Santa Fe Trail

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Santa Fe National Historic Trail
Map of the Santa Fe Trail circa 1845
Location: Mexico , United States
Specialty: historical trade route of the 19th century to what was then Mexico
Length: 1300-1450 km
Founding: May 8, 1987
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The Santa Fe Trail is a historic trade route in the United States . Depending on the variant, between a little over 800 and almost 900 miles (1300–1450 km) long route connected the populated regions on the Missouri River through prairies and deserts with the then Mexican areas in what is now the southwestern United States in the 19th century . After the Mexican-American War of 1846-1848, New Mexico became part of the United States and the direction of trade changed. With the arrival of the railroad in the 1870s, the road became less important. It was not until the 1930s that national highways were built along or on the historic route.

In the United States, many goods could be produced much cheaper or of better quality than was possible in Mexico. Imported goods from Spain could not compete in terms of price. Textiles came first: fine cotton fabrics or coarse calico , silk fabrics, velvet and lace were in great demand. Tools fetched good prices, and books and other paper products also sold. The Mexican traders in Santa Fe and Taos paid in gold and silver or supplied horses and mules and, to a limited extent, beaver and otter skins from the mountains of the south.

The Santa Fe Trail was not of greatest importance commercially, sales exceeded half a million dollars in just a few years, but in its cultural and political function. It was the first and for a long time the most important link between the old Spanish territories and the young, British-influenced United States. In addition, the trade with New Mexico was the first economic use of the West alongside the fur trade and thus had a decisive influence on the history of the " Wild West ".


The trade on the Santa Fe Trail coincides with the settlement of the North American West. The journey began on the Missouri River , on which the goods were transported by ship to the westernmost parts of the United States. With the advancing settlement, the beginning of the trail gradually shifted upstream to the west to new towns. While the first two commercial trains were still being equipped in Franklin , Missouri, later, following the course of the Missouri upstream, they could assemble in Arrow Rock , then Lexington , near Fort Osage and finally in Independence . Depending on the period under consideration, Franklin or Independence are considered the beginning of the Santa Fe Trail today.

In Independence the route left the Missouri River and the week-long journey through the steppes of what would later become Kansas began . These were the habitat of the large herds of bison and the hunting ground of the Plains Indians . The trail ran to the southwest via today's town of Olathe to Gardner . From the 1840s onwards, the settlers' and trade routes across the Rocky Mountains that ran together with the Santa Fe Trail branched off here . The Oregon Trail , the Mormon Trail, and the California Trail ran northwest towards the Platte River .

We went straight west towards Santa Fe. Palmyra in the area of ​​today's Baldwin City was an important resting and repairing place, at which a settlement was formed in 1856. Council Grove and McPherson were other typical rest stops along the route that became settlements as early as 1850. The Arkansas River was reached at today's Great Bend . For the next 150 km, the route ran up the river, past the striking sandstone rock Pawnee Rock and Fort Larned (from 1859) to the various forts (from 1847) at what would later be Dodge City . This section was considered easy and the water supply for draft animals and humans was problem-free. Later, a shortcut was established for the last 50 km of this passage, which cut a large river bend and became known as the dry route .

Schematic map of the Santa Fe Trail

From Dodge City, there were two main branches of the Santa Fe Trail, each of which split up again. The original route, later known as the Cimarron Cutoff , was shorter, but much more arduous and for a long time more dangerous because of Indian raids. It ran directly to the southwest into the Cimarron Desert , touched the Cimarron River several times , which had often dried up in the summer months before the path through the panhandle reached the westernmost part of what is now Oklahoma, New Mexico. Some branches barely touched Colorado, the southern ones never came into the area of ​​today's state (and roughly correspond to the course of today's US Highway 56 ). The longer but safer Mountain Route , which was only developed a few years later, led the wagon trains along the Arkansas River and into the later state of Colorado . At Bent's Old Fort the route branched off to the southwest from the river and went up into the mountains via Trinidad and the strenuous Raton Pass to New Mexico .

At Fort Union (from 1851) in New Mexico, the two branches of the trail collided again. From here the path made a loop in the south around the up to 3000 m high mountains of the Sangre de Cristo chain to Santa Fe .

Santa Fe in 1846


Santa Fe was the only city in Nuevo Mexico , the northernmost part of the Spanish viceroyalty of New Spain . The city was founded around 1610, when the Spaniards were still hoping to develop an area in the north of their empire that was rich in natural resources and suitable for agriculture. When these hopes turned out to be a fallacy, they retained the territory to defend their claims to the New World against the French and English.


