The Great Prairie Highway
The Santa Fe Trail stirs imaginations as few other historic trails can. For 60 years the Trail was one thread in a web of international trade routes. It influenced economies as far away as New York and London. Spanning 900 miles of the Great Plains between the United States (Missouri) and Mexico (Santa Fe), it brought together a cultural mosaic of individuals who cooperatedand at times clashed. In the process, the rich and varied cultures of Great Plains Indian peoples caught in the middle were changed forever. Soldiers used the Trail during the 1840s border disputes between the Republic of Texas and Mexico, 1846-1848 Mexican-American Wa and America's Civil War, and troop policed conflicts between traders and Indian tribes. With the traders and military freighters tramped a curious company of gold-seekers, emigrants, adventurers, mountain men, hunters, American Indians, guides, packers, translators, invalids, reporters, and Mexican children bound for schools in Los Estados Unidos (the United States).
Spain jealously protected the borders of its New Mexico colony, prohibiting manufacturing and international trade. Missourians and others visiting Santa Fe told of an isolated provincial capital starved for manufactured goods and suppliesa potential gateway to Mexico's interior markets. In 1821 the Mexican people revolted against Spanish rule. With independence, they unlocked the gates of trade, using the Santa Fe Trail as the key. Encouraged by Mexican officials, the Santa Fe trade boomed, strengthening and linking the economies of Missouri and Mexico's northern provinces. The close of the Civil War in 1865 released America's industrial energies, and the railroad pushed westward, gradually shortening and then replacing the Santa Fe Trail.
Life on the Trail
Movies and books often romanticize Santa Fe Trail treks as sagas of constant perilviolent prairie storms, fights with Indians, and thundering buffalo (bison) herds. However, a glimpse of buffalo, elk, antelope (pronghorn), or prairie dogs was sometimes the only break from the tedium of eight-week journeys. Trail travelers mostly experienced dust, mud, gnats and mosquitoes, and heat. Occasional swollen streams, wildfires, strong winds, hailstorms, or blizzards could imperil wagon trains.
Trail hands scrambled at dawn in noise and confusion to round up, sort, and hitch up the animals. The wagons headed out, the air ringing with whoops and cries of "All's set!" and soon, "Catch up, catch up!" and "Stretch out!" Stopping at mid-morning, crews unhitched and grazed the teams, hauled water, gathered wood or buffalo chips for fuel, and cooked and ate the day's main meal, created from a monotonous daily ration of one pound of flour, one pound or so of sowbelly (bacon), one ounce of coffee, two ounces of sugar, and a pinch of salt. Beans, dried apples, or buffalo or other game were occasional treats. Crews then repaired their wagons, yokes, and harnesses; greased wagon wheels; doctored animals; and hunted. They moved on soon after noon, fording streams before that night's stop because overnight storms could turn trickling creeks into torrents. And stock that was cold in the harness first thing in the morning tended to be unruly. At day's end, crews took care of animals, made necessary repairs, chose night guards, and enjoyed a few hours of well-earned leisure and sleep.
"The Vast Plain, Like a Green Ocean"
Westward from Missouri, forestsand then tallgrass prairiegive way to shortgrass prairie in Kansas. In western Kansas, roughly at the Hundredth Meridian, semi-arid conditions develop. For Trail travelers, venturing into the unknown void of the plains could hold the fear of hardship or the promise of adventure. Long days traveling through seemingly endless expanses of tall- and shortgrass prairie, with a few narrow ribbons of trees along the waterways, evoked vivid descriptions. "In spring, the vast plain heaves and rolls around like a green ocean," wrote one early traveler. Another marveled at a mirage in which "horses and the riders upon them presented a remarkable picture, apparently extending into the air. . . 45 to 60 feet high. . . . At the same time I could see beautiful clear lakes of water with . . . bulrushes and other vegetation...." Other Trail travelers dreamed of cures for sickness from the "purity" of the plains.
