Friday, February 23

The Crestone Eagle is a nonprofit monthly newspaper serving Crestone and the San Luis Valley

The Old Spanish Trail—Tracking Down a Trail: Part 2

by Angie Krall (Heritage Program Mgr, SLV Public Lands Center) & Marilyn Martorano (RMC Consultants, Inc)

Spent musket ball possibly associated with the Old Spanish Trail. Photo courtesy RMC Consultants, Inc.

This article is a continuation of last month’s piece on the Old Spanish Trail (OST). In it we discussed in broad terms the OST as a traders’ trail pioneered by Antonio Armijo in 1829 and congressionally designated as a National Historic Trail in 2002. The Northern Route was established by William Wolfskill and George C. Yount in 1831, although portions of this route had been used as early as 1776 during the Dominguez-Escalante expedition. It is the “North Branch”, a variant of the Northern Route, which extended through the San Luis Valley. During its period of significance (1829-1848, when the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo changed the political landscape and trade routes), woolens were traded for horses in Los Angeles, which were then driven back along the OST to Santa Fe. Traders heading through the San Luis Valley made their run beginning in autumn so that they could clear Cochetopa Pass before the big snows and cross the Mohave Desert when it was cooler. According to trapper Antoine Leroux, as explained in 1870 book by John C. Van Tramp, the North Branch could sometimes afford year-round travel over Cochetopa Pass due to the relative lightness of snow in comparison to the other routes.

We will now sharpen our focus on a short, yet fascinating section of the East Fork of the North Branch of the OST where it hugs the Sangre de Cristo Mountains between the Great Sand Dunes and the area around Rito Alto Creek before it makes its turn west toward the present day town of Saguache.

As mentioned before, locating a trail such as the OST is a daunting task. During its use as a trade route, wagons were not employed. As such, it was likely a scattered braid of trails followed by mules and horses picking their way across the landscape and herders trying to keep the fray together. What makes the East Fork of the North Branch unique is the presence of several constraining factors that likely relegated the trail into a narrower corridor than other places along its length. This is a researcher’s dream in that the reconnaissance area in terms of trail trace and associated features is reduced. The area is also highly undeveloped except for the Town of Crestone, the Baca Subdivision and a smattering of other roads, power lines, and mining and grazing infrastructure.

The old Spanish Trail came up from Santa Fe and thorugh the San Luis Valley. It hugged the base of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains where there was firewood and protection from enemies; it also kept the travellers and beasts out of the marshy lands in the middle of the Valley. North of Crestone the trail turned west and headed to Saguache and over Cochetopa Pass.

The two most limiting side boards of the trail were the steep massif of the Sangre de Cristos to the east and the San Luis Valley’s sand and marshlands to the west. Added to these is a very well-defined tree line of old growth piñon and juniper that has, according to some, not seen a stand-replacing burn for at least 400 years. It is likely the OST followed or stayed within this tree line to afford the travelers cover from “unfriendlies”, wood for fuel, and perhaps the opportunistic gathering of piñon nuts in the fall. Interestingly, many of the creeks that flow off of the Sangre de Cristos tend to “sub” (sink below ground level) within or at the tree line in the late summer and fall. This means that the waning snowpack water often disappears into the earth to charge the aquifer of the Closed Basin. All of these variables create a nexus wherein the trail was most likely to go.

In the fall of 2010, RMC Consultants, Inc was once again contracted by the San Luis Valley Public Lands Center (SLVPLC) to build on the research conducted in 2009. During this effort, 203 acres were intensively surveyed on either side of the congressionally designated trail corridor, previously collected artifacts were analyzed, and the Bunker Site was further researched and doubled in size. The Bunker Site is named after a local cattle ranching family. They alerted the SLVPLC about the interesting and diverse artifacts. Bob Bunker was the manager of the Baca Ranch for years. The SLVPLC began by researching
these artifacts and how they compare and relate to other post-contact sites and archival information from that time period.

Robert Wunderlich examines old blaze on a large pinon pine tree. photo courtesy RMC Consultants, Inc.

