International Trade on the Santa Fe Trail, 1821-1846

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.

Covered Wagon

Covered Wagon

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.

Fur Trapper

Fur Trapper

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.

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