National Historic Trails - Santa Fe National Historic Trail
Jurisdiction: National Park Service
Route: 1,203 miles (1,937 km)
After Mexican independence in 1821, U.S. and Mexican traders developed the Santa Fe Trail, using American Indian travel and trade routes. It quickly became a commercial and cultural link between the two countries. It also became a road of conquest during the Mexican and Civil wars. With the building of the railroad to Santa Fe in 1880, the trail was largely abandoned. Of the 1,203 miles of trail route between Old Franklin, Missouri, and Santa Fe, New Mexico, more than 200 miles of ruts and trace remain visible; some 30 miles of these are protected on federal lands.
Commerce on the Move
Take a moment to listen, with your imagination, as freight wagons rumble by-bullwhackers shout and snap their whips-oxen bellow-buffalo thunder by-bugles blare. Listen to the quiet conversations in Spanish and English around the campfire-the music and laughter of a fandango.
The mention of the Santa Fe Trail stirs people's imaginations as few other historic trails can. During its colorful history, this legendary route provided a two-way avenue for commerce--played a crucial role in the westward expansion of the United States--brought cultural exchange but also conflict to the varied peoples who used the Trail-and served as a stage for countless human dramas.
Often following game trails, Indians pioneered routes to hunt and trade with other tribes. Indians led Spanish explorers along these traditional routes. Other explorers and Hispanic settlers who traded with the Indians followed. In the 1700s, French traders tried to establish trade with Santa Fe--the provincial capital of Spanish New Mexico-but, like the Americans who tried in the early 1 800s, they frequently were thrown in jail and their trade goods were confiscated. By the early 1 800s, Spanish settlements like Santa Fe (already 200 years old) were well established, the westward expansion of American culture had reached Missouri, trappers and explorers were pushing farther into Indian territories, and Indian peoples struggled to continue their traditional lifestyles. Three major cultures were about to converge along the trail route that all had a role in preparing.
Under Spanish rule, trade with the United States was forbidden, and commerce could only be conducted by secrecy and smuggling. In 1821, Mexico achieved independence from Spain, and dropped trade barriers. Shortly thereafter, a party of five men led by William Becknell, who had left Franklin, Missouri, to trade "to the westward," encountered a group of Mexican soldiers who guided them to Santa Fe, where they sold their goods. Thus encouraged by Mexican officials, the now-legal commerce turned into a burgeoning trade, providing an economic boon for the economies of Mexico's northern provinces and the State of Missouri. Across 900 miles of what are now the States of Missouri, Kansas, Colorado, Oklahoma, and New Mexico, merchants pushed enormous caravans of freight wagons westward, loaded with goods for customers in New Mexico that they traded for silver coin, mules, and wool. The Trail took on a distinctly international character as Mexican and American merchants, sometimes in partnerships, developed this commerce across the plains. By the early 1840s, Mexicans may have dominated this international trade, with banking and business ties extending to St. Louis, New York, and even London and Paris. But events were soon to change the nature of trade and the Trail.
Tension and suspicion between the United States and Mexico increased in the 1830s, spurred by Texas independence in 1836. Intensifying the situation were armed raids into New Mexico from Texas in the early 1840s, the annexation of Texas by the United States in 1845, and increased sentiment favoring American territorial expansion. War soon followed. In 1846, the first year of the Mexican War, Colonel Stephen W. Kearny led U.S. troops down the Santa Fe Trail to New Mexico, and marched without armed opposition into Santa Fe. Subsequently, there were revolts against the U.S. occupation, such as the 1847 uprisings at Taos, Mora, and other communities. The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which ended the war in 1848, added New Mexico to the United States. The volume of business along the Santa Fe Trail-much of it supplies destined for U.S. Army posts in the new territory--dwarfed pre-war trade, but the Trail's international character faded as a new era began on the road between Santa Fe and Missouri.
As human traffic increased, the Plains Indian tribes saw their homelands, subsistence, and lifeways in jeopardy. More and more confrontations occurred between Indians and travelers. To protect trade caravans, the U.S. Army established military posts like Fort Union (1851) and Fort Larned (1860). Ultimately, Indian resistance could not match the well-equipped incursion into their lands.
The Civil War came to New Mexico in 1861. In early 1862, a Confederate force marched up the Rio Grande, intent upon capturing Fort Union-and, ultimately, the Colorado gold mines. Soon after Albuquerque and Santa Fe fell, volunteer and regular Federal troops defeated the Confederates at Glorieta Pass-the most decisive west-em battle of the Civil War-thereby ending the Confederate threat.
Trail traffic was primarily freighting. Santa Fe area Mexican families sometimes sent their children east along the Trail to be educated in the United States. Stagecoach and mail traffic began in the 1850s. Much of the limited emigration from the east consisted of families of traders and military personnel. The journals and remembrances of women like Marian Sloan Russell and Susan Shelby Magoffin have provided most of our knowledge of life on the Trail beyond the traders' world.
Over time, the Santa Fe Trail developed many routes, braids, and shortcuts that responded to varying landscapes and local conditions, and criss-crossed with other trails and roads. In the 1840s, the longer, safer, and better-watered Mountain Route was opened across Colorado and through the difficult terrain of Raton Pass into New Mexico, providing an alternative to the main trail (Cimarron Route) along the usually dry Cimarron River, where travelers found water only in a few widely scattered springs. By the Civil War, Indian resistance had forced most of the expanding Trail traffic to use the Mountain Route.
