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The Santa Fe Trail

A History of the Santa Fe Trail by Harry C. Myers – 2010

(Edited by Joanne VanCoevern)



      Long before Europeans came to the North American continent, there was trading taking place across the Great Plains. As early as 1200 A.D., there is evidence of Southwestern Pueblo designs in the area of the Hopewellian Culture along the Ohio River valley. And, conversely, there is evidence of Hopewellian designs in the Pueblos of the Southwest. This trading may not have taken place with one person traveling across the plains to another village; trade goods may have been traded hand-to-hand and village-to-village. By the time Juan de Oñate arrived in New Mexico in 1598, trade was ongoing between the Pueblo Villages of the Rio Grande Valley and the people in the vicinity of the Texas panhandle, generally in the Amarillo, Texas, area. The people of the Texas panhandle and the Great Plains would trade buffalo meat and products of the buffalo with the Pueblos of New Mexico for agricultural products such as beans, corn, and squash. This interdependent trade, which had been ongoing for hundreds of years, was tapped into by the Spanish settlers of New Mexico.

      They too settled along the Rio Grande because that was where the water for irrigation was and where the bulk of the people were. It provided better defense when the People of the Plains were in a stress situation and had to conduct raids into New Mexico to survive. Eventually, both the New Spanish settlers and the Pueblo Indians would head out onto the eastern plains and hunt buffalo. But this was dangerous because it was the job of the Plains People to provide the buffalo in trade. No doubt, other people were met as the New Mexicans explored outside of their territory and trade took place. But that trade was illegal. The mother country of Spain treated her colony of Mexico in a typical manner - the only trade that could take place had to benefit the mother country. Trade with the Indians was illegal. Thus, New Mexico at the far reaches of the Spanish empire, suffered for goods and any that came there were expensive.

      In the Eastern part of North America the city of Santa Fe was mentioned and associated with visions of gold and riches. This city with the exotic name became the target of explorers and adventurers from the east who saw their glory there. Francisco Vasquez de Coronado and his band of explorers reached the center of the country (area of Lyons, Kansas) in 1542. Not until 1725 did the French, attempting to reach Santa Fe from the east come upon the same area. In the year 1739, brothers Pierre and Paul Mallet finally arrived on the plaza in Santa Fe. They had brought items for trade, but had lost them along the way. Officials in this provincial capital did not detain them or throw them in jail as they should have. Instead the Mallet brothers were allowed to stay in Santa Fe for about a year before they headed back to the Mississippi River country to attempt to return with more goods. They did not succeed, but other Frenchmen entered New Mexico with trade goods, were arrested, their goods were confiscated, and they were sent packing.

      On the New Mexico side, realizing the potential value of trade within the empire, once Spain had bought the Louisiana Country from France in 1762, an itinerant gunsmith who was living with the Comanche was commissioned to open a trade route between San Antonio (Texas) and Santa Fe. Pedro Vial became the unofficial explorer for New Mexico. He led expeditions between Santa Fe and Natchitoches, (Louisiana), St. Louis (Missouri), and San Antonio, (Texas). Yet, because of conditions in the empire, these trade routes were never opened. But the people of colonial Mexico chafed under the colonial restrictions of Spain. Revolution broke out in 1810 in Mexico and was quickly squelched. But from then on resistance to the colonial policy grew.

      And in the young United States of the early 1800s, fascination with the Southwest held strong. Lt. Zebulon Montgomery Pike was sent west in 1806, ostensively to find the headwaters of the Red River. He and his party were captured by New Mexican soldiers and detained, eventually released and sent home. Other parties from the states attempted to trade in New Mexico and were either arrested and held or quickly sent home. Thus, by 1821, a number of parties from the United States had reached Santa Fe.

      By September, 1821, a revolt in Mexico against Spanish rule had succeeded. Mexico was a free country and could now trade with whomever they pleased. In Missouri in 1821 a panic (financial depression) gripped the state. The situation was so bad that in Franklin farmers could not sell their produce locally. They had to ship it down the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers to New Orleans to get any money. In sorry straits was a 31 year-old Saltmaker, in debt and on the verge of going to jail. What prompted William Becknell to plan a desperate trip to Santa Fe is not known, but it saved him from jail.

William Becknell Sets Out for Santa Fe:

      William Becknell started from Franklin, MO with five other men in September of 1821. It took them almost two and a half long, cold, worrisome months to reach New Mexico, knowing that everyone else who had previously come to trade in New Mexico did not fare well.

