No improved amenities were found along the trail in the early years. Campsites were carefully selected and needed to provide at least water, grass, and fuel. Draught animals could survive a night without plentiful grass, but neither humans nor animals could survive long without water. Most camping areas were located adjacent to streams or springs. Travelers encountered numerous rivers and streams along the trail. Some were crossed with little trouble, but others with steep banks or muddy bottoms were more difficult to manage and posed major obstacles for travelers. In 1844, author and traveler Josiah Gregg described crossing the Little Arkansas River:
“Although endowed with an imposing name, is only a small creek with a current but five or six yards wide. But, though small, its steep banks and miry bed annoyed us exceedingly in crossing. It is the practice upon the prairies on all such occasions, for several men to go in advance with axes, spades, and mattocks, and, by digging the banks and erecting temporary bridges, to have all in readiness by the time the wagons arrive. A bridge over a quagmire is made in a few minutes, by cross-laying it with the brush (willows are best, but even long grass is often employed as a substitute), and covering it with earth, across which a hundred wagons will often pass in safety.”
Crossings became more dangerous after heavy rains when streams were in flood stage. Sometimes waters remained high for several days causing significant delays. Even when water levels were lower, crossing streams often caused a bottleneck for large caravans as wagons had to wait their turn. Some crossings wore out men and livestock working to move wagons bogged down in mud, and quicksand was a danger that could be encountered on some streams, particularly the Arkansas River. Most of the troublesome crossings were encountered in Kansas.
Many other dangers lurked along the trail. Storms with high winds, heavy rains, and hail caused damage to wagons, drove off livestock, and resulted in injuries. Winter storms with heavy snows and extremely cold temperatures bogged down wagons and killed livestock and travelers. At least two caravans suffered from winter storms. In the winter of 1822-1823 the Baird-Chambers trade caravan, as noted above, was caught in a blizzard on an island in the Arkansas River west of modern-day Dodge City. They were forced to cache their merchandise and continue on to “Touse” [Taos]. They came back in better weather and retrieved their cached goods. In 1841 Don Manuel Alvarez and his small trading party were caught in a blizzard at Cottonwood Creek Crossing. Two men and most of the company’s mules were frozen to death. Livestock stampedes, particularly of oxen, were fairly common because, as Josiah Gregg noted, they tended to be “exceedingly whimsical creatures when surrounded by unfamiliar objects. One will sometimes take a fright at the jingle of his own yoke-irons, or the cough of his mate, and, by a sudden flounce, set the whole herd in a flurry.”
Injuries were also possible from guns and knives handled by the traders and travelers for hunting and protection, though sometimes used in fights against fellow travelers. Rattlesnakes, bees, poison ivy, nettles and briars, and other native fauna and flora could also pose dangers. Because of incidents like the Baird-Chambers expedition, travelers learned which seasons of the year were best suited for travel. During the winter months, Missouri traders purchased goods in the East and had them brought to the trailheads in Independence or Kansas City to be ready for departure in early May.
Leaving in May would ensure adequate grazing on the prairie for the mules and oxen. Eastbound caravans usually left Santa Fe on September 1, arriving in Missouri around October 10th. Caravans could accomplish between ten and 18 miles a day and barring major delays, could reach their destinations within a month and a half. Delays due to rain were common, especially near the eastern part of the trail, as the caravans often had to wait for the water to recede from streams in order to cross.
Various travelers recorded their journeys and provided lists of places along the trail and approximate mileages between them. In later years guidebooks were published for travelers, providing itineraries and tables of distances between campsites. Differences appear in the various listings of trail campsites, even between those recorded only a year or two apart. Some of these differences were due to names of places changing or to increased knowledge over time, while others were due to actual changes in the route of travel. The mileages given on early itineraries were often inaccurate, but accuracy improved in later years with better methods of measurement. Both similarities and differences can be seen in these lists of major stops and distances along the trail between Independence, Missouri and Santa Fe, New Mexico. One of the individuals who wrote an itinerary was trader Alphonso Wetmore. In 1828 he maintained a diary while serving as the captain of a Santa Fe-bound caravan that encountered heavy rains and swollen streams. In addition to his Santa Fe Trail writings, he also wrote prolifically about life in the Army and in Missouri. Wetmore’s Santa Fe Trail itinerary, published in 1837 in his Gazetteer of the State of Missouri, lists 67 major places along the Cimarron Route, including stream crossings, springs, water holes, and campgrounds. He estimated the total distance between Independence and Santa Fe as 897 miles.
