Pedro Vial Charts the Santa Fe Trail and Opens the Southwest to Exploration and Trade

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Pedro Vial Charts the Santa Fe Trail and Opens the Southwest to Exploration and Trade


By the mid-eighteenth century the Spanish inhabited most of the settlements in the American Southwest and had begun exploring routes east of them, looking for new trade opportunities and invading enemies. The French had already sent many representatives across the barren, Indian-protected West in search of gold, silver, and trade. At the same time, Americans who had settled the New England colonies were moving westward, looking for land, trading opportunities, and natural resources. No one, however, had established a mapped, straightforward trail from west to east. Aware of the encroaching Americans, the persistent French, and the need to access other cities more easily, Spain blazed the first established trade route. In 1786 the Spanish governor of New Mexico hired Pedro Vial (1746?-1814), a Frenchman known for his rapport with Indians and a resourceful explorer's spirit, to blaze routes to St Louis, New Orleans, and San Antonio from New Mexico. Immediately following Vial's successful journeys to each of these cities, by 1803 the Santa Fe Trail was thick with traders and eventually American settlers, heading to Santa Fe and beyond.


By the sixteenth century the Spanish, in search of gold, riches, and new colonies, had ventured north from early settlements in Florida. They traveled through Missouri and westward and eventually penetrated New Mexico, Arizona, and California. By 1609 the Spanish had settled into Santa Fe, New Mexico, a remote outpost at the edge of the Sangre de Cristo mountains. The only main commercial route to Santa Fe was the Chihuahuan Trail, which connected to Chihuahua, Mexico, nearly 600 miles (965.6 km) south. Resources were scarce in Santa Fe, so the Spanish traded frequently with nearby American Indian tribes, such as the Pueblo, the Comanche, the Navajo, and the Apache. The tribes, however, attacked and raided the Spanish settlement. It was a hostile relationship, but the Spanish needed the Indians for their goods and their knowledge of the frontier.

With settlements in Louisiana, Illinois, and Missouri, the French had already explored the main trade routes of the Midwest: the Missouri, Ohio, and Red Rivers. Looking for rumored gold, silver, and turquoise mines and a route to the "western" (Pacific) sea and Asia, French frontiersman eventually traveled overland, and some made it as far as New Mexico. The Spanish, however, were not welcoming to these French travelers and frequently imprisoned them (shipping them as far as Mexico City) or simply killed them. French who sailed to the shores of Texas were fought back when attempting to move west. The Spanish refused to accept any foreign goods—except Indian goods—and punished any person with this "contraband" in their possession. Finally, in 1739 Paul and Pierre Mallet, two Frenchmen from Canada, traveled down the Missouri and across Nebraska, Kansas, and southwestern Colorado, and were received at Santa Fe safely. News of the unusual kindness of the Spanish toward the Mallets reached the French city of New Orleans, so more expeditions were launched toward Santa Fe.

The Spanish, however, were growing nervous. Frenchmen were venturing across Texas and New Mexico in search of horses, and the Spanish feared an invasion. All this stopped, however, after the French and Indian War (also called the Seven Years' War) in 1763. The Spanish assumed control of Louisiana by 1769 which provided an great incentive to set up a trade route to the prosperous east. It was much closer than Mexico, and the French threat seemed all but gone.

American settlement in the east, by 1776, was swelling. The Spanish were aware of "Kentuckians," as they called the early Americans, moving west. They saw Louisiana as a barrier to the spreading pioneers, and knew that establishing a trade route from Santa Fe was extremely important to do before the Americans could. Up to this point in history, several men—including some French, a few Spanish and several Indians over thousands of years—had traversed the plains from east and north to Santa Fe, but an established, mapped route did not exist. In 1786, the governor of New Mexico sent Pierre (Pedro) Vial on an expedition to blaze a trail from Santa Fe to San Antonio, in the hopes of connecting the isolated Santa Fe to the east.

Pedro Vial, born Pierre Vial and originally from Lyons, France, was an expert gunsmith who had traveled throughout the plains frontier and Texas and became familiar with the ways and language of many of the Indian tribes along the route. For any European traveling through the wild country, attacks from Indians were the most dangerous challenge; these attacks had prevented any established trade route up to the time of Vial's departure. So in 1786 Juan Bautista de Anza, the governor of New Mexico, sent Vial out with one man and provisions to map a course from Santa Fe to San Antonio, Texas.

Vial, who is guessed to have been 40 years old, set out to travel through friendly Indian hamlets that he knew of, stopping along waterways and springs en route. He became very ill early in the journey, fell from his horse, and traveled 150 miles (241.4 km) out of the way to a Comanche Indian camp. For two months the Comanche cared for him and brought him back to health. He continued on, negotiating with other tribes along the way—Apache, Tawakoni, more Comanche—and getting advice on the route to San Antonio.

During this series of encounters, Vial was skillfully assuring the tribes that any Spanish traders they might encounter in the future would be friendly. This was an important achievement on Vial's journey, since the Spanish relationship with tribes in New Mexico historically had been violent. The guarantee of a safe passage through the eastern Indian country was as vital as mapping the terrain. Vial was so successful in this public relations effort that many Indians accompanied him along his journey. He reached San Antonio, turned around, and followed the exact same route back to Santa Fe, arriving May 26, 1787, with a crowd of Comanche at his side. Overall, the journey took nearly seven and a half months and covered some 1,157 miles (1,862 km).

