The Santa Fe Trail was America’s first commercial highway. Traders established the trail—which connected Missouri to Santa Fe, New Mexico and covered some 900 miles of the Great Plains—in 1821. Before its demise due to the completion of the Santa Fe railroad, the Santa Fe Trail served as a thoroughfare for countless traders, pioneers and America’s military, and it played a crucial role in America’s westward expansion.
Before the Santa Fe Trail
For centuries prior to the Santa Fe Trail, trade took place between the Great Plains Indians and early settlers of the Texas panhandle. As trade routes expanded along the Rio Grande, commerce inevitably reached the Spanish colonists of New Mexico—but Spain had declared trade with Native Americans illegal.
Still, many American explorers traveled to Santa Fe and attempted trade. Most were detained and sent home.
By 1810, the Mexican people had had enough of Spain’s iron-fisted rule. Their first attempt for independence failed, but in 1821 they waged a successful revolution and gained their freedom. This opened the door for anyone to trade with Mexico.
When Missouri trader and War of 1812 veteran William Becknell learned Mexico was open for business, he wasted no time heading for Santa Fe.
Becknell left Franklin, Missouri, in September 1821 with a small group of men and a cargo of goods and arrived in Santa Fe on November 16. They were welcomed with open arms by Mexican citizens and government officials and encouraged to return soon with more goods to trade.
Becknell’s initial path to Santa Fe became known as the Mountain Route. It followed the Arkansas River to the Colorado Plains to the Purgatoire River and across the narrow, treacherous Raton Mountain Pass into Santa Fe.
Upon his return to Santa Fe, Becknell hoped to find a faster route. His exact course there is disputed; however, the route he took home became known as the Cimarron Route and was the most popular track on the Santa Fe Trail.
The Cimarron Route followed the Arkansas River to Cimarron, Kansas, near what would later become Dodge City. From there, it trekked through southwest Kansas and the western panhandle of Oklahoma before venturing into Round Mound and Point of Rocks, New Mexico and San Miguel.
After navigating the Glorieta Mountain Pass, it ended in Santa Fe. The Cimarron Route was about 100 miles shorter than the Mountain Route and less dangerous, although it wasn’t without its challenges. Water could be scarce along this barren, desert path and Indian raids were common.
Bent’s Fort, also known as Fort William, was originally built by the Bent, St. Vrain and Trading Company on the north bank of the Arkansas River in 1833. The company was owned by William Bent and his brother Charles Bent and Ceran St. Vrain. The fort began as a fur-trading stop for mountain men, settlers, teamsters and Plains Indians, but it quickly became a respite location for those traveling the Santa Fe Trail.
When disease and adversity struck Bent’s Fort in 1849, Bent and company abandoned it (and later destroyed it), and in 1853 built a new trading post called Bent’s New Fort on a bluff further downriver at Big Timbers. Bent’s Old Fort was rebuilt in the 1970s as a National Historic Site.
Bent’s New Fort was a trading post and a meeting place for Indian tribes and government officials. It also became a destination for military men navigating the growing discord between whites and Plains Indians and the peacemakers trying to keep the conflict from escalating.
Ultimately, the U.S. Army leased Bent’s New Fort and renamed it Fort Fauntleroy and later Fort Wise. In 1867, Arkansas River flooding forced the Army to abandon the fort and build a new one, Fort Lyon, further upstream.
Santa Fe Trail in Wartime
In 1845, the United States voted to annex Texas (which included parts of present-day New Mexico) from Mexico, causing tensions to mount between the two countries.
In 1846, the United States declared war on Mexico and sent General Stephen Watts Kearney and his 1,600 men along the Santa Fe Trail to occupy New Mexico. Kearney took the Mountain Route, hoping its hazardous terrain would offer protection from Mexican troops.
Although the Raton Pass took its toll on Kearney and his troops, they took over Santa Fe without resistance. When the Mexican-American War ended, the United States purchased Mexico’s southern territories including New Mexico, California and Arizona.
It wasn’t until the Civil War that the Mountain Trail gained popularity again, this time as a Union Army supply route.
End of the Santa Fe Trail
The Santa Fe Trail was mainly a trade route but saw its share of emigrants, especially during the California Gold Rush and the Pike’s Peak Gold Rush in Colorado. The trail also became an important route for stagecoach travel, stagecoach mail delivery and as a mail route for the famed Pony Express.
As the Union Pacific Railroad expanded west, it was clear the Santa Fe Trail’s days were numbered. Mule and oxen-drawn wagons couldn’t compete with trains for hauling freight or speeding passengers westward.
On February 9, 1880 a Santa Fe Railway Company train arrived with considerable fanfare at the Santa Fe railroad depot and effectively ended the Santa Fe Trail.
A History of the Santa Fe Trail. Santa Fe Trail Association.
Bent’s Fort Chapter. Santa Fe Trail Association.
Bent’s Forts. Colorado Encyclopedia.
Cimarron Cutoff: A 20th Century Misnomer. Santa Fe Trail Research Site.
History of the Santa Fe Trail in New Mexico. New Mexico Santa Fe Trail National Scenic Byway.
Raton Pass: Colorado and New Mexico. National Park Service.
Santa Fe National Historic Trail: History and Culture. National Park Service.
Tragedy and Restoration. Bent’s New Fort. Santa Fe National Historic Trail.