The Crestone Eagle, April 2007:

Crestone was a stop along the Old Spanish Trail

by Mary Lowers

Crestone has been designated as a stop on the Northern Branch of the Old Spanish Trail, part of an ancient trading road, with roots in native trade routes, at the furthest northern reaches of the territories of Spain and later Mexico. Why were the Spanish and Mexicans interested in our obscure and very unpopulated area? What motivated them to travel and explore the northern Valley, and what evidence do we have of their presence here?

As all students of history know, boundaries of nations come and go over time. From the late sixteenth to the mid nineteenth centuries the area of Crestone was the furthest northern boundary of Spain and, after the Mexican Revolution, of Mexico. The first European exploration of the Valley and the Southwest was the work of Spanish explorers searching for the elusive “seven cities of gold”. This legend, which proved inaccurate, said incredibly wealthy cities lay to the north of the desert lands of the modern Mexican border.

We often forget that the northern territories became the first permanent European settlement in the American Southwest. As with all empires the border areas were vital to security, and the Spanish kept a close watch on their territories in “el Norte” to protect them from the French, English and later the American interests.

The first wave of Spanish settlement was the victim of the Pueblo Revolt of 1680. This cleverly contrived rebellion successfully removed the European presence from the Valley and New Mexico until 1692, when Diego de Vargas began a slow reconquest of the Rio Grande pueblos culminating in the last Pueblo Revolt in 1696. Many records were lost after the first Pueblo Revolt. Census data from 1790 estimates that 15,000 Spanish settlers lived in the northern territories. Census data estimates the entire population of Spain’s New World Territories in 1790 at 27,709, a total which shows the decimation a European disease such as small pox had on the population. The Royal Road, or Camino Real del Norte, joined up in the Valley with the main branch of the Camino Real going south to the capitol of Mexico City. Pieces of this road can be identified in the Valley; in fact I have cut firewood on the Royal Road high up in the mountains between Taos and Picuris Pueblo. The track of this trade route is still discernable. The northern Valley was more sparsely settled than the southern section due to the vast wetlands which crossed the Valley north of San Luis and La Jara. In fact our end of the Valley had large tracts labeled the San Luis Lake by Spanish explorers!

The place names in the Valley give evidence of Spanish and Mexican influence. Del Norte, Monte Vista, La Garita, La Jara, Antonito, San Luis are just a few town monikers in the northern Valley that indicate Spanish roots. Petroglyphs up and down the Valley show Spanish adding to ancient Native rock art. A stunning example of this is the Guadalupe located near Penitente Canyon on the west side of the Valley.

There is indirect evidence of mining activity by the Spanish/ Mexican settlers all along the La Garita, San Juan and Sangre de Cristo Mountains. An Old Spanish arrastre, a primitive system for extracting ore, was located in Cedar Gulch just south of Crestone, indicating mineral milling operations there. Some of the white honeycombed quartz rocks from the site are headstones in Crestone Cemetery today. Legends of Old Spanish mines abound around here. The phantom Spanish mine is allegedly somewhere between the Sand Dunes and the Wet Mountain Valley, waiting to make some lucky treasure hunter rich.

After Mexico achieved independence from Spain in 1820, more energy was expended in reinforcing the Mexican claim on the northern territories, and large land grants were issued in the 1830s and 1840s to encourage settlement. An early land grant was the Baca Land Grant, which at the time extended from Las Vegas, NM to Crestone. The treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which ended the Spanish American war in 1846, caused the further division of the Baca land grant into four sections, the section closest to Crestone being Baca grant #4.

By the mid 1800s many settlers from the south had established “cordillera” or plaza farming settlements in the northern Valley. Mexican authorities patrolled the northern reaches of their territory for smugglers, who were mainly fur trappers looking for a wealth in beaver pelts and trying to avoid the hefty duty the Mexican government imposed on trapping in their territory. Trappers and explorers, like Zebulon Pike who established a stockade in Mexican Territory near Conejos, were often taken prisoner and transported to Santa Fe or Mexico for questioning by suspicious authorities.

After the Spanish American War (1846-1848) made the Valley part of United States, American explorers used the northern branch of the Old Spanish Trail to explore and map their new territory. Searching for mail and railroad routes in 1850, Capt. Gunnison followed the Old Spanish trail, camping on Blanca Creek, Medano Creek, Sand Creek (where they encountered a herd of wild horses), Deadman’ s Creek, Crestone Creek and Rito Alto Creek. In 1853 the Fremont Party crossed the Sangres via Medano Pass, traversing the east end of the Sand Dunes and camping in the vicinity of present day Crestone, where they picked up the Old Spanish Trail. In his journals, Fremont speaks of “a camp selected in an immense natural deer park,” that is assumed to be Crestone.

The first mail routes in the Valley followed the Old Spanish Trail. The first post office here was established in 1872. Called Crestonie, this post office was located in a three room adobe house on the Baca Ranch, built originally by Luis Maria Baca in 1823. In the complex historical layers that comprise historical human settlement of the northern Valley, evidence of the area that is now present day Crestone as a stop on the Old Spanish Trail and a once proud outpost of the Spanish Empire is compelling. Viva el Norte!