The Santa Fe Trail

The Santa Fe Trail was one of those natural routes sometimes found between countries far separated. The physical conformation of the Southwest made this road a commercial highway. Over its course—at least, over courses approximating its final location—savage tribes had migrated and warred and traded for many generations before America was discovered. It could not be otherwise. For some definite way was necessary from the mouth of the Kansas River across the Prairies, and Great Plains to the depressions in the mountain systems of Western North America. The breaking down of these mountain chains produced the arid lands and desert regions found in New Mexico, Arizona, and California. To the southward the Great Plains emerged into those countries and the El Llano Estacado, or Staked Plain, of the Panhandle of Texas.

In the evolution of the human race man passed through his various periods of development in ways now seen to have constituted nature itself. Fish was his first artificial food—for it had to be cooked to become fully available. And it is probable that man first utilized fire when he turned to this food. To procure fish for food, man, in the Middle Status of Savagery, followed the shores and streams of the world and spread over the whole earth. So streams were the first routes of continental or inland travel coursed by man. Certain points of departure from one stream to another became recognized as having superior advantages. This superiority of locations seems also to have been natural to the intuition of animals, for they well knew the easy grades and the fords and best crossing-places. They, in common with man, sought the most natural ways from stream to stream, and the lowest gaps and depressions through the mountains and over the countries which constituted their habitats and ranges. In some lands rivers became sacred—some instances of which remain to this day. In those primal days the Missouri River, in common with others, was, no doubt, traversed by primitive man. He ascended it—descended it. He dwelt on its shores for generations and ages. As he increased in mental power and in numbers other sources of food-supply developed. In pursuit of these he began to explore and travel from its shores. As his geographical knowledge was increased and his own powers were augmented, intercourse with other tribes began. The point on the Missouri River from which the country we call the Southwest was most easily reached was the mouth of the Kansas. There the Missouri makes its great turn, the big bend, and strikes eastward to meet the Mississippi. It is the nearest point made by the Missouri to the Prairies and Great Plains. In fact, the Prairies there touch it for the first time in its ascent. From that point the trails departed, and to that point they converged. Coming out from the depressions in the continental mountain ranges of the West, the Missouri was first and most easily reached at the mouth of the Kansas River. These causes combined to make and establish that ancient continental way which the white man came to call the Santa Fe Trail. It was a highway, old and well-trod, when Coronado passed down it upon his return from Quivira.

The Spaniards, on their various expeditions into and over the Great Plains, always traveled portions of the Trail. The first Americans to follow it were the pioneer hunters and trappers. The French traders, no doubt, transported goods for Indian barter over the Trail when individual effort represented the extent of the commerce of the Great Plains. Pike followed it up the Arkansas, and Long followed it down the same stream.

The Santa Fe Trail, in the days of its greatest fame, extended from Independence, Missouri, to Santa Fe, the capital city or seat of Government of the province of New Mexico. Between these points there were practically no settlements of white people, and, indeed, few permanent Indian towns. The City of Santa Fe was founded about 1610, the exact date being unknown. It is in the valley of a small stream which flows westward into the Rio Grande, some sixteen miles away. It was not laid out on any definite plan, the streets of the old town straggling to all quarters. In the prosperous days of the Santa Fe trade, it contained about three thousand inhabitants. The houses were constructed of adobe, and as they glimmered in the desert sun, they appeared to be but so many brick kilns. For the site was treeless, and dust and sand were whirled up there in clouds with every breeze. There is some vague Indian tradition that in prehistoric times there was an Indian pueblo on the site of Santa Fe. The background and setting of the town are incomparable. Bold mountains rise almost to the regions of perpetual snow, and the climate is said to be as near perfection as any in America. Under direction of the Americans, it had become a modern and enterprising city—just as New Mexico had become a prosperous and progressive commonwealth.

Under both Spanish and Mexican rule the province of New Mexico contained a population low in the scale of human intelligence. That this deplorable condition was justly chargeable to the Government goes without saying. Travelers tell us that the people were below the native Indians in virtue and morality. They were priest-ridden, and buried in the grossest ignorance and superstition. The priests were first in vice. They fixed the fees for performing the ceremony of marriage at such an exorbitant sum that few could pay them, forcing most families to rest on voluntary and criminal connections outside the pale of both the Church and the law. There was, in fact, no law, as Americans understand that term. In theory there was a reversion to ancient Latin Statutes, but no one knew what these were, nor cared. There were the rudest elements of a corrupt administration of indistinct legal customs modified by degeneracy since their importation from Spain two centuries before. Corruption pervaded the public service, and ingenious rascality often won for a man a position of consequence.

In trade with Northern Mexico, however, all the weakness and inefficiency did not lie on one side. Historians of the trade are agreed on one point—that the American consular and diplomatic service in Mexico was the most servile ever maintained by any nation. It was a disgrace. The murder of many American citizens resulted from it, and other Americans who were so unfortunate as to be under the necessity of availing themselves of its so-called aid were humiliated beyond expression and were unable to have any attention whatever given to their affairs. The course of our Government, in this respect, was not lost upon the people of Mexico. They soon learned that American citizens might be robbed and outraged with impunity. Very rarely could an American official in Mexico be induced to give even the least attention to any effort at redress of the grossest indignities heaped upon American citizens transacting business there. Our country was held in the most supreme contempt by the Government and people of Mexico—and justly so. Our diplomatic standing there was regarded as about on a level with that of San Domingo. And the American traders overland with Northern Mexico had the full benefit of this miserable policy.
No complete history of the Santa Fe trade and trail can be attempted in this work. But a brief review of some of the most important transactions of both will be given.

When the Spaniards owned Louisiana they had some thought of developing the overland trade between New Mexico and that province. In May, 1792, one Pedro Vial was sent from Santa Fe to Governor Caron at St. Louis to open communications for that purpose. He was instructed to keep a daily account of his journey, and to note carefully his course. He was given two Pecos Indians for companions, and four horses to transport baggage. He went by the way of Pecos, and from thence to the Canadian—known to him as Colorado River—Red River. He intended to reach the “Nepeste River, which we call in French the Arkansas River.” The Arkansas was reached on the 27th of May at a point in the great bend, for the stream flowed “east northeast.” On the 29th they fell in with a party of Kansas Indians and were in danger of losing their lives. They were made captive and taken to the Kansas town, on the Kansas River. There they remained until the 16th of September, when they departed in a pirogue with three French traders going to St. Louis, where they arrived on the 6th of October. It does not appear that this effort to open communications overland between the two Spanish provinces bore fruit. No document had been found giving further account of it.

The descriptions of the Great Southwest written by Lieutenant Pike and published in the Journals of his explorations stirred the border of that day. They were accounts of two men who had undertaken some vague mercantile adventures to the Spanish province of New Mexico. The first of these was Baptiste LaLande, a native of Upper Louisiana. William Morrison, a Pennsylvanian, had settled at Kaskaskia in 1790 and established there a profitable mercantile business. It occurred to him that trade might be developed between Louisiana and Northern Mexico. He accordingly sought the services of LaLande, who probably was a French trader to the Indian tribes of the Missouri country—most likely on the Platte. He must have possessed more than ordinary qualifications for conducting trade and a reputation for integrity, for Morrison furnished him with a trading supply which he was to carry to New Mexico for sale or barter there. That LaLande had previously operated along the Platte is evident from his course. He ascended that river in 1804 to reach Santa Fe. There he set up in business for himself with the goods of Morrison. One of the matters Lieutenant Pike carried for adjustment was the claim of Morrison against LaLande. But, LaLande, learning of the presence of the Americans in New Mexico, sought them in the character of a spy against the Spaniards—whether in good faith was not known. Later he entered the plea of poverty and inability to pay the claim of Morrison—and he never did pay it, though he left a large estate to numerous descendants.

Pike found another resident of Santa Fe who had come from the country east of the Mississippi. James Pursley was probably born in Kentucky, for in 1799 he arrived, from Bardstown in that state, in Missouri. He engaged in the business of hunting and trapping. In the pursuit of this calling he joined a party in 1802 to hunt on the head waters of the Osage. In that savage region he was robbed of his equipment and compelled to set out on his return to the settlements about St. Louis. He reached the Missouri, which he was descending in a canoe, when he met a party coming up, on the way to the Indian hunting-grounds. He was induced to join this new expedition, and he went as a member of it to the Comanches and Kiowas. These Indians were attacked by the Sioux and driven into the Rocky Mountains. From this retreat the Indians sent Pursley to the Spanish settlements to arrange for trade. Once at Santa Fe, he could not bring himself to return to his savage partners. He took up the trade of carpenter in that capital and followed it for many years. He returned to St. Louis in 1824, but whether he remained there is not known.

In 1812 James Baird, believing that the prohibitive restrictions against foreign trade had been removed by the declaration of Mexican Independence of Hidalgo in 1810, organized an expedition to trade with Santa Fe. Among his associates were Samuel Chambers and Robert McKnight; and there were perhaps a dozen more. They crossed the Plains, following the directions laid down by Lieutenant Pike, and finally reached Santa Fe. There they found that Americans were especially obnoxious to the Spaniards. They were arrested. Their goods and other property were confiscated. They were carried to Chihuahua and east into prison, where they suffered many hardships and indignities at the hands of the Mexicans. They did not regain their liberty until the rise of the Mexican Revolution in 1821.

The expedition of A. P. Chouteau and Julius De Munn was little more fortunate that that of Baird and his associates. At the beginning of the season for traveling on the prairies and plains in 1815 these gentlemen agreed to trade as partners on the Upper Arkansas. They were delayed in the perfection of their arrangements, and it was not until September that their venture was gotten under way. On the 10th of that month they left St. Louis in company with Mr. Phillebert, who had made a successful voyage of trade to the mountains in 1813, and was now desirous of repeating that success. He, however, sold out his goods and equipment to Chouteau and De Munn, but he seems to have remained as one of the party on the journey. He had a quantity of furs in the mountains which he had not yet carried out, and these were probably stored on the Huerfano, for he had selected that creek as his rendezvous. The expedition did not arrive at this rendezvous until the 8th of December. They found the place deserted but for some Indians, who said the men had waited for Phillebert until convinced he would not return, when they had taken all his property and gone to Taos. De Munn followed them there, and not securing permission from the Spanish authorities to hunt on the head waters of the Rio Grande, he took the men who had been in the service of Phillebert to the camp on the Huerfano. From that point he and Phillebert set out for St. Louis to bring up additional supplies, leaving Chouteau to do a winter’s work as trader and trapper. He was to bring the fruits of his effort to the mouth of the Kansas River the next spring to meet his partner. On the way down he was attacked by a band of two hundred Pawnees and forced to take refuge on an island in the Arkansas River. This island was just west of the present town of Hartland, Kearny County, Kansas. From this incident the island was called Chouteau’s Island. The Chouteaus never had a trading post there, as is said by some writers.

The expedition of Glenn to Santa Fe arrived there in 1821, but as it ascended to the mountains by circuitous route from the mouth of the Verdegris, little pertaining to Kansas was connected with it.

The first successful venture to Santa Fe over the Santa Fe Trail was made by Captain William Becknell. With him, according to Gregg, were “four trusty companions.” They left Arrow Rock, on the Missouri, near Franklin, but in Saline County, September 1, 1821. On the 13th of November they met a troop of Mexican soldiers, who prevailed upon them to voluntarily go, in their company, to Santa Fe, whither they were returning. At San Miguel they found a Frenchman who acted as interpreter for them. They were accorded a friendly reception at Santa Fe, and provided the facilities necessary to dispose of their goods. These sold at such rates as astonished the Missourians, calicoes and domestic cotton cloth bringing as much as three dollars a yard. The enterprise proved most remunerative. The party set out on the return journey on the 13th of December and reached home in forty-eight days.

Pursuant to an act of Congress and the stipulations of the 1825 Osage treaty the Commissioners proceeded to lay out, survey and mark the Santa Fe Trail in the year 1825. This survey was not complete until 1827. It began at Fort Osage, now Sibley, Jackson County, Missouri. The field notes of this old survey are in the library of the Kansas State Historical Society, and they are here given—with explanations and identifications interpolated and enclosed in brackets:

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