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The New Mexico Trail - page 3 of 4

On April 26, Zúñiga sent his infantry up the San Francisco River with the expectation of meeting them again near “El Telár”. From Lucero the infantry negotiated the winding river bottom for nine leagues northeast with the steep-sided Saliz Mountains on their left and the moderate sloping canyon lands of the Mogollon Mountains to their right. The captain’s march was only six leagues in the same direction but he camped again on the river at the mouth of the “Caxon de los Jucaros”.

On April 27, the day started late (about 9 a.m.) and ended late. This would be a significant day with respect to finding a pass to Zuni. From the river, the captain and his party turned north-northwest up the Caxon de los Jucaros (Saliz Canyon) for 5 leagues and near its headwaters turned northeast, descended into a piney valley with the Saliz Mountains to their right and the San Francisco Mountains to their left. Zúñiga named the basin bottom the “Valle de la Laborcita” [Photo 6]. The valley lies at 6,000 ft elevation and today the landscape is carpeted with stands of ponderosa pine, groves of pinion pine and juniper, and pockets of grassland.

By 2:30 in the afternoon the captain and his cavalry had traveled 10 leagues, or roughly 26 mi. and had reunited with the infantry near the east end of the valley. The infantry had gotten to this valley by following the San Francisco River [Photo 7] through a narrow gap between the northern end of the Saliz Mountains and Higgins Mountain. 

What factors influenced Zúñiga’s decision to scout a New Mexico road at this point will never be known. He was only a day’s march south of present day Apache Creek, the same route taken by a host of other Spaniards earlier that century including Manual de Echeagaray. Though Zúñiga had Echeagary’s 1788 notes and map, he was instructed to go by the most direct route. Did Echeagaray pass this way on his return home? I don’t know. Perhaps one or more of the Apache Auxiliary convinced the captain to take to the high county from the Valle de la Laborcita.

From the valley floor to the crest of the San Francisco Mountains (El Telár) [Photo 8] is a little less than four miles with only one truly steep incline at the top. If Zúñiga travelled up the ridge between present day Cienega Canyon and Grapevine Canyon he would have been on the same course used a little over a century later called the Spur Ranch Pack Trail. It should be noted that a large prehistoric ruin at the head of the trail suggests that this route may have some antiquity. Other ridges may provide similar opportunities for quick access to the top.

In any event, the expedition crossed over the northeast end of the San Francisco Mountains and descended through a thick pine forest to the junction of the present day San Francisco River and Centerfire Creek. Climbing a hill to the north-northwest to view the landscape before them they climbed down and continued north along a “beaten path” through an opening in the pine forest before retiring for the day. The captain had added four additional leagues to the day travelling about 30 miles or about 14 leagues total. This is not an unreasonable jaunt for a field-hardened horse or mule given that the terrain encountered was for the most part good. 

Zúñiga was now in a good position to reach Zuni. He camped the night at the mouth of a watered canyon he called “San Atanasio” (present day Centerfire Creek). At sunrise Zúñiga marched a quarter league north through the canyon reaching its end. From here they rode north-northwest along present day Funderburg Draw, passed through Black Gap and observed some small natural basins filled with winter runoff.

Traveling at a good pace over sage flats and piney hills on the west edge of Spur Lake Basin the expedition entered Arroyo Grande where they found a little cienega (probably Knights Spring). They had ridden five leagues since morning. From the cienega the expedition easily crossed present day Bill Knight Gap and descended onto what Zúñiga described as a “very beautiful plain” [Photos 9 & 10]. This is a portion of the “North Plain” traversed by Spanish forays earlier in the century (see Kessell 1971; Thomas 1936). Its eastern edge was probably seen by Manual de Echeagaray in 1788 and named la Victoria.

Zúñiga then passed left of a sink (derramadero) and encountered a number of natural pools. At this point I believe the expedition passed left of the basin at the head of Cow Spring Draw and camped at one or more of the natural pools just north of the sink, such as present day Laguna de la Manzana. Zúñiga named one of these sinks “Ojos de San Vidal” and on his return trip to Sonora his party widened the springs to make them run.

At sunrise on April 29, the expedition travelled north over some plains and rough county and eventually turned northeast passing though a narrow canyon they found blocked by rock. There is little doubt that Zúñiga was in the Quemado Volcanic Field (Dunbar 2005) and that before him was one of two large lava flows.

Here they turn left to look for a hill with a pool of water suggesting again that the captain’s Apache Scout was indeed aware of their location. Finding the pool and calling it “Tinaja de San Pedro Alcántara” they rested after traveling six leagues since morning. Based on the captain’s north-northeast track and the distance from his previous camp at Ojos de San Vidal I place the expedition at a natural earthen basin on top of an unnamed mesa just north of present day Agua Fria Creek and at the northwest edge of the volcanic flow they had just navigated around.

After a rest the captain wrote that they continued in the same direction for five leagues and encountered a beautiful salinas (Zuni Salt Lake). If he means they continued north-northeast, the expedition was now ascending a gentle plain between high mesas on the right and hills on the left closing in somewhat on the trail as they approached the salinas.