Santa Fe National Historic Trail

For other uses, see Santa Fe Trail (disambiguation).
Not to be confused with Santa Fe Rail Trail or Santa Fe River Trail.
Santa Fe Trail
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Template:Location mark+Map of the Santa Fe Trail
Location Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico
Established 1821
Governing body National Park Service

The Santa Fe Trail was a 19th-century transportation route through central North America that connected Franklin, Missouri with Santa Fe, New Mexico. Pioneered in 1821 by William Becknell, it served as a vital commercial and military highway until the introduction of the railroad to Santa Fe in 1880. At first an international trade route between the United States and Mexico, it was the 1846 U.S. invasion route of New Mexico during the Mexican–American War.[1]

The route crossed Comancheria, the territory of the Comanches, who demanded compensation for granting passage to the trail. Americans routinely assaulted the Comanches along the trail, finding it unacceptable that they had to pay a fee for passage to Santa Fe, and soon, all Comancheria fled the area, opening up the area to American settlement.[2]

After the U.S. acquisition of the Southwest, the trail helped open the region to U.S. economic development and settlement, playing a vital role in the expansion of the U.S. into the lands it had acquired. The road route is commemorated today by the National Park Service as the Santa Fe National Historic Trail. A highway route that roughly follows the trail's path through the entire length of Kansas, the southeast corner of Colorado and northern New Mexico has been designated as the Santa Fe Trail National Scenic Byway.


The Santa Fe Trail was a transportation route opened by the Spaniards at the end of the 18th century and used afterwards by the Americans in the 19th century, crossing the southwest of North America connecting San Luis de el Misuri with Santa Fe, New Mexico.

The French explorer Pedro Vial pioneered the route in 1792 and the Santa Fe Trail was established in 1821 to take advantage of new trade opportunities with Mexico which had just won independence from Spain in the Mexican War of Independence. The trail was used to haul manufactured goods from the state of Missouri in the United States to Santa Fe, which was in the northern Mexican state of Nuevo, Mexico.

The wagon trains followed various emigrant trails to points west as people responded to opportunity to hold free land, and the political philosophy of Manifest Destiny dominated national political discussions. Connecting the riverboat port cities and their wagon train outfitters to the destinations, the trail was a fundamentally important trade route, carrying manufactured products from the central plains of United States to the trail head towns St. Joseph and Independence, Missouri. In the 1820s–30s, it was also sporadically important in the reverse trade, carrying foods and supplies to the fur trappers and mountain men opening the remote Northwest, esp. in the Interior Northwest: Idaho, Wyoming, Colorado, and Montana—connecting via mule trail (trapper's trails) to points north to supply the lucrative overland fur trade.

North–South trade

This limited trade traffic transited the site that would become Fort Bent in Colorado (directly on the Santa Fe Trail) and the short-lived trading fort (name, owner, management, dates all uncertain) that sat astride the Trapper's Trail and Oregon Trail junction point. This post was only eight miles east of the site of Fort John (now Ft. Laramie) (ca. 1833) on what became the Oregon Trail (1832–34).[3] The lost fort was on the same site where Fort Bernard was later founded (1866) in the eastern Oregon Country (Wyoming). That Fort Bernard ran cargo mule trains to the Santa Fe is historically certain. The earlier Fort and its traders are less so, and that gives weight that they might have been independents, and not employees of the large fur companies. Regardless of the lack of explicit documents, it is known the light trading with Mexico used the trail and Trapper's Trail.

The importance of Santa Fe

In 1825 the merchant Manuel Escudero of Chihuahua was commissioned by New Mexico governor Bartolome Baca to negotiate in Washington for opening U.S. borders to traders from Mexico. Beginning in 1826, prominent aristocratic families of New Mexicans, such as the Chávezes, Armijos, Pereas and Oteros entered into the commerce along the trail, such that by 1843, traders from New Mexico and Chihuahua had become the majority of traders involved in the traffic of goods over the Santa Fe Trail.[4]

In 1835 Mexico City had sent Albino Pérez to govern the department of New Mexico as Jefe Politico (political chief or governor) and as commanding military officer. The Republic of Texas claimed Santa Fe as part of the territory north and east of the Rio Grande claimed by both Mexico and Texas following its secession from Mexico in 1836. In 1837 the forces of Rio Arriba (the upper Rio Grande, i.e., northern New Mexico) rebelled against Pérez' enforcement of the recent Mexican constitution, new revenue laws taxing Santa Fe commerce and entertainment, and the large grants of New Mexico land to wealthy Mexicans. New Mexicans had grown to appreciate the relative freedoms of a frontier, remote from Mexico City. The rebels defeated and executed governor Albino Perez, but were later ousted by the forces of Rio Abajo (the lower Rio Grande, or southern New Mexico) led by Manuel Armijo.[5]

