Santa Fe Trail
by William H. Wroth
The Santa Fe Trail is a historic trade route from Missouri through Kansas to Santa Fe, New Mexico. Passing through eastern Kansas, it reaches the great bend of the Arkansas River, then in western Kansas it divides into two alternative routes: the Mountain Branch which follows the Arkansas further west to the site of Bent’s Fort, then heads south through Raton Pass into New Mexico, and the Cimarron Cut-off which, leaving the Arkansas near the site of today’s Cimarron, Kansas, makes a more direct diagonal route southwest to Santa Fe.
The Santa Fe Trail is most commonly associated with the expansion of Anglo-American trade to the Hispanic Southwest beginning in 1821, but it was known long before that date by both French and Spanish explorers and traders. The French adventurer, Etienne Veniard Sieur de Bourgmont in 1714 traveled up the Missouri River at least as far as the mouth of the Platte and learned from the Indians of the possibility of trade with New Mexico. In 1720 Lieutenant-General Pedro de Villasur set out from New Mexico to explore the Plains, traveling to today’s Nebraska where he was killed by Indians sympathetic to the French. In 1739 two brothers, Pierre and Paul Mallet, with seven companions, undertook the first successful trading expedition by Europeans across the Plains to New Mexico. Like many who followed them, part of their journey was along the Santa Fe Trail. Starting in Illinois, their route probably led up the Missouri river to today’s South Dakota, then southwest through central Kansas, westward along Arkansas River, and southwest to Santa Fe. One of their companions, Jean Baptiste Alarí, remained in Santa Fe, married a local woman, and was the progenitor of the well-known New Mexico family, Alarid. The goods brought by the Mallets, though contraband by Spanish law, were very welcome in Santa Fe. Their return route to the east was along the Canadian and Arkansas Rivers to the Mississippi, and then down the Mississippi to New Orleans.
In 1744 a French soldier from Illinois whose name appears in the Spanish documents as Santiago Velo arrived in Pecos Pueblo by an unknown route and soon was apprehended by the authorities and sent south to Mexico. More French traders came to Taos from the east in 1748 and 1749, some of them artisans who ended up settling in Santa Fe. Other groups of French traders arriving in 1750 and 1752 had their goods confiscated and sold, one of them being Pierre Mallet on his second overland trip to New Mexico. A Frenchman, Pierre (Pedro) Vial who had been living in New Orleans and San Antonio was the first to travel the entire Santa Fe Trail. Under the auspices of Texas Governor Domingo Cabello y Robles in 1786 and 1787 he explored several routes from Texas to Santa Fe. In 1792, again under Spanish government auspices, he traveled over what was to become the Santa Fe Trail all the way to St. Louis and then back to Santa Fe.
In the early 1800s more traders arrived from the east to sell their goods in Santa Fe, among them Jean Baptiste La Lande from Illinois and a Kentuckian, James Purcell. La Lande successfully sold his goods and settled in Santa Fe, but Purcell was arrested and incarcerated until 1824. In 1806 the United States government sent Zebulon Pike on an exploring and military spying expedition to Colorado. He and his men traveled part of the Santa Fe Trail, first following the Republican River in Kansas, then the Arkansas into Colorado where they were taken into custody by Spanish troops and marched to Santa Fe. In 1810 he published an account of his journey, giving the first published report of a possible route to Santa Fe. In 1807 a French trader from St. Louis, Jacques Clamorgan, successfully sold his goods in Santa Fe and Chihuahua. Later American traders were not so lucky; in 1812 at least 12 of them, led by Robert McKnight and James Baird, reached Taos, were arrested and taken to Santa Fe where their goods were confiscated and sold at auction. They were later taken to Chihuahua, jailed for conspiracy and not released until 1821. Two other French traders from St. Louis, Auguste Chouteau and Jules de Mun, had their goods confiscated and sold in 1817.
While there are several traders who might be given credit for “opening” the Santa Fe Trail in 1821, Captain William Becknell is generally acknowledged as the “father” of the Trail. But prior to his expedition, Samuel Adams Ruddock claimed to have journeyed from Council Bluffs to Santa Fe in June 1821 before going on to the Columbia River. His account, however, has been doubted by later historians. Jacob Fowler, Hugh Glenn and a party of 20 men also made a journey across the Santa Fe Trail, reaching Taos in September 1821. Fowler left a journal giving a detailed account of their experiences.
William Becknell’s famous overland journey began in September 1821 when he set out from Missouri with party of 18 men, ostensibly to trade with the Indians in Kansas. It is likely, however, that he had word of the revolution going on in Mexico and the soon-to-be announced independence of that country. It was expected that Mexican independence would end the restrictive laws of Spain which were intended to prevent foreign goods competing with those brought in from Spain, as well as to protect the vulnerable northern territories of New Spain from the French and the Anglo-American intrusions. By early November Becknell’s party was in northeastern New Mexico and met a company of 400 Spanish troops led by Captain Pedro Ignacio Gallegos who were out searching for hostile Indians. Gallegos treated them in a friendly manner, but they could not communicate with him because none of them knew any Spanish. Gallegos led them to San Miguel del Bado and then to Santa Fe where they were well received by Governor Facundo Melgares and where they sold their goods easily and soon returned to Missouri.