The province of Nuevo Mexico was remote. In the 17th century, the Viceroy sent a caravan with supplies only every three years on the 2,400 km journey from Ciudad de México (Mexico City) via El Camino Real de Tierra Adentro , the royal road to the north. In the mid-18th century, Chihuahua established itself as a trading center just 550 km south of Santa Fe, and trade slowly picked up. After the French and Indian War , the fighting on the North American continent as part of the Seven Years' War , France ceded Louisiana to Spain in 1763 . Relations between Sante Fe and St. Louis , founded by the French, never got off the ground. From 1787 there was isolated trade with San Antonio in Texas, also in Spain, but the city of Santa Fe remained poor and dependent on the southern centers. At the turn of the 19th century, the city had around 3,000 inhabitants, mostly Pueblo Indians and mestizos . Its buildings, which were loosely scattered around the central market square, consisted almost entirely of adobe bricks , which led the merchant and author Josiah Gregg to suspect when he first looked into the valley of the city that he was looking at the suburbs and brick factories of Santa Fe. One companion replied, "It is true, these are piles of unbaked bricks, but they are houses - this is the city of Santa Fe."

In 1800, in the Third Treaty of San Ildefonso , Napoléon Bonaparte forced Spain to surrender the formerly French Louisiana back to France; in 1803 he sold the territories to the young United States of America in the Louisiana Purchase . The territory, initially intended by Spain as a buffer against England and then the USA, fell into the hands of the competitor and New Spain forbade any trade with its neighbors in the northeast, who were perceived as dangerous, so that there were few relationships due to the hostile steppes and deserts of the southwest. Meanwhile, the city of St. Louis flourished with the fur trade and interest also turned to the New Spanish territories. The American explorer and officer Zebulon Pike was arrested by Spaniards on the Rio Grande in 1807 and was only released after months of imprisonment when he explored the new American territory and crossed the Spanish border. Others were less fortunate and were held for years or disappeared forever.

Covered wagon train on the Santa Fe Trail

Independence of Mexico

With the independence of Mexico in 1821, the border was closed. That same year, William Becknell led the first $ 700 trade train from the Missouri River to Santa Fe and established the Cimarron Route of the Santa Fe Trail. He was warmly received and was able to sell his wares with great profit. His return is reported:

"My father saw them unload when they returned, and when their rawhide packages of silver dollars were dumped on the sidewalk one of the men cut the thongs and the money spilled out and clinking on the stone pavement rolled into the gutter. Everyone was excited and the next spring another expedition was sent out. "

"My father saw them dump when they came back, and when they threw leather bags with silver dollars on the sidewalk, one of the men tore the lacing, the money fell out and tinkling coins rolled into the gutter."

In 1822 four traders were already traveling through the desert, including Becknell again, who this time carried goods worth $ 3000 and, according to contemporary reports, made a profit of 2000%. His goods mainly consisted of various textiles, buckles, buttons, sewing needles and sewing thread, scissors, razors, pots and pans, several coffee grinders, knives, shovels, picks, axes, writing paper. He is also said to have transported a few kegs of sherry and claret . He even sold his covered wagon, which cost him $ 150 in Missouri, for $ 750 in Santa Fe. The second trader on the new trail is Etienne Provost , a Franco-Canadian fur hunter who had been arrested several times by Spanish border guards during previous attempts.

Some traders got into the commission business already in the second year and sold goods of third parties, or collected money from interested capital owners, with which they bought the merchandise. After the economy in the United States slowly recovered from the economic crisis of 1819, traders were able to supply themselves generously with capital, and the quantities and values ​​of goods rose rapidly. As a rule, investors only invested small amounts of money. The typical bet was between $ 100 and $ 600. In return, almost everyone on the train was involved in the trade themselves, there were hardly any auxiliary workers.

In 1824 all traders joined forces for security reasons and formed a common wagon and mule train through the Indian territory. According to a contemporary source, sales for the year reached $ 180,000 on a cost of $ 35,000. As a result, New Mexico experienced a severe shortage of money. Mexico responded with continuously increasing tariffs in order to keep part of the profits in the country and to channel it into the state coffers.

The trail

The journey took between three and four months in each direction and during this time the commercial trains were traveling in the deserted wilderness. The dangers ranged from Indian raids to dried up springs in the desert. Only one trip per year was possible. It could not begin before the fresh grass sprouted in the steppes on which the migratory and pack animals were to feed. The season ended with the danger of blizzards with an early onset of winter. On the way, the caravans mostly fed themselves by hunting, the bison being the basis of their diet.

In 1825, the US Congress decided to promote the business by expanding the road link. Thomas Hart Benton , Senator from Missouri, had been particularly committed to the project. The route was developed into a highway for 10,000 dollars until 1827, and another 20,000 dollars were made available to purchase the right to free passage from the Indian peoples.

