The establishment and growth of the Santa Fe trade was a turning point in the history and development of what is now the State of New Mexico. In less than 30 years, Santa Fe went from being a northern outpost of Spain in North America to a city in the Mexican state of Nueva Mexico to the capital of the American Territory of New Mexico. Finally, in 1912, it became the capital of the State of New Mexico.
Both major routes of the Santa Fe Trail — the Cimarron Route and the Mountain Route — crossed the northeastern corner of New Mexico. The Mountain Route entered the state on the northern border at Raton Pass and traversed 197 miles within the state, while the Cimarron Route entered on the eastern border near the Corrumpa Creek (North Canadian River) and traversed 228 miles. In conjunction, the routes went through five counties in New Mexico, including Colfax, Mora, San Miguel, Union, and Santa Fe Counties.
Acoma Pueblo, New Mexico
Before the Spanish began exploring what is now New Mexico in the 1500s, Puebloan Indians had established villages along the Rio Grande and its tributaries. Between 1609 and 1610, Spanish Governor Pedro de Peralta established a new capital at Santa Fe and construction began on the Palace of the Governors. The 17th Century was full of conflict between the church and the government and also between the Puebloan Indians and the Spanish colonists, amidst other raiding tribes.
Throughout the colonial period, New Spain’s northern frontier was distant and isolated, and its citizens struggled for their region to become an integral part of the Spanish empire. Almost 1700 miles separated Santa Fe and Mexico City. This distance was daunting because of the obstacles to travel, such as the rugged terrain of northern and central Mexico, did not help to encourage communication and mutual understanding between the separated regions. New Mexicans searched for a means to relieve their isolation and bring an end to their dependency on an economic system that was designed to benefit the mother country and was ill-suited to the conditions that prevailed in their remote territory. They began alleviating their problems principally by engaging in a widespread network of trade activities among various ethnic groups. With time, New Mexicans came to rely on a variety of legal and unlawful commercial strategies to bypass the government policies that stifled the economic development of their New Mexican province.
New Mexican dependence on Spain was guaranteed by the complex monetary system that handicapped the settlers. Starting in 1609, mission supply trains were officially sanctioned and became the standard link between Mexico City and its northernmost province. Contact with French traders, though illegal, became an important means of relieving the isolation of the province and by the 1720s interaction became more frequent. In 1739, the Mallet brothers reached Santa Fe to begin limited trade with the Spanish. Contact with non-Hispanics was sporadic until the 1780s but became more frequent as the ex-British colonists moved west looking for new hunting grounds, land, and opportunity.
Zebulon Pike led the first Anglo-American expedition into New Mexico in 1807 and published an account of the way of life in New Mexico upon his return to the United States. The flourish of exploratory activities around the turn of the 19th Century led to the integration of a large regional commercial system between Indian tribes, Mexicans, New Mexicans, Americans, and eventually Europeans. One of the early explorers was Pedro Vial, whose expeditions occurred from 1786 to 1793 between San Antonio, Texas; Santa Fe, New Mexico; Natchitoches, Louisiana; and St. Louis, Missouri. The form of mercantile capitalism that evolved in New Mexico was dependent on cooperation between the various ethnic groups that participated in the trade. New Mexico would become a key commercial link between the United States and Mexico.
Once Mexico declared independence from Spain in 1821, New Mexicans sought economic freedom, and the Santa Fe Trail was opened to international trade. However, it took time for the New Mexican mercantile system to successfully develop. Within 10 years of the “opening” of the Santa Fe Trail in 1821, local New Mexican merchants did not participate in any direct large-scale commercial activities with businesses from the United States. This changed by the end of the 1830s, at which time they were venturing to the east to cities including New York, Baltimore, Philadelphia, and Pittsburgh, where they invested their sizable accumulated capital. The New Mexican traders became part of a widespread commercial network, which offered them substantial returns. Their complex transactions eventually included merchants in the United States, Europe, and Mexico.
Because New Mexico was an area that linked two young, ambitious countries – the United States and Mexico – conflict arose. In 1841, Texas soldiers invaded New Mexico and claimed all of the land east of the Rio Grande, but their efforts were thwarted by Governor Manuel Armijo. Then, in April 1846, Mexico declared war against the United States. For the United States, General Stephen Watts Kearny commanded the Army of the West, which marched westward following a portion of the Santa Fe Trail toward the city of Santa Fe.
Upon arriving at Apache Canyon in New Mexico on August 16th, where Governor Armijo previously said he would meet him, General Kearny found that the Mexican troops had dispersed and fled to the mountains. Armijo had an army of 7000 Mexicans, with six pieces of artillery, and the advantage of location within the terrain, yet he allowed General Kearny, with a force of less than 2000, to march through the almost impregnable gorge and on to the capital of the province without any attempt to oppose him. As a result of meeting with several merchants sent by Kearny, and faced with dissension among his assembled force, Armijo abandoned any military resistance to Kearny, allowing them to seize Santa Fe without firing a shot on August 18, 1846. After the Mexican-American War was over, Armijo was tried in Mexico City for cowardice and desertion for his actions or lack thereof. The Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo officially ended the Mexican-American War in 1848.
In 1850, New Mexico (which at this time included present-day New Mexico, Arizona, southern Colorado, southern Utah, and southern Nevada) was designated a territory but denied statehood. The Gadsden Purchase from Mexico in 1853 added 45,000 square miles to the territory. By the 1860s the nature of the Santa Fe trade had changed dramatically. As the volume of trade increased, the prices of the merchandise declined. Profits per unit also plunged.