      In New Mexico, in November of 1821, Captain Don Pedro Ignacio Gallego and his Urban Militia from Abiquiu were directed to head west and campaign against the Navajo. When they reached Jemez Pueblo, ready to launch into Navajo country, they were re-directed to the east to San Miguel where “nations of the north” had raided the cattle herd. Gallego, and his men, were to get them back. By November 12 they were at San Miguel and other militia, Pueblo Indian Auxiliaries and Presidial soldiers, joined Captain Gallego and his force. Combined, they now totaled over 450 men as they headed east towards the “desierto” after the Indian raiders. On the afternoon of November 13th, just south of Las Vegas, New Mexico, Gallego’s soldiers saw six men heading their way. William Becknell and his five companions from Missouri had arrived in New Mexico.

      Gallego sent Becknell and his party into Santa Fe the next day to meet with the Governor. On November 16 Governor Facundo Melgares, aware of Mexican Independence, welcomed Becknell and his men and asked them to return to Missouri and bring more goods into New Mexico. Legend has it that when William Becknell rode into Franklin on his return in January 1822, a rawhide bag of silver coins was slashed open and spilled to the cobblestone street, the profits of the meager goods taken to Santa Fe. This Missouri town, and indeed the whole state, caught the fever and the Santa Fe trade was off and running. Not to be outdone, there is evidence that within the next couple of years, New Mexicans also joined in the trade and made good profits. 

The Santa Fe Trail is Established:

      Over the next twenty-four years, countless men from the Missouri frontier purchased goods, hired hands and headed for Santa Fe. Profits were good, but by 1824 the little Mexican province of New Mexico was saturated with goods and the traders then continued down into Old Mexico to the states of Sonora, Sinaloa, and Chihuahua; to the towns of Chihuahua, Durango, San Juan de los Lagos, Guanajuato, Aguascalientes, Zacatecas, and Mexico City, and continued to make money. Merchants from New Mexico would travel over the trail from Santa Fe and Albuquerque to St. Louis and on to New York City and Philadelphia where they would purchase goods, to return home with, to sell. Some New Mexicans would continue over the Atlantic Ocean to London and Paris to get the latest goods for their customers in the Southwest.

Trade Goods:

      Cloth of various kinds was the major item of trade taken to the Southwest. Calico, chambray, dimity, flannels, ginghams, linens, muslins, percales, and silks were some of the kinds of cloth included. Other goods taken included needles, thread, buttons, shawls, handkerchiefs, knives, files, axes, tools, and even in 1824 “green spectacles.” The wagons that carried the goods were also sold after being unloaded along with the oxen or mules that had pulled the wagons.

      What was taken back to Missouri were silver coins, processed gold, wool, and a great number of mules. The silver coins and all the returns from the trade enabled Missouri to thrive when financial depression struck the rest of the country in the period from 1821 to 1848. The Spanish and Mexican 8 Reales coin was legal tender in the United States until 1857 because of its reliable silver content. Missouri became known for its mules which really came from the southwest.

War With Mexico and the Establishment of the U.S. Army:

      The year 1846 brought war with Mexico and the Santa Fe Trail became a route of invasion. Colonel Stephen Watts Kearny led the so called “Army of the West” down the trail into New Mexico. The initial invasion was peaceful and successful and the trail then became a military supply route. Kearny assured the residents that their “Indian” problems would be taken care of by the army. Military posts were established in New Mexico and soldiers were stationed there. It was during this time that the Mountain Route, or Bent’s Fort Route, over Raton Pass became popular. First used in a major way by the Army of the West, Bent’s Fort in southeastern Colorado became a way point for the wagons and goods coming down the trail.

      Because New Mexico had a subsistence economy, everyone raised just enough for their families and no extra. Whatever the military needed had to be brought over the Santa Fe Trail. The army accomplished this by hiring experienced teamsters and green farm boys from Missouri to take the supply-filled wagons to the southwest. Although this arrangement worked, it was awkward and inefficient. On the eastern side of the trail the departure point for most of the military goods became Fort Leavenworth on the Missouri River north of Kansas City. Here goods were received that had been shipped up the Missouri River by steamboat and then loaded on wagons for the trip to New Mexico.