Ruts - wagon tracks at Fort Union, New Mexico

Between 1825 and 1827 George C. Sibley explored the route from the Missouri River to the Arkansas River , the border with Mexico . He made path markings out of mounds of earth and led the road along rivers to suitable fords . Bridges were not considered necessary, the rivers were shallow and wide, the terrain level and annual floods would have required large investments for maintenance. Banks were sloped where necessary.

While the road was being built, he was negotiating with the Indians. On the banks of the Neosho River , at Council Grove , Kansas, later named after the assembly , Commissioner Sibley met representatives of the Osage in the summer of 1825 and was able to acquire the right to free passage through their area for goods valued at $ 800. Later he concluded a contract of the same content with the Kansa near McPherson . The government of Mexico granted Sibley permission to explore the route of the road on Mexican soil, but they did not allow him to make any markings. He returned disappointed in the summer of 1826 and used 1827 to optimize the route.

After the report and the official route description were never published in Washington for unknown reasons, the road upgrade was a failure. The exact description was not known, markings quickly weathered and the dealers found their own routes depending on the weather and soil conditions. Instead of a road, there was a wide range of possible paths.


With the value of caravans increasing every year , the risk of Indian raids also increased. The land of the Comanche and Pavnees began in the south of what would later become Kansas . These and other peoples accepted government payments, but still attacked wagon trains. In 1828 there were deaths for the first time, two scouts from a medium-sized group of traders who were on their way east with a herd of 1200 horses and mules. The whites then attacked the nearest Indians they encountered and killed five Pawnees. Their people now declared war on all whites and attacked the train on the great loop of Arkansas. In the subsequent battle there were probably no deaths on either side, but around 700 of the animals broke out in a stampede and only the smallest part could be found again.

Wagenburg in the area of ​​the Komantschen

Later that year, Komantschen lured another trade train into a trap on their way back. For several days they attacked day and night, slowing the train to a standstill in a wagon castle . The traders sneaked away from their cars, mules, and property that night, and walked half a mile to the nearest settlement in Missouri with still between six and ten thousand dollars in silver buried at a stopover .

Milton Bryan, one of the leaders of the train, joined forces with the later famous traders William and Charles Bent to form a train the following year , in addition to a second attempt in trading, he wanted to salvage the buried silver. Their caravan was first accompanied by US infantry . At the urging of traders and politicians from the border states, President Andrew Jackson had ordered that four companies under Major Bennett Riley should be relocated to the southwest and accompany the spring migration to the Mexican border. Riley had participated in the first Indian campaign across the Mississippi against the Arikaree in 1823 and was considered experienced. The train reached the Arkansas River border uneventfully and Bryan was able to find his silver. The army built a camp on the border and wanted to wait for the traders to return.

Shortly after the border, the train was attacked by Komantschen or, according to other reports, Kiowa , and their scouts died “riddled with arrows”. When the traders took up arms, the Indians fled. Alerted by messengers, Major Riley and his troops crossed the border. Bryant reported, “The next morning the hills were covered with a full two thousand Indians who must have come together to wipe us out. When the cowards saw [the army], they disappeared. "

On the way back, the Bents and Bryan were able to get an escort by the Mexican army and some friendly Indians. The two armies met on the Arkansas River, the commanders threw a festive dinner and from here Major Riley again took over the security. Regular escorting of all caravans was not possible, instead the army set up a patrol service in the region. Despite the dangers, the trade paid off, and Milton Bryan was able to retire after the two trips.

In 1831 Jedediah Smith , one of the most famous trappers , fur traders and mountain men, was slain by Comanche on his first trade train on the Santa Fe Trail in the Cimarron Desert . Violence was also used in the other direction, with some traders not only peeling off the skin of dead Indians, but also blowing them off the wagons as trophies.

In March 1833, politics reacted to the risks to lucrative relations with neighboring Mexico . That same month, the authorized Congress to draw up a company of mounted ranger or dragoons ( Dragoon ) in Fort Leavenworth , Kansas to protect the trade route. In 1834 some of the dragoons moved to the new Fort Gibson in Oklahoma.

Bent's Old Fort, 1845

Expansion of relationships

For trade in the West, doing business with the Indian peoples became increasingly important in the 1830s. In 1833 three experienced Santa Fe traders, the brothers Charles and William Bent and their partner Ceran St. Vrain, opened the first permanent trading post, Bent's Old Fort , as a base for trading with the Cheyenne . The fort was located near the Rocky Mountains on the border river Arkansas River on the American north bank.

