Santa Fe Trail – Highway to the Southwest

Santa Fe Trail Summary:

Wagon Train on the Santa Fe Trail

Wagon Train on the Santa Fe Trail

In 1821, the land beyond Missouri was a vast uncharted region called home to great buffalo herds and unhappy Indians, angered over the continual westward expansion of the white man. Before Mexico won its independence from Spain in 1821, the Spanish banned trade between Santa Fe and the United States. After independence, Mexico encouraged trade. Though numerous dangers awaited him, Captain William Becknell was determined to make the trip through waterless plains and war-like Indians to trade with the distant Mexicans in New Mexico.

On September 1, 1821, Becknell left Franklin, Missouri with four trusted companions, and after arriving in Santa Fe on November 16, and making an enormous profit, he made plans to return, thus blazing the path that would become known as the Santa Fe Trail.

Mule Train by Frederic Remington

Mule Train by Frederic Remington

On his first trip, Becknell loaded manufactured goods from Missouri onto a mule train to trade for furs, gold, silver, and other goods in New Mexico. However, by his third trip, Becknell had found a passable wagon route, thus beginning the many wagon trains heading to the southwest. Credited as the “Father of the Santa Fe Trail,” Becknell continued to make multiple trips along the trail, profiting enormously on his daring travels. Soon, many traders, as well as the military, were traveling the route.

Two routes soon developed along the trail, the Mountain Route and the Cimarron Route, also called the Jornada Route. Both routes followed the same path from Missouri, traveling west to the Arkansas River and following the river into southwest Kansas. For many years, the only trading post between Independence, Missouri and Santa Fe, New Mexico was in Council Grove, Kansas, some 130 miles from Independence and over 650 miles from Santa Fe.

At Fort Larned, Kansas the trail split into two branches. The Mountain Route was longer but not quite as dangerous, with fewer warlike Indians and more water along the route. This branch traveled about 230 miles between Fort Larned and Bent’s Fort near present-day La Junta, Colorado, continuing to follow the Arkansas River before turning south through the Raton Pass to Santa Fe.

Though the shorter Jornada Route, also called the Cimarron Cutoff, provided less water, it saved the travelers ten days by cutting southwest across the Cimarron Desert to Santa Fe. The Cimarron Desert route was shorter and easier for the wagon parties than the mountainous Raton Pass, but travelers risked attacks by Native Americans in addition to shortages of water. Despite the hazards, the shorter route would end up carrying 75% of the Santa Fe Trail pioneers.

In 1825, the United States obtained a right of way from the Osage Indians, which officially established the Santa Fe Trail as a national “highway.”  In 1827, Independence, Missouri was founded and within a few years became the major outfitting point on the eastern end of the trail.

Bent's Fort, Colorado

Bent’s Fort, Colorado

In 1834, Bent’s Fort, a fur trade post on the upper Arkansas River was established near what is present-day La Junta, Colorado.  William and Charles Bent, Ceran St. Vrain and Company led a party and wagons eastbound from Santa Fe, New Mexico in the late summer, traveled by way of Taos and Raton Pass to Bent’s Fort; then came down the Arkansas River to the Santa Fe Trail, opening the Bent’s Fort Santa Fe Trail.

By this time, the trail was being frequently used with more than 2000 wagons, in caravans of about 50 departing each spring from Missouri. When the Mexican-American War began, travel and trading along the trail was restricted but, it was heavily used by the military for transportation of supplies from the Missouri River towns to the Southwest. When the war ended in 1848, trading resumed and considerable military freight continued to be hauled over the trail to supply the southwestern forts.

In 1849, with the discovery of gold in California, westbound emigrants, in increasing numbers, traveled the Santa Fe Trail to Bent’s Fort, then journeyed northward by trail along the base of the Rocky Mountains to Fort Laramie and beyond. By 1850, a monthly stagecoach line was established between Independence, Missouri and Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Trade was limited again during the Civil War (1861-1865), but by the late 1860s, activity along the trail had resumed. In 1880 a railroad reached Santa Fe, and use of the Santa Fe Trail declined.

Other trails that were connected to the Santa Fe Trail included the Old Spanish Trail, which linked Santa Fe to Los Angeles, and the El Camino Real, which connected  Santa Fe to Mexico City.

Today, part of the route has been designated as a National Scenic Byway.

Santa Fe Trail Map

Santa Fe Trail Map

Santa Fe Trail:

Santa Fe Trail Summary Description (See Above)

Santa Fe Trail Detail & Timeline

Santa Fe Trail People

Trail Routes

Santa Fe Trail Through Missouri

Santa Fe Trail Through Kansas

Army Train on the Santa Fe Trail

Army Train on the Santa Fe Trail

Santa Fe Trail Routes

Cimarron Route

Mountain Route

Santa Fe Trail in Oklahoma

Santa Fe Trail in Colorado

Granada-Fort Union Military Road

Santa Fe Trail in New Mexico

Cimarron Route

Mountain Route


Civil War on the Santa Fe Trail: 1861-1865

Early Traders on the Santa Fe Trail

Famous Men of the Santa Fe Trail

Fighting Comanche on the Santa Fe Trail

Heroes of the Old Santa Fe Trail

Incidents on the Trail

Indian Attacks at Pawnee Rock

International Trade on the Santa Fe Trail, 1821-1846

The End of the Santa Fe Trail by Gerald Cassidy, about 1910

The End of the Santa Fe Trail by Gerald Cassidy, about 1910

Indian Terrors on the Santa Fe Trail

The Life & Mysterious Death of Samuel B. Watrous

Massacre at Nine Mile Ridge

The Mexican War and the Santa Fe Trail, 1846-1848

Overland Mail on the Santa Fe Trail

Pathways To the West

Railroad Building on the Santa Fe Trail

The Santa Fe Trade

The Santa Fe Trail and the Railroad: 1865-1880

Santa Fe Trail – Exploration & Illegal Trade – Pre-1821

Santa Fe Trail Photo Gallery

Stories of the Old Santa Fe Trail

Women on the Santa Fe Trail

© Kathy Weiser/Legends of America, updated August 2018.

See our Santa Fe Trail Photo Gallery HERE


Source: See Santa Fe Trail Writing Credits

1 thought on “Santa Fe Trail – Highway to the Southwest”

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