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1821

Becknell opens trade on the Santa Fe Trail

On this day, Missouri Indian trader William Becknell arrives in Santa Fe, New Mexico, sells his goods at an enormous profit, and makes plans to return the next year over the route that will become known as the Santa Fe Trail.

Pure luck made Becknell the first businessman to revive the American trade with Santa Fe. Fearing American domination of the region, the Spanish had closed their Southwest holdings to foreigners following the Pike expedition more than a decade earlier. They threw the few traders who violated the policy into prison and confiscated their goods. However, Becknell and other merchants continued to trade with the Indians on the American-controlled eastern slope of the southern Rockies. While on such an expedition in the fall of 1821, Becknell encountered a troop of Mexican soldiers. They informed Becknell that they had recently won their independence in a war with Spain, and the region was again open to American traders. Becknell immediately sped to Santa Fe, where he found a lucrative market for his goods, and his saddlebags were heavy with Mexican silver when he returned to his base in Franklin, Missouri.

The next summer Becknell traveled to Santa Fe again, this time with three wagonloads of goods. Instead of following the old route that passed over a dangerous high pass, however, Becknell blazed a shorter and easier cutoff across the Cimarron Desert. Thus, while much of the route he followed had been used by Mexican traders for decades, Becknell’s role in reopening the trail and laying out the short-cut earned him the title of “Father of the Santa Fe Trail.” It became one of the most important and lucrative of the Old West trading routes; merchants and other travelers continued to follow the trail blazed by Becknell until the arrival of trains in the late 1870s.

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