The next event of importance in the annals of the Santa Fe trade was the introduction of wagons; up to 1824 all goods were transported by pack mules, which necessarily limited the amount and value of the freight; but in that year the caravans which departed from Missouri employed not only the usual quota of mules but 25 wheeled vehicles, principally what were then called “Dearborn carriages.” The experiment proved entirely successful and from this period wagons were exclusively used, some of them being of great size and drawn by 10 or 12 mules. In the first years of the trade horses were used to draw the vehicles as mules were scarce and expensive, but as soon as the latter could be procured in abundance horses were discarded except for riding purposes. In 1829 oxen were tried and found, much to the surprise of the traders, to be perfectly capable of performing the duties of the trip. From this time onward the number of oxen and mules employed in the business was about equal, the superiority of the former in cheapness and strength is balanced by the greater endurance and speed of the latter.
The starting-point of the caravans was at first Franklin on the Missouri River, 150 miles west of St. Louis, but in 1831 the proportions of the trade had so increased that some spot nearer the western frontier was considered necessary, and the choice fell upon Independence, Missouri situated about twelve miles from what is now Kansas, then known as “the Indian border,” and three miles south of the Missouri River. This place gradually became the point of outfit, departure, and debarkation; here repaired the adventurer about to embark in his trading enterprise; here were procured provisions, mules, oxen, and sometimes wagons; and here the final preparations for the long journey across the plains were made. Not only was Independence the starting-point of the Santa Fe caravans, but the Rocky Mountain traders and trappers, and the emigrants to Oregon took this town in their route. During the season of departure — which was usually in May — it was a place of much bustle and activity; “here,” said Josiah Gregg, “were seen men of every class, with a little sprinkling of the softer sex. The fustian frock of the city-bred merchant, furnished with a multitude of pockets, capable of containing a variety of extra tackling; the backwoodsman in linsey or leather hunting-shirt; the farmer, with his blue jean coat, and the wagoner, with a flannel-sleeved vest.”
Among the weapons noted were “the rifle for the frontiersman, the double-barreled fowling-piece for the sportsman, scatterguns, repeating arms, pistols, and knives.” The task of organizing a caravan was no light one; the first step was the election of an officer entitled “Captain of the Caravan,” who was the commander of the expedition, and whose authority was never questioned. By him, each proprietor was notified to furnish a list of his men and wagons; if the company was a large one all the vehicles were divided into four divisions, and a lieutenant was appointed whose duty it was to inspect every ravine and creek along the route, select the crossings, superintend the encampment, and generally look after the arrangement of the wagons; watches were also appointed, usually eight in number, to stand guard a quarter of each alternate night. Besides personal arms, the caravan often carried one or two small cannons, mounted on carriages. The merchandise was packed with the utmost care, a task requiring no little skill, but in which many became adept, filling the wagons with such evenness that on their arrival at Santa Fe not one article would be disturbed or injured. A ” Santa Fe assortment,” as it was called, consisted generally of merchandise such as was usually seen in the smaller retail stores of the East, viz: woolen and cotton goods, silks, hardware, notions, etc. The principal articles in demand were cotton velvets and domestic cotton; the latter, which were by far the most called for, were brown, unbleached, and blue, and formed almost half of every assortment; in spite of their ready sale, however, they were the most unprofitable articles taken, on account of their weight and the heavy-duty imposed upon them by the Mexican authorities who, in 1837, issued a decree prohibiting the entrance of all shirtings, calicoes, and drillings. American manufactures alone were in demand, the British cottons being much less durable, and of a lighter texture. Besides the merchandise, provisions for the men were carried, consisting chiefly of bacon, flour, coffee, sugar, and salt — buffaloes furnishing all the fresh meat used on the journey.
The train left Independence in detached parties and rendezvoused at Council Grove, Kansas about 150 miles distant on a branch of the Neosho River; here all arrangements were completed for the journey, the “Catch up! catch up!” of the captain rang out from his station in the foremost wagon, the answering shouts of “All’s set!” from the drivers proclaimed that everything was in readiness, and in a few moments the caravan was on its way to Santa Fe. The appearance of these long lines of white-topped vehicles was singularly impressive; the wagons advanced slowly in four parallel columns but in broken lines, often with considerable intervals between; the unceasing “Crack! crack!” of the wagoners’ whips, resembling the distant report of musketry, sounded almost as if two hostile parties were engaged in a skirmish. The rear wagons were usually left without a guard, as the horsemen all preferred to be in front, where they could be seen moving in scattered groups sometimes over a mile in advance. The evolutions of the wagons were intricate and required much skill on the part of the drivers; when marching four abreast the two exterior lines spread out and then met at the front angle, while the two near lines kept close together until they reached the point of the rear angle when they wheeled suddenly out and closed with the hinder ends of the other two, thus systematically concluding a right-lined quadrangle with a gap left at the rear corner for the introduction of the animals. Every night the wagons were formed into a hollow square, acting as a defense against Indians and a temporary corral for the cattle; outside of this square the campfires burned and the traders slept, while those whose turn it was to watch kept guard. The difficulties of the route were all surmounted by the energy of the travelers; in many places, temporary bridges of long grass or brush covered with earth were made, and sometimes “buffalo boats” were constructed by stretching hides over empty wagon-bodies or frames of poles.
As the wagons approached within 200 miles of Santa Fe a party of avant couriers, known in the parlance of the prairies as “runners,” pushed on in advance to the capital; they were generally proprietors or agents, and their purpose was to procure and send back a supply of provisions, to secure good accommodations for the merchandise, and, what was no less important, come to an “agreeable understanding” with the custom-house officials. When the crossing of the Red River was reached the caravan was met and accompanied for the remainder of the journey by a Spanish escort provided to prevent smuggling; here, also, a branch of the expedition usually proceeded westward to Taos. Five or six days later and the long-expected goal appeared in sight; great was the exultation as wagon after wagon descended the steep declivities to Santa Fe; the little cannons fired enthusiastic salutes, the muleteers cheered vociferously, and all was rejoicing and confusion. “I doubt, in short,” said Gregg, “whether the first sight of the walls of Jerusalem were beheld by the crusaders with more tumultuous and soul-enrapturing joy.” “The arrival,” continues the same writer, “produced a great deal of bustle and excitement among the natives. ‘Los Americanos!’ ‘Los Carros!’ ‘La entrada d,e la Caravana!’ were to be heard in every direction; and crowds of women and boys flocked around to see the new-comers. The wagoners were by no means free from excitement on this occasion. They had spent the previous morning in ‘rubbing’ up and now they were prepared, with clean faces, sleek-combed hair, and their choicest Sunday suit, to meet the fair eyes of glistening black that were sure to stare at them as they passed. There was yet another preparation to be made in order to show off to advantage; each one must tie a brand-new cracker to the lash of his whip, for on driving through the streets and the plaza publico, everyone strived to outvie his comrades in the dexterity with which he flourished this favorite badge of his authority.”