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Trail of destiny.

From ancient American Indian trade route to thoroughfare for Manifest Destiny, the Santa Fe Trail traces the history of the Southwest.

IN SEPTEMBER 1821, William Becknell, a swashbuckling, debt-ridden American, led a pack train west from the frontier town of Franklin, Missouri. Across 900 miles of prairie and plain lay Santa Fe, the cloistered capital of Spanish New Mexico since 1610. The Spanish crown prohibited international trade in its New World colonies, and traders risked imprisonment and confiscation of their wares.

Even though the risks were great, the potential for reward was an irresistible lure to many traders. As Becknell's party crossed the plains, revolutionary news reached Santa Fe; Mexico had won its independence from Spain. The colonists, long deprived of manufactured goods, celebrated their allegiance to the new nation when Mexican officials led Becknell's pack train into the capital.

This year marks the 175th anniversary of free trade east and west over the Santa Fe Trail, witness to centuries of travelers, American Indians, Spanish conquistadors, French, Mexican, and American traders, forty-niners, stage-coaches, settlers, and soldiers. Our story begins long before Becknell. The origins of the Santa Fe Trail lie in American Indian trade and travel routes linking the tribes of the plains with the pueblos along the Rio Grande Valley. But rather than tracing a strict time line, our journey through the history of the Santa Fe Trail follows the dusty ruts of wagon trains west from the Missouri River. The crack of the bullwhip and the cries of teamsters and Mexican arrieros punctuate the eight-week crossing. Caravans stretch for miles, as many as 100 wagons creak and groan under 6,000-pound loads, each pulled by five or six teams of mules or oxen, advancing 15 miles a day.

Today's Santa Fe National Historic Trail covers 1,203 miles, including spur routes, and passes through four national park units, each of which tells a chapter of the trail's history. The Santa Fe Trail era came to an end when the railroad steamed into Santa Fe in 1880.

Fort Larned

In the wake of the U.S.-Mexican War (1846- 1848), the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo awarded the New Mexico Territory, a massive tract including all of present-day New Mexico and parts of eight other states, to the United States. The army erected a chain of forts to secure the territory and its lifeline, the Santa Fe Trail. Fort Lamed was established as a U.S. Army outpost in 1859.

Two gold rushes and expanding trade (by 1860, trade totaled $3.5-million) had increased traffic, and hostilities between Indians and travelers escalated as treaties were violated by both sides. Troops from Fort Larned--a key outpost in the Indian wars--provided escorts for wagon trains and guarded the central section of the trail.

Fort Larned National Historic Site preserves a quadrangle of nine restored sandstone buildings dating from 1866-1868. The visitor center, located in a barracks building, features exhibits related to the Santa Fe Trail. The park also includes a 44-acre detached area where trail ruts can be seen from an elevated viewing stand. Inquire at the visitor center for directions. Food, supplies, and lodging are available in Larned. For more information, write to Fort Lamed National Historic Site, Route 3, Lamed, KS 67550; or call 316-285-6911.

Bent's Old Fort

The Mountain Route of the Santa Fe Trail, which follows the Arkansas River, was established by the 1840s. Although it was longer than the Cimarron Route, water supplies were more reliable, and travelers considered themselves farther from the danger of Indian raids. But steep and rocky Raton Pass, which is a remarkable drive today, sometimes posed an insurmountable obstacle to heavily laden wagons until a toll road was built in 1865.

Bent's Old Fort was named for brothers Charles and William Bent, who made a handsome profit in their first trade expedition on the Santa Fe Trail in 1829. By 1833 they had established the fort as a trading post at a ford on the Arkansas River. They sited the fort at the confluence of three significant sources of trade: beaver pelts from trappers in the Rocky Mountains, buffalo hides supplied by Plains Indians, and later the Santa Fe Trail.

To stock stores in Santa Fe and Taos, the trading enterprise Bent, St. Vrain & Company continued hauling goods, including hardware, cloth, and tobacco, overland on the trail, and in addition to furs and hides, traded Indian blankets, horses, and firearms. After intertribal peace councils were held at Bent's Fort, it became a neutral gathering place for Cheyenne, Arapaho, Kiowa, and Comanches, and later, like Fort Lamed, an Indian agency headquarters.

Bent's Old Fort National Historic Site, a way station on the Santa Fe Trail, features a reconstructed adobe fort. Visitors can browse through 19th-century trade goods in the well-stocked trade room. Lodging, food, and supplies are available in La Junta.

For additional information, write to: Bent's Old Fort National Historic Site, 35110 Highway 194 East, La Junta, CO 81050-9523; or call 719-384-2596.

