My last post describes the Passport in Time project that I will be involved in during the first week in May. We are to search for evidence of the Old Spanish Trail that passes through the Tres Piedras area of New Mexico, about forty miles west of Taos.
The use of this “trail” goes back thousands of years and probably was first a game trail. The Native Americans following the game used it. The Spaniards were no dummies and when they wanted to go north they used native guides that knew the existing trails. They were followed up by the American traders and pioneers.
In some cases the trail was abandoned when other, more modern roads were made available. In some cases there is no sign of the trail because of the “progress of civilization”. Farm were tilled over it. Reservoirs flooded it. Modern roads were built over it. It will be a real challenge to find tangible evidence of the portion of the trail we are looking for.
That said, about three years ago I wrote a post about Ruth Marie Colville, an author and historian whose passion was locating and recording old trails like the Old Spanish Trail. In that post I mentioned that I had acquired a copy of her book “La Vereda” which documents to travels of Don Diego de Vargas in 1694 through northeastern New Mexico and southeast Colorado. Vargas’ expedition, searching for food for the beleaguered Santa Fe colony, covered much of the East and West Forks of the North Branch of the Old Spanish Trail.
Last night I dug the book out and after reviewing some of it realized that it describes much of the area that we will be searching in May. The East Fork of the North Branch goes through the Taos area and most of that portion of the route is now on private land. A lot of the West Fork of the North Branch, which runs north and south about forty miles west of Taos is on Forest Service land and that is where I’ll be in May!
This project is a little unusual in the fact that we will be using metal detectors to help us find relics of the trail. There’s a love/hate relationship between metal detectorists and archaeologists. Archaeologists sometimes regard metal detectorists as low class, ruffian, pillagers….and that would be a mild description…of cultural resources. To their defense, there are some detectorists that fit the description but most are as interested as the archaeologists in discovering and preserving historical artifacts.
When used properly, the metal detector can be a wonderful and powerful tool to the archaeologist. One of the best examples I know of is the metal detecting survey of the Little Bighorn Battlefield. Another good article is here. Metal detectors are an efficient and cost effective way to survey a large area in a relatively short time. In my project last year we surveyed several miles of potential trail and uncovered hundreds of artifacts. When an artifact was located it was left on the ground where it was found and an archaeologist noted the position on a map, recorded all the information about the artifact and then decided whether or not to “collect” it or not. If it was not collected it was reburied in the exact spot at which it was discovered.
Three years ago when I wrote the post about Ruth Marie Colville, I said that someday I hoped to be able to personally walk the trail she described. Little did I know that I would eventually have the opportunity to not only walk the trail but hopefully add to the knowledge that Ruth spent 30 years in gathering!
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