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Santa Fe Trail’s 200 years of travel

Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal

PUERTOCITO DE LA PIEDRA LUMBRE – That’s a lot of name for a next-to-nothing place on N.M. 283 just west of I-25 and south of Las Vegas.

But according to the historical markers here, there’s more to it than is apparent. This is where the storied Santa Fe Trail, a major commercial road running about 900 miles from Missouri to New Mexico, was born nearly 200 years ago.

Visitors to Fort Union National Monument, near Watrous, see the remnants of fort walls and ruts made by wagon traffic on the Santa Fe Trail. Fort Union was established in 1851 near the junction of the trail’s Mountain and Cimarron cutoff routes. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

“You can’t underestimate the value of the Santa Fe Trail,” said Paul Hutton, distinguished professor of history at the University of New Mexico. “The Trail ties the far West back to the East, Missouri, and makes so many Americans aware of the potential of the West.”

Look around now and it’s difficult to imagine what William Becknell and his five companions, traders from Missouri, weather-blistered men with travel-weary mounts and pack animals, might have seen as they gazed south from this spot on Nov. 13, 1821.

Sculptor Reynaldo “Sonny” Rivera’s installation “Journey’s End,” on Museum Hill in Santa Fe, depicts the challenges faced by men and beasts traveling the Santa Fe Trail about 900 miles from Missouri to New Mexico. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Things are so different now. The San Miguel County Detention Center is on the highway to the east. And south of the road is what appears to be a sawmill business, its grounds studded with fuel-storage tanks.

There are, however, the enduring hills, brown except where they are green with stands of juniper and pine. Becknell and his men would have seen those hills as they looked south 200 years ago — and also several hundred soldiers approaching them.

A different attitude

In early September 1821, Becknell’s party started out from Franklin, Missouri, crossed the Missouri River at Arrow Rock and pushed West to trade for horses and mules and catch whatever wild animals might prove valuable.

Their trek through Kansas, southwest into Colorado and then into New Mexico had been a tribulation due to snow, natural barriers and a shortage of food because game was hard to find.

And now here’s 400 soldiers coming at them.

The American traders were in country that had long been controlled by Spain, and Spanish authorities did not like visitors. In 1812, members of a Missouri trading expedition had been put in prison.

“Spain restricted trade and the movement of people,” said Rob Martinez, New Mexico’s state historian. “Spain forbid its people trading with foreigners. … And (residents) had to get papers to travel down from Albuquerque and Santa Fe to Chihuahua and Mexico City.”

The rocky formation dubbed Wagon Mound, because it resembles a covered wagon, was a familiar landmark for travelers along the Cimarron Cutoff route of the Santa Fe Trail northeast of present-day Las Vegas, N.M. The Trail was a vital merchants road from 1821 until 1880, when the arrival of the railroad in Santa Fe made it obsolete. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

No doubt Becknell and his men were much relieved when the military detachment greeted them warmly.

“Although the difference of our language would not admit of conversation, yet circumstances attending their reception of us, fully convinced us of their friendly feelings,” Becknell later wrote.

Missouri trader William Becknell, known as the father of the Santa Fe Trail, would have seen this 1806 church when he passed through San Miguel del Vado, southeast of Santa Fe, on his first trading trip in 1821. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

These were not Spanish troops but soldiers of Mexico, which had declared its independence from Spain in September. And the infant government was eager to trade with Americans.

“Mexico takes a different attitude,” Martinez said. “Without Mexican independence there is no Santa Fe Trail.”

On Nov. 16, 1821, Becknell’s band rode into Santa Fe, where they were welcomed with frenzied elation and very quickly sold out their trade stock at high profits.

“Santa Fe’s people were like kids in a candy store, children waiting for Christmas,” James Crutchfield, author of “On the Santa Fe Trail,” said during a phone interview from his home in Franklin, Tennessee. “The Spanish had taken very little interest in what happened as far north as Santa Fe, so supplies were very scarce.”

