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Moab Historic Happenings January 2004

The Old Spanish Trail
by Jeff Richards


The 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.

Some 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 after him.

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.

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