Santa Fe Trail – Detail & Timeline

Soldiers and Forts

The Army of the West Travels into New Mexico

The Army of the West Travels into New Mexico

Suspicion and tension between the United States and Mexico accelerated in the 1840s. With American need for territorial expansion, Texans raided into New Mexico, and the United States annexed Texas. The Mexican-American War erupted in 1846. General Stephen Watts Kearny led his Army of the West down the Santa Fe Trail to take and hold New Mexico and upper California and to protect American traders on the trail. He marched unchallenged into Santa Fe and, although communities such as Taos and Mora rebelled, American control prevailed. In 1848, the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo ended the war.

The Santa Fe Trail became the lifeline for protection and communication between Missouri and Santa Fe. From a succession of military forts such as Forts Mann (1847), Atkinson (1850), and Larned (1859) in Kansas, Fort Union (1851) in New Mexico, and Fort Lyon (1860) in Colorado, the army controlled conflicts between American Indians and trail travelers. As the military presence grew, freighting and merchant operations burgeoned. In 1858, many of the 1,800 wagons traveling the Santa Fe Trail carried military supplies.

In 1862, the Civil War arrived in the West. Confederates from Texas pushed up the Rio Grande Valley into New Mexico, intent on seizing the territory and Fort Union, and ultimately the rich Colorado goldfields. Albuquerque and Santa Fe fell. But the tide turned at Glorieta Pass, New Mexico, on the Santa Fe Trail. In the most decisive western battle of the Civil War, Union forces secured victory when they torched the nearby Confederate supply train. The Confederates abandoned hope of reaching Fort Union – and keeping their foothold in New Mexico. The Union Army held the Southwest and its vital Santa Fe Trail supply line.

Commerce of the Prairies

William Becknell blazes the Santa Fe Trail

William Becknell blazes the Santa Fe Trail

The story of the Santa Fe Trail is a story of business – international, national, and local. In 1821, William Becknell, bankrupt and facing jail for debts, packed goods to Santa Fe and made a profit. Entrepreneurs and experienced business people followed – James Webb, Antonio Jose Chavez, Charles Beaubien, David Waldo, and others.

The Santa Fe Trade developed into a complex web of international business, social ties, tariffs, and laws. Merchants in Missouri and New Mexico extended connections to New York, London, and Paris. Traders exploited social and legal systems to facilitate business. Partnerships such as Goldstein, Bean, Peacock, and Armijo formed and dissolved. Dave Waldo converted to Catholicism and also became a Mexican citizen. Dr. Eugene Leitensdorfer of Missouri married Soledad Abreu, daughter of a former New Mexico governor. Trader Manual Alvarez claimed citizenship in Spain, the United States, and Mexico.

After the Mexican-American War, trail trade and military freighting boomed. Both firms and individuals – such as Russell, Majors, and Waddell, Otero and Sellar, and Vincente Romero – obtained and subcontracted lucrative government contracts. Others operated mail and stagecoach services.

Trade created other opportunities. From New York, Manuel Harmony shipped English goods to Independence for freighting over the Santa Fe Trail. New Mexican saloon owner Dona Gertrudis “La Tules” Barcelo invested in the trade, and trader Charles Ilfeld ran mercantile stores. Wyandotte Chief William Walter leased a warehouse in Independence, and his tribe invested in the trade. Hiram Young bought his freedom from slavery and became a wealthy maker of trade wagons and one of the largest employers in Independence. Blacksmiths, hotel owners, arrieros (muleteers), lawyers, and many others found their places along the trail. Trade flourished. In 1822, trade totaled $15,000; by 1860, $3.5 million, or more than $53 million in today’s dollars.

The route played a major role in bringing people, goods, and ideas to and from Santa Fe for almost 60 years. However, the Santa Fe Trail was rarely a static entity, because both the route across the plains and the eastern terminus of the trail was constantly in flux. This was especially true during the last 15 years of the trail’s history when the westward push of the railroads incrementally shortened the distance between Santa Fe and the most recently-built, end-of-track, “hell on wheels” railroad town.

Santa Fe Trail Timeline

Santa Fe Trail Map, 1821

Santa Fe Trail Map, 1821


In 1821, Mexico gained its independence from Spain. Shortly thereafter, freighter and trader, William Becknell blazed the Santa Fe Trail. He along with four trusted companions and mules packed with $300 worth of trade goods left Franklin, Missouri on September 1, 1821. His route led him past the western boundary of Missouri and into the unorganized Indian Territory, which became the State of Kansas 40 years later.

Mule Train by Frederic Remington

Mule Train by Frederic Remington

His mule train passed through Morris County at what became known as Council Grove and then traveled across the open prairies to the Great Bend of the Arkansas River. They followed the river into Colorado where they crossed it in the vicinity of present-day LaJunta. They then entered into a foreign land, owned by Mexico. Following a well-worn trail, the men and mules struggled over the heights of Raton Pass and later came across a group of soldiers who escorted them into Santa Fe. This route over the Raton Mountains in present-day New Mexico was the forerunner for what became known as the Mountain Route. They had traveled 934 miles.

Arriving in mid-November, Becknell’s party spent the next month trading. On December 13th, they left Santa Fe with their saddlebags overflowing with silver, having converted their three hundred dollars in goods to approximately six thousand dollars in coin.

The whole distance from the settlements on the Missouri to the mountains in the neighborhood of Santa Fe, is a prairie country, with no obstructions to the route ….A good wagon road can … be traced out, upon which a sufficient supply of fuel and water can be procured, at all seasons, except in winter.”  — Alphonso Wetmore, 1824

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *