The Santa Fé Trail was an international overland route of both commerce and social interaction, joining the US prairie state of Missouri with the province of México Nuevo, Mexico, through much of the nineteenth century. Though its specific date of origin is unclear, it appears to have been the northeastern-most segment of a much older Native American, French, and Spanish trail system.
The southern route of the trail, the Cimarron Cutoff, passes through the very southeastern corner of Colorado, passing from southwestern Kansas through the Oklahoma Panhandle and into New Mexico. This route proved risky, however, because there were long stretches of dry country between water sources. The Spanish called it La Jornada del Muerto, “Dead Man’s Journey.” The northern segment of the trail established through Colorado, where water was more available, is commonly known as the Mountain Branch of the Santa Fé Trail and follows the Arkansas and Purgatoire Rivers through the southeastern portion of the state, continuing over Ratón Pass into New Mexico.
Most historic road signs, textbooks, and encyclopedia authors assert that Missourian William Becknell “pioneered” the Santa Fé Trail in 1821. In contrast, Josiah Gregg, a US trader along the trail at its nineteenth-century peak, described the trail’s origins far more vaguely. In his 1844 book Commerce of the Prairies, he says that “the overland trade between the United States and the northern provinces of Mexico seems to have had no very definite origin, having been more the result of accident than of any organized plan of commercial interest.”
Archaeologists and historians working with Spanish and French documents note that Native American men and women traded along this route well before European contact. Pedro Vial, a New World Spaniard, was arguably the first documented non-native person to traverse the trail from Santa Fé to Independence, Missouri, in 1700.
New Spain and New France dabbled with the idea of open trade between French Missouri and Spanish Santa Fé, and in 1739 the French Canadian Mallet brothers traveled the Mountain Branch between La Junta and Picuris Pueblo. Ten years later, a Spaniard named Felipe de Sandoval accompanied a party of Frenchmen returning from their trading venture to Santa Fé by way of Ratón Pass and the Mountain Branch. French and Spanish traders joined Osage, Comanche, and other groups along the trail between Missouri and Mexico.
US traders attempted trade along the trail after the Louisiana Purchase of 1803, but Spain still outlawed trade with them. William Becknell was not the first to traverse the trail, but he did have excellent timing, arriving in Santa Fé at the historical moment of Mexico’s independence from Spain. Had Becknell arrived earlier, he would have been thrown in prison. However, an independent Mexico welcomed trade with the United States and received him well.
Becknell was something of a one-hit wonder in the history of commerce along the trail; the Santa Fé market for US goods was saturated within four years of his first venture, and thereafter New Mexican traders transported such goods further south along the Camino Real (Royal Road) into Chihuahua. Becknell may have recognized this trend, as his third and last trading party to Santa Fé was in 1824. He then returned to Missouri to pursue a career in politics.
The 1821 opening of trade to the United States did not mean that US traders benefited most from the trade. Native Americans and Mexicans were always the majority of traders along the Santa Fé Trail. One such trader, José Chávez, was the first New Mexican to earn a seat on the New York Stock Exchange. Anglo-American traders from the United States and points east often married multi-lingual New Mexican or Native American women and sometimes converted to Catholicism. These women generally had kinship ties to those who controlled customs houses, stores, trading forts, or territories in places like Taos, Santa Fé, Bernalillo, and Saltillo.
Life on the Trail
Becknell’s opening of the trail to US trade did encourage more Anglo-American traders and settlers to make homes in places like Boggsville, Bent’s Fort, and El Pueblo, where they married Native American or Mexican women and raised multiethnic families. Two Anglo-American women, Susan Shelby Magoffin and Marion Russell, left very complete written accounts of travel and life along the Santa Fé Trail.
In 1852, when she was seven years old, Russell began accompanying her mother and stepfather along the trail. Her memoirs were published posthumously in 1954. In the 1860s, she and her husband, Lt. Richard D. Russell, established the Tecalote trading post along the trail, north of Santa Fé and west of Las Vegas. The wares they vended were mostly traded locally or shipped to points east along the trail. Russell wrote that
There were implements, feed, food, household furnishings, clothing, saddles, bridles, harness and Navajo blankets. There were strings of red peppers and jars of azule or Indian corn. There were jars of Mexican beans and piles of golden pumpkins . . . We bought everything the Mexicans or Indians had for sale or trade . . . We bought pottery, blankets and beadwork from the Mexicans and Indians, and were usually able to trade these things to wagoners eastward bound.
