The historic Old Spanish Trail.

The historic Old Spanish Trail.

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 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.

Christina Burch and Loretta Mitson work on test unit. photo by Angie Krall (FS)

Christina Burch and Loretta Mitson work on test unit. photo by Angie Krall (FS)

Examples of coscojos found at the Bunker Site, some with stamped designs. photo by RMC Consultants, Inc.

Examples of coscojos found at the Bunker Site, some with stamped designs. photo by RMC Consultants, Inc.

by Angie Krall, 

Forest Archaeologist, 

Rio Grande National Forest 

In September of 2012, a group of over 25 archaeologists and volunteers conducted investigations at the high potential Old Spanish National Historic Trail (OSNHT) Bunker Site (5SH614) in the Baca Mountain Tract on the Rio Grande National Forest. This article explores the preliminary results of that investigation. The project was funded by the National Historic Trails Program of the Forest Service and the National Trails Program of the National Park Service Intermountain Region. This combined funding was used as a match toward the “New Lands” Cultural Landscape Analysis of the Baca Mountain Tract funded by the Colorado State Historical Fund. The Bunker Site is thought to be a high potential stop, or paraje, after a day’s journey, jornada, along the Old Spanish Trail.

In previous articles for the Eagle, I noted that the Old Spanish Trail was pioneered by Mexican trader Antonio Armijo in 1829 as a pack trail and a later emigration route that connected Santa Fe and Los Angeles. Traders carried woolens, made from the wool of churro sheep that were traded in LA for hundreds and sometimes thousands of strong Californian mules and horses. American Indian slaves were also known to be illicitly traded during this journey. Over the years, multiple, parallel, and intertwined routes developed as travelers sought adequate water, grazing areas, shorter distances and smoother terrain. It is important to note that tribal groups in the San Luis Valley pioneered an extensive network of trails for the purpose of hunting, trade and travel.  Later European immigrants, such as traders along the Old Spanish Trail, likely utilized and modified these trails. For this reason, some have proposed that the trail be called the Indo-Hispano Trail. Since 2009, we have followed the trail from an ephemeral line on a map to what we believe is the highest potential OSNHT camp in the nation.

Two main routes of the Old Spanish Trail have been documented: the Armijo (Southern) Route and the Northern Route.  The “North Branch” of the Old Spanish Trail is identified as a variant of the Northern Route.  The North Branch ran through the San Luis Valley and the Gunnison River country of Colorado into eastern Utah, later crossing Nevada and California.  The East Fork of the North Branch runs along the western toe of the Sangre de Cristo massif and runs through or very near the town of Crestone, after which it curves to the west through Saguache and over Cochetopa Pass. The primary trade period of the Old Spanish Trail ended when the Southwest became part of the United States as a result of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848 and when other trading avenues were established. The Old Spanish Trail was congressionally designated as a National Historic Trail in 2002. The West Fork of the North Branch of the OSNHT is thought to have run on the west side of the San Luis Valley. This trail is a variant “under study” and is not yet congressionally designated due to a lack of archival information.

The Bunker Site lies at the foot of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains and overlaps the East Fork of the North Branch. It is a large site discovered several years ago by local ranchers Bob and Judy Bunker when the land was part of the Baca Ranch.  The site was investigated briefly in 2009 and 2010, and revealed artifacts such as a spent musket ball, a coscojo (jingle from a Spanish or Mexican style bit), a scrolled Spanish-style bit fragment and metal projectile points. These artifacts suggested ties to the Old Spanish Trail era of significance between 1829 and 1848. However, as many researchers know, it is very difficult to distinguish sites occupied by Native Americans participating in Euro-American trade networks from other Native American sites during the early contact period. Jicarilla Apaches often had a similar material cultural to early Hispanic settlers. A diverse assemblage of artifacts at the site pre-date the use of the Old Spanish Trail, suggesting it has been a popular campsite for hundreds, if not thousands of years.

RMC Consultants Inc. carried out this investigation, under contract with the Rio Grande National Forest. PaleoCultural Research Group (PCRG), in cooperation with the San Luis Valley Archaeological Network and the Old Spanish Trail Association, recruited and managed the volunteers that were paired with experienced archaeologists. Several Colorado Archaeological Society (CAS) members also volunteered through PCRG. PCRG is a unique, member-supported non-profit organization dedicated to research and public education in the archaeology of the southern Rocky Mountains and Great Plains and has partnered with the Forest Service and BLM on several successful volunteer projects in the San Luis Valley:

The goals of the 2012 fieldwork were to better define the site’s extent, to gather data needed to assess its integrity, and to confirm its contemporaneity with the Old Spanish Trail. To accomplish these goals the research team carried out an intensive metal-detector survey, performed a total-station-controlled surface collection of selected datable artifacts, obtained dendrochronological data from culturally modified trees, and excavated two 1 x 1 m test units.