William Bent was married to Owl Woman , the daughter of a Cheyenne medicine man , and had excellent relationships with various members of the people. The Bents bought furs (initially beavers and otters , later mostly buffalo skins ) for sale in St. Louis. In addition, artisans at the fort, such as a blacksmith and a carpenter, offered their services to the trade caravans on the Santa Fe Trail. In the future, many used the somewhat longer but safer mountain route along the Arkansas River to Bent's Fort, there over the river to Mexico and south over the Raton Pass . For 13 years the fort was the only white settlement on several hundred miles of the trail. For the Indians of the neighboring peoples, it developed into a neutral place for powwows and other negotiations.

In the mid-1830s trade became routine, and the conflicts with the Indians were largely suppressed by the constant presence of the army. Mexican traders got into business and no longer left the profits exclusively to the Americans. A revolt by the Native American and Mexican populations of New Mexico against the governor installed by Mexico City in 1838 and their bloody crackdown did little to hamper trade. When the Mexican governor Manuel Armijo introduced a flat tax of $ 500 per covered wagon in 1839, the dealers built wagons of previously unknown sizes:

“The wheels had a diameter of 2.10 m, the car body was 15 m long and the loading wall reached the headroom of a grown man. They were pulled by four pairs of oxen on a 15 m long drawbar. Three tons of freight could be transported under a double canvas covering as protection from sun and rain. "

The dealers called the car prairie schooner , after the boat type schooner . Other trade terms were also borrowed from seafaring. The prairie became the gras sea and the new settlement on the banks of the Missouri, from which today's Kansas City developed, was called West Port . Over the years, traders were able to increase the speed of the journey and, by the 1840s, covered the route in just two months. During the 1843 season, 250 wagons pulled through the steppes, the caravans reached a length of up to one mile (1.6 km). Governor Armijo reacted to this biggest move by blocking the border. American influence on the country's life and economy became too dominant. The ban turned the Mexican people of the border province against the government.

The branch to the northwest

The actual settlement of the west began in the 1840s. The prairies were considered hostile to life, the settlers moved over the Rocky Mountains to the coastal regions of the Pacific Ocean in Oregon or California . After the first pioneers, the first major settlement trek started in 1842 under the leadership of the missionary Marcus Whitman to Oregon.

All trails over the Rocky Mountains began like the Santa Fe Trail in Independence and they ran together for the first few miles to Gardner . There they branched off to the northwest, to the Platte River and its tributaries North Platte River and Sweetwater River up to South Pass , the only known pass over the mountains that was suitable for covered wagons.

1846/48: Campaign on the trail

In 1841, the Republic of Texas , which had been independent of Mexico since 1836 and was mainly populated by Americans, tried to conquer and annex New Mexico. The Texas President Mirabeau B. Lamar hoped to redirect the lucrative trade with Mexico through his republic. This Texan Santa Fe expedition failed and Lamar lost the following elections to his predecessor Sam Houston .

In 1844 Texas tried again to invade Mexico and annex at least New Mexico, if possible also the Mexican state of Chihuahua. The Texan militia had to evade after their only partially successful raid on American territory and were caught and arrested by the US Army. When Mexico heard of the arrest of the Texans, attitudes towards the Americans changed and the borders were reopened to traders, but it was too late for a regular trade train this year.

In the following year, Mexico closed the border again before the start of the season. The reason was the ongoing negotiations between the United States and Texas over the accession of the republic as a state. In December 1845, President James K. Polk signed the charter and Texas became the 28th state to join the Union. The development was unacceptable for Mexico. The Mexicans had not recognized Texas independence from Mexico in 1836 and now refused to accept accession and the border on the Rio Grande . The Mexican ambassador was withdrawn from Washington and both states began preparations for the Mexican-American War .

On April 25, 1846, Mexican troops crossed the Rio Grande and invaded Texas. The US Army was prepared, Brigadier General Zachary Taylor crossed the river and advanced deep into Mexico. The Mexicans were defeated and forced to withdraw, and Taylor occupied three Mexican states.

Portrait of Stephen W. Kearny

Meanwhile, the United States had set up a second army, the Army of the West , which under Brigadier General Stephen W. Kearny moved from Fort Leavenworth over the Santa Fe Trail to New Mexico. The brigadier general bought up all available wagons and oxen in order to secure his supplies, but for his 1700 men the journey was more a fight against hunger than against the Mexicans, who gave up Santa Fe without a fight. Kearny declared New Mexico a territory of the United States and installed the merchant Charles Bent as provisional governor.

With 300 men and Kit Carson as a scout, Kearney moved on and was finally able to occupy all of Mexico's Upper California in the spring of 1847 . Under General Winfield Scott , the US Army entered Mexico City almost simultaneously and victoriously. In February 1848 Mexico had to cede the territories of today's US states California , Arizona , Nevada , Utah , parts of Colorado and Wyoming and also New Mexico to the United States in the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo .

The expected outcome of the war was a godsend for trade. The traders had hoped that with the Mexican administration the hated tariffs would fall and the American soldiers in Santa Fe appeared to them as additional solvent customers. According to Josiah Gregg, himself a trader and author, the trading volume on the Santa Fe Trail exceeded one million dollars for the first time in 1846, more than double the previous record year. 370 large wagons, 12 kitchen wagons, 50 small wagons and between 750 and 800 men drove the trail this year. 37 more cars left too late and failed in a blizzard .

Expansion and settlers

With the addition of the former Mexican territories to the United States, the nature of the trade on the Santa Fe Trail changed. The west was increasingly viewed as a settlement area, with more and more Americans settling across the Mississippi.

Settlements also emerged on the Santa Fe Trail. As early as April 1847, with the war in the south and California still undecided, a general store opened in Council Grove , about 100 km from Independence. At the same time, the US government set up a car repair shop on the Arkansas River, where the Cimmaron Route and the Mountain Route separated. Mann's Fort or Fort Mann in the later Dodge City was no longer needed after the war and abandoned in 1848 after an Indian attack.

In January 1848, the first gold nugget was found at Sutter's Mill in California. The news spread only slowly, only in December of the same year did President Polk officially confirm the find, thereby justifying the conquest of California. Thousands of people made preparations in the winter and in the spring of 1849 they rallied on the Missouri - The California Gold Rush began. On April 17, 2,500 hopeful travelers waited in Independence, around 100 in Westport and another 100 in Kansas, Missouri for their caravans to depart. The places together had a few hundred inhabitants and were literally overrun by the onslaught.

Around 20,000 men moved over the Rocky Mountains to California in 1849 alone. But about 2500 decided to go southwest and follow the Santa Fe Trail to New Mexico. Many of them moved on to Southern California on the Old Spanish Trail , some stayed and settled in the new areas.

Fort Union - View from the mountains over the fort, ca.1855

In 1850/51 the US government reacted to the growing threat to trade and smaller settlements from Indians. After conquering New Mexico, the army had left 11 small posts that were found to be impractical. Individually they were too weak against the Apaches and Comanches , they were too far apart for coordinated actions. The army built forts at the junctions of the Santa Fe Trail. Fort Atkinson was built on the site of the former Fort Mann, and where the two branches of the trail met again in New Mexico, Fort Union was created . A good 150 km from Santa Fe and on the eastern flank of the Rocky Mountains, Fort Union temporarily became the largest base west of the Mississippi River and the central supply hub and deployment point for military campaigns throughout the southwest, just as Fort Atkinson controlled the prairies.

Since the middle of 1850 there has been a regular postal service between Santa Fe and Independence. At eight o'clock in the morning on the first of every month, a mail van started in Santa Fe and one in Independence. Delivery at the other end of the route within 29 days was guaranteed.

In the following years the army expanded its locations to the west. Parts of the forces from Fort Leavenworth moved to Fort Riley in 1853 , what is now Junction City . The name came from Bennett Riley , who fought against the Arikaras in 1823, had protected the Santa Fe merchants on Mexican soil in 1829, had meanwhile been promoted to two-star general and until the recognition of California as a state in 1850 as military governor of the Territory. Fort Larned , another military base to control the prairies, was built on the Arkansas River between Great Bend and Fort Atkinson .

The trade flourished in the second half of the 1850s, a stable professional group of Teamsters emerged who organized and led wagon trains for clients in the trade or to supply the military. Wild Bill Hickok gained his first experience before he later became a Wild West hero as sheriff and marshall. An inventor named Thomas appeared in Westport and introduced his self-constructed Windwagon , a covered wagon powered by sails that he was going to take to California in just 6 days. He came around 100 km to Council Grove, where his car overturned and was badly damaged.

Civil war

In 1854, two new territories were established in the former Louisiana: Kansas and Nebraska . The Kansas-Nebraska Act was controversial because it threatened to shift the balance between slave-holding and "free" states in the Union that had existed since the Missouri Compromise of 1820. Both advocates of slavery, mainly from neighboring Missouri, as well as abolitionists recruited in their circles for the settlement of Kansas in order to gain the majority there.

The conflicts between the states of the north and the south came to a head. In December 1860, the Confederate States of America left the Union, which changed the majorities in Congress. In April 1861 Kansas was recognized as a state with a constitution outlawing slavery. If the southern states had returned to the Union, they would always have been in the minority. Less than 90 days later, the Civil War began .

Trade on the Santa Fe Trail initially suffered little from the outbreak of war. The steamship -Transport was briefly interrupted before the replenishment of traders reorganized. The cargo ships landed at Fort Leavenworth , circumventing Kansas City, Westport and Independence on the east bank of the Missouri. The state of Missouri itself was torn on the slave issue and support for secession, two hostile governments formed and both sides raised irregular troops. The Missourians allied with the southern states burned Gardner, Kansas on the Santa Fe Trail, the trade trains shifted a little north, but continued.