The artifact assemblage potentially associated with the Old Spanish Trail is widely varied and, given the amount of trade that occurred on the trail as described above, the task of discerning cultural affiliation (Jicarilla Apache? Hispanic?) is complex. In 1776, Dominguez and Escalante gave gifts of hunting knives, an iron ax, strings of white beads, tobacco and food. George Douglas Brewerton describes the personal items taken along the Old Spanish Trail on his journey from California to Santa Fe with Kit Carson in 1848. These included: a tin plate, tin cup, a fork, a large bowie knife, water flask, two Mexican blankets, and a Whitney’s rifle. His clothing included a fringed hunting shirt lined with red flannel and ornamented with brass buttons that he noted were useful for trading with the Indians. Other items in their possession for the journey included an iron-picket pin for tethering animals, wooden Mexican saddles, bridles of twisted hide or horse hair, “strong Spanish bits” and spurs.

Brewerton and Carson were accompanied on the trip by 23 hired men, 3 “citizens”, and 3 Mexican servants (muleteers). Brewerton had six mules and one horse. He mentions trading his horse and a Mexican blanket to “Eutaws” (Utes) during his journey and when invited into their lodge, he noted that “upon entering the lodge the children crowded round me, admiring the gaudy scarlet cloth with which my leathern hunting-shirt was lined; most of these young people were armed with small bows and arrows which they amused themselves by aiming at me.” Examples of trade goods that were available at about the same time period in other parts of Colorado included those reported at the Fort Jackson Trading post, built near the South Platte in 1836. Trade items included looking glasses, finger rings, wrist bands, ear bobs, glass beads of all colors, bells, powder horns, axes, knives, brass kettles, blankets, vermilion, bright-colored cloth, powder, lead, and alcohol. These types of items may have also been available as trade goods along the OST.

Selected metal artifacts from the Bunker Site. Left to right: metal projectile point, metal bridle bit, metal tinkler, metal projectile point. Photo courtesy of RMC Consultants, Inc.

Tinklers, sometimes referred to as jingles, are conical ornaments made by cutting sheet metal into triangles and curling them into cones. They were often used to decorate clothing, moccasins, bags, and quivers. Multiple tinklers, when attached to lengths of leather, would hit each other producing the “tinkling” sound.

Metal arrow points, most often made of iron, were a common trade item from the early 1600s to as late as the early twentieth century. Some metal points were made by European and American cutlery firms, some were apparently made by trading post blacksmiths, but the greatest number appear to have been of Indian manufacture. The Indians used metal chisels, axes, and files to cut and shape the points from strap iron such as barrel hoops or other similar materials. Metal arrow points likely supplanted most of the chipped stone arrow point technology by the mid-nineteenth century.

A variety of other metal artifacts were also known to have made their way along the trail. Awls, metal knives and other metal tools were reportedly a common trade item along the OST. Metal coscojos are metal jingles attached to a bridle or bit and were made from flat strips of iron with a loop at one end and were hung like pendants from the headstall plate or chains of a Spanish or Mexican style ring bit. The lower row of coscojos did not have a hole in them but the upper row (closest to the headstall plate or bridge) had a single hole for the lower coscojos to loop through.

Trade beads include seed beads and other larger beads. Blue and white seed beads were reportedly the most common type although other colors such as red and green have been found. Larger beads came in various shapes such as round, faceted, barreled and tubular; colors ranged from blue, white, clear, black, green, amber, red, and lavender. Seed beads are generally thought to have been introduced as trade goods on the western slope of Colorado ca.1839/1840.

Beads used for trade may have been common in the earlier periods in the San Luis Valley because of ties to New Mexico. As noted above, Dominguez and Escalante reportedly gave strings of white beads as trading gifts in 1776.

Firearms were major objects of early trade along the Old Spanish Trail. They were important items for trade with Native Americans who, like Euroamericans, kept them on hand for hunting and protection. Initially, unrifled muzzle-loading muskets were produced specifically for the Indian trade. These guns were difficult to load, inaccurate, and cumbersome to use by an individual on horseback.

British gunflints were produced from the late 1700s to the early 1900s and are characterized by the use of a gray to black glassy flint and a micro-burin technique for separating flint blades into square segments to form the shape of a gunflint. French gunflints were honey or blond-colored and were irregular in shape compared to British gunflints that were rectangular.

