When first opened to traffic in 1821 the Santa Fe Trail linked the American markets along the Missouri River with the long-established Mexican trade center of Santa Fe. The two points were culturally diverse and they supported a commercial road that not only connected those two nations, but also crossed the sovereign lands of the Kansa (Kaw), Osage, and other tribes.
The ethnic and landscape diversity of the early 19th century remains pronounced in the early 21st century. In Santa Fe the soft sounds of Spanish and Indian languages and the sights of men and women trading jewelry in front of the Palace of Governors are reminders of the long-standing customs and culture of this old Southwestern city. The hustle-bustle of the Kansas City metropolitan area has seemingly swallowed up the historic locations where the Santa Fe Trail originated, but deep down there are remnants and reminders of it.
Although no doubt American Indians and wildlife used segments of the route for generations, likely the first white man to follow the Santa Fe pathway was Frenchman Pierre Vial, who traveled from St. Louis to Santa Fe in 1792. In 1806, American Capt. Zebulon Pike ventured up the Arkansas River on a portion of the route that eventually became the Santa Fe Trail
The trail genesis occurred when Mexico won its independence from Spain in 1821, setting up the possibility of trade relations with the United States. William Becknell pioneered the commercial road to Santa Fe. Even before actual word of the Mexican independence reached St. Louis he had organized a trading company and advertised in the Franklin, Missouri Intelligencer for men. In his ad Becknell stated: “Every man will fit himself for the trip with a horse, a good rifle, and as much ammunition as the company may think necessary for a tour or three month trip, and sufficient cloathing (sic) to keep him warm and comfortable. Every man will furnish his equal part of the fitting on for our trade, and receive an equal part of the product.”
Becknell with three or four companions and pack animals left Arrow Rock, Missouri, on September 1, 1821, traveling west on what became the Mountain Route of the Santa Fe Trail arriving in Santa Fe in November 1821. There they traded American goods for money, which they brought back to Missouri. As observer Robert Duffus later recalled: “My father saw them unload when they returned, and when their rawhide packages of silver dollars were dumped on the sidewalk one of the men cut the thongs and the money spilled out and clinking on the stone pavement rolled into the gutter. Everyone was excited and the next spring another expedition was sent out.”
Limited numbers of emigrants used the trail, but by far the majority of the traffic involved freighters hauling goods in large Conestoga and freight wagons. They carried sewing notions such as needles, thread, and buttons, cloth goods ranging from calico to flannel, plus dresses, shirts, trousers, suspenders, and hundreds of other items. On the return trip the wagons carried woolen blankets and rugs, gold and silver dust, bullion, and coins, plus beaver furs, and they trailed or used donkeys and mules obtained as trade goods.
In 1824 and 1825 Missouri Sen. Thomas Hart Benton sponsored legislation that provided for full recognition of the Santa Fe Trail by authorizing a survey to firmly establish the route. The survey goal, Benton wrote, “Is thoroughness for it is not a County or State road which they have to mark out but a highway between Nations.” President James Monroe signed the bill on March 3, 1825.
Trail Street in Dodge City overlays the Santa Fe Trail and it’s always fun to explore this old cowtown. From here the trail heads west along US 50 across the shortgrass prairie of western Kansas and eastern Colorado to Bents Fort National Monument just east of La Junta.
William Bent took part in a trapping expedition during the winter of 1829-30 on the upper Arkansas River, where he befriended the Cheyenne Indians, who would remain an important part of his life. Ceran St. Vrain, known as Blackbeard to the Indians, learned trading in St. Louis from Bernard Pratte. The young man worked for Pratte for six years, hearing stories of the western fur trade and becoming enamored with the thought of heading to the frontier. In 1824, he hired on with William Becknell’s trading caravan en route to Santa Fe.
Eventually St. Vrain became acquainted with Charles and William Bent and the three young men formed the Bent, St. Vrain Company in 1831. It quickly became involved in a commercial trade enterprise covering thousands of square miles in present Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, Kansas, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Texas, Utah, and Wyoming. The company had a trading house at Taos, New Mexico, and William Bent oversaw construction of the Bent, St. Vrain Company adobe fort on the Arkansas River in 1833. First known as Fort William the site later became Bent’s Fort (and is often referred to as Bent’s Old Fort).
The National Historic Site of Bent’s Fort closely resembles the description of the original fort left in 1847 by George Frederick Ruxton. He said, “The walls are built entirely of adobes — or sun-burned bricks — in the form of a hollow square, at two corners of which are circular flanking towers of the same material. The entrance is by a large gateway into the square, round which are the rooms occupied by traders and employees of the host. They are small in size, with walls coloured by a white-wash made of clay found in the prairie. Their flat roofs are defended along the exterior by parapets of adobe, to serve as a cover to marksmen firing from the top ... In the centre of the square is the press for packing the furs; and there are three large rooms, one used as a store and magazine, another as a council-room, where the Indians assemble for their ‘talks.’ Whilst the third is the common dining-hall, where the traders, trappers, and hunters, and all employes, feast upon the best provender the game-covered country affords.”
The streets of Trinidad, Colo., are crooked, wiggling through the downtown area where they overlay the Mountain Branch of the Santa Fe Trail. Having been on the trail with them myself, I know that oxen or mules tend to walk in zig-zag directions as they pull their heavy wagons. That makes the trail they leave — or in this case the Trinidad streets — a bit crooked. The intersection at Commercial and Main Streets is where two segments of the Santa Fe Trail converged.
From the first use with pack horses by Becknell, gradual improvements were made over the Mountain Route, but getting wagons over the steep and rugged Raton Pass south of Trinidad presented a significant challenge until 1866 when trapper Richens Lacy Wootton — better known as Uncle Dick — built a toll road over the pass.
The Trail ends in Santa Fe, New Mexico, which still has commercial trade appeal and a unique blend of shopping, history and culture of course a visit to the Palace of Governors is a must where, if you still have jingle in your jeans, you can buy some authentic New Mexico products. Around the corner visit the New Mexico History Museum. ❖