That changed when the Confederate troops from Texas occupied large parts of New Mexico in the New Mexico campaign in August 1861 and the Confederate territories of New Mexico and Arizona were declared. In January 1862, southern troops marched against Santa Fe and Fort Union, but were initially repulsed by the Army of the North and volunteer militias from Colorado in the Battle of Glorieta Pass and then cut off from their supply routes, so that the Confederates separated out entirely in March New Mexico had to withdraw.

At the other end of the trail, the fighting continued. Confederates waged guerrilla warfare in eastern Kansas until the spring of 1863 . They raided small settlements, attacked Union supply trains, and also robbed express mail. The dealers' business was still not bad. Civil trade suffered, but there were lucrative orders to supply the armies.

Civil War of 1864 with Price's campaign in Missouri and Kansas

The fall of 1864 brought a new threat from the east. The Confederate General Sterling Price marched into Missouri with an army of between 12,000 and 15,000 men and symbolically brought the state into the Confederation. He then moved on to Kansas. In October there were several skirmishes near the Santa Fe Trail. Price won the first, then Union troops gained the upper hand. Price was decisively defeated at Westport on October 23, 1864 and had to withdraw to the south with heavy losses. This ended the fighting of the Civil War in the vicinity of the Santa Fe Trail.

In the west, the regular troops had been withdrawn from the prairie towns to the east. The volunteers who took over as crew had no experience dealing with the Indians. Kiowas, Cheyennes and Arapahos seized the opportunity and attacked again more and more trade and supply trains. They even dared to besiege one of the smaller forts and kidnap the army's horses. The militias struck brutally, including against peaceful villages, such as in the Sand Creek massacre of the Cheyenne. However, they were only able to achieve little success against the mobile groups of Indians. The peoples were expelled from the Santa Fe Trail and from Kansas, but the threat remained in neighboring Colorado, which was of great importance for the war because of the gold deposits there. In the winter of 1864/65, the army established three new forts in the Santa Fe Trail area, including Fort Dodge on the Arkansas River to replace the recently abandoned Fort Atkinson . The city of Dodge City was to develop from the fort . The Army also introduced an itinerary for merchants on the Santa Fe Trail and covered wagon trains through Colorado. They were only allowed to leave on the 1st and 15th of each month, and each train was accompanied by soldiers. This ended the attacks for some time.

The end of the Santa Fe Trail

In the 1830s, the expansion of the railroad began in the densely populated eastern United States, and early calls were made to plan a continuous connection across the continent. In 1853 the army did the first preparatory work for such a plan, but the Civil War initially prevented its implementation. On the other hand, the importance of the railroad as a means of transport for goods and people became apparent in the course of the war, so that at the request of President Abraham Lincoln in 1862, Congress ordered the construction of a rail link to California .

As early as 1864, the Union Pacific Railroad reached Lawrence , 50 km west of Kansas City and only a few kilometers north of the Santa Fe Trail. Transport by rail was faster and cheaper, so that the settlement quickly became the new starting point for the trail. In the following years the end point of the railroad shifted further and further into the steppes of Kansas, the Santa Fe Trail hiked with it and became shorter and shorter. Topeka was reached in 1865 and Junction City in 1866 .

In October 1868 Union Pacific ran out of funds for the time being, the federal government's funds for the development of the West had been used up. The rails were at this point until just before the border with Colorado . In the middle of the prairie, a city grew out of nowhere almost overnight. At the temporary end point of the railway called Sheridan , the passengers got on carriages, the freight was transferred to wagons. Denver and Pueblo were only 30 hours from here, and Santa Fe only three days away.

As early as March 1869, the railway company was able to tap new sources of money. They spun off the division as Kansas Pacific and expanded the rails - in March 1870, Kit Carson was reached. Almost all of the Sheridan structures were dismantled and transported to the new end of the line. Around 80 people remained in Sheridan until 1871, when the post office closed there and the last residents moved away. Today there are no more traces of the settlement.

The Indian peoples were the big losers in the colonization of the west by the whites. After several raids by the Cheyenne, Arapahos, Kiowas and Komantschen on the columns of cars and the railway, the army increased the pressure on the Indians in 1867. In early summer, the peoples were forced to sign a treaty that assigned them reservations in the north of the Indian territory . The treaty was not kept, the Indians could not or would not give up their hunting grounds and the only way of life they knew. In November of the following year, Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer and the 7th Cavalry launched an attack on a large Cheyenne village in retaliation. The village, prepared for peace in winter, was occupied in ten minutes, around 100 men were slain and the wealth of the people shot around 800 horses. The great Cheyenne uprising that followed was bloodily suppressed. In July 1869, their war chief Tall Bull died in the last major battle in southern Colorado.

In May 1869 the transcontinental railroad connection with a symbolic golden spike (golden rail nail) was completed near the Great Salt Lake in Utah . The streams of settlers to the west had not started on the Missouri for a long time, so that initially not much changed for Kansas and the Santa Fe Trail.

Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway passenger train , circa 1895

But in the 1870s there was a competition to move goods to Santa Fe. The newly founded Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway built a branch line from Topeka to the southwest and reached Granada on the Arkansas River in 1873 , just across the border in Colorado. In order not to leave the business to her, the Kansas Pacific pushed south in turn to the Arkansas. Meanwhile, a third player had appeared, the Denver & Rio Grande Railway had built a connection along the eastern flank of the Rocky Mountains from Denver to just before the border with New Mexico at Raton Pass .

Kansas Pacific oriented to the northwest and built towards Denver. But Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway (ATSF), and Denver & Rio Grande Railway (DRG) competed for passage over the pass and access to New Mexico in 1878. An economic war broke out for lucrative rights. When ATSF hired a gang of gunslingers and at the same time the smaller DRG ran out of money, ATSF prevailed.

In 1879 the line to Lamy (around 35 km south of Santa Fe) was completed and construction continued on to Albuquerque . The following year, ATSF laid the final miles of rails along the Rio Grande into the urban area of ​​Santa Fe. The New Mexican newspaper ran the headline, "The Old Santa Fe Trail Is Forgotten". The road connection lost its importance until the 1930s when the highway system brought modern, asphalted interurban roads to the southwest.

Emblem and waymarking of the Santa Fe National Historic Trail

Santa Fe Trail today

In 1907, the Daughters of the American Revolution women's association began a commemorative campaign to set up trail markers to keep the Santa Fe Trail commemorated.

The Santa Fe Trail has been designated a National Historic Trail since 1987 . The National Park Service , together with the Santa Fe Trail Association, coordinates joint signage for over 100 locations where traces of the trail or historical facilities from the time have been preserved. In Ford County , Kansas , the remains of the trail have National Historic Landmark status . The spectrum ranges from wagon tracks called ruts , which even after almost 200 years still reveal the point where the covered wagons passed a river bank, to forts, farms or post offices. Some of these are independently designated as federal or state sanctuaries or memorials along the trail.

Today's US Highway 56 runs along the section from the Arkansas River in Kansas to New Mexico on or parallel to the historic route of the Cimarron Cutoff . In Colorado and New Mexico, highways along the longer Mountain Route are signposted as National Scenic Byway under the name Santa Fe Trail National Scenic Byway .

Sales on the Santa Fe Trail until 1843

year sales dare Men owner to other destinations Remarks
1822 $ 15,000 1 70 60 Pack animals, Becknell was the first to use a cart
1823 $ 12,000 50 30th Pack animals only
1824 $ 35,000 26th 100 80 $ 3000 Pack animals and carts
1825 $ 65,000 37 130 90 $ 5,000 Animals and carts
1826 $ 90,000 60 100 70 $ 7,000 From this year no more pack animals
1827 $ 85,000 55 90 50 $ 8,000
1828 $ 150,000 100 200 80 $ 20,000 3 dead for the first time
1829 $ 60,000 30th 50 20th $ 5,000 Army escort, 1 dead
1830 $ 120,000 70 140 60 $ 20,000 for the first time oxen as draft animals
1831 $ 250,000 130 320 80 $ 80,000 2 dead
1832 $ 140,000 70 150 40 $ 50,000 Battle of the Canadian River, 2 dead, 3 missing
1833 $ 180,000 105 185 60 $ 80,000
1834 $ 150,000 80 160 50 $ 70,000 Second US Army escort
1835 $ 140,000 75 140 40 $ 70,000
1836 $ 130,000 75 135 35 $ 60,000
1837 $ 150,000 80 160 35 $ 80,000
1838 $ 90,000 50 100 20th $ 40,000
1839 $ 250,000 130 250 40 $ 100,000 Expedition to the upper reaches of the Arkansas River
1840 $ 50,000 30th 60 5 $ 10,000 Expedition continues to Chihuahua
1841 $ 150,000 60 100 12 $ 80,000 Texas-Santa Fe Expedition
1842 $ 160,000 70 120 15th $ 90,000
1843 $ 450,000 250 350 30th $ 300,000 Third escort, trade through Mexico temporarily suspended

Source: Josiah Gregg, Commerce of the Prairies - or The journal of a Santa Fè trader - during eight expeditions across the great western prairies, and a residence of nearly nine years in northern Mexico , HG Langley, New York 1844, Volume 2, Chapter 9

Relatively reliable figures on sales on the Santa Fe Trail are only available for the years up to 1843. They are also not complete, they only give the numbers of American traders, calculated according to the value of the goods when they set off for Santa Fe. The sales of the Mexican traders involved from the 1830s onwards are missing. To do this, they show what proportion of the goods were sold in Santa Fe and how much was sold by Americans in other parts of New Mexico such as Taos and Chihuahua .