The close of the Civil War released the Nation's great industrial energies. The railroad moved westward, providing cheaper and faster transportation. Trail trade continued in large volume as the wagons of large commercial freighting companies carried freight from the railhead, but as the rail lines got longer the Trail became shorter. Trails of mud and dust simply could not compete with trails of steel. In February 1880, as the first steam locomotive arrived at the New Mexican capital, the Santa Fe Trail's era of commerce and conquest passed silently into memory.
"Men show their inside character out here where there are none of the restraints of civilization." (David Kellogg, 1858)
National Park Service Sites
Pecos National Historical Park
P.O. Drawer 418, Pecos, NM 87552
The park has ruins of Pecos Pueblo, Spanish colonial missions, Trail ruts and sites, and Battle of Glorieta Pass sites.
Fort Union National Monument
Watrous, NM 87753
The adobe ruins and stone foundations of the fort, once the major military depot of the southwest, and extensive Trail ruts are preserved in the park.
Bent's Old Fort National Historic Site
35110 Highway 194 E., La Junta, CO 81050
This reconstructed fort is furnished as it might have been in 1848, when it was a private commercial trading depot.
Fort Larned National Historic Site
Rt. 3, Larned, KS 67550
Fort Larned is one of the best preserved frontier military posts in the west. A small outlying area protects Santa Fe Trail ruts.
United States Forest Service Sites
Comanche National Grassland
P.O. Box 127
Springfield, CO 81073
Kiowa National Grassland16 N. Second St.
Clayton, NM 88415
Cimarron National Grassland
P.O. Box J Elkhart, KS 67950
Trail ruts and sites are preserved and interpreted. Hiking trails parallel some of the route.
For more informaiton, contact:
Branch of Long Distance Trails
National Park Service
Southwest Regional Office
P.O. Box 728
Santa Fe, NM 87504-0728
"Far away from my wife and child, and sixhundred miles of constant danger in an uninhabited region was not a pleasant prospect for contemplation. But I laughed with the rest, joked about roasting our bacon with buffalo chips, and the enjoyment we would derive from the company of skeletons that would strew our pathway." (Hezekiah Brake, 1858)
The Trail Today
The freight wagons no longer roll across the prairies, but evidence of the great days of the Trail still exists in the form of buildings and other historic sites; landmarks thatguided the Trail travelers; and, what is most alluring tomany, the remains of the original ruts of the wagonwheels worn into the earth. For many Americans, theTrail story did not end with the last wagon train. A varietyof local, state, and even national efforts have been under-taken to preserve and interpret Trail resources. The establishment of the National Trails System Act, and agrowing awareness of the rich multicultural history of theTrail, have brought about renewed interest in national recognition of this important chapter in our Country's past.
In 1987, Congress acknowledged the significance of the Trail by establishing the Santa Fe National Historic Trail. The Department of the Interior's National Park Service administers the Trail in cooperation with federal, state, andlocal agencies; interested groups; and private landowners.
The National Park Service coordinates efforts, andprovides technical and limited financial assistance toguide the preservation, development, and enjoyment ofthe Trail. Management of Trail resources remains withindividual landowners, nonprofit groups, and federal,state, and local agencies. Planned activities include the marking of an auto tour route; historical research;resource protection; the development of Trail brochures,a guidebook, and other publications; and production ofexhibits and a major interpretive film.
"The whole distance from the settlements on the Missouri to the Mountains in the neighborhood of Santa Fe, is a prairie country, with no obstructions in the route, except the rivers and creeks, and those are generally fordable, with firm sloping banks. No bridges are deemed necessary. A good wagon road can, therefore, be traced out, upon which a sufficient supply of fuel and water can be procured, at all seasons, except in winter." (Alphonso Wetmore, 1824)
Help Perserve the Trail
The Santa Fe National Historic Trail can only be successful with the hard work and dedication of public officials, citizen volunteers, and private landowners of the Trail community who want to preserve the historic resources of the Trail and make its story known to the public. The Trail can be an aid to community efforts for historic preservation and interpretation, greenways, and other public recreation planning.
Many organizations are helping with the planning and development of the National Historic Trail. The Santa Fe Trail Association, a nonprofit organization formed in 1986 to promote public awareness and appreciation of the Santa Fe Trail, is working closely with the National Park Service. Its address is:
Santa Fe Trail Association
Santa Fe Trail Center, RR3
Larned, Kansas 67550
You can help with the development of the Santa Fe National Historic Trail by joining or supporting the work of The Santa Fe Trail Association, state and local historical societies, and other groups that promote or assist with the Santa Fe National Historic Trail. Landowners and site managers can pursue certification of their sites or Trail segments to further public use and protection of Trail resources. Permanent protection of these resources can be achieved by donation of lands or easements to land trusts or other appropriate groups. Financial contributions can support Trail programs. Donations of money, land, or easements may qualify as tax-deductible gifts. For more information contact the National Park Service at the address below.
"But the rejoicing at home... the feasts and the bailes (dances)-not to mention the wine made in their absence and saved for the occasion-was a rich compensation in itself for the hardships that were now in the dead past." (Jose' Librado Gurule's Recollections, 1867)
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication