MARCH 18, 19, 20, 2005






The Old Spanish Trail, although not as familiar to Americans as the Oregon or Santa Fe Trails with which it was contemporary, was nevertheless an important factor in the opening of the American West. It came into existence in the early 1800s, but its roots go back hundreds of years to the time when Spain first established a presence in the New World. It was not a "purpose-built" trail, but rather came together out of many bits and pieces that all played their parts in its establishment. It may be considered the westward extension ofthe Santa Fe Trail, which connected Missouri with the Spanish (later Mexican) settlement of Santa Fe. From Santa Fe, the Old Spanish Trail wound its way for 1,120 miles, through what is now New Mexico, Colorado, Utah, Arizona, Nevada, and California, to the sleepy Mexican village of Los Angeles. It was the first major thoroughfare across the Southwest.

There is little primary historical material on the exact route ofthe trail. The first Mexican traders who traversed the route left little information on their travels. Explorer John C. Fremont, who covered a considerable portion of the trail in 1844, is an important primary source, though his journal entries sometimes leave much to be desired from a historical point of view. The legendary Kit Carson followed the route in 1848, but he was quite sparing in his prose and often described major events in only a few brieflines. It is quite likely that most of those who traveled the route during its 20- year heyday were illiterate and therefore left no historical record of their passage. Only one contemporary traveler, Orville Pratt, followed the entire trail from New Mexico to Los Angeles and kept a complete diary. Other expeditions and surveys, such as that of John Gunnison in 1853, state in their records that they encountered and traveled over the Spanish Trail, and in this indirect way have provided useful information for the modern historian.

A defmition of terms is useful at this juncture. Strictly speaking, the Old Spanish Trail was a trade route connecting the Mexican city of Santa Fe with another Mexican settlement, Los Angeles. It lasted for only two decades, from 1829 to 1848, when the lands it traversed came into the possession of the United States at the end of the Mexican War. Mexico gained its independence from Spain in 1821, so it was a "Spanish" trail only in a most general sense, much as we might use the word "Hispanic" today. It has been described in a famous quote as "the longest, crookedest, most arduous pack mule route in the history of America." It is important to remember that it was a pack trail, and that no wagon ever traveled its entire length. John C. Fremont, in the journals of his 1844 expedition, was the first to publicize and popularize the name "Old Spanish Trail", a name that has stuck until the present day. It was used to carry woolen blankets, serapes, other woven goods, and raw wool, from New Mexico to California. Horses and mules, as well as a limited amount of trade goods from the Orient, came back to Santa Fe on the return trip. Some detractors stated that the route wasn't old, wasn't Spanish, and really wasn't much of a trail! It followed a circuitous path, looping far to the north before turning southwest toward the Pacific coast. This alignment, while adding distance, avoided the deep canyons of the Colorado River and the more hostile Indian tribes, such as the Apache and Comanche, who inhabited the lands on a more direct line of travel.

The Old Spanish Trail was not a static, unchanging entity. After 1848 the annual caravans from Santa Fe to Los Angeles came to a halt. Now, however, there was an ever-increasing amount of traffic between the new Mormon capital of Salt Lake City, founded in 1847, and the port of Los Angeles, which was an entry point for thousands of Mormon converts from Europe and the South Seas. When the Mormons founded San Bernardino in 1851, this westernmost portion of the Old Spanish Trail became a major thoroughfare.

During this period, in recognition of these changing travel patterns, this portion of the trail was variously known as the Salt Lake Road, the Mormon Trail, or the California Road. While some purists might object, for our purposes all these terms can essentially be considered equivalent to the Old Spanish Trail. The difference is the era under discussion and the fact that the pack trail had gradually changed into a wagon road. This, of course, required changes in alignment and the subsequent abandonment of some portions of the pack trail for routes more suitable for heavily-laden wagons.

During the Mexican War, the fabled Mormon Battalion marched overland to California, arriving after hostilities there had ceased. The soldiers served out their enlistments in southern California, and were favorably impressed by the climate and agricultural possibilities. In April of 1848, a group of discharged Mormon soldiers traveled from the west coast to their new settlements in Utah. They took with them 135 mules and a single wagon, thus proving that the Old Spanish Trail to Salt Lake City was indeed suitable for wheeled vehicles. By the 1850s, a string of small settlements had sprung up along the route, both to support such travel and in an attempt to extend the Mormon influence all the way to the coast. This period of heavy traffic ended in 1857, when Brigham Young called the Mormon faithful back to Utah to prepare for what they believed was the coming war with the United States. This Salt Lake Road is largely followed by today's Interstate 15.

As stated above, the Old Spanish Trail came together as fragments of routes pioneered by many separate travelers and explorers. Spain, following the discoveries of Columbus, began to rapidly expand into North America. Within 50 years of Columbus , first landing, Coronado had penetrated as far inland as the south rim of the Grand Canyon. Settlement began in New Mexico in 1598. Later, outposts of European civilization were established in Texas and California. These far-flung settlements were isolated from each other, and attempts were made to forge overland routes not subject to the vagaries of sea travel. To this end, the Dominguez-Escalante expedition of 1776 sought a connection between Santa Fe and Monterey in California. Although they were unsuccessful, some of their route was incorporated into what would later become the Old Spanish Trail. In the same year, Francisco Garces attempted to pioneer a road from southern California to Santa Fe, also unsuccessfully. He did, however, explore a lengthy portion of the Old Spanish Trail along the Mojave River.

After this time, Spain's influence in the New World began to fade. In 1821 her possessions in North America became part of the independent country of Mexico. While Spain had discouraged trade between her colonies and other nations, Mexico actively sought it. Commercial travel over the Santa Fe Trail began in 1822, thus opening a new era of commerce in America.

This emerging international outlook stimulated trade between the United States and the Mexican provinces of California and New Mexico, and California ports were opened to the outside world. The California ranchos, where cattle literally grew wild, carried on a seaborne trade based on hides and tallow, as well as carne seca, or dried beef. New Mexico in the 19th century was sheep country, as it had long been under Spanish rule. Woolen blankets, textiles, and raw wool had been major items of trade between Santa Fe and other Spanish settlements, and now became the basis of commerce with Mexican California, which was booming as a result of the more relaxed trading environment. Horses and mules, almost as abundant in California as cattle, found a ready market in Santa Fe. Many of these animals made their way over the Santa Fe Trail to the United States, where California mules were highly prized.

Shortly after the travels of Lewis and Clark, American and British mountain men and fur trappers penetrated the interior of the continent. American trappers worked the northern reaches of Mexican territory, and frequently visited Taos and Santa Fe. In 1826-27, mountain man Jedediah Smith connected the Dominguez- Escalante and Garces routes and became the first non-Indian to travel overland from the Rocky Mountain region to California and the first to cross the Sierra Nevada, further demonstrating the feasibility of a route from New Mexico to California.

Fueled by this increase in international commerce, the Old Spanish Trail came into existence. In 1829 Mexican trader Antonio Armijo became the first to carry trade goods from New Mexico to California. Although the inaugural route was modified over the next two years, this can be considered the beginning of the Old Spanish Trail. In the winter of 1830-1831 two Americans, William Wolfskill and George C. Yount, traveled over the same general route. Thereafter, the trail, with continual small changes and improvements, became the major road between New Mexico and California.

As previously mentioned, the Old Spanish Trail was a horse and mule trail, not a wagon road. Merchandise was carried by caravans of mules sometimes a mile in length. Herds of as many as two thousand animals were driven to Santa Fe on the return trip. The New Mexican merchants typically left in the fall before the winter snows fell, returning in early spring to avoid high water in the Colorado and Green rivers. The trip took approximately two and a half months each way. By 1841 the commerce was well .o. regulated and subject to governmental scrutiny, attesting to its economic importance.

The establishment ofthe Old Spanish Trail coincided with the golden era of the California ranchos. Rapidly increasing herds of horses and cattle fostered a new type of commerce. Renegade desert Indians, joined by unscrupulous American mountain men looking for a new livelihood after the collapse of the fur trade, began to prey on the herds ofthe Mexican ranchos south ofthe San Bernardino and San Gabriel Mountains. By the late 1830s, bands of Paiutes, Mojaves, and Chemehuevis periodically swept through Cajon Pass to steal stock. Beginning about 1840, the scourge of the California ranchos was the Paiute chief Walkara, often called Walker by the white inhabitants. Walkara allied himself with mountain men Pegleg Smith and Jim Beckworth for what must be one of the greatest horse-stealing raids in history. One May night in 1840, in a series of coordinated raids, Walkara and his allies ran off "at least" 5,000 horses, of which less than 2,000 were recovered. To add insult to injury, he ambushed his Californio pursuers and stole their mounts as well, forcing many of them to ignominiously return to their ranchos on foot. Such raids continued with alarming regularity into the mid-1840s. The Old Spanish Trail from Cajon Pass to Southern Utah was literally strewn with the bones of dead horses, and became known as "Walker's Trail".