Importance of the Santa Fe Trail

In commercial terms, the importance of overland trade with Mexico was rather minor. As far as numbers are available, they make up only a fraction of US foreign trade. In the 1830s, sales ranged between $ 90,000 and $ 250,000. From inception through 1843, average sales are $ 130,000. In the following years the war year 1846 stands out, in which one million dollars in sales were achieved for the first time. Even when New Mexico was established as part of the United States, the $ 3.5 million trade in 1860 was not a significant economic factor.

Nobody got really rich in the Santa Fe trade. The business remained the domain of small entrepreneurs for most of the time; trading empires never formed as in the other branch of the West, the fur trade .

Instead, the trade had a significant impact on the political relationship between the young United States and Spanish-influenced Mexico. After the isolation from all external influences up to independence, trade was of great importance for the residents of New Mexico and gave them access to goods that would never have reached the remote regions due to the long, expensive transport routes in Mexico.

Culturally, the Santa Fe Trail shaped the image of the Americans in the settlement areas on the east coast from the west almost as strongly as the fur trade before and later the cattle farms. The vast steppes and the dangers posed by the Indians make up the image of the “ Wild West ” to this day . Dodge City is one of the place names most strongly identified with time.

The Santa Fe Trail in the media

The trade trains and the battles against Mexico and the Indians on the Santa Fe Trail were a common theme in early American western films. Best known is Santa Fe Trail (1940), directed by Michael Curtiz , starring Errol Flynn , Olivia de Havilland and Ronald Reagan . But it doesn't have much to do with real history. Closer to the historical scene is Santa Fe Passage from 1955, with John Payne , Faith Domergue and Rod Cameron in the lead roles, directed by William Witney .

Glenn Miller played the song " Along the Santa Fe Trail ", written by Will Grosz (music) and Al Dubin and Edwina Coolidge (lyrics), in 1939. Walt Disney produced the animated short film Saga of Windwagon Smith in 1961 based on the historical inventor Thomas and his covered wagon with sail drive.


  • David Dary: The Santa Fe Trail - Its History, Legends, and Lore. Alfred A. Knopf, New York 2001, ISBN 0-375-40361-2
  • William Y. Chalfant: Dangerous passage - the Santa Fe Trail and the Mexican War. University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, Oklahoma 1994, ISBN 0-8061-2613-2
  • Josiah Gregg: Commerce of the Prairies - or The journal of a Santa Fè trader - during eight expeditions across the great western prairies, and a residence of nearly nine years in northern Mexico. HG Langley, New York 1844 (also online in full: Commerce of the Prairies )
  • William H. Davis: El Gringo - or New Mexico and Her People. Harper & Brothers Publishers, New York 1857 (also online in full: El Gringo )

Web links

Commons : Santa Fe National Historic Trail  - Collection of pictures, videos, and audio files

Individual evidence

  1. Gerald Rawling, The Santa Fe Trail , in: History today , Volume 11, Number 5 (May 1961), pp. 332–341, especially p. 341.
  2. Hiram Martin Chittenden, The American Fur Trade of the Far West , Francis P. Harper, New York, 1902, unaltered reprint of the 2nd revised edition from 1936 by Augustus M. Kelley, Fairfield, New Jersey, 1979, ISBN 0-678 -01035-8 , p. 484.
  3. ^ Gregg, pp. 109/110.
  4. Dary, p. 73.
  5. ^ Dary, p. 78.
  6. Chittenden, p. 519.
  7. ^ Dary, p. 87.
  8. ^ Dary, p. 92.
  9. ^ Dary, p. 98.
  10. Chittenden, p. 545.
  11. Dary, p. 118, based on Bryan's family records.
  12. ^ Dary, p. 120.
  13. ^ Dary, p. 165.
  14. Chittenden, p. 522.
  15. ^ Dary, p. 194.
  16. ^ Dary p. 210.
  17. ^ Dary, p. 220.
  18. ^ Dary, p. 282.
  19. ^ Dary, p. 292.
  20. Listing of National Historic Landmarks by State: Kansas. National Park Service , accessed August 3, 2019.
  21. online
  22. Chittenden, p. 517.
  23. The Santa Fe Trail ( Memento of March 3, 2007 in the Internet Archive ) (copy in the Internet Archive)
  24. Chittenden, p. 518.
This article was added to the list of excellent articles on January 11, 2007 in this version .