Immediately upon Vial's return, the governor sent out another explorer, José Mares, to retrace most of Vial's steps (and take advantage of the Indian relationships Vial had established) but in a more efficient manner. The Spaniards wanted to know the fastest route possible, and Mares completed the round trip in 845 miles (1,360 km), nearly 125 miles (201 km) less than Vial.

Satisfied by Mares's efficient route, and still feeling the pressures of the Americans' feverish trading along the Mississippi and Missouri rivers, the Spanish felt they needed to press farther east. The governor of New Mexico, Fernando Concha, sent Vial back out, this time toward Natchitoches, a Louisiana outpost just north of New Orleans. Vial left on June 24, 1788, with several companions, including cavalrymen and local New Mexicans. He once again followed routes that had water, sat with Indian tribes, and smoked with them, offering them gifts. They skirted along the Red River, staying in Comanche, Wichita, and Taovaya villages and several well-established Tawakoni villages that became popular stopovers for future travelers.

Vial encountered herds of wild mustangs, deer, and wild boar, and he traversed canyons, rivers, and rocky passes. They reached Natchitoches in 663 miles (1,067 km) after 26 days, turned south through San Antonio, and arrived back in Santa Fe on June 24, 1789. Although many of the expedition party were ill, probably from malaria, they cut their return trip to 632 miles (1,017 km) and 23 days. Vial's companions included two literate diarists, who kept more detailed records of the tribes and terrain they encountered than Vial had kept on his first expedition to San Antonio. They also listed the supplies that were traded with the Indians en route. Some of these items included tobacco, petticoat cloth, beads, chairs, spurs, soap, and hair ribbons. And while the road from Santa Fe to the east was now open, the Spanish didn't immediately start trading. They were more concerned with the increasing exploration by the Americans.

The major towns east of Santa Fe included St. Louis, New Orleans, and San Antonio, all of which were connected in some way to immense river systems. Of these towns and their rivers, none was more important than St. Louis, where the Missouri River connected the French in Illinois with the Americans all along the land east of the Mississippi. Once again, Governor Concha rallied Vial for another explorative journey. He departed on May 21, 1792, out of the small village of Pecos, just outside of Santa Fe for St. Louis, with two men and four horses.

They followed along the Colorado River until they reached southern Colorado and the Arkansas River, and then turning north they followed the Canadian River. They were almost killed by a band of Kansas Indians until some of the tribe recognized Vial from his previous wanderings and spared his life. Stripped naked, they were held captive for several days. They set out across Kansas and Missouri until they reached the Missouri River and sailed into St. Louis on October 3, 1792. After presenting the governor with a letter from Concha, announcing the purpose of Vial's trip, he stayed until June 14, 1793. The trip took 82 days and covered 1,100 miles (1,770 km).

When Vial began his return, so many months later, he had resupplied with hats, handkerchiefs, razors, shirts, trousers, mosquito nets, gunflints, soap, mirrors, and bullets. They sailed upriver on a pirogue with four rowers, until they met a Pawnee village, where they stayed and traded for a couple weeks, establishing a solid relationship with the tribe. Vial returned to Santa Fe on November 16, 1793, completing what would be his last groundbreaking expedition.


Vial's expeditions signaled both an end and a beginning: the gradual end of Spanish authority in the United States and the beginning of American conquest of the area west of the Mississippi. In 1797, with the Spanish growing more wary of American and French explorers taking advantage of their new trade routes, Vial left for a Comanche village, where he lived until 1803. That same year, the Americans signed the Louisiana Purchase, which doubled the size of the existing United States territory and gave the Americans control of Louisiana and direct access to the Santa Fe Trail. Trappers and traders soon frequented the trail, heading to the West and Santa Fe, which had earned a reputation as a paradise of jewels and gold, where all nationalities mixed in a kind climate. Of course, the route was not without hazards, as not everyone had a friendly relationship with the tribes along the route.

In 1821, the year of Mexican independence from Spain, the restricted trade barriers set up by Spain disappeared, Spanish rule retreated, and Santa Fe became a western trading destination for the entire country. By 1822 William Buckle led the first wagon train from St. Louis along Vial's Santa Fe Trail, and kicked off a massive migration of American pioneers. These early traders carried goods on mules, covering about 12 miles (19.3 km) a day, making the typical trip in six to eight weeks. Kansas City was en route, and it soon flourished with the trail traffic. By 1860 more than 9,000 men and women, 28,000 oxen, and 3,000 wagons had traversed the trail. By 1866 this number had doubled. By the end of the nineteenth century, the railroad laid its tracks across the prairie and the trail opened up to everyone, not just hardy adventurers.


Further Reading

Brandon, William. Quiviria. Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 1990.

Cather, Willa. Death Comes to the Archbishop. New York: Vintage Books, 1990.

Loomis, Noel M. and Abraham Nasatir. Pedro Vial and the Road to Santa Fe. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1967.