In 1841, a small military and trading expedition departed from Austin, Texas representing the Republic of Texas and their president Mirabeau B. Lamar. Their aim was to persuade the people of Santa Fe and New Mexico to relinquish control over the territory under dispute with Mexico, and over the associated Santa Fe Trail commerce. Having knowledge of the recent political disturbances, they believed that they might be welcomed by the rebellious faction in New Mexico. Known as the Texas Santa Fe Expedition, the Texans encountered many difficulties and were subsequently captured by governor Armijo's Mexican army under less than honest negotiations. They were then subjected to harsh and austere treatment during a tortuous forced march to Mexico City, for trial and imprisonment.[6]

In 1842 Colonel William A. Christy wrote president of Texas,

After the murder of Chávez, Warfield began limited military hostilities using recruits from the southern Rockies. He made an unprovoked attack on Mexican troops outside of Mora, New Mexico, leaving five dead. Warfield's horses were lost in Wagon Mound to the Mexican forces which had made chase, and after reaching Bent's Fort on foot, Warfield's men disbanded. In February, 1843 Colonel Jacob Snively had received a commission to intercept Mexican caravans along the Santa Fe Trail, similar to the commission received by Warfield the year prior. After disbanding the volunteers under his command, Warfield located and joined the 190 man Texas "Battalion of Invincibles," under the command of Snively. New Mexico governor Manuel Armijo led Mexican troops out of Santa Fe for the protection of the incoming caravans, but after the Invincibles wiped out an advanced party led by Captain Ventura Lovato, the governor retreated. Following this battle, Snively's force was reduced to little over 100 men due to resignations.[9] The Snively Expedition plan was to plunder Mexican merchant caravans on territory claimed by Texas, in retaliation for recent Texian executions and Mexican invasions, but it was quickly arrested and disarmed by United States escorting troops.[10] Captain Philip St. George Cooke allowed the Invincibles to return to Texas after disarming them.[11]

Mother of the railroad

In 1863, with all the political bickering over railroad legislation, entrepreneurs opened their pockets and set their sights on the American Southwest leading to the gradual construction east to west of the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway; the name eponymously reflecting the intentions of the founders, the expected eastern terminus to be in Atchison, Kansas.

Inside Kansas, the AT&SF railway's roadbed, by and large, more or less copied and paralleled the Santa Fe Trail route after reaching Topeka as it extended trackage west in the period of 1868–1874. When a railroad bridge was built across the Missouri connecting the eastern markets to the Dodge City cattle trail and Colorado coal mines, the railroad spurred the growth of Kansas City where the railroad came to cross the Missouri River. Kansas City was on the opposite shore from Saint Joseph, Missouri, one of several trail head towns feeding settlers into the American West. Building the railway so that it extended westwards to destinations in and beyond the New Mexico border was delayed and kept the fledgling railroad gasping for operating cash flow. In a move to bootstrap their own base market, the railway began offering packaged "Shopping Excursion deals" to potential buyers desiring to look over a real estate parcel. The railroad began to discount such trips to visit its land offices and gave back the ticket price as part of the purchase price, if a sale was concluded.

The railroad was cleverly selling off the land grant it had received from congress, which caused the strip along the rail and Trail to bloom with new towns and businesses–which created railway traffic and revenues in a reinforcing synergy of capitalism. Its economic base established, the railway gradually extended west, gradually adding new connections through rougher west country serviced by the western Trail. With the rails overtaking the Trail, the traffic and freight and other traffic diminished little by little until most all the trail's traffic was local trade. In a sense, after World War I the trail was reborn; by the 1920s it gradually became paved automobile roads.


The eastern end of the trail was in the central Missouri town of Franklin on the north bank of the Missouri River. The route across Missouri first used by Becknell followed portions of the existing Osage Trace and the Medicine Trails. West of Franklin, the trail crossed the Missouri near Arrow Rock, after which it followed roughly the route of present-day U.S. Route 24. It passed north of Marshall, through Lexington to Fort Osage, then to Independence. Independence was also one of the historic "jumping off points" for the Oregon and California Trails.

West of Independence, in the State of Missouri, it roughly followed the route of U.S. Route 56 from near the town of Olathe to the western border of Kansas. It enters Colorado, cutting across the southeast corner of the state before entering New Mexico. The section of the trail between Independence and Olathe was also used by immigrants on the California and Oregon Trails, which branched off to the northwest near Gardner, Kansas.

