Pathways To the West
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By Emerson Hough in 1918
story of the
Trail now passing into oblivion, once was on the tongue of every man.
This old highroad, in its heyday, presented the most romantic and appealing
features of the earlier frontier life. The Santa Fe Trail was the great path of commerce between our frontier and the
Spanish towns trading through
This commerce began in 1822, when about three score men shipped certain
goods across the lower Plains by pack animals. By 1826 it was employing a
hundred men and was using wagons and mules. In 1830, when oxen first were
used on the trail, the trade amounted to $120,000 annually; and by 1843,
when the Spanish ports were closed, it had reached the value of $450,000,
involving the use of 230 wagons and 350 men.
It was this great wagon
trail which first brought us into touch with the Spanish civilization
of the Southwest. Its commercial totals do not bulk large today, but
the old trail itself was a thing titanic in its historic value.
This was the day not of water but of
land transport; yet the wheeled vehicles which passed out into the
as common carriers of civilization clung to the river valleys --
natural highways and natural resting places of homebuilding man. This
has been the story of the advance of civilization from the first
movements of the world's peoples. The valleys are the cleats of
civilization's golden sluices.
Wagon Train in 1847.
This image available for photographic prints
There, lay the great valley of the Arkansas River,
offering food and water, an easy grade and a direct course reaching
out into the West,
even to the edge of the lands of Spain; and here stood wheeled
vehicles able to traverse it and to carry dry goods and hardware, and
especially domestic cotton fabrics, which formed the great staple of a
assortment." The people of the Middle West
were now, in short, able to feed and clothe themselves and to offer a
little of their surplus merchandise to someone else in sale. They had
begun to export! Out yonder, in a strange and unknown land, lay one of
the original markets of America!
the heels of
Lewis and Clark, who had just explored the
route to the Northwest, Captain
Zebulon Pike of the Army, long
before the first wheeled traffic started West,
had employed this valley of the
in his search for the southwestern delimitations of the United States.
Pike thought he had found the head of the Red River when, after a
toilsome and dangerous march, he reached the headwaters of the Rio
Grande. But, it was not our river. It belonged to Spain, as he learned
to his sorrow, when he marched all the way to Chihuahua in old Mexico
and lay there during certain weary months.
It was Pike's story of the far Southwest that
first started the idea of the commerce of the Santa Fe Trail. In that day geography was a human thing, a thing of vital
importance to all men. Men did not read the stock markets; they read
stories of adventure, tales of men returned from lands out yonder in the
Heretofore, the swarthy Mexicans, folk of the
dry plains and hills around the head of the Rio Grande and the Red Rivers, had
carried their cotton goods and many other small and needful things all the
way from Vera Cruz on the seacoast, over trails that were long, tedious,
uncertain, and expensive. A far shorter and more natural trade route went
Arkansas River, which would bring the American goods to the doors of the
Spanish settlements. After Pike and one or two others had returned with
reports of the country, the possibilities of this trade were clear to any
one with the merchant's imagination.
There is rivalry for the title of "Father
of the Santa Fe Trail." As early as 1812, when the United States was at war
with England, a party of men on horseback trading into the West,
commonly called the McKnight, Baird, and Chambers Party, made their way
to Santa Fe.
There, however, they met with disaster. All their goods were confiscated
and they themselves lay in Mexican jails for nine years. Eventually the
returning survivors of this party told their stories, and those stories,
far from chilling, only inflamed the ardor of other adventurous traders.
In 1821 more than one American trader reached
and, now that the Spanish yoke had been thrown off by the Mexicans, the
goods, instead of being confiscated, were purchased eagerly.
It is to be remembered, of course,
that trading of this sort to Mexico was not altogether a new thing.
Sutlers of the old fur traders and trappers already had found the way to
New Spain from the valley of the Platte River, south along the eastern edge of
the Rockies, through
By some such route as that at least one trader, a French Creole, agent of
the firm of Bryant & Morrison at Kaskaskia, Illinois, had penetrated to the Spanish
lands as early as 1804, while
Lewis and Clark were still absent in the
upper wilderness. Each year the great mountain rendezvous of the
-- at Bent's Fort on the
at Horse Creek in Whyoming,
on the Green River in
or even farther beyond the mountains -- demanded supplies of food,
traps and ammunition to enable the hunters to continue their work for
another year. Perhaps, many of the pack-trains which regularly supplied
this shifting mountain market already had traded in the Spanish country.
It is not necessary to go into further
details regarding this primitive commerce of the prairies. It yielded a
certain profit; it shaped the character of the men who carried it on. But,
what is yet more important, it greatly influenced the country which lay
back of the border on the
River. It called yet more men from the
eastern settlements to those portions which lay upon the edge of the Great
Plains. There crowded yet more thickly, up to the line between the certain
and the uncertain, the restless westbound population of all the country.
If, on the south, the valley of the
led outward to New Spain, yet other pathways made out from the Mississippi
River into the unknown lands. The
was the first and last of our great natural frontier roads. Its lower
course swept along the eastern edge of the Plains, far to the south, down
to the very doors of the most adventurous settlements in the Mississippi
Valley. Those who dared its stained and turbulent current had to push up,
onward, northward, past the mouth of the Platte River, far to the north across
degrees of latitude, steadily forward through a vast virgin land. Then, the
river bent boldly and strongly off to the west, across another empire. Its
great falls indicated that it headed high; beyond the great falls its
steady sweep westward and at last southward, led into yet other kingdoms.
When we travel by horse or by modern motor car in that now accessible
region and look about us, we should not fail to reflect on the long trail
of the upbound boats which
Lisa and other traders sent out almost
immediately upon the return of the Lewis and Clark
Expedition. We should
see them struggling up against that tremendous current before steam was
known, driven by their lust for new lands. We may then understand fully
what we have read of the enterprises of the old
bring to mind the forgotten names of
Robert Campbell and
Ashley and of
Nathaniel Wyeth -- names to be followed by others really of less
importance, as those of
Benjamin Bonneville and
Fremont. That there could be farms,
that there ever might be homes, in this strange wild country, was, to
these early adventurers, unthinkable.
Then we should picture the millions of
buffalo which once covered these
plains and think of the waste and folly of their slaughtering. We should
see the long streams of the Mackinaw boats swimming down the
bound for St.
Louis, laden with bales of buffalo and beaver peltry, every pound of
which would be worth ten dollars at the capital of the
fur trade; and we
should restore to our minds the old pictures of savage tribesmen, decked
in fur-trimmed war-shirts and plumed bonnets, armed with lance and sinewed
bow and bull-neck shield, not forgetting where they got their horses and
how they got their food.
great early mid-continental highway, known as the
or the Overland Trail, was by way of the
up the Platte Valley, then across the mountains. We know more of this
route because it was not discontinued, but came steadily more and more
into use, for one reason after another. The
fur traders used it, the
Forty-Niners used it, the cattlemen used it in part, the railroads used
it; and, lastly, the settlers and farmers used it most of all.
Continued Next Page
Early Traders on the Santa Fe Trail
Trail - Highway to the Southwest
Tales & Trails of the American West
the Santa Fe Trail