Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor


For most nineteenth-century European Americans the Great Plains represented primarily a transportation challenge, a vast expanse that had to be crossed to gain access to greater riches beyond its boundaries. The Santa Fe Trail, the principal trade route connecting the eastern United States and the Southwest, was one of the most successful solutions to that challenge. The trail opened in 1821, when newly independent Mexico abolished restrictive Spanish laws and allowed foreign traders to enter its New Mexican outposts. The first to capitalize on the new markets was William Becknell, a struggling Missouri merchant who arrived in Santa Fe in the fall of 1821 and sold his goods at a huge profit. The following year, Becknell ventured again from Franklin, Missouri, to Santa Fe, pioneering the Cimarron Cutoff across the Oklahoma Panhandle.

Becknell had tapped a vast commercial potential. The isolated New Mexicans had surpluses of mules, silver, and furs, but they lacked manufactured goods and therefore were eager to have access to U.S. markets. Stimulated by mutual benefits, the trade flourished. During the following six decades, first dozens, then hundreds, and finally thousands of wagons moved each year along the Santa Fe Trail, carrying calico, leather goods, hardware, clothing, beaver pelts, and silver coins across the Plains. By the 1850s the annual value of merchandise shipped over the trail exceeded $5 million. The trail served as a commercial artery until 1880, when the completion of the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad made it obsolete.

By the 1830s a generally accepted routine had developed along the trail. The traders usually left Independence, Missouri (Franklin, the first terminus, was destroyed by a flood in 1828), in mid-May, when Plains grasses were tall enough to provide su.cient forage for draft animals. Most traders used Murphy wagons, three-foot-wide and sixteen-foot-long canvas-topped vehicles with four-inch-thick iron tires to protect the wooden wheels during the arduous, 775-mile trek. After ten days of travel, the traders paused at Council Grove, Kansas, where they gathered into larger caravans led by an elected captain and division lieutenants and typically consisting of 25 freight wagons and 300 oxen and mules. After the break, the caravans headed toward the Big Bend of the Arkansas, traveling ten to fifteen miles a day. The wagon trains followed the northern flank of the Arkansas River valley to the Middle Crossing, where the trail divided into two branches. The longer Mountain Branch followed the Arkansas River to Bentfs Fort and then proceeded southwest through Raton Pass to Santa Fe. The more heavily trafficked Cimarron Cutoff first crossed the Cimarron Desert and then followed a direct route to Santa Fe.

Whichever route they chose, the caravans could not escape the harsh Plains elements–dry spells, torrential rains, wolves, fires, and stampeding bison herds. River crossings were particularly troublesome. Although shallow, Plains rivers were filled with sinkholes, quicksand, and other hazards that required careful maneuvering. Traders also needed flexible Indian policies. Caravans moved in parallel columns that could be quickly formed into a protective corral to repel raiders, but they had to be equally ready to welcome trading parties with gifts of coffee, bacon, and tobacco. As the Native economies began to crumble the raids intensified, making the Santa Fe trade a dangerous business. Besides physical landmarks such as the double-peaked Rabbit Ears on the Cimarron Cutoff, the trail was in later years marked by an unbroken string of destroyed wagons and animal remains.

The Santa Fe Trail played a crucial role in shaping North American history. It was critical in absorbing New Mexico into the American commercial orbit and, after the Mexican War, in incorporating the province into the national economy. During the California gold rush, the trail also took thousands of emigrants across the Plains. The trail increased geographic knowledge of Plains rivers, springs, and topography and made Bent's Fort one of the most lucrative commercial centers in the West. But the Santa Fe Trail also launched the European American assault on Plains ecosystems. The iron-rimmed wheels and the hundreds of thousands of animals and people destroyed native vegetation, accelerated erosion, polluted springs, brought new diseases, and disturbed bison herds. By the 1850s the Arkansas River valley, once a haven for Indians and bison, had become a mile-wide dust highway.

Pekka Hämäläinen Texas A&M University

Brown, William E. The Santa Fe Trail: The National Park Service 1963 Historic Sites Survey. St. Louis MO: Patrice Press, 1988.

Walker, Henry Pickering. The Wagonmasters: High Plains Freighting from the Earliest Days of the Santa Fe Trail to 1880. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1966.

West, Elliott. The Way to the West: Essays on the Central Plains. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1995.

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