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The road to Santa Fe

by Nancy Christofferson

NEW MEXICO— 1821 was a pivotal year for New Mexico and adjacent lands. First, an uprising throughout Spanish-owned Mexico resulted in General Agustin Iturbide declaring himself Emperor Agustin I of an independent country. Then, in November, William Becknell and five other Missourians arrived in New Mexico with trade goods. Had they arrived any sooner, they would have met the same fate as their predecessors attempting to supply the market – they would have been sent to prison, where the unlucky would-be merchants served up to eight years.

Becknell was the first known traveler to follow the Arkansas River and its tributaries from Missouri to Santa Fe. Others had used the Arkansas from the Mississippi, as the former river was navigable for several hundred miles, and they could embark from Fort Smith. Once they got into Oklahoma, they were forced by low water to begin overland travel along the banks of the Canadian River.

Becknell’s initial trip to New Mexico required about two and a half months. The return trip east, along a slightly different track but still relying on the Arkansas to guide them, took 48 days and that included a stopover with the Kansa tribe. Their reward for the journey included money, mules and “Spanish” blankets, and they were entirely satisfied.

The Missourians were so pleased with their profits they began planning a second trip in 1822. This time they expected to haul more goods by using wagons. Their enthusiasm was contagious, and others hearing about the successful venture made their own arrangements.

Some of the merchants were doomed to failure by greed. New Mexico, it was said, was full of uneducated, naïve and needy individuals. A Spanish official named Pedro Baptista Pino in 1812 had gone to Spain and petitioned King Ferdinand VII for “relief for the province”. He told of the appalling lack of professionals such as teachers, physicians, attorneys, soldiers and priests. The people of New Mexico, he said, were indeed poor because they were treated poorly.

After word of this, easterners assumed New Mexicans were gullible. They were not. Those men who chose to take low quality goods quickly discovered the people of New Mexico were very discerning, and despite relative poverty, would pay well for well made and quality merchandise. For instance, no cheap fabric for the housewives – only fine silks and satins would do.

Becknell this time was accompanied by 21 men and three wagons pulled by mules. They left Fort Osage, Missouri, on May 25. They again followed the Arkansas across the plains, but this time headed up the Cimarron, a new path that would become known as the Dry Route (as opposed to the Mountain or Bent’s Branch). During this trip, the party had some troubles with the “rascally Osage” but those involved were rescued by Auguste Pierre Chouteau who was fortuitously in the tribe’s camp to trade at the time the Missouri prisoners were brought in.

After returning home Becknell made the comment, “An excellent road may be made from Fort Osage to Santa Fe. Few places would require much labor to make them passable.”

This came to be called the Road to Santa Fe. Who first called it the Santa Fe Trail is unknown, but to the merchants and freighters who used it at the time, it was a road, and the only road at that. With continued traffic, the way became well marked and well rutted, and variations in routes were necessarily used to avoid the worst mud holes and washouts.

That year of 1822 an estimated 70 men crossed the plains with the caravans of merchandise. It increased the following year but in 1824 one single caravan included 83 people, 156 mules and horses, 24 wheeled vehicle and a mounted cannon. Though the party lost some of the animals when they were frightened off by buffalo, they made a highly successful trip, returning home with some $160,000 worth of gold, silver and furs. They even measured their mileage – 931 miles one way using the Cimarron route.

It was profits like these that increased the trade. It also caused the government to take note, and President Monroe was authorized by Congress in 1825 to hire surveyors to mark the road. Three men, one of whom was George C. Sibley, were duly employed for the task. They were also tasked with making treaties with the various tribes to ensure safe passage along this increasingly profitable commercial pathway.

The surveying party left Fort Osage in mid July to begin talks with the Indians. After three weeks of travel, they arrived at a “Large and beautiful Grove of fine Timber” where they met with Osage representatives. The place was naturally dubbed Council Grove, and so it remains. Sibley and his cohorts were so impressed with the Osage interpreter, one William Shirley Williams, that they hired him for their entire trek.

Besides Old Bill Williams, other notables making their first trips to New Mexico in 1826 were Jedediah Smith, Jim Beckwourth, Louis Vasquez, William R. Walker and Albert Gallatin Boone.

In 1827, a large caravan left Missouri heading west, about the same time a trader named Escudero departed on his way home to New Mexico. He had evidently traveled east that spring, purchased a half dozen large “American” wagons and filled them with merchandise. The trader’s road was not one-way.

Newcomers to the road to Santa Fe that season included the young men Thomas H. Boggs and Christopher “Kit” Carson.

Meanwhile, poor old Sibley and company, which now included Kit’s brother Andrew Carson, were hard at work, surveying, correcting, resurveying and marking the trail.

Possibly the largest caravan to make the journey up to that date left Missouri in May 1828. It included about 150 men and some $150,000 in trade goods.

1829 was noteworthy for it was the first time women were known to follow the road. They were part of an eastbound caravan that included ten men and six women who were refugees from the New Mexican regime of the day. The party was accompanied by a military escort all the way from Santa Fe to the Arkansas River, which was the recognized border between the U.S. and Mexico then.

Westbound trains were also escorted. Major Bennett Riley, with a battalion of infantry and one cannon, ushered traders to the Arkansas, but, when word came of an Indian attack just a few miles south of the river, he crossed into Mexico. On this journey, he met the travelers from the southwest, and their combined camp numbered about 500 souls of all nationalities and several thousand head of horses and mules. One American officer wrote it was “the strangest collection of men and animals that had perhaps ever met on a frontier of the United States.”

Oldtimers recollected 1830 was the year oxen were first used on the road to Santa Fe. This summer’s travelers included Ceran St. Vrain and Charles Bent.

A whopping 320 men made the trip west in 1831. One of them was Josiah Gregg, who became an annual traveler and chronicler of the people, places and profits of the road.

In 1832, Mr. Gregg reported 150 men, 70 wagons and merchandise valued at $140,000 went to Santa Fe. Charles Bent was one of the traders, and when he returned east in the fall, he brought from New Mexico coins, gold and silver bullion, mules and furs, said to amount to $190,000. It is no wonder Charles decided to get a little closer to the action in New Mexico.