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Old Spanish Trail Association hopes to place 26 signs along historic route in San Juan County

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FARMINGTON — On Nov. 8, 1829, a 25-year-old entrepreneur set off from Abiquiu, along with a group of about 60 men, to travel to California and trade wool for horses and mules.

That man, Antonio Armijo, led the first expedition on what is now known as the Old Spanish Trail.

Now, nearly 190 years later, the Old Spanish Trail Association, the National Park Service and Bureau of Land Management are teaming up to place trail markers along the historic route.

While portions of the trail have been marked, the new project aims to place uniform National Historic Trail signs along the routes. The first marker was placed last year in Santa Fe, and now officials are looking to mark a section of Armijo’s route through San Juan County.

San Juan County is one of several sites where National Historic Trail markers are being installed. Some are already in Santa Fe, and others are being installed on the northern route in Grand Junction, Colo. Plans for signs are also being drafted in Iron County, Utah, and the Mojave Desert in California.

Local interest plays a role in which communities receive signs, said John Hiscock, manager of the Old Spanish Trail Association.

Historians have been working to determine the route Armijo and future expeditions took to California. That can be challenging because the mules and horses the men relies on left little permanent trails, said Pat Kuhlhoff with the New Mexico Salida del Sol Chapter of the Old Spanish Trail Association. So, instead, historians rely on journal entries to retrace the routes.

Within days of leaving Abiquiu, Armijo's expedition reached the upper end of Largo Canyon, according to the diary he kept. Historians believe the group then followed the northwest course of the canyon until it met the San Juan River, a juncture the group reached on Nov. 15, 1829, near the present-day community of Blanco.

"It was very important to find a river crossing that had a hard-surface bottom," Kuhlhoff said.

The expedition crossed the river at the point.

In the mid-1800s, rivers reached their low points in late fall and early spring. Because of that, Armijo left for California in early November and returned to Santa Fe in early spring.

Two days after reaching what is now Blanco, Armijo reached the Animas River, according to his journal. Historians believe the group crossed the Animas River near the city of Aztec. Based on the journals, historians think the expedition likely caught a glimpse of the Aztec Ruins while making their way through San Juan County.

On Jan. 31, 1830, Armijo’s expedition reached their destination: the San Gabriel Mission in California.

Kuhlhoff said the Old Spanish Trail Association hopes to place 26 signs along Armijo’s route in San Juan County. She said 12 of these signs will be on county roads, and 14 of them will be on highways.

Hiscock said the trail is important for a variety of cultural groups. Not only did Hispanic traders use the route, but Native Americans traded along it as well, he said. Anglo and French-Canadian traders also used the route.

Ultimately, Hiscock said the Old Spanish Trail Association wants to work with the appropriate local and federal agencies to create recreational opportunities along the trail, such as walking and biking trails that will allow visitors to "experience what traversing the terrain was like."

Hannah Grover covers Aztec and Bloomfield, as well as general news, for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4652.

History of the Old Spanish Trail

Trade route: The Old Spanish Trail was used for about 20 years starting in 1829. The main route spanned about 2,700 miles and connected Santa Fe with California.

National Historic Trail: In 2002, President George W. Bush declared the Old Spanish Trail as a National Historic Trail.

Mexican American War: After the Mexican-American War ended in 1848, the trail system became part of the U.S. Historians say use of the trail sharply declined after the war.

Get involved

To join the Old Spanish Trail Association, call Patricia Kuhlhoff at 505-466-4877 or go to oldspanishtrail.org.

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