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PART I: The Armijo Trail Led from Santa Fe to L.A.
Solano Pioneer Led Mule Train in Early Foray
During the late 1830s and into the 1840s, more than 500 land grants were awarded in California, mostly to settlers of Spanish descent. Several of these grants were located in the area which later became Solano County, among them the Soscol grant given to General Vallejo, the Rio de Los Putos grant owned by William Wolfskill, the Suisun Rancho of Chief Solano, Juan Manuel Vaca’s and Juan Felipe Pena’s Lihuaytos grant and Rancho Tolenas or Armijo, given to Don Jose Francisco Armijo.
The Vaca, Pena and Armijo families all hailed from New Mexico, where they had been among Spanish settlers arriving in the 17th century. They lived on “Piedro Blanco” near Santa Fe.
In 1821, after its liberation from Spanish rule, New Mexico became part of the independent Republic of Mexico. That same year, Mexico dropped its trade barriers and trade with the United States began. The first route was the Santa Fe Trail, which connected Independence, Missouri, to Santa Fe, New Mexico. The trail was opened by Missouri trader William Becknell and became an important commercial route, allowing furs and silver to go east and much-needed merchandise to go west.
In the July 25, 1821 issue of the Missouri Intelligencer newspaper, Becknell called for the formation of a company to trade “to the westwards.”
Of the 18 men who answered his call, five eventually joined with Becknell. They left Franklin, Missouri, and on their way west, encountered Mexican soldiers who guided them to Santa Fe, where they successfully sold their goods.
Encouraged by Mexican officials, trade volume quickly grew and flourished, providing an economic boon for the economies of Mexico’s northern provinces and the State of Missouri. Across 900 miles of what are now the States of Missouri, Kansas, Colorado, Oklahoma, and New Mexico, merchants pushed enormous caravans of freight wagons westward, loaded with goods for customers in New Mexico that they traded for silver coin, mules, and wool. The average journey lasted from six to eight weeks, with wagon trains traveling 12 to 15 miles a day.
Jose Francisco Armijo was one of the first who took the opportunity to become such a merchant, traveling on the Santa Fe Trail in 1821.
The Santa Fe trade quickly developed into a complex web of international business, with merchants in Missouri and New Mexico extending connections to New York, London and Paris. Partnerships such as Goldstein, Bean, Peacock & Armijo formed and dissolved.
At the same time, fur-trapping parties pushed west from New Mexico. Different routes developed. Some of the names connected with these ventures are Antoine Robidoux, Jedediah Smith, Kit Carson, William Wolfskill and George Yount.
Once again, Jose Armijo showed his talent for recognizing an opportunity to open a new route for commerce. He is credited with being the first to establish the Old Spanish Trail, also known as the Armijo Trail, connecting Santa Fe and Los Angeles.
During the winter of 1829-1830, he led a mule train laden with New Mexico’s woolen goods to Los Angeles to trade for horses and mules that were abundant on the ranches of southern California. On Jan. 8, 1830, his train with its 30 drovers crossed Las Vegas Valley.
In later years, the trail developed into several intertwined parts. It left Santa Fe and split into two routes. The South, or Main Branch, headed northwest past Colorado’s San Juan mountains to near Green River, Utah. The North Branch proceeded due north into Colorado’s San Luis Valley and crossed west over Cochetopa Pass to follow the Gunnison and Colorado rivers to meet the Southern Branch near Green River.
News of Armijo’s feat encouraged other traders. The following year, Wolfskill’s and Yount’s commercial pack train of 1830-31, following a more northerly route through the river valleys of Colorado and Utah before reuniting with Armijo’s route in Nevada, created the possibility of consistent use of the entire route.
Described as the “longest, crookedest, most arduous pack mule route in the history of America,” Armijo’s trail would remain the principal means of reaching the Pacific Coast until the termination of the war with Mexico in 1848. During that period, Mexican and American traders took woolen goods west over the trail by mule train, and returned eastward with California mules and horses for the New Mexico and Missouri markets.
Other travels during the following years took Armijo to San Bernardino in 1829-30 and to San Jose in 1833-34, this time accompanied by his eldest son, Antonio Maria. In San Jose, Antonio met his future wife, Dolores Maria Duarte, daughter of a wealthy family.
During his travels to the West Coast, Armijo also went farther north, to Solano County as early as 1835. He must have liked what he saw, because by November 1837 he began to General Vallejo for a land grant. Vallejo was the representative director of colonization for the Mexican government.
With the secularization of the Missions in 1835, these large land tracts were given to private citizens. On March 4, 1840, Governor Juan Alvarado awarded Armijo three square leagues (13,315 acres), named the Tolenas Grant with the admonishment that “… he not molest the heathen (Native Indians) dwelling there.” The Tolenas Grant was bordered by the Rancho Suisun, granted to Chief Solano in 1837, and by the Suisun slough and the future Vaca/Pena grant.
Armijo quickly built a palizada, most likely before his family arrived from New Mexico. This building - logs placed upright into the ground to form a structure, sometimes filled in with adobe mud and thatched with tules or reeds - was intended as a temporary structure to satisfy the requirement of having a building to obtain the grant.
In May of 1841, Armijo returned to New Mexico to pick up his family and take them overland to their new home on the Tolenas grant. The group included his wife, Lolita Maria; their eldest son Antonio, 32, and his wife Dolores; daughter Francisca (about 20); Juan Filipe (about 11), nicknamed “Desierto” (the wild one), Carlota (about 14), and Francesca (about 18).
The two young sons of Antonio and Dolores, 10-year-old Jesus and 2-year-old Juan Castro, would follow the family the next year with the wagon train of their uncles, Juan Manuel Vaca and Juan Felipe Pena.
The wagon train included four Pueblo Indians, who assisted the family in herding the cattle. They remained with the family and settled on the Tolenas grant.
I will continue the Armijo family’s story in my next column.
Published July 11, 2004 in the Vacaville Reporter