The Old Spanish Trail and the Chaguanosos

Late in 1829 Antonio Armijo headed a small caravan of traders out of New Mexico bound for California. They left from Abiquiu and traveled through Monument Valley to Glen Canyon, where they crossed the Colorado River. From there Armijo traveled across southern Utah to the Virgin River, and then south around the Spring Mountains to the Amargosa River near the Paiute village of Yaga at the northern end of Death Valley. From Yaga the caravan followed the Amargosa south through the valley to Salt Creek, and then around the Avawatz Mountains to Bitter Spring. From Bitter Spring they followed the Mojave River to Cajon Pass and then on to Mission San Gabriel. They arrived on January 31, 1830 and spent about one month trading New Mexican serapes for California horses before returning to New Mexico via the same route that they used in coming to California. Their trip effectively opened the so-called Old Spanish Trail from New Mexico to California.

The trip was a difficult one and the part through Death Valley was frequently called the Jornado del Muerto - the Journey of Death. Because of the extreme summer temperatures in Death Valley the trip could only be made in the winter. Long stretches had to be crossed without water or feed for the livestock and many died along the way. In fact, their bones soon marked the trail. Indians also harassed the caravans and stole horses. Even so most of the horses made it to New Mexico and the profits from the trip were excellent. The California horses were marketed throughout the Southwest and as far away as Missouri. Several other trading groups followed Armijo's example, but within a short time the majority of the horses that were traveling over the Spanish Trail were herded by outlaws who took advantage of the relatively weak security situation in California. The Spanish called them Los Chaguanosos.

Juan Jesus Villapando led the first band of Chaguanosos into California during the winter of 1832-1833. It is estimated that he managed to steal well over a thousand horses and, although several of his band were captured by the Spanish authorities, Villapando managed to get most of the horses back to New Mexico. Following the Villapando raid, the authorities in California became more vigilant and the traffic in stolen horses diminished somewhat. Juan Alvarado's revolt against Governor Nicolas Guterrez in 1836 so disturbed the political situation in California that it opened the door for the Chaguanosos to renew their depredations on California's horse herds. The first group to take advantage of the situation was led by Jean-Baptiste Chalifoux, a Canadian trapper who had taken part in the Alvarado revolt and was dissatisfied with his pay. This group arrived in New Mexico in 1837 with fifteen hundred horses. (He returned in 1839 but was captured.)

The largest raid of all was staged by a gang composed of many of the Mountain Men who were suffering financially from a decline in the fur trade. They were led by Philip F. Thompson, a young man from Tennessee. Late in April 1840, they started by raiding Mission San Louis Obispo and from there continued throughout southern California. By mid-May they had rounded up three thousand horses and mules. Shortly after they crossed Cajon Pass, somewhere in the heart of the Mojave Desert, they ambushed the first posse that was following them. Two members of the posse were killed and one was wounded. Their horses were run off and they had to leave the desert on foot. A second much larger posse continued the chase and caught up with the Chaguanosos at Resting Springs in Death Valley. Details of the encounter, if indeed an encounter actually occurred, are not available but, in any event, the second posse discontinued the chase and the Chaguanosos successfully continued on to New Mexico with their herd of stolen horses. One story has it that Thomson's men managed once again to steal the posse's horses and did not give them back until the posse agreed to give up the chase. It is estimated that the Thompson gang made $100,000 from the raid.

The raids continued but were never again on the scale of the Thompson raid. In 1844 Andreas Fuentes was returning from California with a caravan of horses when they were attacked by Paiute Indians. All in the party were killed except Fuentes and a young boy by the name of Pablo Hernandez. Fuentes and Hernandez fled to the Mojave River where they ran into John Charles Fremont's Exploratory Expedition. Fremont's guide, Kit Carson, and another member of the Fremont party, Alex Godey, pursued the Indians, recovered a few horses, and killed and scalped two Indians. Fuentes continued on to New Mexico and Fremont took the young boy back to Washington D.C, with him. Following the conclusion of the war with Mexico, American horse raiders pretty much left the business claiming that their earlier involvement had been part of their effort to win California for the United States. During the gold rush in California a few of the 49ers used part of the Spanish Trail to reach the gold fields in California. In the early 1850s in California, horses increased in value and horse stealing became a more difficult and more dangerous occupation. Mexican and Indian Chaguanosos, however, continued to use parts of the Spanish Trail in their theft of horses through the mid-1850s.