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On 1:27 PM by Rachel Preston Prinz in , , ,
To be given today 4/15/16 at the Historical Society of New Mexico in Farmington, NM
Hi there. My name is Rachel Preston Prinz. In 2011, I was ask to co-lead a team of expert consultants hired to produce nominations of 6 high-potential route segments of the Old Spanish National Historical Trail for the National Register of Historic Places. The sites selected were one per state in Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, and Utah.

Before I get into the meat of what I would like to share today, I thought I would share with you all the nominated sections I won’t be talking much about today.

This is the nominated Big Bend of the Virgin River site in Arizona. It is on the Utah border near St. George on the Armijo route of the trail.
This is the view of the site from the river down below. You might not can see them all now, but…
The yellow lines here are all the identified trail traces on that site.
It is unclear which if these date from the period of significance (1829-1848) of the Old Spanish Trail. Some came before, and some came after. This is an important transportation landmark used in MANY periods.

This will become an important theme in the story of the trail, and of this presentation.

This is Emigrant Pass on the CA/NV border. It’s outside Tecopa, and was used for both the Main and Armijo routes.
Believe it or not, you are looking at wagon, pack, and foot trails right now, you just need to know here to look. Let me give you another perspective, from the top…
See the car on the left at the middle?  That’s the modern road bypassing the steep grade that occurs horizontally across the middle of this photo…you can JUST make out two people walking the pack/cart path towards the horizon before the “cliff”. That path continues below and off into the horizon. Here too, there are MANY types of trails… Foot paths, pack trails, cart paths, car paths, and modern highways.

This perspective changed everything I thought about trails in one instant.

This is Mormon Mesa, near the Arizona border. It’s on the Main Route, well after North Route merges with it.
That is one of the cool historic obelisk OST markers from early last century on the left.

And this is Holt Canyon in Utah. It’s on the Main route outside Cedar City and St. George.
This is Wells Gulch in Colorado, on the North branch just about due north of here near Grand Junction.
I want to get into a little bit more detail on this site because it’s easier to see the trail in photos here, and it really illustrates the most important lesson I learned about trails on this project:

Due to seasonal variations in water flows, flooding, drought, rockslides, trail failure, and any number of other physical phenomena - the trail was regularly bypassed, moved, modified and restored.

There were painful and humbling moments on ur project when a series of celebrated archaeological finds would be relegated to “during the Hispanic period, but not necessarily dating to the (infintessimially small 20 year long) period of significance.” We started to wonder what we were going to propose putting on the Register at all.

One of the first things that became clear during the fieldwork completed in each state was the importance of the route in the development of the west.

The paths the “Spanish” traveled were, in large part, along previously established routes of aboriginal American natives. After the Spanish brought their horse and mule trains through, wagon caravans, early settlers, and mapping expeditions would use them, or at least follow the path of least resistance closest to them. This was followed by the development of both train and road networks in the 19th century. The development of the transportation infrastructure often obliterated any trace of the period trail, and that damage started during the period of significance.

The site also illustrates just how tricky trails can be. Sometimes a Trail is “clearly” a line on the landscape.
Often, though… there are actually multiple traces. Some of which you can only identify by looking for a change in vegetation, or stones that have been shifted to the side of the path. Sometimes you even have to lay on the ground to see them!

Remember that crazy interwoven map of yellow traces on the Arizona slide? This is what that looks like on the ground.
We have one trail in the immediate foreground. But at the crest of the hill, it fans out into many – even my arrows at the top can be split into two or three traces in some cases.

Why is this?

You don’t really realize until you get up on it that there are problems to solve if you imagine yourself as a “packer” using the trail…
Can you see the three trail traces at the top? There are two on the left of the people and one heading off to the right. You can see the left ones best by finding the indentations at the crest. The right one leaves a slightly-upward tilting scar across the hill just under the crest on that side.

Why so many? 

Because the original route was so rutted out from traverses done after spring rains when the ground was wet, that the trail was totally eroded away, leaving a man-high non-traversible gash.
The only choice was to go around.

In every location we surveyed, this story was the same… Trails laid upon trails. And trails that diverged from what was expected. Where a river might curve to the right in one generation, it might curve to the left in another. That didn’t mean the path was abandoned. It was just shifted a little.

When you get to the top of the crest, the reward is a gorgeous view of this important, intact, transportation corridor that allows you to have a vicarious experience of being on the OST.
It also helps illustrate the history of transportation in America. Because trails are a crucial part of that story.
This is that same trail network coming down the other side… looking up from an abandoned pullout from the old winding highway, which lies next to a modern, more straight, interstate highway. The white line running across the center of the crest and down towards the left is likely the old path.
Back at the top of the crest, looking towards the north, you can see the scars from the old highway where I took that last shot. That’s part of the story of the trail too. The interstate followed the highway, which followed the wagon route of the trail. The wagon route followed the pack trail which followed old Indian trading routes. They just moved things around a bit to miss giant obstacles like that eroded washout and to accommodate the wider wheelbase of wagons, then cars, then trucks…

It’s all part of the same story.