That marked the start of trade between Mexico and the United States and the opening of the Santa Fe Trail, which would endure as a crucial commercial route until the railroad reached New Mexico in 1880.

Road to change

Crutchfield said the trail was a major factor in Manifest Destiny, the 19th-century notion that the U.S. was meant to expand its borders across North America.

“The Santa Fe Trail was first and foremost a path of commerce,” he said. “The West could not have been settled if you had only immigrants. You needed commerce, you needed trade.”

Aaron Mahr, National Park Service superintendent of the Santa Fe National Historic Trail, stands beside the Santa Fe street called Old Santa Fe Trail. The street follows the original Santa Fe Trail into New Mexico’s capital city. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Aaron Mahr, the National Park Service’s Superintendent of the Santa Fe National Historic Trail, said the trail was vital to America’s development in the West.

“It’s an international road that connected different countries and landscapes during an important time in America’s history,” said Mahr, who is based in Santa Fe.

Besides establishing back-and-forth trade with Mexico and supporting the Westward movement of American settlers, the Santa Fe Trail accelerated the U.S. conquest of Mexico, disrupted the way of life of the American Indian tribes through whose lands it passed, contributed to the devastation of beaver and buffalo and played a bloody role in free state/slave state violence and the Civil War.

“Trails bring change,” Martinez said. “The Santa Fe Trail is the silent witness to the opening of New Mexico’s American history. Our way of life would change with new foods and tools, Americans hunting beaver and buffalo and depleting resources. Americans benefited from new markets. New Mexicans benefited from democratic ideas brought here. But it was a painful process.”

Just about every character important to the 19th century Southwest traveled the trail. Frontiersman Kit Carson and Albuquerque merchant/mover and shaker Franz Huning came West on the trail.

“The Santa Fe Trail is different from the Oregon Trail, which is all about we are going here to settle,” said Deb Goodrich, a Kansas resident who is publicity chair of the Santa Fe Trail Association and the person in charge of the association’s commemoration of the trail’s 200th anniversary. “The Santa Fe Trail is much more complex.

“But it starts out as a connection between two very different cultures — American and Mexican. Mexican traders started going east on the trail in 1825, bringing goods to America. The trade was exhilarating. Mexicans and Americans are getting all this cool stuff from another culture.”

Pack your wagons

Becknell stayed in Santa Fe until early December 1821 and then headed back to Franklin, arriving in the Missouri River town in late January 1822. He immediately started organizing another Santa Fe expedition, one that would include wagons. You could pack 200 to 300 pounds on the backs of horses and mules but load 5,000 to 6,000 pounds in wagons. You don’t need to be a CPA to see how that comes out on the bottom line.

Land baron and rancher Lucien Maxwell built the Aztec Mill in Cimarron in 1864. Now a museum, the mill once provided ground grains for travelers along the Santa Fe Trail, the famed Old West commercial route that marks its 200th anniversary this year. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

But the downside is wagons could not go everywhere horses and mules could. The challenge of moving wagons over the trail inspired Albuquerque sculptor Reynaldo “Sonny” Rivera in the creation of two powerful installations that pay homage to the Santa Fe Trail and those who traveled it.

“Journey’s End,” dedicated in 2003 on Museum Hill in Santa Fe, depicts six mules and a muleskinner struggling to get a wagon up a steep grade. “Westward Journey,” dedicated in 2019 at St. Louis University’s Lay Center for Education and the Arts in Pike County, Missouri, portrays a mule-drawn wagon attempting a water crossing as a woman, children and mounted men watch.

“My dad had a small farm,” said Rivera. “That’s why I do a lot of horses and cattle because that’s what I grew up with. In ‘Journey’s End,’ a mule stumbled and that driver is reaching down to get the reins and get that mule up.

“In ‘Westward Journey,’ the wagon’s right front wheel went into a depression, shifting the wagon’s load so the mules are struggling to get the wagon going again.”