Deceptively empty of human presence as the prairie landscape may appear, the lands the Trail passed through were the long-held homelands of many American Indian peoples. Here were the hunting grounds of the Comanche, Kiowa, southern bands of Cheyenne and Arapaho, and Plains Apache, as well as the homelands of the Osage, Kansas (Kaw), Jicarilla Apache, Ute, and Pueblo. Most early encounters were peaceful negotiations centering on access to tribal lands and trade in horses, mules, and other items that Indians, Mexicans, and Americans coveted. As Trail traffic increased, so did confrontationsresulting from misunderstandings and conflicting valuesthat disrupted traditional American Indian lifeways and Trail traffic. Mexican and American troops provided escorts for wagon trains. Growing numbers of Trail travelers and settlers moved west, bringing the railroad with them. As lands were parceled out and buffalo were hunted nearly to extinction, Indian peoples were pushed aside or assigned to reservations.
Soldiers and Forts
Suspicion and tension between the United States and Mexico accelerated in the 1840s, because Americans wanted territorial expansion, Texans raided into New Mexico, and the United States annexed Texas. The Mexican-American War erupted in 1846. Gen. Stephen Watts Kearny led his Army of the West down the Santa Fe Trail to take and hold New Mexico and Upper California and to protect American traders on the Trail. He marched unchallenged into Santa Fe, and, although communities such as Taos and Mora fought back, American control prevailed. The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo ended the war in 1848.
The Santa Fe Trail became the lifeline for protection and communication between Missouri and Santa Fe. From a succession of military forts such as Mann (1847), Atkinson (1850), Union (1851), Larned (1859), and Lyon (1860), the army tried to control conflicts between American Indians and Trail travelers. As the military presence grew, freighting and merchant operations burgeoned. In 1858 many of the 1,800 wagons traveling the Santa Fe Trail carried military supplies.
In 1862 the Civil War arrived in the West. Confederates from Texas pushed up the Rio Grande Valley into New Mexico, intent on seizing the territory and Fort Union, and ultimately the rich Colorado gold fields. Albuquerque and Santa Fe fell. But the tide turned at Glorieta Pass, New Mexico, on the Santa Fe Trail, in a decisive western battle of the Civil War. Union forces secured victory when they torched the nearby Confederate supply train. The Confederates abandoned hope of reaching Fort Unionand of keeping their foothold in New Mexico. The Union Army held the Southwest and its vital Santa Fe Trail supply line.
Commerce of the Prairies
The story of the Santa Fe Trail is a story of businessinternational, national, and local. In 1821 William Becknell, bankrupt and facing jail for debts, packed goods to Santa Fe. Capt. Don Pedro Ignacio Gallego and more than 400 troops met Becknell and five others from Missouri on November 13 outside Las Vegas, N. Mex. The Americans were welcomed and encouraged to trade. Entrepreneurs and experienced business people followedJames Webb, Antonio José Chávez, Charles Beaubien, David Waldo, and others.
The Santa Fe Trade developed into a complex web of international business, social ties, tariffs, and laws. Missouri and New Mexico merchants had connections with New York, London, and Paris.
Traders exploited social and legal systems to facilitate business. Partnerships, such as Goldstein, Bean, Peacock & Armijo, formed and dissolved. David Waldo "converted" to Catholicismand also became a Mexican citizen. Dr. Eugene Leitensdorfer, of Missouri, married Soledad Abreu, daughter of a former New Mexico governor. Trader Manuel Alvarez claimed citizenship in Spain, the United States, and Mexico.
After the Mexican-American War, Trail trade and military freighting boomed. Firms such as Russell, Majors and Waddell, and Otero and Sellar obtained and subcontracted lucrative government contracts. Others operated mail and stagecoach services.
Trade created other opportunities. From New York, Manuel Harmony shipped English goods to Independence for freighting over the Santa Fe Trail. New Mexican saloon-owner Doña Gertrudis "La Tules" Barceló invested in trade, and trader Charles Ilfeld ran mercantile stores. Wyandotte Chief William Walker leased a warehouse in Independence, and his tribe invested in the trade. Hiram Young bought his freedom from slavery and became a wealthy maker of trade wagonsand one of the largest employers in Independence. Blacksmiths, hotel owners, arrieros (muleteers), lawyers, and many others also found their places along the Trail. Trade flourished.