A more unsavory activity that occurred along the Old Spanish Trail was the ongoing business of slave trading. Its roots extended well back into the Spanish period, when many Indians were pressed into service as domestic servants. Indians of the stronger tribes preyed on their weaker enemies, carrying away children to be sold to the Spanish, and later the Mexicans, as slaves. Eventually, renegade Spaniards and Mexicans sought to cut out the middleman, and abducted slaves directly. In Santa Fe, a young Indian boy in good condition would sell for $100 to $150, while girls, more desirable for servants, would bring even more. Sometimes women were taken and sold as wives. In addition, the most destitute tribes were known to trade their own children for horses, which could be used both as an aid to their hunting and gathering and as a food source.

Although some of the argonauts headed for the California gold fields followed this road, the Old Spanish Trail was not a major route for the 4gers. One notable group that did pass this way was the wagon train led by Jefferson Hunt, former commander of Company A of the Mormon Battalion, in 1849. This party fragmented in southern Utah, and although the majority found their way back to the old Spanish Trail, one stubborn group continued to bear ever westward and found themselves in what would later be known as Death Valley.

As the lands traversed by the trail came under control of the United States, the route began to fall into disuse, although the portion from Salt Lake City to Los Angeles saw considerable traffic for some years to come. As the various Indian tribes began to be pacified, travel and commerce took a more direct east-west route. By the end of the 19th century, although the trail was still to be found on old maps, traffic over it had nearly ceased. The completion of the transcontinental railroad in 1869 greatly accelerated this trend. The general route is still followed by various state and interstate highways, but the trail itself has largely faded into oblivion. Nonetheless, the Old Spanish Trail was a powerful and dynamic influence in the opening up of the American West.

In the post-Spanish Trail period, during the 1850s, the Mormons founded a string of small settlements running southwest from the Salt Lake Valley to San Bernardino. Brigham Young began sending small groups of settlers into southwest Utah as early as 1852 in order to take advantage of the agricultural potential and favorable climate of the region. Fort Harmony was established in 1852, followed by Santa Clara (1854), Washington (1857), Toquerville (1858), Grafton (1859), and Adventure (1860).

Until 1861, colonization took place on a small scale. In that year, however, the church called several hundred families to go to the area to raise cotton, figs, olives, grapes, sugar, almonds, and tobacco. St. George was founded at this time, and quickly became the center of the area, nicknamed Dixie for its southern location and warm climate. The effort was successful, and the colonists produced sizable amounts of cotton, wine, and molasses. Cotton remained an especially valuable commodity until after the Civil War. Mining assumed a greater role in the economy of the region, which has continued up to recent times.



A general overview of the route of the Old Spanish Trail has already been provided. For the purposes of our trip, a more detailed description of the route from Mountain Meadows to Mormon Mesa will be given here.

From the site oftoday's Newcastle, Utah, the Old Spanish Trail continued south for about 8 miles to the mouth of Holt Canyon. At this point, a later variant of the trail called Leach's Cutoff joined the main road. From here, travelers kept on south to the famous Mountain Meadows. Here there was water in abundance, as well as plentiful grazing for tired animals. This was a popular stop, and many camped here several days to refresh their animals, mend clothing and wagons, and refurbish their gear prior to setting out across the vast Mojave Desert.

John C. Fremont's 1844 journal states that the meadow was about a mile wide and perhaps ten miles long, and recognized that it was situated on the rim of the Great Basin. The only thing that prevented it from being an ideal site was the continual presence of marauding Indians, which necessitated constant vigilance in guarding the camp and the stock.

From the meadow the trail followed Magotsu and Moody Creeks to the confluence of the Santa Clara River. Just north of this point, about 5 miles north of Gunlock, the trail emerged from a narrow ravine. Visible here is the volcanic formation now called the Veyo volcano. This area was much favored by the Indians for raising their crops of com and other vegetables.

The route then passed through Gunlock, founded by the Mormons in 1857. It followed the Santa Clara River to the point in the present Shivwits Indian Reservation where the stream heads southeast toward its rendezvous with the Virgin River near St. George. Just before this junction, the trail left the Santa Clara, and travelers stopped at Camp Spring before striking out across the desert.

After leaving Camp Spring, the Old Spanish Trail began its ascent of the Beaver Dam Mountains. The trace of the trail here is almost identical with Old Highway 91. It crossed the 4,800-foot summit and started its descent past the spectacular landmark known as Castle Cliff. A very distinct remnant of the trail is still visible in this area.