From Olathe, the trail passed through the towns of Baldwin City, Burlingame, and Council Grove, then swung west of McPherson to the town of Lyons. West of Lyons the trail followed nearly the route of present-day Highway 56 to Great Bend. Ruts in the earth made from the trail are still visible in several locations (Ralph's Ruts are visible in aerial photos at (38°21′35″N 98°25′20″W / 38.35959264°N 98.42225502°W / 38.35959264; -98.42225502).[12] At Great Bend, the trail encountered the Arkansas River. Branches of the trail followed both sides of the river upstream to Dodge City and Garden City.

West of Garden City in southwestern Kansas the trail splits into two branches. One of the branches, called the Mountain Route or the Upper Crossing through Raton Pass (of the Arkansas River) [13]:93[14]:133 continued to follow the Arkansas upstream in southeastern Colorado to the town of La Junta. At La Junta, the trail continued south into New Mexico to Fort Union at Watrous.

The other main branch, called the Cimarron Cutoff or Cimarron Crossing or Middle Crossing[13]:93[14]:133[15]:144 cut southwest across the Cimarron Desert (also known as the Waterscrape or La Jornada[15]:148) to the valley of the Cimarron River near the town of Ulysses and Elkhart then continued toward Boise City, Oklahoma, to Clayton, New Mexico, joining up with northern branch at Fort Union. This route was generally very hazardous because it had very little water.[16] In fact, the Cimarron River was one of the only sources of water along this branch of the trail.

From Watrous, the reunited branches continued southward to Santa Fe.

Part of this route has been designated a National Scenic Byway.


Travelers faced many hardships along the Santa Fe Trail. The trail was a challenging 900 miles (1,400 km) of arid plains, desert, and mountains. On this trail unlike the Oregon trail, there was a serious danger of Native American attacks, for neither the Comanches nor the Apaches of the southern high plains tolerated trespassers. In 1825, Congress voted for federal protection for the Santa Fe Trail, even though much of it lay in the Mexican territory. Lack of food and water also made the trail very risky. Weather conditions, like huge lightning storms, gave the travelers even more difficulty. If a storm developed, there was often no place to take shelter and the livestock could get spooked. Rattlesnakes often posed a threat, and many people died due to snakebite. The caravan size increased later on to prevent Indian raids. The travelers also packed more oxen instead of mules because the Indians did not want to risk raiding the caravans for only some oxen.

Historic preservation

Segments of this trail in Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma, and New Mexico are listed on the National Register of Historic Places.[17] The longest clearly identifiable section of the trail, Santa Fe Trail Remains, near Dodge City, Kansas, is listed as a National Historic Landmark.[18]

Notable features

  • Arrow Rock (Arrow Rock Landing, Santa Fe Spring, Huston Tavern)
  • Harvey Spring/Weinrich Ruts
  • Independence (Santa Fe trail Ruts, Lower Independence (Blue Mills) Landing, Upper Independence (Wayne City) Landing.
  • Kansas City (Westport Landing)

Mountain Route towards Colorado


Mountain Route

Cimarron Route thru Kansas towards Oklahoma

New Mexico[19]

Mountain Route

Cimarron Route

Joint route

See also

Further reading

  • , the standard scholarly history
  • The Story of the Marking of the Santa Fe Trail by the Daughters of the American Revolution in Kansas and the State of Kansas; Almira Cordry; Crane Co; 164 pages; 1915.[20]
  • The Story of Council Grove on the Santa Fe Trail; 2nd Ed; Lalla Maloy Brigham; 176 pages; 1921. (Download 16MB PDF eBook)


External links

  • Santa Fe National Historic Trail (National Park Service)
  • Santa Fe Trail Center
    • Trails West Maps: Route choices
  • Santa Fe Trail Research
  • Santa Fe Trail Research Site Aerial Photo Tour of the Santa Fe Trail
  • Access documents, photographs, and other primary sources on Kansas Memory, the Kansas State Historical Society's digital portal
  • New Mexico Santa Fe Trail National Scenic Byway
    • Flying the Santa Fe Trail
  • The Great Santa Fe Trail Horse Race Endurance Ride A 10-day, 500-mile (800 km) endurance ride down the historic Santa Fe Trail with a focus on promoting the history of the Santa Fe Trail and surrounding communities
  • a National Park Service Teaching with Historic Places (TwHP) lesson plan
  • Pioneer Trails from US Land Surveys
  • Oklahoma Digital Maps: Digital Collections of Oklahoma and Indian Territory