Legends of the Santa Fe Trail

Written by on August 28, 2016 in Southwest Legends - 2 Comments

The Santa Fe Trail, stretching 900 miles from Franklin, Missouri to Santa Fe, New Mexico, and then on into Old Mexico, has a romantic place in the history of the Southwest. It was a trail to the future for many of thousands who followed it to create new lives for themselves.

In search of the fabled seven cities of gold, Spanish explorers followed tales into North America. In the name of the Spanish Crown, they took over vast tracks of land, which they called New Mexico. In 1610, Pedro de Peralta, the governor of the territory, moved the capital from San Gabriel to La Villa Real de Santa Fe de San Francisco — the Royal City of the Holy Faith of Saint Francis — known today as Santa Fe. The southern end of the trail, called the El Camino Real or the Royal King’s Highway, began at the same time, as freight, new settlers, mail, baggage, official documents, etc., was brought in from Mexico City to support the missions throughout the region, as well as supply the capital city.

The trail from Missouri got its start when Spain acquired territory from France in 1762. To secure the area, the Spanish established three forts, one of which was located at the conjunction of a stream and the Mississippi River, the start of what would become modern day St. Louis. In May 1792, Pierre Vial, a Frenchman in service to Spain, along with two companions, was directed to open a route from St. Louis to Santa Fe. The party almost didn’t make it. On June 29, 1792, somewhere along the banks of the Arkansas River, the party was attacked by Native Americans, a tribe of Kansas Indians. The Kansas took the party’s horses and supplies and stripped them naked, then fell to arguing about how to kill them (knives or hatchets versus arrows or lances). In the meantime, a couple of Native Americans took the part of the travelers, urging the tribe not to kill them. They spirited Vial away to the village where they urged him to eat quickly — it was custom among the Kansas that after having eaten, no one can be killed.

For weeks, the Kansas kept their naked captives in fear and doubt, but finally, on September 11, a French trader arrived and provided Vial and his companions with clothing and supplies. The party joined the trader and finished the journey, arriving in St. Louis in October 1792. However, it wasn’t until 1821 that the Santa Fe Trail really became established. Spain had prohibited trade between its territories and the United States. In 1821, Mexico won its independence from Spain, thus opening the way for trade. On September 1, 1821, Captain William Bucknell and four companions, blazed the path that would become known as the Santa Fe Trail.

Now the civilizing of the territory could begin, and did, thanks to men of business. Anyone could buy merchandise in Franklin, Missouri, cart it to Santa Fe, and sell it for profits of 40 to 100 percent on their investment. Large investors came on the scene, organizing wagon drives and hiring protection for their goods along the trail. These traders actually found several routes to take to keep their goods safe. The Mountain Route was longer but not quite as dangerous, with fewer warlike Indians and more water along the route. This branch traveled about 230 miles between Fort Larned and Bent’s Fort near present-day La Junta, Colorado, continuing to follow the Arkansas River before turning south through Trinidad and the Raton Passicon to Santa Fe.

Though the shorter Jornada Route, also called the Cimarron Cutoff, provided less water, it saved the travelers ten days by cutting southwest across the Cimarron Desert to Santa Fe. Though the Cimarron Route was shorter and easier for the wagon parties than the mountainous Raton Pass, travelers risked attacks by Native Americans in addition to shortages of water. Despite the hazards, the shorter route would end up carrying 75% of the Santa Fe Trail pioneers.

By the time the trail was fully established in the 1830s, about 2,000 wagon trains, around 50 wagons in each train, departed from Missouri each year. The Mexican-American war restricted trade severely, although the military used it to supply troops and forts. The discovery of gold in California in 1849 caused a boom on the trail as half the country seemed to want to move West. Of course, the Santa Fe Trail was never easy. Treaties with the Native American tribes changed all the time — the Osage, Kansas, Pawnee and Comanche were unpredictable at best. Records of the time are spotty, so history tells only a few of the tales, but attacks, stampedes, theft and murder by bandits were not uncommon dangers to the men and women on the Santa Fe Trail. Of course, water was always a challenge for the wagon trains — either too much or too little. Summer Monsoon storms could bring disaster on the unsuspecting, while dry seasons caused known watering holes to dry up.

Today, parts of the Santa Fe National Historic Trail is embraced by the national park system and has been designated as a National Scenic Byway and markers, forts and other locations along the way tell the tale to curious travelers. The Santa Fe National Historic Trail crosses the five states of Missouri, Kansas, Colorado, Oklahoma, and New Mexico. You may decide to travel its entire length, or visit just one or two sites. Take time to plan your trip to meet your needs and consult local guides or visit the park website to plan your trip.

Call for visitor information in the following states on the trail:
Kansas Division of Travel and Tourism (800) 252-6727
Missouri Division of Tourism (800) 877-1234
New Mexico Department of Tourism (800) 545-2040
Oklahoma Tourism and Recreation Department (800) 652-6552
Colorado Welcome Centers, Trinidad and Lamar (719) 846-9512, 336-3483

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2 Comments on "Legends of the Santa Fe Trail"

  1. santafetraveler February 8, 2011 at 9:01 pm ·

    Great bit of history. Actually, The Santa Fe Trail ends at the Plaza in Santa Fe. The road to Mexico from Santa Fe was El Camino Real de Tierra Adentro (The Royal Road of Interior Lands). It followed the Rio Grande. Today, there is a NM State Monument to the route, the El Camino International Heritage Center in south of Socorro, NM. Before the Spaniards arrived, it was a foot path used as a trade-route by indigenous peoples.

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