Wagons Ho : El Monte Insists Trail Didn't End in Santa Fe

Times Staff Writer

It's not that El Monte officials want to change the name of the historic Santa Fe Trail to the El Monte Trail.

But they are convinced that the legendary path west for pioneers and traders ended in their city, not in Santa Fe, N. M.

Armed with maps, references from history books and newspaper clippings about settlers said to have traveled the trail as far as El Monte, officials have applied to the state Office of Historic Preservation, hoping to obtain landmark status in time for the city's 75th birthday celebration in November.

"It's not something that we've just come up with," said Councilman Jack T. Crippen, one of nine residents who have been working on the project for a year as members of the city's End of the Santa Fe Trail Committee.

Crippen said that, when he moved to the area, he saw a sign posted at the city limits welcoming visitors to El Monte, "end of the Santa Fe Trail."

"I've lived in El Monte since the '30s, and that was there when I came into town," Crippen said.

The El Monte forces contend that some of the pioneers who traveled the 780-mile trail from Independence, Mo., through Kansas and Colorado to New Mexico stopped only briefly in Santa Fe.

Many continued on to El Monte, they say, over either the Old Spanish Trail, which went north through parts of Colorado, Utah and Nevada, or the Gila River Trail, which dropped south from Santa Fe and went through Arizona to California.

The documents included in their application say the Old Spanish and Gila River trails both ended in El Monte; hence the contention that it is the end of the Santa Fe Trail.

Lending credibility to the claim in the eyes of committee members is a plaque erected in El Monte in 1930 by the California State Society of the Daughters of the American Revolution that says:

"This tablet commemorates the site of the oldest Protestant Evangelical Church in Southern California, the erection of the first school house and the end of the Santa Fe Trail."

But in 1910, the Santa Fe chapter of the DAR erected a plaque in Santa Fe Plaza declaring that spot the end of the trail.

"The Santa Fe Trail ended in Santa Fe," declared Emma S. Lyon, historian for that chapter. She said her group knows of 17 other plaques erected by other DAR chapters marking spots along the trail and suspects that there are others it doesn't know about.

Lyon said El Monte is probably entitled to some kind of marker indicating the end of a trail, "but it's not the Santa Fe Trail."

The dispute over where the trail ended appears to be weighted heavily in favor of Santa Fe.

But that doesn't deter the El Monte people.

"We don't care what people believe," said Theresa Krist, assistant director of the El Monte Museum and one of the residents who researched the issue.

"We're going to designate it as the end of the Santa Fe Trail despite what anyone says."

Needless to say, Santa Fe considers itself the end of the trail.

"All I know is what they say, that Santa Fe is the end of the trail," said Santa Fe Mayor Sam Pick.

'Land Mass Stops'

"If the end of the Santa Fe Trail is California, then that's because that's where the country, where the land mass stops. After that, you're in the ocean," said Linda A. Tigges, Santa Fe's chief of historic preservation planning.

Experts on the trail agree.

"I was quite astonished when I heard this," said Marc Simmons of Cerrillos, N. M., an author of books on the trail and president of Santa Fe Trail Council, a national group of about 400 people interested in the trail and its history. Simmons publishes a newsletter about the trail called Wagon Tracks.

Simmons said he was approached last year by a member of the El Monte committee and tried to discourage the effort.

"What they're saying is that this Old Spanish Trail was the western extension of the Santa Fe Trail," Simmons said, and some people using the trail stopped in El Monte.

'Open to Debate'

"Whether that makes it the terminus of the Santa Fe Trail is open to debate," he said. "A great many people went on to Los Angeles, and a great many people went on to other places."

California DAR officials, who have been asked by El Monte officials to dedicate another plaque designating the city as the end of the trail, say they do not know what was used to document the earlier marker.

Joy Thomas, historian for the California DAR, said there are no records explaining why the marker was placed there. "I have no idea what kind of proof they used," she said.

Officials at the National Society of the Daughters of the American Revolution in Washington said that the national office, which has approved applications for markers since 1984, has not received the most recent request for the El Monte marker, but that when it does, the application will be reviewed by staff members.

DAR officials said they had not approved applications before 1984 and were not aware that more than one city had a plaque declaring it to be the end of the Santa Fe Trail.

"It's a concern," said Ann W. Weir, historian general for the national DAR office. "We didn't know (the El Monte marker) existed, and I honestly don't know what we can do about it."

"It almost looks like someone's wishful thinking or exaggeration," said Simmons. "After it was engraved in stone, then it became an accepted fact. We have no knowledge of what the DAR used to make that claim. Why El Monte?"

Jack D. Rittenhouse of Albuquerque, author of "Santa Fe: An Historical Bibliography," published in 1971, asked the same question.

Town Not Mentioned

In researching more than 700 books and pamphlets for his book, Rittenhouse said he had seen no mention of El Monte, or Lexington, which was the town's original name, as the end of the trail.

"There would be various places that can say they are an extension of the Santa Fe Trail," said Rittenhouse, a rare-book dealer who became interested in the trail in the late 1940s. "That would apply to almost any direction."

The trail, one of the longest commercial routes in the United States in the pre-railroad era, was first used by William Bucknell in 1821. Soon after, wagons pulled by oxen or mules used the route as traders sought markets for their wares, mainly bolts of cloth and household furnishings.

Traders who did not sell all their goods in Santa Fe went on to Chihuahua, Mexico, through what is now El Paso, Tex., on what became the Chihuahua Trail.

"I think Chihuahua could certainly claim to be the end of the Santa Fe Trail more easily than any California city," said Santa Fe's Tigges.

Landmark Program

But El Monte intends to persist. If approved, the city would be entitled to a plaque and inclusion in the California Registered Historical Landmark Program, said Sandra J. Elder of the state Historical Resources Commission.

Assemblywoman Sally Tanner (D-El Monte), who has been enlisted in the cause, said the city's research "looks pretty convincing to me."

"We've always considered El Monte the end of the Santa Fe Trail," said Tanner, who promised to expedite the application to ensure that El Monte will have an answer in time for its birthday.

The celebration will include the dedication of Pioneer Park, believed to be a campsite for settlers who traveled along the trail.

Elder said the application will be evaluated to determine if the proposed landmark has statewide significance and if it is the first, last or only one of its kind in a large geographical area--in this case, the Los Angeles area.

Then, if the claim can be conclusively documented in an original diary from early pioneers or a history written in the late 1800s, the application will be sent to the commission, which reviews applications for landmarks, points of historical interest and the National Register of Historic Places.

"I know there are skeptics," said Blanche Felix, chairwoman of the End of the Santa Fe Trail Committee. "We have spent hours on this documentation. It is the western branch of the Santa Fe Trail.

"We're very positive about it; we're not looking at the negative side," Felix said. "We do have the end of the Santa Fe Trail here in El Monte, and we're going to pursue it."

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