Santa Fe Trail Timeline
Visiting the Trail Today
Freight wagons no longer cross the prairies, but the Trail's legacy endures as buildings, historic sites, landmarks, and original wagon-wheel ruts. The National Park Service, working with the Santa Fe Trail Association, coordinates efforts to preserve, develop, and enjoy the Trail and provides technical and limited financial help to Trail projects. Private landowners, nonprofit groups, and federal, state, and local agencies manage most Trail resources.
For information contact: National Trails System Office- Santa Fe, National Park Service, P.O. Box 728, Santa Fe, NM 87504-0728; www.nps.gov/safe. For membership and activities information contact: Santa Fe Trail Association, Santa Fe Trail Center, RR3, Larned, KS J67550; www.santafetrail.org.
Private individuals and organizations own much of the Santa Fe Trail. Not all sites are open for public use; some are open only certain hours and days. Check guidebooks and ask locally before going onto private land. Many state, county, and city museums, chambers of commerce, and tourist information museums provide Trail information. Distinctive signs mark the auto tour route that parallels the Trail. Certified Trail Properties: Non-federal historic sites, trail segments, and interpretive facilities that meet National Park Service standards for resource protection and public enjoyment may become part of the Santa Fe National Historic Trail through voluntary certification. Look for the official Trail logo.
As you visit Trail sites, please heed the following to protect yourself, the Trail, and rights of private owners. Unless otherwise indicated, hike on designated trails and keep off historic buildings, ruins, and other structures. Do not use metal detectors, dig at sites, or collector disturbartifacts.
For Your Safety and Comfort
Remember: You Are a Guest
THE GREAT PLAINS AND THE PRAIRIES
Source: NPS Brochure (2004)
Brochures ◆ Site Bulletins ◆ Trading Cards
"A Faithful Account of Everything": Letters from Katie Bowen on the Santa Fe Trail, 1851 (Leo E. Oliva, ed., extract from Kansas History: The Journal of the Central Plains, Vol. 14 No. 4, Winter 1996-1997)
A Road of Culture and Commerce: Introduction (Thomas E. Chávez, extract from Kansas History: The Journal of the Central Plains, Vol. 14 No. 4, Winter 1996-1997)
American Indians and the Santa Fe Trail (James Riding, June 23, 2009)
Banditti on the Santa Fe Trail: The Texan Raids of 1843 (Harry C. Myers, extract from Kansas History: The Journal of the Central Plains, Vol. 14 No. 4, Winter 1996-1997)
Business Techniques in the Santa Fe Trade (Lewis E. Atherton, extract from Missouri Historical Review, Vol. 34 No. 3, April 1940, ©The State Historical Society of Missouri)
Certification Guide, Santa Fe Trail National Historic Trail (September 1997)
Comerciantes, Arrieros, Y Peones: The Hispanos and the Santa Fe Trail (Merchants, Muleteers, and Peons), Special History Study, Santa Fe National Historic Trail (HTML edition) Southwest Cultural Resources Center Professional Papers No. 54 (Susan Calafate Boyle, 1994)
Conflict and Commerce on the Santa Fe Trail: Fort Riley - Fort Larned Road, 1860-1867 (David K. Clapsaddle, extract from Kansas History: The Journal of the Central Plains, Vol. 16 No. 2, Summer 1993)
Eastward Ho! The Mexican Freighting and Commerce Experience Along the Santa Fe Trail (Sterling Evans, extract from Kansas History: The Journal of the Central Plains, Vol. 14 No. 4, Winter 1996-1997)
Enos and Jennie Culver Memoir, Travel Diary and Correspondence while traveling the Santa Fe Trail and El Camino Real 1869-1871 (Joy Poole and Mike Olsen, undated)
Feasibility and Concept Plan: The New Santa Fe Trail (The Conservation Fund, January 1992)
