Santa Fe Trail

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SANTA FE TRAIL. The Santa Fe Trail was an important commerce route between 1821 and 1880 that extended from Missouri to Santa Fe, New Mexico. The trail extended south from Santa Fe for an additional thousand miles through El Paso to the Mexican towns of Chihuahua

and Durango, following the natural roads wagon masters found along the entire distance.

Prior to the opening of the trail, the city of Santa Fe was supplied with goods brought by mule at great expense from the Mexican seaport of Veracruz. Pierre and Paul Mallet of Canada crossed the Plains to Santa Fe in 1739, followed by more Frenchmen passing from the Missouri River or from Arkansas Post to the Rio Grande. The American army lieutenant Zebulon M. Pike arrived in 1807.

American attempts at Santa Fe trade met with summary action by Spanish authorities, who arrested twelve men from Saint Louis in 1812 and imprisoned them for nine years, and arrested Auguste Pierre Chouteau's Saint Louis fur brigade in 1815 for trapping on the Upper Arkansas. After Mexico overthrew Spanish rule, news spread that traders were welcome in Santa Fe. First to arrive was William Becknell of Missouri, who reached Santa Fe on 16 November 1821, and sold his Indian trade goods at from ten to twenty times higher than Saint Louis prices. Becknell started from the steamboat landing of Franklin, Missouri, followed the prairie divide between the tributaries of the Kansas and Arkansas rivers to the Great Bend of the Arkansas, and then followed the Arkansas almost to the mountains before turning south to New Mexico. His route became known as the Santa Fe Trail. The Missouri River terminus later became Westport, now Kansas City. At the western end the trail turned south to Santa Fe from the Arkansas by different routes touching the Colorado–New Mexico border and another near Kansas.

Merchants traveled in caravans, moving wagons in parallel columns so that they might be quickly formed into a circular corral, with livestock inside, in the event of an Indian attack. Josiah Gregg reported that up to 1843 Indians killed but eleven men on the trail. Losses were greatest from 1864 to 1869, the bloodiest year being 1868, when seventeen stagecoach passengers were captured and burned at Cimarron Crossing.

Santa Fe trade brought to the United States much-needed silver, gave America the Missouri mule, and paved the way for American claims to New Mexico in the Mexican-American War. Estimates of the heavy volume of westward-bound traffic on the trail vary. Gregg reported in Commerce of the Prairies that 350 persons transported $450,000 worth of goods at Saint Louis prices in 1843. Lt. Col. William Gilpin's register shows 3,000 wagons, 12,000 persons, and 50,000 animals between 1849–1859, a large part of the number bound for California. The register at Council Grove, Kansas, in 1860 showed 3,514 persons, 61 carriages and stagecoaches, 5,819 mules, and 22,738 oxen. Federal mail service by stagecoach was instituted in 1849. Completion of the last section of the

Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railroad in 1880 ended the importance of the wagon road.


Boyle, Susan Calafate. Los Capitalistas: Hispano Merchants and the Santa Fe Trade. Albaquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1997.

Chalafant, William Y. Dangerous Passage: The Santa Fe Trail and the Mexican War. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1994.

Dary, David. The Santa Fe Trail: Its History, Legends, and Lore. New York: Knopf, 2000.

Gregg, Josiah. Commerce of the Prairies. Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1962.

Simmons, Marc. The Old Trail to Santa Fe: Collected Essays. Albequerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1996.

BlissIsely/h. s.

See alsoSouthwest .

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The Santa Fe Trail was a major overland route for westward expansion during the 1800s. Like the Oregon Trail to the Pacific Northwest, it originated in Independence, Missouri. The Santa Fe Trail, whose terminus was Santa Fe in north-central New Mexico, proceeded westward along the prairie to Great Bend, Kansas. From there the route split into three branches. The western trail, also called the Taos Trail, followed the Arkansas River west to the Sangre de Cristo Range of the Rocky Mountains. Travelers then went due south through La Veta Pass (in south-central Colorado) into New Mexico. The middle trail also followed the Arkansas River westward into present day Colorado, traversing the grasslands in the southeastern corner of the state and following Raton Pass (south of present day Trinidad, Colorado) into New Mexico. The shortest route (and, due to Indian attacks, the most dangerous) cut southwest through Kansas, into the Cimarron Valley, and crossed the northwest corner of Oklahoma into New Mexico. From Santa Fe, another route, the Old Spanish Trail, extended westward to Los Angeles. After Mexico gained independence from Spain (1821), Santa Fe became the center of the country's trade with the United States. The Santa Fe Trail was about 1,200 miles (1,930 kilometers) long and took between 40 and 60 days to travel.

The Santa Fe Trail was first traversed in 1821 by Virginia-born trader William Becknell (1796?1865), who in 1822 used wagons on the route. During the next two decades, less than one hundred wagons each year used the trail; by the late 1860s, the average number climbed to more than five thousand per year. The Santa Fe Trail remained a major commercial route until the 1880s, when the transcontinental railroad was completed.

See also: California, Colorado, Kansas, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Oregon Trail, Santa Fe

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Santa Fe Trail, important caravan route of the W United States, extending c.780 mi (1,260 km) from Independence, Mo., SW to Santa Fe, N.Mex. Independence and Westport, Mo., were the chief points where wagons, teams, and supplies were obtained. From there, the trail led 150 mi (241 km) SW to Council Grove, Kans., which was the main wagon train organization point. Crossing the Kansas plains to the Arkansas River, the trail then followed the river to its fork near Dodge City, Kans. The Mountain Division of the trail in the north continued to hug the river W to Bent's Fort (now a national historic site); turning south, it passed over its most rugged part, including the Raton Pass. The Cimarron or Cutoff Division of the trail in the south, a more direct route, crossed the Great Plains from the Arkansas River to Fort Union, N.Mex., where it rejoined the northern route. Although less rugged, the southern route was dry, with poor grass and little wildlife. The Santa Fe National Historic Trail (see National Parks and Monuments (table) follows the route of the old trail, with many sites marked or restored.

By the early 19th cent. small trapping parties had reached Santa Fe, then under Spanish rule; but they were forbidden to trade. In Nov., 1821, William Becknell, a trader, returned with news that Mexico was free and Santa Fe welcomed trade. Early in 1822 he left Missouri for Santa Fe with the first party of traders. From then on, annual wagon caravans, usually leaving in early summer, made the 40- to 60-day trip over the trail and returned after a 4- to 5-week stay in Santa Fe. An increasing amount of goods was taken to Santa Fe each year. In 1850 a monthly stage line was started between Independence and Santa Fe over the northern route. In 1880 the Santa Fe RR reached Santa Fe, marking the death of the trail.

See D. Dary, The Santa Fe Trail: Its History, Legends, and Lore (2000).

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Santa Fe Trail ★★½ 1940

Historically inaccurate but entertaining tale about the preCivil War fight for “bloody Kansas.” The actionadventure depicts future Civil War Generals J.E.B. Stuart (Flynn) and George Armstrong Custer (Reagan!) as they begin their military career (although Custer was really just a youth at this time). Good action scenes. Also available colorized. 110m/B VHS, DVD . Errol Flynn, Olivia de Havilland, Ronald Reagan, Van Heflin, Raymond Massey, Alan Hale; D: Michael Curtiz; W: Robert Buckner; C: Sol Polito; M: Max Steiner.

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Santa Fe Trail a famous wagon trail from Independence, Missouri, to Santa Fe, New Mexico; an important commercial route in the 19th century.