New Mexico Art Tells its History

History: Santa Fe Trail

Cassidy, View of Santa Fe Plaza in the 1850sThe Santa Fe Trail got its start in 1821, with an advertisement in the "Missouri Intelligencer" by Captain William Becknell, seeking men willing to join and invest in a trading expedition to the west. With the team he organized, Becknell headed his mules west from Franklin, Missouri in September 1821, loaded with goods he planned to take through what is now Kansasto the then, Mexican city of Santa Fe. He arrived in November, and though along and arduous trip, trading was good. Becknell returned home with money inhis pockets and exciting tales of his travels. 

From 1821 to 1846, as more and more traders took their goods over the Santa Fe Trail, it became an international commercial highway used by Mexican and American traders. The 900-mile trail connected Old Franklin, Missouri to Santa Fe and was the lifeline linking the New Mexico Territory to the eastern United States.

With the start of the Mexican-American War in 1846, the Army of the West followed the Santa Fe Trail to invade New Mexico. When the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo ended the war in1848, the Santa Fe Trail became a national road connecting the United States to the new southwest territories.

Trail trade and military freighting boomed. Commercial freighting along the trail included considerable military freight hauling to supply the southwestern forts. Military forts along the Trail provided the backing and support of the US Government, and subdued and relocated the native peoples of the Plains and the Southwest. Great caravans of freight wagons loaded with trade goods generated $5 million in 1855, and by 1866 over 5,000 wagons carried $40 million worth of goods. Stage coachlines, gold seekers heading to the California and Colorado gold fields, adventurers, fur trappers, and emigrants all used the Trail.

Trade also created opportunities for individual entrepreneurs. New Mexican saloon owner Dona Gertrudis "LaTula" Barcelo invested in trade. Wyandotte Chief William Walter leased a warehouse in Independence, Missouri, and his tribe invested in the trade. Hiram Young bought his freedomfrom slavery and became a wealthy maker of trade wagons – and one of thelargest employers in Independence. Blacksmiths, hotel owners, arrieros (muleteers), lawyers, and many others found their places along the Trail. Trade flourished.

Bythe 1870s the barons of commerce turned their eyes to the railroads. With the expansion of railroads acrossthe continent, freighters and stagecoaches began to disappear. In 1879, utilizing part of the old Santa Fe Trail, the first Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad crossed Raton Pass and headed toward Santa Fe making the Santa Fe Trail a thing of the past. By1880 newspaper headlines declared, "The Santa Fe Trail Passes into Oblivion."

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