The Spanish Trail Cut a Roundabout Path through Utah

Jeffrey D. Nichols
History Blazer, June 1995

The Spanish Trail, a major trade route between Santa Fe and Los Angeles, has entered western lore as the scene of historic events and as a route for famous explorers. A large section of the trail curves north to pass through central and southern Utah before bending south again and passing out of the state. The trail has been traveled by ancient and modern peoples and has witnessed slave trading, emigrant parties, Indian massacres, and superhighway construction.

The Spanish Trail measures 1,120 miles long and passes through New Mexico, Colorado, Utah, Arizona, Nevada, and California. The seemingly roundabout path resulted from human and natural obstacles; sometimes hostile Apache, Navajo, and Mojave Indians discouraged Euro-Americans from taking the direct southern route; and the deep, often impassable canyon country of the Colorado Plateau necessitated a detour far to the north. Archaeological evidence indicates that many stretches of the trail were well known to prehistoric Native Americans, including Archaic and Fremont peoples. The heyday of the trail, however, lasted from 1829 to 1848 when Santa Fe traders used the route to bring goods to and from California. John C. Fremont, who traveled much of the trail in the 1840s, assumed that the route had been laid out by the Spanish and so named it for them; many sources refer to it as the Old Spanish Trail.

The trail enters Utah from the east near the present-day town of Ucolo, about 15 miles east of Monticello, and continues roughly northwesterly to about the town of Green River, Emery County. Just northwest of Moab the trail crosses the Colorado River at a spot where low water reveals an island. Continuing up steep-walled Moab Canyon, the trail eventually crosses desert and wash region until it crosses the Green River, again via a low-water island. Orson Pratt, who traveled the route in 1848 and kept a detailed diary, noted that his party was forced to swim their animals and raft their goods at both crossings. The trail then skirts the northern edge of the San Rafael Swell, until reaching its northernmost point in the Black Hills in present Emery County, then bends to the southwest as it crosses the Great Basin on its way to Los Angeles. In 1853 Capt. John Gunnison and a surveying party traveled part of the route before turning north along the Sevier River. On October 26, 1853, Gunnison and a number of others were killed by Indians. John Wesley Powell named a butte, valley, and Green River crossing for Gunnison when he passed through the region in 1871. Eventually the route climbs Holt Canyon, crosses the infamous Mountain Meadows, and enters the Virgin River Basin and Arizona. Much of the route in southwestern Utah has been obliterated by Interstate 70.

The New Mexicans carried woolen goods–rugs, blankets, and other woven products–along the trail to California where they traded them for horses and mules that in turn were driven back to New Mexico for sale. Along the route traders sometimes swapped animals for Paiute slaves or stole children outright from the relatively weak tribes. The slave trade peaked in the 1830s and 1840s, with Chief Wakara’s Ute bands playing a major role in capturing and trading slaves who brought good prices in California.

The arrival of Mormon pioneers in the late 1840s gradually displaced the natives and disrupted the slave trade. The Mormons eventually turned the western part of the Spanish Trail into a wagon route, bringing pioneers down the Mormon Corridor to California.

The trail has received much historical and scholarly attention. Cedar City’s William R. Palmer founded the Spanish Trail Association, which seeks to recover the sometimes obscured path and its history. Two Utah historians, the late C. Gregory Crampton and Steven K. Madsen, believe they have reconstructed the entire route of the famous trail.

See: L. R. Bailey, Indian Slave Trade in the Southwest (Los Angeles: Westernlore Press, 1966); C. Gregory Crampton and Steven K. Madsen, In Search of the Spanish Trail: Santa Fe to Los Angeles, 1829-1848 (Salt Lake City: Gibbs Smith Publishing, 1994).