International Trade on the Santa Fe Trail, 1821-1846

Traded Goods

During his 1825-1827 survey expedition, George C. Sibley sent a letter back to his associates in Missouri in which he outlined the items he felt would sell best in Santa Fe. His enumeration provides information on the types of items leaving Missouri for Santa Fe in the early years of the trade. Cloth, food, medicine, and hardware figured prominently in Sibley’s list. In the 1830s, according to Santa Fe trader Alphonso Wetmore and US Secretary of War Lewis Cass, the principal goods being traded from Mexico back to Missouri included Mexican dollars, fine gold, beaver pelts, horses, mules, and asses. Manifests listed the items passing through the Mexican customs house in Santa Fe for the purpose of assessing the amount of tax due. Two of these documents dating from the year 1835 provide evidence that the types of items traded in this period were not significantly different than those of the preceding years. It was the quantity and diversity of merchandise shipped into Santa Fe that changed dramatically between the 1820s and the 1840s; the price of similar items during this time period also declined.

Supplies headed for Santa Fe, courtesy the Kansas Historical Society

Supplies headed for Santa Fe, courtesy of the Kansas Historical Society

The types of goods transported from the United States and Europe to be sold at Santa Fe reflect the international character of the trade. Cloth, including cottons, silks, and linens, was the most important item of merchandise transported to Mexico. Other items sold in Santa Fe included: dry goods, hardware, tableware, cutlery, jewelry, whiskey and champagne, and a wide variety of other manufactured goods. Traders acquired gold and silver Mexican dollars, silver bullion, gold dust, mules, donkeys, and furs in Santa Fe for their return trip to the United States. Mexican merchants also found a market in Missouri for mules, asses, buffalo robes, furs, and small volumes of coarse wool. Trappers played a significant role in the Santa Fe trade in that they provided trail merchants with manpower for their caravans, customers for their merchandise, and sources of supply for one of their most popular commodities — fur.

The estimated total value of annual goods traded along the Santa Fe Trail between 1821 and 1846 increased dramatically, although it was not a steady increase. Some of the fluctuations in the expanding trade can be attributed to conditions along the trail, while others were related to issues and events in the US or Mexico: for example, confrontations between traders and Indians along the trail, particularly in late 1828 and early 1829; the Panic of 1837; or the Texas uprising in 1841 to 1843.

The Santa Fe trade had an effect on the industrial areas of the eastern United States, especially the northeast, providing a new market for large quantities of merchandise. Both American and European goods were traded extensively, encouraging New Mexican material dependency upon Anglo-American trade items, as well as encouraging the industrial development of the northeastern US. The major wholesale sources of goods which the traders hauled to Santa Fe were a number of prominent firms in New York City, Boston, Philadelphia, and St. Louis. In the early period of the trade, goods were purchased by independent traders or by an intermediary for a group of traders directly from these cities. Many Missouri merchants purchased large quantities of goods on yearly trips east and advertised them for sale specifically as “Santa Fe Goods.” By the 1840s, forwarding and commission houses acted as middlemen between the eastern wholesalers and the Santa Fe merchants, with Kansas City as the staging point for their caravans.

Travel on the Trail

Freight Team on the Plains

Freight Team on the Plains

Just as during the early years of trade between Missouri and Mexico, merchants engaged in the Santa Fe trade learned what merchandise would bring the greatest profits and which eastern wholesalers offered the best deals. Santa Fe Trail traders and travelers determined the best routes of travel for freighting goods whether with pack animals or wagon caravans. They found the best places to cross rivers and streams or modified stream banks to make crossings faster and safer. They determined the best locations to camp, the best streams and springs that had constant potable water, and all the things that travelers across the Plains in the early to mid-nineteenth century needed to know in order to successfully complete their journeys. They also found what dangers were most likely to be encountered and where to expect problems. They figured out the best means of travel, the items needed for the journey, and how to organize a wagon train for long distance freighting. However, traders also made changes as necessary to maintain the trade, increase their profits, travel safely, or take advantage of changing conditions. The Missouri River was navigable between March and November in central Missouri. Towns with river landings provided potential jumping-off points for the Santa Fe Trail, as merchandise for the trade could be brought in by riverboat at lower rates than those offered by overland routes. The river town of Franklin in central Missouri served as the departure point for William Becknell and other early traders. After a Missouri River flood inundated Franklin in 1828, the town of New Franklin was established two miles northeast of the flooded town of Franklin, but did not seem to play a significant role in the trade, as by 1828, the terminus had moved slightly west. The ferry at Arrow Rock – a bluff along the west bank of the Missouri River – became widely used during the early years of the Santa Fe Trail, especially as Mexican merchants made their way to Franklin. As steamboats came into common use, ports were established upstream and were found to offer advantages.

Westport Landing, Missouri by William Henry Jackson

Westport Landing, Missouri by William Henry Jackson

These steamboat landings were established near the big bend in the Missouri River in Jackson County, Missouri. With the establishment of Fort Leavenworth in Kansas Territory in May 1827, a new steamboat landing was available for military freight, which could then be transported along the Santa Fe Trail via military roads, linking the post to the trail. By freighting goods on the river to these upstream landings, traders saved nearly 100 miles of difficult travel over unimproved and often muddy roads. During the 1830s and 1840s Independence and Westport, and later, Kansas City, were the principal outfitting locations and trailheads at the eastern end of the Santa Fe Trail. By the mid-1840s, trail traffic in Westport had caught up with or exceeded the trail traffic in Independence. At least three different trail routes developed in the greater Kansas City area depending upon which river landing and outfitting town a caravan started and which crossing was used over the Big Blue River.

During the first 25 years of the Santa Fe Trail, the Cimarron Route was used almost exclusively over the Mountain Route, which was not considered a viable route for wagon traffic due to its geography. Wagons more easily traversed the relatively level terrain of southwest Kansas than the steep slopes of the Mountain Route into New Mexico. The Mountain Route was rarely used in the years preceding the Mexican-American War except by pack animals.

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