The Bunker Site, fully documented in 2009, revealed a large site composed of prehistoric, proto-historic (post-contact), and historic artifacts. Two Culturally Modified Trees (CMTs) have also been identified on site. Both trees are piñon and exhibit axe cuts similar to trail blazes. The age of the trees and blazes are not known, but based on the large diameter of the trees, they could be quite old. In addition, a total of 11 pieces of obsidian were collected from the site in 2009 and sent to Northwest Research Obsidian Labs to perform the sourcing analyses using X-Ray Fluorescence. The results of the analyses are intriguing regarding the use and availability of obsidian sources within Colorado. Ninety-one percent (n=10) of the obsidian assemblage at the Bunker Site is sourced to the Jemez Mountains of New Mexico, which contains both the Cerro del Medio and Polvadera Peak obsidian sources. Ten percent (n=1) of the assemblage is sourced to the Cochetopa Dome obsidian source.

The Cochetopa Dome obsidian source is the only defined source of obsidian known to be within the geographic boundaries of Colorado. Very limited amounts of usable obsidian have been located at the Cochetopa Dome obsidian source area, which is described as being limited to pebble-sized pieces of material. The obsidian sourcing results suggest influence primarily from the south (Jemez sources) and minor influence from the west (Cochetopa Dome source). Cochetopa Dome is located near the OST where it heads west from Cochetopa Pass. Whether this source may have been utilized in association with OST activities is unknown. However, obsidian may have been used for tool making and trade by Native Americans and possibly by Hispanics during the OST period of significance.

The site assemblage of the Bunker Site is widely varied and includes lithic debitage (waste materials produced while working stone), bone tools, flaked stone tools, stone and metal projectile points, ceramics, two musket balls, coscojo, a scrolled metal bit fragment, glass trade beads, ground stone, and various other metal artifacts. Based on the inferred dates of the artifacts, it appears that the site represents a multi-component occupation. The projectile points (arrowheads) suggest a wide range of dates that include 3000-1900 Before Present (BP), 1900-900 BP and between AD 1300 and the Historic Period. The wide range of dates suggests a continuous occupation and use of the site during the last 3000 years, thus supporting the idea that the travel corridor was pioneered by Native American tribes well before the Spanish entrada.

Other artifacts possibly associated with he Old Spanish Trail. Top to bottom: Metal knife handle, spent musket ball and brass kettle bale ear.

The other artifacts such as the metal points, musket balls, glass trade beads and other metal artifacts suggest a post-contact occupation. The conspicuous absence of historic cartridges and percussion caps, glass artifacts, tin cans, and modern round nails and construction materials at the site is unique in the area and suggests occupation dates ca. 1820-1860, or possibly earlier. Therefore, the post-contact occupation may possibly be related to camping/trading activities occurring along the OST, which is mapped as passing through the extreme northeastern end of the site. As noted previously, trails such as OST were likely to have varied trail alternatives so the trail could have easily passed through any portion of the site.

In 2011 we will continue our research of the Bunker Site specifically. The goals will be to gather more data on the chronology, site function, ethnicity, site patterns and site selection. Methodologies will include limited test excavation, intensive site survey and the coring of large piñon trees that exhibit blazes to obtain tree ring dates. It may be very difficult to differentiate sites occupied by Native Americans participating in Euroamerican trade networks from Native American sites with other activity focuses during this early contact period, and it may also be difficult to differentiate sites occupied by Euroamerican traders from contemporaneous Native American sites. That said, much may be revealed with a closer look at the patterning across the site in terms of features and artifacts.

The historical artifacts that the trail is likely to yield may be sparse or localized in favored campsites and other associated sites. Trading campsites were usually occupied by small numbers of individuals with few material goods for a short duration, and probably resulted in little alteration of the landscape. For this reason, trade camps are probably one of the rarest resources because of their ephemeral nature. Therefore it is important to note here that these resources are protected on federal lands and that it is illegal to remove them. Without their analysis, we would not be able to bring you this story. Through this work they are the medium for a more complete historic tapestry.

The San Luis Valley Public Lands Center works in partnership with the La Vereda del Norte Chapter of the Old Spanish Trail Association (OSTA) that sponsors events and activities around the history of the Trail. For more information or to become a member visit the OSTA website: For more information about membership and activities sponsored by the La Vereda del Norte Chapter, you can also contact Ken Frye at 719-852-6233.

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