Mexico, the trail crossed the Animas River below present-day Durango and made its way into the Spanish Valley, where it crossed the Colorado River just north of Moab, Utah. From there, it continued to the crossing of the Green River just north of the present-day town of Green River, then turned southwestward to travel through the Mountain Meadows near St. George, clipped southern Nevada through Las Vegas, and crossed the Mojave Desert to southern California.

The importance of trade between New Mexico and California and the trails used in the ventures were recognized by an Act of Congress in 2002 with the establishment of the Old Spanish National Historic Trail. The Act recognized the main caravan route just described and also included what is known as the North Branch of the Old Spanish Trail (traversing present-day Montrose, Delta, and Grand Junction). The North Branch was an important trade route in its own right. It linked Santa Fe by way of Taos through the San Luis Valley northward through Saguache and over Cochetopa Pass into western Colorado. From there, it crossed the Lake Fork of the Gunnison to Cimarron, passed over Cerro Summit into the Uncompahgre Valley, then crossed the Uncompahgre River (about where the Target store is now located south of Montrose). From that point, it followed Chipeta Road northward, stayed on the mesas west of the Uncompahgre River past Delta, crossed the Gunnison River at the Escalante Wildlife Area, and followed the general route of Highway 50 through Grand Junction. It then continued northward into Utah south of I-70 to Westwater and into the Cisco Desert, where it joined the main Spanish Trail just before crossing the Green River.

As always, the route was a series of trails already in existence, used by prehistoric peoples as well as contemporary, horse-mounted Ute Indians. Certainly, the course through what later became Montrose was a major travel corridor, but it was one of many that provided access to the mountains of Colorado for fur trappers and facilitated trade with the Utes as far as Utah Lake, located just south of Salt Lake City, and beyond.

Important to the fur trade in western Colorado and northeastern Utah was Antoine Robidoux, who established fur trading posts near the confluence of the Uncompahgre and Gunnison Rivers (Fort Uncompahgre) northwest of Delta in 1828 and along the White River (Fort Wintey) in the Uintah Basin in Utah in the 1830s. A replica of Fort Uncompahgre was built in Delta in 1990 and now serves as the interpretive center for the Old Spanish Trail through the area.

Story continued in February issue.