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The Santa Fe Trail (Part 1)

by Deanna Sanchez

Artists Depiction of the Santa Fe Trail (Photo from Humanities Kansas)

In 1821, the land beyond Missouri was a vast uncharted region that was home to buffalo and Native Americans angered over the westward expansion of white colonization. Before Mexico won its independence from Spain in 1821, the Spanish banned trade between Santa Fe, New Mexico and the United States colonies. After Mexico gained its independence it encouraged trade. Though numerous dangers were lurking ahead, Captain William Becknell was determined to make the trip through waterless plains and battle Native Americans to trade with the distant Mexicans of New Mexico.

Becknell left Franklin, Missouri with four trusted companions. After arriving in Santa Fe on November 16 and making an enormous profit, Becknell returned to Missouri thus blazing the trail now known as the Santa Fe Trail.

Becknell loaded manufactured goods from Missouri onto a mule train to trade furs, gold, silver, and other goods in New Mexico on his first trip. However, by his third trip he found an easier and more accessible wagon route through Arkansas beginning a series of wagon trains heading Southwest. Credited as the “Father of the Santa Fe Trail,” Becknell continued to make multiple trips along the trail which led to him making enormous profits on his travels. Soon after traders and the military were traveling the same route.

Two routes were developed along the trail, the Mountain Route and the Cimarron Route, also known as the Jornada Route. Both routes followed the same path from Missouri, which led to the Arkansas River and continued into southwest Kansas. For many years the only trading post between Independence, Missouri and Santa Fe, was in Council Grove, Kansas for wagons to gather while on a short break before taking on the rough and dangerous road ahead.

Council Grove opened in 1850 as the first school for the children of settlers and was the last trade point on the trail until travelers reached New Mexico. Thomas S. Huffaker was its first teacher until 1854 when the school was shut down. For the next several years, many other traders found their way to the area and put up trading establishments along the Santa Fe Trail. The traders did well for years.

In Kansas at Fort Larned, the trail split into two branches; the Mountain Route and the Jornada Route. Mountain was longer and safer than Jornada, because travelers were less likely to encounter Native Americans, and the route had more water. The route traveled about 230 miles between Fort Larned and Bent’s Fort near what we now know as La Junta, Colorado, following the Arkansas River before turning south through the Raton Pass to Santa Fe.

The Jornada Route was shorter in length and was also known as the Cimarron Cutoff which provided less water than the Mountain Route. However, it saved travelers ten days by cutting southwest across the Cimarron Desert, New Mexico to Santa Fe. The Cimarron Desert route was shorter and easier for the wagon parties than the mountainous Raton Pass, but travelers risked being attacked by Native Americans in addition to shortages of water. Despite the hazards, the shorter route would end up carrying 75 percent of the Santa Fe Trail pioneers.

In 1825, the United States obtained a right of way from the Osage Indians, which officially established the Santa Fe Trail as a national highway. In 1827 Independence was founded and within a few years became the major outfitting point on the eastern end of the trail.

In 1834, Bent’s Fort, a fur trade post in the upper Arkansas River was established near La Junta. William, Charles Bent, and Ceran St. Vrain and Company led a party of wagons eastbound from Santa Fe in the late summer through Taos and the Raton Pass to Bent’s Fort. They came down the Arkansas River to the Santa Fe Trail, naming it Bent’s Fort Santa Fe Trail.

At this time, the trail was frequently used by more than 2000 wagons in about 50 caravans departing each spring from Missouri. When the Mexican-American War began, travel and trading along the trail were restricted but the military heavily used it for transportation of supplies from the Missouri River towns to the Southwest. When the war ended in 1848, trading resumed and military freight continued to be hauled over the trail to supply the southwestern forts.

In 1849, with the discovery of gold in California, westbound emigrants in increasing numbers traveled the Santa Fe Trail. Bent’s Fort then journeyed northward by trail along the base of the Rocky Mountains to Fort Laramie and beyond. By 1850, a monthly stagecoach line was established between Independence and Santa Fe.

Trade was limited again during the Civil War, but by the late 1860s, activity along the trail had resumed. In 1880, a railroad reached Santa Fe, and the use of the Santa Fe Trail declined. Other trails connecting to the Santa Fe Trail included the Old Spanish Trail, which linked Santa Fe to Los Angeles, and the El Camino Real, which connected Santa Fe to Mexico City.

Today, part of the Santa Fe Trail route has been designated as a National Scenic Byway.

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