The Wild West of Yester-Year

The Santa Fe Trail

By Rachel Kovaciny

When William Becknell first used an old trail from Missouri to Santa Fe, he didn’t realize he had opened up a new trade route. He just wanted to make money fast. But the Santa Fe Trail he helped create turned into a major piece of infrastructure for our young country. In 1821, Mexico gained its independence from Spain. The United States had been interested in trading with Mexico for decades, but the Spanish had denied entry to all Americans who came to Mexico for that purpose. Once the Mexican people were free from Spain’s rule, they were eager to trade with their neighbors to the north.


Enter William Becknell, a veteran of the War of 1812 who had served under Captain Daniel Morgan Boone, son of the famous wilderness explorer. Becknell was a ferryman and farmer in Missouri when Mexico gained its independence. He had severe financial difficulties and decided to try his hand at trading to ease his money troubles. He led a group off toward Mexico, their mules and horses loaded with manufactured goods worth three hundred dollars. Although several other groups had the same idea, Becknell and his men reached the city first, roughly following a route once used by the French and Spanish. After a month of trading, Becknell and his men headed back to Santa Fe with over six thousand dollars. Becknell repeated the trip to Santa Fe a month later. This time, he took wagonloads of trade goods purchased with his profits from the first trip, plus goods provided by a group of investors. He turned goods worth $3,000 into more than $90,000.


After another trading journey, Becknell traveled the route one last time in 1825 to help surveyors create an accurate map of the route to Santa Fe for the US government. Until 1846, the Santa Fe Trail was a commercial superhighway for trade between the US and Mexico. The United States supplied manufactured goods that were rare in Mexico, and Mexico supplied furs and silver valuable to the Americans. But, in 1846, they put the trail to a new use: war. In 1846, America’s Army of the West used the Santa Fe Trail to invade Mexico during the Mexican-American War. By the end of the war, Santa Fe and the land all around it belonged to the United States. The trail then became an important route for settlers who wanted to start new lives in the far reaches of our country.


For several decades, the Santa Fe Trail served as the lifeline that connected the eastern United States to its southwestern territories. The Pony Express even used parts of it for their mail routes. That all changed when the Transcontinental Railroad was completed in 1880. Trade goods could now move much cheaper and faster by rail than by freight wagon. Settlers and other travelers could also travel faster and more comfortably by train than by horse or wagon. As quickly as it had gained importance, the Santa Fe Trail fell into disuse. However, in the 1920s, the trail’s usefulness revived. Large stretches got paved so that automobiles could travel it. They incorporated parts of it into Route 66. Today, the National Register of Historic Places list portions of the trail in Kansas, Missouri, New Mexico, and Oklahoma. The longest section of the trail easy to identify is near Dodge City, Kansas. But you can find parts of it in all of those states still.


Today, we remember William Becknell as the Father of the Santa Fe Trail. He only wanted to make enough money to pay off his debts back in 1821, but ended up helping an entire nation grow and prosper.