The Santa Fe Trail

It was the Anglo-Europeans that wrote the history of the Santa Fe Trail, but it was the bison and Native Americans that first blazed most, if not all, of the trail segments from Missouri to Santa Fe. Long before the first European arrived in North America, bison roamed over parts of what would become one of the most important nineteenth century commercial thoroughfares in the American Southwest. Bison instinctively select the best grade as they move through rough country. Before the arrival of the Spanish, Native Americans did not have horses. They traveled and hunted on foot. It is not surprising that they would follow the trail of the bison - sometimes as hunters and sometimes merely as travelers seeking the best path through difficult terrain. Without question, they utilized segments of the trail before any Anglo-European ever thought about making the trip from New Mexico to Missouri.

Most accounts of the Santa Fe Trail give 1821 as the date of it's inception. It was in September of that year that William Becknell led a small trading party composed of himself and a few other men from Franklin, Missouri, to Santa Fe, New Mexico. In so doing, Becknell utilized existing trail segments that Native Americans had been using for centuries. Mexico had declared it's independence of Spain and the people in Santa Fe welcomed the opportunity to trade with the Americans. Becknell returned to Franklin in January 1822 and word quickly spread of the profit that he had realized. A great many other business men were quick to seize the opportunity and a vigorous trade sprang up virtually overnight. Becknell was, unquestionably the man that initiated regular commerce over the trail, but he was not the first European to travel between Santa Fe and Missouri. Pierre "Pedro" Vial, a native of France exploring for the Spanish governor of New Mexico, successfully traveled from Santa Fe to St. Louis, Missouri in 1793. In subsequent years, others made the trip as well, but political and economic conditions were not conducive to the development of any significant trade. In fact, for most of that period, the Spanish government, fearful of American expansion, had banned trade with Americans.

What started out as limited regional trade between New Mexico and Missouri quickly morphed into the use of the Santa Fe Trail as a segment in a much broader commerce. American traders continued on past Santa Fe deep into Mexico via the Camino Real de Tierra Adentro {Santa Fe to Mexico City). Mexican traders used the link with Missouri to enter world markets via the Mississippi River and New Orleans. Manufactured goods moved from Missouri to Santa Fe and silver specie, horses, mules, donkeys, furs and animal skins moved to Missouri. After 1830, many if not most of the horses, mules and donkeys purchased by Americans in Santa Fe had been imported from California via the Old Spanish Trail.

The smooth flow of commerce was interrupted in 1846, when the United States declared war on Mexico. General Stephen Kearny used the trail first as an invasion route for his Army of the West's attack on New Mexico and subsequently as a military supply route. Following the end of the war with Mexico, travel and commerce again developed over the trail and immigrants heading for the gold fields of California used the eastern part of the trail. Increased friction developed between the travelers and the numerous Indian tribes in the vicinity. The military was called on to protect travelers and, in a relative short period of time, the Indians were driven onto reservations. During the civil war, the trail was still a vital thoroughfare, but shortly thereafter railroads began to increase in importance. In 1880, the Union Pacific laid rail across Raton Pass into Santa Fe. The development of an expanded system of railroads marked the end of the Santa Fe Trail. Railroads also replaced the Camino Real de Tierra Adentro a few years later.

The Santa Fe Trail was never static. It was in reality an intricate web of constantly shifting trail segments which individual trading parties chose from depending on an infinity or variables, including the weather, the availability of feed for the animals, the mood of various Indian groups, and a host of other considerations too numerous to list. Further complicating things was the fact that the eastern terminus shifted from Franklin to Independence. This web of trail segments has been designated a National Heritage Trail. There are numerous museums, interpretive centers, and historic sites sprinkled along the trail in Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma, Colorado and New Mexico. Many are operated by the National Park Service. Others by state and local entities.