Santa Fe Trail

In 1821 Mexico gained its independence from Spain. This stimulated trade between Mexico and the United States. Later that year William Becknell and four other men travelled to Santa Fe with a large number of pack animals carrying cotton. The trip was a great financial success as he was able to sell the cotton at $3 a yard. The following year he headed a large wagon train carrying $5,000 in merchandise. The party, including 30 drivers, left Missouri on 4th August, 1822. Becknell followed a new route that later became known as the Santa Fe Trail. He followed the Arkansas River until reaching Fort Dodge. After crossing the Cimarron he headed for Santa Fe which the party reached on 16th November, 1822.

Over the next few years this highway carried the goods of the East for the West. It also was responsible for taking the produce of trappers and hunters from New Mexico to the markets west of Missouri. The importance of the trail increased in 1831 with the introduction of steamboat navigation to Independence.

It is estimated that in 1860 as many as 3,000 wagons, 9,000 men, 6,000 mules and 28,000 oxen moved along the Santa Fe Trail carrying goods valued at $5,000,000.

The construction of the Santa Fe Railroad (1868-1880) brought an end to the popularity of the Santa Fe Trail.

Primary Sources

(1) William Becknell, Missouri Intelligencer (22nd April, 1823)

Our company crossed the Missouri near the Arrow Rock ferry on the first day of September, 1821, and encamped six miles from the ferry. The next morning being warm and cloudless, we proceeded on our journey over a beautiful rolling prairie country, and travelled 35 miles, crossing the Petit Osage Plain, which is justly accounted one of the most romantic and beautiful places in the state. The traveller approaches the plain over a very high point of adjoining prairie; suddenly the eye catches a distant view of the Missouri on the right, and a growth of lofty timber adjoining it, about two miles wide. In front is a perfectly level rich and beautiful plain, of great extent, and diversified by small groves of distant timber, over which is a picturesque view of nearly twenty miles. On the left it is bounded by a branch of the La Mine river, which is handsomely skirted with timber; while still further in this direction the view is bounded by the fanciful undulations of high prairie. Description cannot do justice to such a varied, prospect, or the feelings which are excited in beholding it. This being about the time of equinoctial storms, we suffered some inconvenience for two or three days on, account of rains and a cool and humid atmosphere. Arrived at Fort Osage, we wrote letters, purchased some medicines, and arranged such affairs as we thought necessary previous to leaving the confines of civilization. The country for several days' travel from Fort Osage, is very handsomely situated, being high prairie, of exceeding fertility; but timber, unfortunately is scarce. On the fourth day after leaving the Fort, I was taken sick in consequence of heat and fatigue induced by chasing two elks which we had wounded the day before, but which had strength sufficient to elude our pursuit.-- Some others of the company complained of illness about this time; but determining not to surrender to trifles, or indulge in delay, until it became absolutely necessary, we continued to travel slowly.

(2) William Becknell, Missouri Intelligencer (22nd April, 1823)

On Tuesday morning the 13th, we had the satisfaction of meeting a party of Spanish troops. Although the difference of our language would not admit of conversation, yet the circumstances attending their reception of us, fully convinced us of their hospitable disposition and friendly feelings. Being likewise in a strange country, and subject to their disposition, our wishes lent their aid to increase our confidence in their manifestations of kindness. The discipline of the officers was strict, and the subjection of the men appeared almost servile. We encamped with them that night, and the next day about 1 o'clock, arrived at the village of St. Michael, the conduct of whose inhabitants gave us grateful evidence of civility and welcome. Fortunately I here met with a Frenchman, whose language I imperfectly understand, and hired him to proceed with us to Santa Fe, in the capacity of an interpreter. We left here early the next morning. During the day passed another village, named St. Baw, and the remains of an ancient fortification, supposed to have been constructed by the aboriginal Mexican Indians. The next day, after crossing a mountainous country, we arrived at Santa Fe and were received with apparent pleasure and joy. It is situated in a valley of the mountains, on a branch of the Rio del Norte or North river, and some twenty miles from it. It is the seat of government of the province; is about two miles long and one mile wide, and compactly settled. The day after my arrival I accepted an invitation to visit the Governor, whom I found to be well informed and gentlemanly in manners; his demeanor was courteous and friendly. He asked many questions respecting my country, its people, their manner of living, &c.; expressed a desire that the Americans would keep up an intercourse with that country, and said that if any of them wished to emigrate, it would give him pleasure to afford them every facility. The people are generally swarthy, and live in a state of extreme indolence and ignorance. Their mechanical improvements are very limited, and they appear to know little of the benefit of industry, or the advantage of the arts. Corn, rice and wheat at their principal productions; they have very few garden vegetables, except the onion, which grows large and abundantly; the seeds are planted nearly a foot apart, and produce onions from four to six inches in diameter. Their atmosphere is remarkably dry, and rain is uncommon, except in the months of July and August. To remedy this inconvenience, they substitute, with tolerable advantage, the numerous streams which descend from the mountains by daming them up, and conveying the water over their farms in ditches. Their domestic animals consist chiefly of sheep, goats, mules and asses. None but the wealthy have horses and hogs. Like the French they live in villages the rich keeping the poor in dependence and subjection. Laborers are hired for about three dollars per month: their general employment is that of herdsmen, and to guard their stock from a nation of Indians called Navahos, who sometimes murder the guards and drive away their mules and sheep. The circumstance of their farms being wholly unfenced, obliges them to keep their stock some distance from home. The walls of their houses are two or three feet thick, built of sun-dried brick, and are uniformly one story high, having a flat roof made of clay, and floors of the same material. They do not know the use of plank and have neither chairs nor tables although the rich have a rough imitation of our settee, which answers the treble purpose of chair, table and bedstead.