Josiah Gregg’s total mileage differed from Wetmore’s. In his 1844 Commerce of the Prairies, Gregg provided a table listing major places and distances along the Cimarron Route based on his six trips along the Santa Fe Trail. He estimated the total distance between Independence and Santa Fe along this route as 770 miles and showed 37 major named places on the route. The most notable difference between the Wetmore and Gregg itineraries is the estimate of the total aggregate mileage between the same starting and ending points. Distances between listed places on both Wetmore’s and Gregg’s itineraries varied from two to 40 miles. During the early years of the Santa Fe Trail, traders and travelers settled on a basic route (the Cimarron Route) between Missouri and Santa Fe, as well as learned and established some basic rules of the road. These included which methods of transportation were best suited along the route, the best ways to efficiently organize trade caravans across the Plains, how to protect the cargo and livestock during times of danger, and choosing the most important items that were needed by the traders along the route. William Becknell used horses as pack animals on his first trade trip; Mexican traders used burros and mules, and arrieros (muleteers) were familiar with their use traveling the rugged Camino Real. No mention of the presence of mules in Missouri has been identified prior to 1824; apparently, the first mules came to the state over the Santa Fe Trail. Goods carried on pack animals had to be loaded each morning and unloaded each evening, a time-consuming process even for experienced arrieros. Pack animals had some advantages over wagon travel in that they were better suited to rough terrain and could negotiate steep stream banks. Unlike the packing and unpacking required when using pack animals, wagons offered the added benefit of just one loading.
Wagons were first used over the Santa Fe Trail in 1822 when William Becknell used three wagons on his second trading expedition. Josiah Gregg, by contrast, identifies 1824 as the initial year for wagon transport across the trail; however, he credits a company of 80 traders with the introduction of this type of animal-drawn vehicle. His account relates the use of 25 wheeled wagons – two carts, one or two road wagons, and the remainder Dearborn carriages – carrying $25,000 to $30,000 worth of merchandise. Once it was proven that wagons could make the journey via the Cimarron Route, wagons became the standard means of transportation, though some travelers continued to use pack mules until 1826. Mules and burros were more frequently used to carry loads back to Missouri than from Missouri to Santa Fe, as it was profitable for traders to sell their wagons in Santa Fe. For instance, William Becknell sold a wagon in New Mexico for $700; he had paid $150 for it in Missouri.
The wagons initially used by the traders consisted of a wide variety of types and sizes, exemplifying the range of wagons available to traders. Early accounts of wagons used on the trail included road wagons, “light running wagons,” carts, and Dearborn carriages, though the actual descriptions of these vehicles are unclear. As the volume of trade increased, and with the imposition of Mexican taxes of a set amount per wagonload regardless of size, more consistency in wagons became apparent by the 1830s. Larger capacity wagons were the result, with typical cargoes of more than 5000 pounds, requiring hitches of 10 or 12 mules.
The wagons most widely used over the trail were manufactured in Pittsburgh and were used by American and Hispanic traders alike. A very heavy type of wagon, known as the “Murphy Wagon,” commonly was used in the transportation of goods. These wagons were named after Joseph Murphy, a St. Louis wagon maker, and had larger wheels and other dimensions than the typical Santa Fe freight wagon. The typical Santa Fe wagon was described in the Westport Border Star of June 30, 1860. According to the Star, the “diameter of the larger wheel is five feet two inches, and the tire weighs 105 pounds. The reach is eleven feet and the bed forty-six inches deep, 12 feet long on the bottom and fifteen feet on the top, and will carry 6,500 pounds across the plains and through the mountain passes.” Drawn by a yoke of six oxen or a team of six mules, these wagons could accomplish between 12 to 15 miles per day when heavily laden, and up to 20 miles per day when empty. The number of wagons composing a caravan varied from 26 in 1824, to 230 by 1843, to 400 in some instances.
