The Old Spanish National Historic Trail is nearing the 20th anniversary since Congress named it a National Historic Trail in 2002.
The Old Spanish Trail is more than 2,700 miles long and crosses six states: New Mexico, Utah, Colorado, Arizona, Nevada and California. It starts in Santa Fe and ends in Los Angeles. The volunteer organization, the Old Spanish Trail Association, is an overseer of the trail’s historic and natural preservation.
Celinda Kaelin is the New Mexico director of the Old Spanish Trail Association, and is based in Taos. She said the association has plans to add on to the trail’s signage in New Mexico to incorporate Indigenous historic use with the trail.
“The first thing we did was get together a naming of all the nations whose ancestral lands were impacted by the trail,” said Kaelin.
She said the association has started working with a representative from the Ute Nation to update signage to highlight the historic use of the trail. Kaelin and others hope to include work with other nations and tribes in the future. In Colorado, Kaelin said they are currently working with tribes to update signage on segments of the route. The signage they hope to include is a brief acknowledgement of groups that have used the trail, before it became known as the Old Spanish Trail.
“Most of the National Historic Trails, especially the Old Spanish Trail, they overlay [with] Native American trails that are thousands of years old,” Kaelin continued. “But it's the label Old Spanish Trail...for me it's not a complete history.”
Kaelin said that prior to it being named the Old Spanish Trail in the 1840s it was an important trade route for different Indigenous groups. Kaelin believes that naming it the Old Spanish Trail leaves out the history of the many Indigenous groups that utilized the route as well.
“It's really hard to change a name as you can imagine. The Park Service has it all over the place and signs and books and brochures. So we want to, at some point, see if we can put parentheses underneath and say something like an Indigenous Southwest Trail,” said Lynn Brittner, the executive director for the Old Spanish Trail Association.
Brittner said the trail has a long and storied history, with many complexities. She said it was used as a “multi-use mercantile trail” by many different groups in the 19th century by Hispanic and Indigenous people and European immigrants.
Some members in the association in the different state chapters are descendants of people who used the trail for trade.
Conchita Marusich is the president of the Old Spanish Trail Association and is based in California. She is the great-great-granddaughter of William Wolfskill, a trapper and explorer. Wolfskill and other trappers helped trailblaze the Old Spanish Trail, according to Marusich.
“[Wolfskill] left from Abiquiu and went up into Colorado and then crossed into Utah and down Utah, and then he eventually hit the Mojave Desert in the California area, and then...finally ended up in San Gabriel Mission in February of 1831,” said Marusich.
Marusich grew up hearing stories about the famous trapper. Her interest only grew as she got older. She said she and her husband, who also loves history, visited a part of the Wolfskill expedition route on the trail. Marusich stood at the site when her relative was caught in a snowstorm for four days as they unsuccessfully searched for gold.
After that experience, Marusich became involved in the association and formed a group within it composed of “descendants of the Old Spanish Trail,” for other members to research their family’s activity on the trail.
But Marusich said that the trail’s preservation is important for the public as well.
“If you have the actual trail that people can go out on, and they can hike on, they can read about, they can feel pride about—that's important,” said Marusich.
Kaelin said the next step to update the signage is a memorandum from the U.S. Forest Service, then a final say from the National Park Service.
The association's attempt to better acknowledge Indigenous history on the trail coincides with a recent announcement from Interior Secretary Deb Halaand on Nov. 19 to remove racist terms on federal trails and lands, to bring awareness of Indigenous issues.
Kaelin said the association will also be working to curb vandalism and littering along parts of the trail. She said that near the intersection of the Old Spanish Trail and the Miranda Trail litter and abandoned trailers have become blights on the natural beauty of the area.
Brittner said that part of the work the association does is to preserve the environment of the trail from development infringements.
“This is for preserving our history. And I think in turn, then, that helps people to connect with yours to bond with the earth and care about what happens to the earth,” said Kaelin.