That’s the kind of trouble that would have been worrying Becknell. When he left Franklin in May 1822 with 21 men and three wagons, he was set on finding a route that would avoid steep and rock-cursed Raton Pass between Colorado and New Mexico. The pass could chew up wagon wheels, axles and the human spirit and spit them to the side.

Another way

Near what is now Dodge City, Kansas, Becknell’s company turned southwest instead of continuing into Colorado. He set a course between the Arkansas and Cimarron rivers. This route, christened the Cimarron Cutoff, dodged all but a splinter of Colorado and nicked through a corner of what is now Oklahoma into New Mexico. That shaved about a week off an eight to 10-week journey, but this more direct shot into Santa Fe was dangerously dry.

Becknell’s 1822 party nearly died of thirst. Josiah Gregg, who made eight trading trips on the trail, writes about the group’s desperate plight in his 1844 book “Commerce of the Prairies.”

“The forlorn band were at last reduced to the cruel necessity of killing their dogs, and cutting off the ears of their mules, in the vain hope of assuaging their burning thirst with hot blood. This only served to irritate the parched palates and madden the senses of the sufferers.”

But just as their situation seemed grimmest, Becknell, his men and surviving livestock got to water and into Santa Fe not many days later.

In “Commerce of the Prairies,” Gregg describes what it was like when trade wagons rolled into Santa Fe.

“The arrival produced a great deal of bustle and excitement among the natives. ‘Los Americanos!’ – ‘Los carros!’ – ‘La entrada de la caravana!’ were to be heard in every direction; and crowds of women and boys crowded around to see the newcomers.”

The Santa Fe Trade was lucrative. Crutchfield writes that in 1824 an American went into Santa Fe with $30,000 in goods and left with $150,000 in Mexican wares.

Becknell made an estimated 2,000% profit on that nearly disastrous 1822 excursion, but he never forgot how close he came to dying on that trip.

‘So dangerous’

“Travel on the trail was so dangerous,” said Hutton, whose work in progress, a book titled “The Undiscovered Country,” includes two chapters linked to the trail. “It’s a ‘Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome’ road. Every caravan was a target for native tribes, white outlaws, prairie fires and a couple of million buffalo that might happen by.”

In 1867, businessman Franz Huning was bringing his mother-in-law and brother-in-law over the trail to Albuquerque when Indians attacked their caravan. Both the mother-in-law and the brother-in-law died, the former from shock and the latter from a grievous chest wound.

“United as they were in life, I had them buried side by side,” Huning wrote from the trail to his wife, Ernestine, in Albuquerque.

Conflict with Indian tribes had been part of the trail’s history from the start, but in 1846 the road took another turn.

“It opens up commerce between Mexico and the U.S., and then it becomes a war trail,” Hutton said.

Waning days

In a move to add the disputed Republic of Texas and the Mexican possessions of New Mexico and California to its own empire, the United States declared war on Mexico in 1846, and the U.S. Army of the West, under the command of Col. (later Gen.) Stephen Watts Kearny, marched out of Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, along the trail into New Mexico.

Kearny’s army occupies Las Vegas without firing a shot on Aug. 15, 1846, and on Aug. 18 takes Santa Fe, again without opposition.

“Without the Santa Fe Trail, Kearny could not have reached Santa Fe as fast as he did,” Crutchfield said. “He got down there in a matter of weeks. That was very important.”

A car passes by a building that survived the March 1862 Civil War Battle of Glorieta Pass on the Santa Fe Trail. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

The Santa Fe Trail would play a similarly significant role in the 1862 Civil War Battle of Glorieta Pass in New Mexico Territory.

After the Civil War, however, the trail’s importance faded, and its value as a trade route was erased by the railroad in 1880. But like the wagon ruts that can still be seen along its routes, memories of the trail linger.

“I cherish the idea of being on the trail,” said Mahr, of the Park Service. He said Wagon Mound, the rock formation shaped like a covered wagon that looms along the Cimarron Cutoff northeast of Las Vegas, takes him back in time.

“I see it from 20 miles north, even from the highway, and I get a sense of what travelers on the trail felt when they saw that historic landmark.”



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