(3) Josiah Gregg, Commerce of the Prairies (1844)

A few miles before reaching the city, the road again emerges into an open plain. Ascending a table ridge, we spied in an extended valley to the northwest, occasional groups of trees, skirted with verdant corn and wheat fields, with here and there a square block like protuberance reared in the midst. A little further, and just ahead of us to the north, irregular clusters of the same opened to our view. 'Oh, we are approaching the suburbs!' thought I, on perceiving the cornfields, and what I supposed to be brick-kilns scattered in every direction. These and other observations of the same nature becoming audible, a friend at my elbow said, 'It is true these are heaps of unburnt bricks, nevertheless they are houses - this is the city of Sante Fe'.

Five or six days after our arrival, the caravan at last hove in sight, and wagon after wagon was seen pouring down the last declivity at about a mile's distance from the city. To judge from the clamorous rejoicings of the men, and the state of agreeable excitement which the muleteers seemed to be laboring under, the spectacle must have been as new to them as it had been to me. It was truly a scene for the artist's pencil to revel in. Even the animals seemed to participate in the humor of their riders, who grew more and more merry and obstreperous as they descended towards the city. I doubt, in short, whether the first sight of the walls of Jerusalem were beheld by the crusaders with much more tumultuous and soul-enrapturing joy.

The arrival produced a great deal of bustle and excitement among the natives. 'Los Americanos !' - 'Los carros!' - 'La entrada de la caravana!' were to be heard in every direction; and crowds of women and boys flocked around to see the newcomers; while crowds of leperos hung about as usual to see what they could pilfer. The wagoners were by no means free from excitement on this occasion. Informed of the 'ordeal' they had to pass, they had spent the previous morning in 'rubbing up'; and now they were prepared, with clean faces, sleek combed hair, and their choicest Sunday suit, to meet the 'fair eyes' of glistening black that were sure to stare at them as they passed.

There was yet another preparation to be made in order to 'show off' to advantage. Each wagoner must tie a bran new 'cracker' to the lash of his whip; for, on driving through the streets and the plaza pliblica, every one strives to outvie his comrades in the dexterity with which he flourishes this favorite badge of his authority.

Our wagons were soon discharged in the ware-rooms of the Custom-house; and a few days' leisure being now at our disposal, we had time to take that recreation which a fatiguing journey of ten weeks had rendered so necessary. The wagoners, and many of the traders, particularly the novices, flocked to the numerous fandangoes, which are regularly kept up after the arrival of a caravan. But the merchants generally were anxiously and actively engaged in their affairs - striving who should first get his goods out of the custom-house, and obtain a chance at the 'hard chink' of the numerous country dealers, who annually resort to the capital on these occasions.

The arrival of a caravan at Santa Fe changes the aspect of the place at once. Instead of the idleness and stagnation which its streets exhibited before, one now sees everywhere the bustle, noise and activity of a lively market town. As the Mexicans very rarely speak English, the negotiations are mostly conducted in Spanish.

(4) Lansford Hastings, Emigrants' Guide to Oregon and California (1845)

The author long having had an anxious desire to visit those wild regions upon the great Pacific, which had now become the topic of conversation in every circle, and in reference to which, speculations both rational and irrational were everywhere in vogue, now determine to accomplish his desired object: for which purpose he repaired to Independence, which place was the known rendezvous of the Santa Fe traders, and the trappers of the Rocky mountains. Having arrived at Independence, he was so fortunate as to find, not only the Santa Fe traders, and the Rocky mountain trappers, but also a number of emigrants, consisting of families and young men who had convened there with the view of crossing the Rocky mountains, and were waiting very patiently until their number should be so increased as to afford protection and insure the safety of all, when they contemplated setting out together, for their favorite place of destination, Oregon territory. The number of emigrants continued to increase with such rapidity, that on the 15th day of May, our company consisted of one hundred and sixty persons, giving us a force of eighty armed men, which was thought ample for our protection. Having organized, and having ascertained that all had provided themselves with the necessary quantum of provisions and ammunition, as well as such teams and wagons as the company had previously determined to be essential, and indispensable, and all things else being in readiness, on the 16th day of May, in the year 1842, all as one man, united in interest, united in feeling, we were, en route, for the long desired El Dorado of the West.

(5) John Hawgood, The American West (1967)

The three great trails across the trans-Mississippi West, therefore, before the building of the transcontinental railroads, were the Santa Fe Trail, the Oregon Trail, and the California Trail. The Santa Fe Trail continued across from the Rio Grande valley to the Pacific as the Old Spanish Trail to Los Angeles, the Gila river being a less-used alternative to San Diego. An even more southerly trail was developed from Memphis across Arkansas, the Indian Country (Oklahoma) and Texas to El Paso, Yuma, and San Diego, to be used as the route of the overland stage coaches. The outbreak of the Civil War soon put an end to its usefulness. It was too roundabout ever to have been an emigrant trail. It carried mail, important small-bulk freight, and affluent or expense-account passengers at considerable speed and in great discomfort.