After passing Castle Cliff (or Castle Rock), the trail descends the south slope of the Beaver Dam Mountains via the renowned Utah Hill. Although it was certainly a difficult climb for northbound wagons, it gained much of its fame in the automobile age, when the radiators of early vehicles often boiled over on the upgrade. From Castle Cliff, the trail and Old Highway 91 are practically identical. Building of the paved road has largely destroyed the trail itself, although some sections, identifiable only by subtle changes in vegetation, can still be seen.

At the foot of Utah Hill is Beaver Dam Wash, part of the Virgin River drainage. Just north of the small settlement here, the paved road veers off slightly to the west, while the trace of the trail continues in a more, direct southerly direction. Here it entered the valley of the Virgin River. Although it is well documented that early alignments of the route followed the streambed, some later variants, at least partly in response to increasing wagon traffic, split off to the southwest before this point in order to avoid the Virgin River gorge.

After passing through modem-day Littlefield, Arizona, the trail continued along the Virgin River south of Mesquite and on to Riverside, Nevada. Although water was readily available along the river, travel in the sand and brush of the river bottom was difficult. At some point in time, adventurous travelers left the Virgin River and struck out overland across Mormon Mesa en route to the Muddy River. Although the exact date of the change is not known, by 1844 this was the accepted route.



In 1884, while cutting cordwood in the West Mountains, William Webb discovered an outcropping of high-grade copper ore. He called his find the Apex. Little work was done until 1890, when the firm of Woolley, Lund, and Judd of St. George obtained the property. The Apex Mine soon became a leading copper producer. Other nearby copper claims included the Mammoth, Morning Star, Mountain Chief, and Black Warrior. The Black Warrior had been operating since the early 1870s when a smelter was erected on the Santa Clara River at a place known as "the old Conger Farm." The small settlement that sprang up here was called Conger. For several years the smelter operated satisfactorily, producing silver and lead as well as copper. However, the high cost of shipping to and from the railhead, some 400 miles away, put the mines out of business, and Conger disappeared.

During its early development, ore from the Apex Mine had to be shipped far away to be smelted. In 1898 a new smelter was built nearby, on the Santa Clara River between Gunlock and the Shivwits Indian Reservation, not far from the previous mill at Conger. The Mormon town ofShem grew up nearby, somewhat unusual in that the Mormon church generally did not approve of mining ventures. Charcoal kilns were erected at the foot of the Pine Valley Mountains to produce fuel for the smelter.

For the next decade, while the Apex and adjacent claims were booming, Shem prospered. As always, the ore began to play out, and Shem was abandoned. The Apex was reopened some years later, but by then Shem was just a memory. Stone walls and the remains of a rock dam can still be seen at the site.


The firm of Woolley, Lund, and Judd was the St. George branch of the Mormon-owned ZCMI store chain. It dealt in produce, livestock, mining equipment, etc., throughout Utah and Nevada, and marketed Dixie-grown cotton in California. As a convenience to its California customers, much of the firm's business was conducted through a bank in San Bernardino.

In 1869 Frank Woolley made one of his regular business trips to San Bernardino over the Salt Lake Road. While there, he withdrew $20,000 in gold coins from his account and prepared to leave for Utah with a passing wagon train. He was delayed by business, however, and missed the wagon party, telling them that he would catch up with them later.

Wooley hid two bundles of coins in five-gallon water barrels loaded on a pack horse. He left San Bernardino, crossed Cajon Pass and started out across the Mojave Desert. He was never seen alive again.

When members of the wagon train reached St. George, they were surprised to find that Woolley wasn't already there, and thought that he had perhaps taken a shortcut and passed them on the trail. A search party found where he had camped at Resting Springs, near today's Tecopa, California, and followed his tracks eastward to where a group of Indians began following him.

Not far from the Mormon settlements along the Muddy River, the search party found the spot where Woolley's animals had been taken by the Indians. His body was found in a ravine, stripped and ravaged by coyotes, surrounded by empty cartridge cases. The trail of the Indians was followed, strewn with discarded items of Woolley's property, before being lost in Beaver Dam Wash. Various items of his stolen goods continued to show up over the next few months, but the water barrels were never found.

It is highly unlikely that the Indians kept the wooden kegs, as they were intimately acquainted with the local water holes and rarely carried water. It seems probable that the barrels were simply discarded in some nameless ravine. If that is the case, somewhere along the Old Spanish Trail in the vicinity of Shem lie sixty pounds of gold eagles, patiently waiting to be rediscovered.


A half mile west of the Gunlock Road, on abandoned Route 89, a narrow dirt road leads northward into the Shivwits Indian Reservation. 11 miles north are the remains of a log building once used as a stage stop. Beginning about 20 miles from the highway, up the East Fork of Beaver Dam Wash, are the remains of what was once the Hamburg Mine. The Hamburg and the nearby Bull Valley Mine were both rich strikes, but the cost of hauling out the ore was prohibitive, and the camp lasted for only a short while. A stamp mill was later erected, and the gold was recovered by amalgamation with mercury. Records are almost non-existent, and no one knows for sure exactly when the mining district boomed.


