The Old Spanish
by Jeff Richards
Old Spanish Trail, which once passed through the heart of
the Moab Valley, has a colorful history.
Starting more than 200 years ago (its heyday was from about
1830 to 1848), the 1,100-mile-long trail had been a major
supply and trade route between Santa Fe and Los Angeles,
and even today many sections of the trail are heavily traveled
(covered by major interstate highways, of course). In addition,
hundreds of years ago, prehistoric Native American peoples,
including the Fremont Indians, had also used key sections
of the route for travel.
The Spanish Trail was a roundabout route, detouring around
both natural obstacles and areas where the local Native
Americans were known to be hostile. The trail entered Utah
from Colorado at near the site of the present-day town of
Ucolo (about 15 miles east of Monticello), and then headed
north, passing through the Moab Valley, crossing the Colorado
River at a spot that was relatively easy for horses and
cattle to cross safely. Some 50 miles to the north, near
the present-day town of Green River, the trail crossed the
Green River, again at a place (with an island in the middle)
that was easy to fjord. From Green River, the trail headed
north and west through central and southern Utah (much of
this segment is covered by modern-day Interstate 70) before
turning south again and passing out of the state near the
Virgin River and into Arizona.
of the noted explorers and pioneers who traveled the route,
particularly the Utah segment, included John C. Fremont
(1840s), Orson Pratt (1848), Capt. John Gunnison (1853),
and John Wesley Powell (early 1870s). Gunnison and several
of his surveying party were killed by Indians in October,
1853; during his explorations two decades later, Powell
named the area near the present-day town of Gunnison, Utah
A century earlier, when the area of present-day Moab was
still part of Spanish-occupied Mexico, a man named Juan
Maria Antonio de Rivera arrived in what is now known as
the Moab Valley via the Spanish Trail in 1765 along with
his party. His expedition had been sent forth to explore
the area surrounding the Colorado River. Numerous other
New Mexican traders also used the route throughout the 1700s
and into the mid-1800s. Typically, the Santa Fe traders
would transport woolen blankets and rugs to California,
where they would trade them for horses and mules, which
they would then drive back to New Mexico and sell them.
Unfortunately, the route was used as a slavery pipeline.
Animals were often traded for Pauite and other Native American
slaves (many of whom were children). In some cases, the
slaves were simply stolen from weaker tribes and sold for
high prices in California. Chief Wakara’s Ute bands
were notorious for capturing and trading slaves throughout
the 1830s and 1840s.
After Mormon pioneers arrived in central and southern Utah
in the late 1840s and early 1850s, however, the slave trade
became disrupted and the local Native Americans were eventually
displaced. The Mormon settlers then used the western part
of the Spanish Trail as a wagon route to California.
A few miles south of Moab, the Spanish Valley area includes
the Spanish Valley Drive road, much of which follows the
exact path of the historic Spanish Trail. The Old Spanish
Trail Arena, a popular site for rodeos and other events,
derives its name from the popular path that once passed
through this area. Today, there is an informative plaque
about the trail at Old City Park, and additional information
is available at the Dan O’Laurie Canyon Country Museum
at 118 East Center Street in Moab.