Fort Union

Once the largest US. military post in the Southwest, Fort Union today is a quiet stone and adobe ruin. The fort was established in 1851 near the juncture of the Mountain and Cimarron branches of the Santa Fe Trail. Protecting wagon trains was one of the chief military objectives of the chain of forts along the trail, but the army's expanding presence also boosted demand for supplies, increasing traffic on the trail. Fort Union became the principal quartermaster depot in the region, and by 1858, when 1,800 wagons rolled across the trail, many of them carried goods for the army.

In addition to the stone and adobe ruins, Fort Union National Monument preserves traces of the earthworks associated with the earlier Star Fort, a massive Civil War-era fortification that was the objective of Confederate troops who were turned back at the 1862 Battle of Glorieta Pass. Fort Union is encircled by Santa Fe Trail ruts that remain visible today.

Food, supplies, and lodging are available in nearby Las Vegas, New Mexico. Travelers continuing on to Pecos National Historical Park should keep an eye out for the Glorieta Battlefield sign on Highway 50, about a mile east of the interchange with Interstate 25. Sites related to the Battle of Glorieta Pass, which are visible from the roadside, have been authorized for addition to Pecos, but they are not yet open to the public.

For more information, write to: Fort Union National Monument, PO. Box 127, Watrous, NM 87753; or call 505-425-8025.


The Pecos culture reached its peak in the 15th century.The most powerful of the pueblos, Pecos sprawled across a high rock, towering four and five stories. Its 2,000 inhabitants stocked granaries with an abundant supply of corn and hosted annual fall trading fairs with the nomadic tribes of the plains. Today, as then, Pecos stands at a geographical and cultural gateway.

Ages ago, the Pecos River scoured out a valley, and the Pecos pueblo overlooks a natural passage through the Sangre de Cristo Mountains and Glorieta Mesa. It is topographical fate that the route of American Indians became that of the conquistadors, the Santa Fe Trail, the railroad, and today, I-25.

By the heyday of the Santa Fe Trail, Pecos was all but abandoned. The crumbling pueblo of Pecos became a trailside curiosity, noted in journals kept by passersby. In 1858, Martin Koziowski settled near the site and built a Santa Fe Trail stage station with materials salvaged from the pueblo's decaying mission church.

In addition to Koziowski's ranch and stage stop, Pecos National Historical Park features a 1.25-mile loop trail through the ruins of the pueblo and the mission church. The museum in the visitor center includes exhibits related to the Santa Fe Trail. Camping is available nearby in Santa Fe National Forest. Food and supplies are available in Pecos. Lodging and cultural delights await visitors at the end of the trail, 25 miles west in Santa Fe.

For more information, write to: Pecos National Historical Park, PO. Drawer 418, Pecos, NM 87522; or call 505-757-6414.

RELATED ARTICLE: Hitting the Trail

Unlike the Appalachian and the Pacific Crest trails, Santa Fe National Historic Trail and most of the other 16 units of the National Trails System cannot be hiked end to end. Santa Fe Trail--a string of landmarks and historic sites--is administered by the National Park Service in partnership with private landowners and nonproift organizations, along with federal, state, and local agencies. The Park Service has established a voluntary certification process for sites related to the Santa Fe Trail. In addition to the four National Park System units on the trail, visitors can get to a growing number of certified sites, currently about 50, all of which are marked with the official trail logo.

The Park Service has developed a fold-out map and interpretive brochure that identifies landmarks, historic sites, and visible ruts, and helps visitors trace the original route of the trail on nearby highways. The auto tour is also marked along the highways with the trail logo. For a copy of the map and a list of certified trail sites, write to: Santa Fe National Historic Trail, P.O. Box 728, Santa Fe, NM 87504; or call 505-988-6888. Some of the best hiking available along the trail is in Cimarron National Grassland in Kansas. A U.S. Forest Service site, Cimarron features 23 miles of trail ruts paralleled by a hiking trail.

To help celebrate the 175th anniversary of the trail, NPCA teamed up with Hi-Tec Sports, Inc., to fund a traveling exhibit on the Santa Fe Trail. The donation enabled the Park Service to complete two versions of the exhibit, both of which are scheduled for stops along the trail throughout the anniversary year. For dates and locations, contact the trail office at the address or phone above.
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Copyright 1996 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:Excursions; historic Santa Fe trail in the American southwest: includes a related article on obtaining promotional materials from the park service
Author:Heinrich, M. Katherine
Publication:National Parks
Date:Jul 1, 1996
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