The Santa Fe Trail – The Untold Story



 There remains a dramatic untold story about one of the most significant pieces of history in the development of the southwest and western US. Beginning in 1821 entrepreneurs in St. Louis, then the western terminus of the United States, and the independence of Mexico from Spain, felt that it would be very prosperous to begin a trade venture with Mexico. At that time Santa Fe was the northern trade point for goods from Mexico.

 William Becknell, generally considered the father of the SFT, put together the first wagon train for the trip to Santa Fe. On September 1st, 1821 Becknell and party set out from Arrow Rock, Missouri over the Santa Fe Trail. On November 16th they reached Santa Fe, a date to be remembered in Trail history.

 Becknell’s main distinction is that once he opened the Trail to freight wagons the Trail stayed open. Where his horses and wagon tracks led, the westward surge of commerce followed. Great portions of his route still exist today.

 In just 10 years commerce on the Trail reached $100,000 and comprised 60 wagons, 100 men and 70 traders, an enormous sum for those days!

 I first became fascinated, almost obsessed, by the Trail when flying my plane from Dallas to Denver and observed long straight lines stretching across the prairie that could not be geological formations. On closer examination I discovered that these were the wagon ruts from the giant 6,000# Murphy wagons used on the Trail, that still exist today, more than 170 years after the Trail began. This began my almost 20 year fascination with and study of the Santa Fe Trail.

 To get a sense of what it was like to travel the Trail one must read and appreciate the words of historian Robert Luther Duffus:

 "Trade on the Trail - A River of Commerce


"Between the ports on the Missouri and the havens in arid New Mexico flowed that traffic which came to be known as the Santa Fe trade.  We must consider the economics of this traffic, for had not the Trail been a source of profit, only the pure romanticists, of whom there are never very many, would have traversed it.(ibid.#1;p.100)

"....As far back as the time of La Lande's journey to Santa Fe in 1804, and probably even further back, it had been apparent that goods could be carried eight hundred miles from the Missouri River to New Mexico more cheaply than two thousand miles through Old Mexico from Vera Cruz.  But the postponement of this geographically logical trade because of Spanish exclusiveness and jealousy was nevertheless a good thing.  It brought industrial and commercial America nearer the Missouri River.  It made the Americans so strong, that the traders of Chihuahua and the south of Mexico could less than ever compete with them.

"....Articles of feminine luxury, such as silks and velvets, never lost their popularity in the trade.  Hardware, with iron selling originally at a dollar a pound, naturally commanded fancy prices.  The New Mexicans had literally no manufacturers, and attractive machine made goods almost sold themselves.

"....As early as 1825 Senator Benton was able to say that the New Mexican trade 'had grown up to be a new and regular branch of interior commerce, profitable to those engaged in it, valuable to the country from the articles it carried out and for the silver, furs, and mules it brought back, and well suited to the care and protection of our government.'"(ibid.#1;p.108)

"After 1829 the next killing by the Indians was that of Jedediah Smith, one of the most noteworthy explorers and fur traders of his time.....  In 1831, still only 33 years old, with a boundless fund of energy, he turned his attention to the Santa Fe trade.  the caravan with which he set out in the spring of that year was one of the best equipped that had ever taken the sunset trails. Twenty fine new wagons bumped along the rough roads and eighty picked men guarded them.  But though Smith was probably as good a pathfinder as ever stood in moccasins, his party,  like several before it, ran into desperate trouble in the Jornada.  This, it should be remembered, was before the rains of 1834 had melted the desert's surface into mud and enabled the wagons to carve a lasting highway across it.  There was no Trail to follow.  For three days the traders wandered hopelessly lost.  ...Smith came upon a buffalo trail and followed it until at last he came to the valley of the Cimarron.  The river bed  as dry, as it often was, and he probably stooped to scoop out a hole in which the underground water might collect.  One can imagine with what joy he bent his head to the muddy trickle and the wet sand.  The party was saved!" (ibid.#1;p.126)

"A special Indian commission which reported in 1868 estimated that in half a century the United States spent half a billion dollars and lost twenty thousand lives in Indian war.  Most of this fighting took place west of the Missouri River and much of it in the regions traversed by the Santa Fe Trail.  And this constant menace lent the Trail some of its darker romance and gave it some of its most hideous chapters.



"Although the first wagons to which these faithful beasts were hitched came from Pittsburgh, they were soon succeeded by the famous 'Murphy Wagons', made by a gentleman of that name in St. Louis.  Later still, wagons were manufactured for the New Mexican trade in Independence and in the final years in Kansas City.  A loaded wagon was no trifle - it might weigh anywhere from three to seven thousand pounds.  The average weight, after the trade had fallen into regular habits, was about five thousand pounds.  If oxen were used about six yoke would be needed for each wagon, with an equal or greater number held in reserve to take the places of those that gave out.  Hundreds and thousands of ox skeletons went to join those of the buffalo all cross the prairie.  If mules were employed, ten or twelve would be required for each wagon. "(ibid.#1;p.134)

"The average day's journey was from fifteen to eighteen miles, though this might be lengthened or shortened to fit the distances between good springs and camping places.  These were established at an early date, so that an experienced prairie traveler knew his camp-grounds about as well as a railway trainman knows his station stops.  Wet or dry seasons of course made changes in the ease or difficulty of traversing certain portions of the Trail.  A rainy month might make traveling heavy along the Narrows, east of Council Grove, but rain in the desert might besprinkle the Journada with little ponds and bring dried-up water courses to life."(ibid.#1;p.136)

In addition there are excerpts from Josiah Gregg on the "Commerce of the Prairie" and Ralph Emerson Twitchell's "Old Santa Fe" that capture the time and essence of the day. And especially the excerpts from Susan Shelby Magoffin's Diary of her life on the Trail, such as:

 July 4/Saturday:

Camp No. 24.   Pawnee Fork. What a disastrous celebration I have today.  The wagons left Pawnee Rock some time before us, for I was anxious to see this wonderful curiosity.  We went up [on the rock] and while mi-alma [Magoffin] with his gun and pistols kept watch, I cut my name among the many hundreds inscribed on the rock and many of whom I knew.  It was not done well for fear of Indians made me tremble all over and I hurried it over in any way.


The wagons being some distance ahead we rode on to overtake them.   In an hours time we had driven some 6 miles, and at Ash Creek we came up with them.  No water in the creek and the crossing pretty good only a tolerably steep bank on the  first side of it, all but two passed over,  and as these were not up we drove on ahead of them to cross first.  The bank though a little steep was smooth and there could be no difficulty in riding down it.  ....we were whirled completely over with a perfect crash.   By 12:00 we reached this place 6 miles, when we found all the companies which have come on before us, having been stopped by order of the Government.

After reading this material I can only hope your interest is as great as mine.

Jim Ryan
Plano, TX 75023

September 7, 2000