Though horses were used for the first few years of the trade, mules and oxen became the principal draught animals. Early Santa Fe traders were reluctant to use oxen, so mules initially were used to draw trail wagons. However, in 1829 Colonel Bennet Riley hitched oxen to military supply wagons taken on the first military escort for traders traveling the trail. Each wagon utilized six or eight animals, but when pulling heavier loads, especially on the outbound journey, up to 12 animals may have been employed. Oxen could pull heavier loads than mules and were cheaper; however, they did not tolerate hot weather well and their tender feet and poor performance on the short, dry prairie meant that mules were a better investment, despite their higher initial cost. In order to overcome the tenderness of their feet, oxen were shod with iron shoes or, occasionally, moccasins made of raw buffalo skin. Even though mules were prone to acquiring very smooth hoofs, they did not require shoeing, though some were shoed anyway. Extra animals often followed the wagon train, providing fresh oxen or mules at points along the trail.
Trail Travelers and Traders
Proceeds obtained from the early expeditions enticed growing numbers of traders to pursue the trail to and from Santa Fe, though the motivation prompting travel varied from individual to individual. The Santa Fe Trail attracted travelers with diverse backgrounds, interests, and purposes – explorers, trappers, traders, fortune hunters, gold seekers, soldiers, health seekers in search of the “prairie cure,” tourists, journalists, and settlers. Taking part in the lucrative trade between Missouri and Santa Fe was the primary reason that most travelers followed the trail prior to the war with Mexico. Even before legal trade between Mexico and the United States commenced, it had been apparent that there was a demand in the Southwest for goods from the eastern seaboard. With the legalization of trade, demand increased, and increasing numbers of traders sought to satisfy that demand in return for the considerable profits to be made. Many of the people who traveled over the trail were traders themselves who used this highway of commerce to conduct their business and maintain their occupation. Others who traveled the trail during this period were employees of traders, military servicemen, trappers and Indian traders, or immigrants in search for opportunities elsewhere.
In the early years, most traders were men with limited capital to put into the trade, and they preferred to conduct their business personally or through a trusted intermediary. Many previously had been involved in the fur trade or trade with Indians and were familiar with Fort Osage and the country between Missouri and Santa Fe. Some were small businessmen, primarily from Missouri; although, records indicate that Tennessee, Kentucky, and Alabama were among other states also represented. A few were farmers with a bit of extra capital to invest or with capital raised from mortgaged farms and a desire for adventure. Ewing Young, a Missouri farmer, and trapper sold his farm in 1822 to finance his trading venture to Santa Fe with Becknell’s caravan. In this Mr. Young was not alone. Other farmers who had suffered in the Panic of 1819 mortgaged their lands to raise the necessary capital to “get in on” the profits of the Santa Fe trade.
Santa Fe traders were typical of the mercantile capitalists of the Commercial Revolution. In contrast to industrial capitalists who flourished in more developed metropolitan areas, mercantile capitalists flourished in less developed regions where they were able to “acquire scarce monetary exchange acceptable for the purchase of foreign goods,” create and become the lending system in lieu of “the absence of an efficient system of indirect lending of capital,” and effectively haul “purchases over vast stretches of water or sparsely settled land.” Items both wholesale and retail were traded in response to the changing demands of consumers and shifting markets. As a result, the Santa Fe trader had to be flexible in his approach to trade. Gregg, The Santa Fe trader usually operated alone, and he furnished or made arrangements to lease, his own mode of transportation since no national or international transportation network existed. Often the Santa Fe trader did not receive money in return for his merchandise, so it was necessary to extend credit or employ some form of exchange in order to conduct business. Since the trader crossed state and national boundaries, it was necessary for him to seek cooperative relationships with state and national governments. John, James, and Robert Aull were well-known early Santa Fe traders who subscribed to the viewpoint of the mercantile capitalist, and as such, their backgrounds and activities were exemplary of other early traders. John Aull arrived in Chariton, Missouri, from Delaware around 1819. He operated a store there with two other partners until 1822 when he moved to Lexington, Missouri, and ran a general store until his death in 1842. His younger brothers, James and Robert, went west in 1825. James Aull started his own store in Lexington on his arrival and opened branches at Independence in 1827 and at Richmond, Missouri, in 1830. Robert Aull started a store at Liberty, Missouri, in 1829. In 1831 James and Robert Aull combined forces to manage a family firm, which operated all four stores until their partnership was dissolved in 1836. During this partnership, James managed the Lexington store; Robert was responsible for overseeing the one at Liberty, and Samuel Owens was given responsibility for the one at Independence.