Sibley’s wagon road and the Santa Fe Trail
In studying the various routes or branches of the old Santa Fe Trail over the last 30 years, the location of one 35-mile section continued to puzzle me.
It is the little known branch off the main trail in northeast New Mexico that climbed over the mountains somewhere southwest of Cimarron and eventually dropped into the Taos Valley.
This was not a wagon road, but rather a narrow pack mule trail. By the mid-1820s, after opening the Santa Fe Trail in 1821, it had already become a route well-used by American trappers and by merchants transporting U.S. goods to the town of Fernando de Taos, as it was then known.
The first one to write about the tributary trail to Taos was George C. Sibley, U.S. commissioner assigned to survey and mark the entire length of the Santa Fe Trail.
On Oct. 19, 1825, his small party that included the surveyor Joseph Brown, civilian helpers, a couple of mountain men and several supply and equipment wagons, reached the Rock Crossing of the Canadian River.
There Sibley had a choice of routes. He could continue on the main trail that led past the Wagon Mound (today close by I-25) and on to Santa Fe. Or he could angle toward the northwest, strike the mountains near the present day Philmont Scout Ranch and thread his way through the high country to Taos.
After consideration, he selected the latter course, because the mileage to Taos was much less than to Santa Fe and his draft horses were wearing out.
Having made that decision, he put two of his men on fast horses and sent them on to Taos. They were instructed to hire a guide, packers and mules, then rendezvous with the slow-moving main party at the eastern foot of the mountains.
Sibley needed the guide to find a route for his wagons, since the trappers’ trail could not accommodate them. Five days later, the reunion occurred near the future community of Rayado, 10 miles south of Cimarron — at least that seems to be the best guess.
The Taos messengers had brought back 10 pack mules, two Native packers, and a guide, Francisco Largo, “a civilized Comanche,” according to Sibley. Taos merchant Paul Baillo had also tagged along as a volunteer, but also to translate for Largo, who spoke Spanish but no English.
The wagons were now emptied to lighten them and their contents secured on mule backs. Two Americans were assigned to accompany this train over the mountain trail that was a fairly direct route to the Taos Valley.
It started at the mouth of Cimarron Canyon, which opens just west of the town of Cimarron and follows U.S. 64 to Taos. That was the assumption of the editor who published the Sibley journal in 1952. Other starting points have been suggested as well.
After recently re-examining all the evidence and consulting those familiar with the ground, I have concluded that the historic old pack trail began just south of Rayado.
At his campground on the flats there, Sibley saw to the departure of the mule train. His intent now was to have Largo find another route that could be navigated by his empty wagons.
The guide led the party south 12 miles, past a mountainous wall, to the mouth of a large valley yawning on the west. Ocaté Creek flowed through this valley, and the men followed it until a mountain blocked the way.
Largo declared they would have to climb it. Sibley recorded that “it looked formidable, but axe men cleared a way through the trees and our poor jaded horses dragged the wagons to the top.”
Eventually, crossing the Moreno Valley beyond, the expedition ascended a second mountain and plunged into the upper watershed of the Rio Pueblo de Taos. Following it downstream to Taos, the arduous trip across the mountains was completed in five days, although only 35 miles had been covered.
Sibley in his journal wrote: “Our poor horses seemed to pluck up fresh spirits, on sight of the fields and houses. They entered the village at a good trot, as if they enjoyed their share of bringing the first wagons over the mountains into the Valley of Taos.”
As far as I can determine, those were both the first and last wagons to make the journey before the American occupation of 1846. Sibley had recommended that a wagon road be developed over his route, but New Mexico’s provincial government lacked the funds to do so.