In 1846, at age eighteen, Magoffin accompanied her husband, Samuel Magoffin, along the route, an experience published in her diary in 1926. Given the Santa Fé market’s saturation with US goods, the party traveled south along the Camino Real to the trading center of Saltillo, Coahuila, in Mexico. Following General Stephen W. Kearney’s Army of the West by about ten days, the Magoffins’ trading party often traveled at night to avoid violent encounters as well as the heat of the day. Approaching grass fires were also more visible at a distance at night. Nevertheless, Mrs. Magoffin found night travel challenging: “I am not an advocate though for night travelling when I have to be shut up in the carriage in a road I know nothing of, and the driver nodding all the time, and letting the reins drop from his hands to the entire will of the mules. I was kept in a fever the whole night, though everyone complained bitterly of the cold.”
Susan Magoffin considered herself, and is considered by historians, to be the first “American lady” to make the journey along the trail, and she did so following a war party, a circumstance that no doubt shaped her experience. The wife of her brother-in-law, James Wiley Magoffin, was the daughter of a Chihuahua merchant and undoubtedly more typical of the women who lived and traveled along the trail for most of its history.
In 1846, as Susan Magoffin traversed it, the trail served as the route of conquest for General Kearney’s troops during the Mexican-American War. With the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848, the United States annexed enormous portions of the Republic of Mexico. Archaeologists and historians agree that these seemingly disruptive international events had little immediate impact on daily life, trade, or the multiethnic profile of trader families who continued their regular business ventures and created intercultural communities along the trail. Arguably, the Colorado Gold Rush and the aftermath of the Civil War had greater impact, as entire families from eastern US states made their way to settle and live in southern Colorado. Some of the racialized and nationalist attitudes of former Civil War soldiers came to Colorado with those settlers.
Shift in Trade Relations
The arrival of these easterners changed the character of the interethnic trading communities along the trail. In 1864, Colonel John Chivington set out to attack a community of peaceful Cheyenne and Arapaho, purportedly to defend the settlers. Among these Native Americans were camped several white traders and their mixed-blood offspring, most famously Charles and George Bent, sons of William Bent and Owl Woman. The result was the Sand Creek Massacre, in which more than 150 Native Americans were killed.
Three years later and further west along the trail, the Christmas Day War (Trinidad Race War) of 1867 violently demonstrated escalating tensions among Anglo-American, Hispanic, and Native American residents of Trinidad and its environs. The episode escalated from a street brawl between an Anglo-American and a Mexican American man to a larger shootout between the two groups in Trinidad. Having fruitlessly offered to involve themselves on the side of Hispanic townspeople, Ute Indians watched the conflict from the surrounding bluffs. Afterward, federal troops were called in to keep the peace. These events all too clearly demonstrated that after the Civil War, trade along the trail was increasingly detached from generations of more peaceful interethnic family ties that had shaped earlier trade relations.
In his book The Santa Fe Trail, David Dary’s chapter “The Slow Death of the Trail, 1866–1880” places the trail’s end in the years after the Civil War. Colorado became an organized territory of the United States, and what had been the Santa Fé Trail through Bleeding Kansas was rapidly becoming a route of the Barlow and Sanderson Overland Mail Company. By 1867 the company had moved its headquarters to a place called “Junction City,” the exact location of which in Colorado or perhaps Kansas is unclear. From here the company created routes throughout southeastern Colorado Territory in the 1860s and 1870s and more firmly established Anglo-American settlement and culture in the region. Still, in many places, people with Spanish surnames were the majority into the twentieth century.
Between 1873 and 1876, construction of the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fé Railroad crept along the Mountain Branch, displacing both the trail and the overland mail route. Geographically, the trail and the railroad ran along the same route, but they were artifacts of a different nature. What is commonly referred to as the trail was mostly a corduroy pattern of wheel ruts miles wide, converging only at watering holes, fords, or passes. The railroad, in contrast, was a linear and narrow line. Communities that had thrived along the broad trail withered as they were bypassed by the railroad. Some who had traded along the Santa Fé Trail spent the 1870s working on the railroad as a way to build capital and begin new careers in farming, ranching, or service industries in newer railroad towns. In 1876 workers completed a line over Ratón Pass, the final segment of the railroad through the new state of Colorado. By 1880 the railroad was in full service, and the children of traders along the Santa Fé Trail joined the townspeople along it.