Just a few months later in the spring of 1822, Becknell set out again for New Mexico, this time with three full wagons of goods, the first wagons to traverse the Santa Fe Trail. Among other goods in his wagons was gunpowder which he had contracted to supply for the Mexican government in Santa Fe. By the time of his second journey Becknell already had competition from other traders. Col. Benjamin Cooper with 15 men left Missouri for New Mexico two weeks before Becknell, and another party headed by John Heath caught up with and joined Becknell enroute. Within the next two years trade from Missouri along the Santa Fe Trail was in full swing. In 1824 a party of 80 men with 25 wagons, guided by Alexander Le Grand and including Augustus Storrs (later U. S. consul at Santa Fe), carried $35,000 worth of goods and successfully sold them in New Mexico.
Now began a steady stream of American and European manufactured goods which quickly wrought dramatic changes in the economy and lives of the people of New Mexico. The trade with New Mexico also was a huge boon to the economy of Missouri. Goods brought to New Mexico, available from no other source, were sold in Santa Fe and elsewhere at huge profits. The traders returned to Missouri with mules and other livestock, valuable furs, and most importantly with Spanish gold coins which became the common currency of the day. However, the small population of New Mexico could only absorb a limited amount of trade goods, so the many traders now traveling to New Mexico in the 1820s and 1830s often had to continue on to Chihuahua to sell their wares. In Chihuahua they met resistance both from Mexican merchants who formerly had a lucrative trade with Santa Fe and from French and English entrepreneurs who had been long established there. The result was that the Americans had to pay exorbitant duties (or else bribes) to do business in Chihuahua.
Another problem faced by traders along the Santa Fe Trail was a serious increase in attacks by Indians. In 1827 Pawnee Indians in Kansas made off with more than 100 mules and other livestock from a wagon train returning from New Mexico. The next year some Pawnees killed two members of a wagon train, and in retribution the traders shot and killed a group of presumably innocent Indians who were in the area. Thus began a period of harassment by the Indians of wagon trains along the trail, and soon U. S. troops were enlisted to accompany wagon trains across the Plains, with Mexican troops meeting them at the Arkansas River, then the international border between the United States and Mexico.
In 1833 a cavalry unit named the United States Dragoons was organized for the purpose of fighting Indians in the West, and the Santa Fe Trail became one of their most important routes. The Dragoons, under the command of Captain Philip St. George Cooke, in 1843 disarmed and disbanded the Jacob Snively expedition, a group of adventurers from Texas. The Snively party had been harassing Mexican traders on the Santa Fe Trail, claiming that they were trespassing on territory belonging to the Republic of Texas. After 1839 and until the coming of the railroad in 1880, Mexican entrepreneurs from Santa Fe and Chihuahua were active participants in the trade with the United States, driving their own wagon trains over the Trail to Missouri, and returning with manufactured goods from the eastern United States and Europe.
The same year of 1843 John C. Fremont launched his second expedition to the West, traveling the Santa Fe Trail to Bent’s Fort. His third expedition in 1845 also utilized the Trail. At Bent’s Fort he sent Lieutenant James Abert on a reconnaissance over the Mountain Branch down through Raton Pass. The Trail played an important role in the conquest of New Mexico in the Mexican-American War of 1846-1848. Lieutenant Abert in another journey during the War in 1846 used his knowledge of the mountain route to lead troops through Raton Pass and in the same year General Stephen Watts Kearney led the Army of the West from Fort Leavenworth in Kansas along the Trail to Bent’s Fort and then over the Mountain Branch to Raton Pass, Las Vegas, and finally to Santa Fe. Kearney was followed by reinforcements, including the Mormon Battalion, led over the Trail by Philip St. George Cooke. To the chagrin of Mexican authorities, the fears and cautions of the Spanish government prior to 1821 concerning outsiders penetrating New Mexico had now proved to be all too true.
Freighters now with large contracts from the army brought large quantities of foodstuffs and other goods to supply the troops in New Mexico and further west. During and after the War the army built new forts along or near the trail, including Fort Mann in 1847 near today’s Dodge City and in 1851 Fort Union, northeast of Las Vegas, New Mexico. Fort Union became a major supply center for later military operations in the Southwest. Other important forts such as Fort Riley and Fort Larned were built and they made up a chain of Army posts which proved to be crucial in the Civil War and Indian Wars in the West. The Santa Fe Trail became the major route to the Southwest, not only for the movement of troops and their supplies, but for emigrants and for mail delivery to the burgeoning American population. In 1862, 3000 wagon loads of goods and supplies were carried over the Trail to New Mexico, and in 1866 that number had increased to 5000. After that year the railroads began to spread across Kansas quickly ending the importance of much of the Trail. In February 1880 the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad reached Santa Fe, signaling the end of the Santa Fe Trail as a freighting route to the Southwest.
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Folmer, Henri. "The Mallet Expedition of 1739 through Nebraska, Kansas and Colorado to Santa Fe," The Colorado Magazine, September, 1939.
Gardner, Mark L., ed. The Mexican Road: Trade, Travel, and Confrontation on the Santa Fe Trail. Manhattan, Kansas: Sunflower University Press, 1989.
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Kessell, John L. Kiva, Cross, and Crown. Washington: National Park Service, 1979.
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