And… There’s no such thing as a line on a map that shows the trail. The trail is an idea.
Sometimes a foot path becomes a pack trail becomes a wagon road.
like the Old Salt Lake Trail, here… just a little ways south and across the highway from Wells Gulch.

Both the highway and the wagon road overlay portions of the Old Spanish Trail, and other trails too.
The only difference is the interstates and highways have bridges and rock cutouts. This wagon road depended on the easiest path. They blew part of the cliff that the Wells Gulch site sits on out of the way for the highway, and just bypassed this section, which is why it is still intact and archaeologically viable.

We see this again here at the New Mexico nominated site at Canada de Apodaca just outside Dixon, which is on the North Route of the trail.
These overlays are more difficult to observe, because the trail has been somewhat protected by being abandoned for use by the highway system and preserved within BLM land. The trail has "gone back to the earth more" here because of subsequent uses.

These are the natural pillars that mark the way from where the trail split from Embudo, the “choke” at the river near Pilar/Dixon.
At this site, we KNOW that the trail was an overlay, used by multiple users.
We’ve got evidence of what could be Hispanic period petroglyphs.

And what appears to be the work of earlier Native trail users too.
But again, it’s a system of younger paths overlaid and bypassing older paths, based on the form of transport used in the period. So, we get yet another confirmation that a trail is NOT necessarily a line on a map.  In many cases, it is a traversable CORRIDOR.
When you get to the top of this segment, the incredible vista offers us an extraordinary view into the experience that getting to Taos once was… in MULTIPLE periods.
The trail was a very direct response to its environment. It hugged secure mountain edges, traversed slopes at specific intervals based on the use (i.e. wagons were utilized on easy slopes, where horses could manage steeper sections), and traversed along waterways so that forage, camps, and water could be had at regular intervals approximately 22 miles apart - a day's ride. In the period, passage along the trail was confirmed by natural landmarks including unique rock formations as well as canyons and passes. We realized we were not just dealing with a THING but also we were also re-discovering the thing’s PLACE. The trail responded to its environment.  Up, over, around –  bypass cuts in the landscape were on the south and west for the most part… suggesting that those were intentionally placed to alleviate ice issues. Trails veered off on gentler slopes where there was jagged and hard rock that might undermine the horses’ and mules’ footing. In other places, the trail went straight up treacherous slopes where spring floods would make the ground too soft to travel along the river. Long scratches on rocks suggested wagons had had their wheels removed, and the wagon been drug up the slope by teams of horses instead of allowed to roll back down should an unlucky horse lose its footing.

And because of the distinctive landmarks, we realized that we would have to include the trail’s PLACE – its landscape, and its context within that landscape – in the nominations. Else, all we would be protecting would be, well… an illusion - a line on a map that represented a figment of a memory of something that may have been once upon a time.

So, we began to look at the trail as a cultural landscape, using traversable spaces, closeup and distant landmarks, as well as the maximum traversable distance to create what we called “catchments.”

This idea allowed us to include the entirety of the passable area around the likely trail trace. We hoped that this would prevent a developer in the future reading that line on the map as “true”, then building to the edge of its easement on either side of the approved trail trace, and, within the rights afforded to them by a well-intended but ill-conceived attempt at protecting these historic linear features, forever obliterate our ability to conduct an archaeological investigation of say… a rediscovered camp site that was located when a lost map was found in some dusty family archive in Mexico.

That is not to say that development should not take place along the corridor. But if we could choose selectively, and protect wisely, the most significant and likely intact sections of the trail would be protected, and allow a visitor to vicariously experience travel through several periods of the development of the American West along it. We could preserve, at least in experience, another of our amazing wild places. AND we could tell the story of how we evolved as a country.

So, what all of our efforts seemed to point to was:


It’s about experiencing the traversable space within the context of a historically wide-open landscape, as well as being able to locate and find your way using the landmarks that would have originally gotten you there.

To be able to tell these stories and protect the Trail Corridor, not the biggest/surest/most recent line we find…is to understand how we imagine and adapt over time.

The most important thing I hope you take from this is this:
Expanding the way we think about trails… Can help YOU in your own preservation work.

Because the approach to preserving an intact cultural landscape can be applied to:
  • making decisions about fracking at Chaco
  • preserving acequia systems
  • preserving historic sites & trails
  • making a place livable
  • designing new buildings that honor and tell the story of their Place
  • preserving context… and helping a community grow while also honoring where it is and why it is there.

Thank you.