1822 – 1828
When William Becknell and his men returned home, he avoided the Raton Mountains and took a shorter, more direct route, which soon became known as the Cimarron Route. Most of those who made the trek in later years followed in Becknell’s footsteps. During this period, a few westbound parties started from Lexington, Missouri, but, most departed from Franklin, Missouri. Independence, Missouri, founded in March 1827, also played a role as a trail town during this period. After returning along the Cimarron Route, having traveled some 890 miles, Becknell and his men arrived back in Franklin on January 22, 1822.
Almost immediately, Becknell began planning his next second journey to Santa Fe. This time, he chose to haul trade goods by wagon instead of pack mules and had to slightly alter his original route to accommodate them. The wagon train, which included three wagons of merchandise and 21 men, left Franklin, Missouri in May 1822, making the trip on the Cimarron Route. The party proceeded to a point probably in present Rice County, Kansas, where they forded the Arkansas River. Beyond there, the party struck a southwest course for the Mexican Country. Before long, their journey brought them to a semi-arid region known by the Mexicans as Jornada Del Muerto, the journey of death.
After considerable hardship, including nearly dying of thirst, he and his men arrived in Santa Fe 48 days after their departure. The second trip proved to be even more profitable than the first. Taking an estimated $3,000 dollars in goods to Santa Fe, Becknell’s party returned with a profit of around $91,000 dollars. Becknell would make a third profitable trip to Santa Fe in 1824.
However, word of the profits spread fast, and by the time Becknell made his second journey, he already had competition from other Santa Fe Traders. Colonel Benjamin Cooper with 15 men left Missouri for New Mexico two weeks before Becknell, and another party headed by John Heath caught up with and joined Becknell en route. Within the next two years, trade from Missouri along the Santa Fe Trail was in full swing. In 1824 a party of 80 men with 25 wagons, guided by Alexander Le Grand, carried $35,000 worth of goods and successfully sold them in New Mexico. His caravan returned from Santa Fe with $180,000 in gold and silver and $10,000 in furs, as well as mules.
Following Becknell’s initial trips, New Mexican officials encouraged American merchants to take part in trade with Mexico. Beginning in 1824, Chihuahua and New Mexican merchants traveled from Santa Fe to Missouri and Mexican merchants were sent to Washington D.C. to negotiate commercial agreements.
Within no time, a steady stream of American and European manufactured goods were on their way to New Mexico. However, the small population of New Mexico could only absorb a limited amount of trade goods, so many of those who followed in Becknell’s footsteps were forced to continue on to Chihuahua to sell their wares, where they were met by resistance both from Mexican merchants.
In March 1825, President John Quincy Adams appointed three commissioners to carry out the process of marking a road to Santa Fe and to negotiate a treaty with the Osage Indians for a right of way. These commissioners were Benjamin Reeves of Missouri, Thomas Mathers of Illinois, and Major George C. Sibley, an Indian agent at Fort Osage on the Missouri River. Sibley became the head of the expedition and was aided by William Becknell in mapping the trail for the surveyors.
In April 1825, the expedition set out from Fort Osage, Missouri. On a tributary of the Neosho River, the commissioners met with the leaders of the Kanza and Osage tribes, negotiating agreements for safe passage. Sibley noted the occasion by naming a nearby copse of oak trees “Council Grove.” Today, the town of Council Grove, Kansas, stands on this location.
The party then continued on to the Arkansas River and followed it to the 100th Meridian, the contemporary border with New Mexico. As part of the survey, the group erected mounts to guide travelers from Fort Osage to this point. They waited here for approval to enter Mexico, which they received in late September. Then, Sibley pushed on toward Santa Fe and the other commissioners returned to Missouri.
The reduced party followed the north bank of the Arkansas River for about 40 miles, crossing at a ford. After following the river a few more miles, Sibley led them south toward the Cimarron River. Their path roughly traced what would later become known as the Cimarron Cutoff, bisecting the corner of the present Oklahoma Panhandle. After suffering from lack of water in what became known as the “Cimarron Desert,” the party reached Taos, New Mexico.
The group was treated cordially by the local government and eventually received permission to survey the route in New Mexico. However, the other commissioners never arrived, and in August 1826 the group returned to Missouri. After several delays, the commissioners submitted their report in October 1827. However, the survey had little impact, because the constant traffic to Santa Fe had by 1827 left a clear path for others to follow.
In 1827, the town of Independence, Missouri was founded and by 1832, would become the eastern terminus and outfitting point for the Santa Fe Trail.
In addition to the challenges of competition, and lack of water in the “Cimarron Desert”, Santa Fe Traders faced another problem — an increase in Indian attacks. In 1827 Pawnee Indians in Kansas made off with more than 100 mules and other livestock from a wagon train returning from New Mexico. The next year, several Pawnee warriors killed two members of a wagon train, and in retribution, the traders shot and killed a group of presumably innocent Indians who were in the area. Thus began a period of harassment by the Indians of wagon trains along the trail, and soon U. S. troops were enlisted to accompany wagon trains across the Great Plains, with Mexican troops meeting them at the Arkansas River, which was, at the time, the international border between the United States and Mexico.
The Cimarron Route was the only wagon road to Santa Fe until the 1840s when the Mountain Branch was opened.