The Armijo Route
Who knows what they called themselves, or this spring, when humans first discovered what we now refer to as Willow Spring? Bipeds have lived, hunted, and died here for at least 8,000 years. But before Europeans arrived, the most recent occupants were the Shoshone and Paiute, who resided in a village they called Yaga. Their number was about 70.
Their mark remains, in both the names encountered here, and in some of the denizens. For instance, the nearby town of Tecopa was named by miners in 1872, after the Paiute Chief Tecopa, for his help in preserving the peace. And the town of Shoshone lies just nine miles north of Tecopa. And many of the residents in this area are descendants of the Shoshone and Paiute, possessing the genes and physical features of their more nature-oriented ancestors.
The first Europeans to set eyes and feet on this spectacular piece of real estate were guided by a Spanish explorer and merchant, named Antonio Mariano Armijo. At just 25 years old, he became famous for leading the first commercial caravan between New Mexico and California.
Armijo was the first to blaze a complete route that traveled the entire length of the Old Spanish Trail, which connected New Mexico to California. But it wasn’t easy, and it involved a lot of convoluted directional changes, leading the traveler from one watering hole to another. This route he blazed was such a crazy maze, that it developed a reputation as the “longest, crookedest, most arduous trail in the West.”
He and his men completed their epic journey on January 31, 1830, when they arrived at Mission San Gabriel, near Los Angeles. But shortly before completing their journey, they passed through Willow Spring, and made this watering hole a part of the Armijo Route of the Old Spanish Trail.
Now that the Armijo Route had been established, it was time to exploit it for profit. And that honor fell on the Los Chaguanosos. These were a motley gang of outlaws, consisting of Americans, Mexicans, and Indians, sporting colorful names such as Pegleg Smith and Walkara the Ute Raider. But they also included more reputable pioneers who ventured occasionally into lawlessness, such as Old Bill Williams (a trapper who also guided pioneers), and Dick Owens (for whom the Owens Valley is named).
The Los Chaguanosos recognized that horses and mules were in short supply in New Mexico and points east. And they saw that horses and mules were in abundant supply at the rich, Mexican ranchos in California. Hmm. When crimes of opportunity knock, the criminal mind eagerly opens the door.
And so these raiders would steal these animals, drive them along the Armijo Route, and sell them for big profits in New Mexico. They were often chased by posses, but by the time they reached the Willow Spring area, the posses gave up.
They waged their largest, most daring raid in 1840, when they stole 3,000 animals from various Mexican ranchos. A large posse made fierce pursuit, forcing them to drive the animals hard. By the time the raiders reached Resting Springs, about five miles north of Willow Spring, over half the animals were dead, and the Mexican posse was less than a day behind them. In desperation, they hurriedly drove the remaining animals to Stump Springs and over the Nopah mountains to Charleston View.
Luckily, the posse gave up at this point, ensuring their escape to New Mexico. There, they fetched more than $100,000 from the sale of the surviving animals. This was one hell of a haul, and it attracted more raiders to the Old Spanish Trail.