      With the signing of the treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which ended the Mexican-American War, the southwest was purchased from Mexico by the United States. New Mexico, Arizona, and California now became territories of the United States The army now turned to professional civilian contractors to haul the freight. Some freighting firms became famous during this period. Russell, Majors, and Waddell, who would later institute the famous “Pony Express” between Missouri and California, got their start on the Santa Fe Trail. William Bullard, who had been freighting in New Mexico before the war, turned his business into a professional operation and contracted with the Army.

A Valuable Trade:

      In 1843 one chronicler noted that the value of the trade in that year totaled $450,000. In 1846 on the eve of the Mexican War, 414 wagons had gone out carrying $1,752,250 worth of goods. In 1850, Kansas City alone sent 500 wagon loads, and in 1855 the total trade was estimated at $5,000,000. By 1860, a total of 16,439,000 pounds is said to have been carried, 9,084 men were employed, and 6,147 mules, 27,920 oxen and 3,033 wagons were used.

(The following chart is from Josiah Gregg's book Commerce of the Prairies.  "Pro's" mean "proprietors" – the actual owners of wagon trains that went in the given year.  "T'n to Ch'a" means the dollar amount of Missouri goods sent on from Santa Fe to Chihuahua - the figure given in this column is a portion of the figure in the column "Amt. Mdse."  The chart is on page 332, with lots of explanatory footnotes.  If you don't have a copy, you can access it full text, on line at: - look in "Volume II - Chapter 9".)


Changes for the Santa Fe Trail:

      The Santa Fe Trail ran through the home lands of the Shawnee, Kansa, Osage, Pawnee, the Cheyenne and Arapaho, the Comanche and Kiowa, the Apache tribes of Mescalero and Jicarilla, through the lands of the Mouache Ute, into the lands of the Pueblo Peoples of New Mexico. These American Indians, for the most part, were content to let the caravans travel through their lands. But as more game was killed, as more of the buffalo began to disappear, and as the grass that sustained all animals on the Great Plains grew scarce where the caravans had traveled, the tribes became increasingly concerned. Their resistance to the wagons traveling the trail increased as lone hunters and small parties were attacked. Eventually, it was all in vain for the ever growing settlements and settlers put more pressure on the Army to subdue and place the Indian people on reservations. By the mid-1870s the great Indian nations of the plains had been placed on reservations or were under so much pressure that they would never again be a threat on the Santa Fe Trail.

      The trade and use of the trail increased as the Civil War raged in the eastern United States and campaigns against the Navajo and Mescalero Apache were conducted in New Mexico. Those two tribes were subdued and then placed on the Bosque Redondo reservation. Because their crops continually failed, grain and other supplies were ordered from the east and those supplies came down the Santa Fe Trail. But by the mid-1860s, also heading east out of Kansas City were iron rails that would eventually supplant the trail. By 1865, the Union Pacific Railroad had a line to Lawrence, Kansas, and by 1870 the railroad had reached Kit Carson, Colorado Territory. Railroad trains could carry much more than animal drawn wagons ever could. To meet this new volume of traffic and goods, forwarding and commission houses became established to store goods, ship them by rail, then store and deliver them by wagon from the end of the rail line.

      Old portions of the Santa Fe Trail were rediscovered and used as the railheads marched west. At Grenada, Colorado, the road to Fort Union and its big supply depot headed southwest. Otero, Sellar, and Company, and Chick, Browne, and Manzanares were the big forwarding and commission houses and dominated the ending period of the trail. In 1879, the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe (A.T.& SF) Railroad crept over Raton Pass and into Las Vegas. And in 1880 the A.T.& SF reached Lamy station south of Santa Fe, ending long distance freighting over the plains - the Santa Fe Trail was at an end.

      For almost 60 years the Santa Fe Trail was the conduit which brought goods to New Mexico and the southwest and had sent back silver, furs, and mules. But ideas were also exchanged across this route along with culture. New Mexicans were exposed to “Yankees” and their way of doing business long before the invasion took place. Raw Missouri farm boys were fascinated with the exotic city of Santa Fe once they got over the shock of its appearance as a large brick kiln.  They took back memories of a different world and even named towns after their adventures. There is a Mexico, Missouri, and fourteen miles away is Santa Fe. The Missouri traders married New Mexico daughters to gain advantage in the trade, but mainly because they were beautiful. And in many cases those traders stayed in New Mexico or took their wives back to Missouri. The Santa Fe Trail was a route of commerce but quickly became a route of cultural exchange that is still with us, and still benefits us, today.

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