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Learn more about Trail History
Travel the Trail: Map Timeline 1821 - 1880
NPS trails staff have compiled a series of 22 maps that collectively attempt to answer the question:
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 cooperated and sometimes clashed. In the process, the rich and varied cultures of Great Plains Indian people were caught in the middle and changed forever.
Soldiers used the trail during 1840s disputes between the Republic of Texas and Mexico, the 1846-48 Mexican-American War, and the American Civil War, and troops 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 school 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 supplies, a 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 push 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 peril, replete with violent prairie storms, fights with Indians, and thundering buffalo (bison) herds. In fact, a glimpse of bison, elk, antelope (pronghorn), or prairie dogs was sometimes the only break in the tedium of 8-week journeys. Trail travelers mostly experienced dust, mud, gnats and mosquitoes, and heat. But occasional swollen streams, wildfires, hailstorms, strong winds, or blizzards could imperil wagon trains.
At dawn, trail hands scrambled 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 from a monotonous daily ration of 1 lb. of flour, 1 lb. or so of sowbelly (bacon), 1 oz. of coffee, 2 oz. of sugar, and a pinch of salt. Beans, dried apples, or bison and 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 the 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 the animals, made necessary repairs, chose night guards, and enjoyed a few hours of well-earned leisure and sleep.
"The Vast Plains, Like A Green Ocean"
Westward from Missouri, forests - and then tall grass prairie - give way to prairie in Kansas. In western Kansas, roughly at the 100th 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 short grass prairie, with a few narrow ribbons of trees along 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 travels dreamed of cures for sickness from the "purity of the plains."
Deceptively empty of human presence as the prairie landscape might appear, the lands the trail passed through were the long-held homelands of many American Indian people. Here were the hunting grounds of Comanche, Kiowa, southern bands of Cheyenne and Arapaho, and Plains Apache, as well as the homelands of Osage, Kansas (Kaw), Jicarilla Apache, Ute, and Pueblo Indians. 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 confrontations - resulting from misunderstandings and conflicting values that disrupted traditional life ways of American Indians 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 the bison were hunted nearly to extinction, Indian people were pushed aside or assigned to reservations.
Soldiers and Forts
Suspicion and tension between the United States and Mexico accelerated in the 1840s. With American need for territorial expansion, Texans raided into New Mexico, and the United States annexed Texas. The Mexican-American War erupted in 1846. General 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 rebelled, American control prevailed. In 1848, the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo ended the war.
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 controlled 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 the most 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 Union - and 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 business - international, national, and local. In 1821, William Becknell, bankrupt and facing jail for debts, packed goods to Santa Fe and made a profit. Entrepreneurs and experienced business people followed - James Webb, Antonio Jose Chavez, Charles Beaubien, David Waldo, and others.
The Santa Fe Trade developed into a complex web of international business, social ties, tariffs, and laws. Merchants in Missouri and New Mexico extended connections to New York, London, and Paris. Traders exploited social and legal systems to facilitate business. Partnerships such as Goldstein, Bean, Peacock, and Armijo formed and dissolved. Dave Waldo converted to Catholicism and also became a Mexican citizen. Dr. Eugene Leitensdorfer of Missouri married Soledad Abreu, daughter of a former New Mexico governor. Trader Manual Alvarez claimed citizenship in Spain, the United States, and Mexico.
After the Mexican-American War, trail trade and military freighting boomed. Both firms and individuals - such as Russell, Majors, and Waddell, Otero and Sellar, and Vincente Romero - 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 Dona Gertrudis "La Tules" Barcelo invested in trade, and trader Charles Ilfeld ran mercantile stores. Wyandotte Chief William Walter 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 wagons and one of the largest employers in Independence. Blacksmiths, hotel owners, arrieros (muleteers), lawyers, and many others found their places along the trail. Trade flourished. In 1822, trade totaled $15,000; by 1860, $3.5 million, or more than $53 million in today's dollars.
The Civil War: 150 Years
The Confederate plan for the West was to raise a force in Texas, march up the Rio Grande, take Santa Fe, turn northeast on the Santa Fe Trail, capture the stores at Fort Union, head up to Colorado to capture the gold fields, and then turn west to take California.
Last updated: November 20, 2020