Heberville, on the Virgin River a mile below its confluence with the Santa Clara, was settled in 1858. The town was part of the Mormon "cotton mission," but the cost of raising the crop here was prohibitive, costing as much as $4 a pound to produce. Nonetheless, during the Civil War, when scarcity caused prices to rise, about 85,000 pounds of cotton were shipped east and to California. Other crops were produced in abundance, and the small settlement boasted several business establishments.

Cotton growing came to an abrupt end when disastrous floods destroyed much of the town and thwarted efforts to rebuild. Brigham Young visited in 1870, by which time the farmers had nearly given up. Young directed that they change the name of their town to Price City, perhaps in an attempt to improve their luck. Under its new name, the settlement was rebuilt and land was again prepared, but not for cotton. This time, some 700 fruit trees were planted. Price City might have thrived, but the settlers were reorganized under the authority of the United Order of Enoch, which required them to place all their worldly goods into a cooperative pool.

All were to share equally in the fruits of their labor, but as seems always to be the case in such ventures, some were sharing more equally than others! The United Order failed, the Mormon settlers began leaving, and soon Heberville was abandoned.


Bloomington was a sort of twin city to Heberville, located on the opposite side of the Virgin River, although settled 12 years later. It became a bustling little town, with several prosperous businesses, including a newspaper. In 1875 the United Order, for some unknown reason called the St. James Company, was established at Bloomington. Whatever the name, the results were the same. The small farms and businesses that had thrived in private hands failed under the cumbersome workings of the Order. This caused many to leave the settlement.

To make matters worse, floods along the Virgin River cut its channel so deep that it became nearly impossible to get water to the fields. Conditions became so difficult that many left their homes and farms to seek a living elsewhere. Today, Bloomington is gone, replaced by a modem retirement community of the same name.


Atkinville's main claim to fame was its use a hideout for high-ranking Mormon officials during the polygamy trials of the 1880s. Wilfred Woodruff, who would later become president of the church and issue the Manifesto of 1890 prohibiting further polygamous marriages, hid out here between 1885 and 1887. It is told that polygamists would conceal themselves in neck-deep water among the reeds of a nearby swamp whenever federal officials came near.

The little village, located 7 miles south of St. George on the Virgin River, was named for William Atkin, who with his sons and their families founded what was essentially a one-family settlement. Its most important commercial enterprise was an icehouse. During the winter, ice was cut from ponds along the Virgin River and stored in a nearby cave for sale to neighboring communities during the heat of summer.

Except for its brief notoriety as a polygamist haven, Atkinville was a sleepy little farm community. In 1906 a major flood practically destroyed the village. The buildings were dismantled and the salvaged lumber used to build homes elsewhere. Today, a golf course and housing development cover much of the land that was once Atkinville.


Bailey, Paul, Walkara-Hawk of the Mountains. Westernlore Press, Los Angeles, 1954.

Crampton, C. Gregory and Steven K. Madsen, In Search of the Old Spanish Trail: Santa Fe to Los Angeles, 1829-1848. Gibbs-Smith, Salt Lake City, 1994.

Hafen, LeRoy R. and Ann W., The Old Spanish Trail: Santa Fe to Los Angeles. The Arthur H. Clarke Company, Glendale, California, 1954.

Leadabrand, Russ, A Guidebook to the Mojave Desert of California. The Ward Ritchie Press, Los Angeles, 1966

Lyman, Leo and Larry Reese, The Arduous Road: Salt Lake to Los Angeles. Lyman Historical Research and Publishing Co., Victorville, California, 2001.

Steiner, HaroldA., The Old Spanish Trail Across the Mojave Desert. The Haldor Company, Las Vegas, Nevada, 1999.

Other source material, graciously provided by Matt Warner XNGH Roger Metzger, is excerpted from Some Dreams Never Die-Utah Ghost Towns and Lost Treasure by George A. Thompson and Historical Guide to Utah by Steven L. Carr. Also utilized was the Internet source

Thanks to Scott Fausett, Matt Warner XNGH; Roger Metzger, Matt Warner XNGH; Dan DeBoer, Queho Posse XNGH; Sid Blummer, XNGH and Billy Holcomb NGH; and Jerry McDonnell, Billy Holcomb PBC for their help with all the ground work and behind-the-scenes preparation that made this trek possible.



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