Fort Union and the Santa Fe Trail (Robert M. Utley, extract from New Mexico Historical Review, Vol. 36 No. 1, 1961, ©University of New Mexico)
Fort Union and the Santa Fe Trail: A Special Study of Santa Fe Trail Remains At and Near Fort Union National Monument, New Mexico (Robert M. Utley, December 1959)
Indian Policy on the Santa Fe Road: The Fitzpatrick Controversy of 1847- 1848 (Robert A. Trennert, extract from Kansas History: The Journal of the Central Plains, Vol. 1 No. 4, Winter 1978-1979)
Interpretive Prospectus, Santa Fe National Historic Trail (September 1991)
Missouri and the Santa Fe Trade (F.F. Stephens, extract from Missouri Historical Review, Vol. 10 No. 4, July 1916, ©The State Historical Society of Missouri)
Myth and Memory: The Cultural Heritage of the Santa Fe Trail in the Twentieth Century (Michael L. Olsen, extract from Kansas History: The Journal of the Central Plains, Vol. 35 No. 1, Spring 2012)
National historic trail awareness and experience, Santa Fe, Oregon, and California National Historic Trails (extract of entire report, undated)
National Register of Historic Places Nomination Forms
Historic Resources of the Santa Fe Trail, 1821-1880 (The URBANA Group, March 1, 1993)
Historic Resources of the Santa Fe Trail, 1821-1880 Amended submission (Kansas State Historic Society Staff, Spring 2012)
"Not Occupied...Since the Peace:" The 1995 Archaeological and Historical Investigations at Historic Fort Marcy, Santa Fe, New Mexico (Cordelia Thomas Snow and David Kammer, December 6, 1995)
Old Ruts and New: The History of Santa Fe Trail History (Michael L. Olsen, extract from Kansas History: The Journal of the Central Plains, Vol. 14 No. 4, Winter 1996-1997)
Report on the Santa Fe Trail (Ray H. Mattison, 1958)
Santa Fe Trail M. M. Marmaduke Journal (F.A. Sampson, extract from Missouri Historical Review, Vol. 6 No. 1, October 1911, ©The State Historical Society of Missouri)
Santa Fe Trail, National Scenic Trail Study (July 1976)
Some Aspects of the Santa Fe Trail 1848-1880 (Ralph P. Bieber, extract from Missouri Historical Review, Vol. 18 No. 2, January 1924, ©The State Historical Society of Missouri)
Strategic Plan, Santa Fe Trail Association (April 2013)
That Broad and Beckoning Highway: The Santa Fe Trail and the Rush for Gold in California and Colorado (Michael L. Olsen, undated)
The History and Archaeology of the Historic Fort Marcy Earthworks, Santa Fe, New Mexico (Mary June-el Piper, ed., 1996)
The Journals of Capt. Thomas Becknell from Boone's Like to Santa Fe, and from Santa Cruz to Green River (William Becknell, extract from Missouri Historical Review, Vol. 4 No. 2, January 1910, ©The State Historical Society of Missouri)
The memoir and diary of Rebecca Mayer on her 1852 honeymoon along the Santa Fe Trail and down El Camino Real with her merchant husband Henry Mayer, fifty men and five hundred mules (Joy Poole, ed., undated)
The Santa Fe Trail (William E. Brown, Ray H. Mattison, Roy E. Appleman and Robert M. Utley, 1963)
The Santa Fe Trail (G.C. Broadhead, extract from Missouri Historical Review, Vol. 4 No. 4, July 1910, ©The State Historical Society of Missouri)
The Santa Fe Trail: Road of Commerce and Adventure (Ray E. Jenkins, extract from The Denver Westerners Roundup, Vol. 68 No. 4, July-August 1992; ©Denver Posse of Westerners, all rights reserved)
The Wet and Dry Routes of the Santa Fe Trail (David K. Clapsaddle, extract from Kansas History: The Journal of the Central Plains, Vol. 15 No. 2, Summer 1992)
Wagons on the Santa Fe Trail 1822-1880 (Mark L. Gardner, September 1997)
Women on the Santa Fe Trail: Diaries, Journals, Memoirs. An Annotated Bibliography (Marc Simmons, extract from New Mexico Historical Review, Vol. 61 No. 3, 1986, ©University of New Mexico)
Handbooks ◆ Books
Last Updated: 31-May-2022