Metal detecting

The metal detecting recovered over 250 metal artifacts, many that appear to date to the Old Spanish Trail era including numerous styles of coscojos and metal projectile points; metal tools such as knives, awls, and a chisel or screwdriver; items of personal adornment such as buttons, buckles and a bracelet fragment; fired and unfired lead balls; cone tinklers and gun parts including parts of flint lock rifles.  Coscojos are unique metal artifacts that would have been “jingles” or adornment on a Spanish-style bit.

Phil Born, an ordnance expert and curator with the Museum of Western Colorado, conducted an analysis of several metal artifacts. One of the more interesting artifacts found during the survey is the lower jaw of a miquelet flintlock firearm. The earliest known example of the miquelet flintlock evolved in Spain about 1625 and spread throughout the Mediterranean, lasting into the nineteenth century.  It was also commonly known as the “Spanish” lock.  Over the two hundred years that the miquelet lock was used, there were at least three variations of it during the seventeenth century and one in the eighteenth century.  However, these variations were not satisfactory, so the miquelet lock maintained its almost exact original form up to its demise in about 1825. Determining the date of production for the artifact is quite difficult at best.  Based on the two sources consulted, it would seem that the date would be somewhere between 1625 and 1791.  The reader should keep in mind that production of the miquelet lock persisted for a full two hundred years and fire arms in New Spain (including the San Luis Valley) were never plentiful at all.  As they wore out, they were repaired, used again and again until they were no longer usable. Analysis suggests that this firearm was so completely worn out that it could no longer be repaired or even provide parts for another firearm.

Another unique artifact came in the form of a brass butt plate from a military style long arm.  It is stamped with the date of 1808. Analysis suggests that the artifact came from what could have been a contract musket patterned after the 1795 Springfield musket.

In one metal-detected transect a cluster of artifacts suggest a later occupation. These include a spent .45 caliber cartridge, a military sleeve button and a possible wagon wheel hub. The 1853 Gunnison Expedition is known to have followed this section of the Old Spanish Trail in search of an east/west route for the Pacific Railroad. Expedition journals indicate that the group used wagons, camped and dug for water in a dry creek bed.  Post-Old Spanish Trail diary accounts following the same routes such as those from the Gunnison Expedition have been invaluable tools in Old Spanish Trail inventory as there are few written accounts from the Old Spanish Trail era itself. Possible trail traces, including drainage crossings, were also identified within the Bunker Site along with a small possible lean-to shelter associated with a metal projectile point.


During earlier visits it was noted that the site context had a “manicured” feel to it with wide openings between large piñon pine trees. At closer inspection, researchers realized hundreds of limbs had been removed with axes from the old piñon perhaps for shelter, corrals or to clear limbs in order to tie stock to the trees or to possibly create space for corral-like areas to gather livestock. Individual trees exhibited the removal of up to 18 limbs per tree, most of these cut when they were green. Many have a great deal of lichen on the limb ends, suggesting removal took place some time ago. De-limbed trees were present over 7 acres of the site, 54% of the total site area. Blazes, grooves cut with an axe, are also found across the site and were dated by taking core samples.

Dendrochronological sampling was conducted on over 20 of the de-limbed or modified piñon trees as an attempt to date de-limbing events and other modifications and age the trees. Tree cores were taken to obtain a pith date (the tree’s birth date) and a set of tree rings with which the limb rings could be cross-dated. Most of the pith dates date to the early 1600s. The limb samples were sent to the lab of Peter Brown of Rocky Mountain Tree Ring Research. While many of the limb rings were too tight to read, some limbs did reveal preliminary data suggesting at least three occupation events. One set dates to the late 1700s that could point to early Spanish use of the trail. It is known that De Anza came through the San Luis Valley in 1779 en route to Poncha Pass with Spanish soldiers, Utes and Jicarilla Apache to engage the Comanche in battle. It is not implausible that they camped at this popular campsite. De-limbing events point to another possible occupation period in the 1820s and 1830s which is well within the Old Spanish era of significance. A third set in the 1850s and 1860s, one date from 1853, further strengthens the theory that the 1853 Gunnison Expedition camped here on their way from Ft. Massachusetts. The methodology for this research will be refined in order to select limbs that will have higher ring readability and a more statistically valid sample. One thing is certain, early fuels reduction by campers on these trees likely protected the site and the tree ring data from a stand-replacing fire that appears to have occurred on the site perimeter.

Locating segments of the Old Spanish Trail is a difficult task given the fact it was largely a stock trail utilizing a corridor, as opposed to a rutted wagon track. This makes the research of potential parajes, or camps, imperative to the understanding of the trail as a whole and a means to connect the dots. What is important about the Bunker site artifact assemblage is not only what is there, but also what is not there; such as later historic glass and cans. The fieldwork data, samples and artifacts are still in the process of being analyzed to provide further understanding of this remarkable site.  The results will be used to assist the Forest Service and National Park Service in determining how to manage and interpret this portion of the OSNHT.

From a public archaeology stand point, the project provided a rich experience in the standard methods in test excavation, metal detecting and implementing unique methods aimed at retrieving data from the culturally modified trees. The interaction between a unique brain trust of professional archaeologists and volunteers will certainly further the understanding of this ephemeral linear resource and its associated sites from New Mexico to California.