Compiled by Allan J. Wheeler 2007 to 2010 and last updated October 2015.

(See the end for a list of sources used)

 The Writing Style Used:

Generally history is written by scholars in a style which is off-putting to others. That often dry and somewhat ponderously detailed style is meant to be read by other scholars and researchers who are motivated by the need to know details and source documentation.

In addition to being boring to read the scholar may focus on only a part of the story. What follows is an attempt to portray the complete story which will take the reader from the beginning moments to the natural conclusion of a segment in history. And does so in an easy to read manner.

The physical story of any trail or road can be interesting in itself. But add the human element and interest is enhanced. To the best of our knowlwdge this rendition of the Trail’s story is the first to include the entirety of what the average traveler would have seen and experienced as they walked or rode the Trail in the mid-eighteen hundreds.


Until the Spanish Empire was expelled from Mexico in 1821 there could not have been a Santa Fe Trail or any similar international commercial trade trail which led from the aggressively expanding United States to the Spanish controlled southwest. Then in a period of less than one year that trail was opened due primarially to the efforts of one man and it changed the history of America (both Mexico and the United states).

After the Spanish government occupied the area which they termed “New” Mexico, in 1598 the Spanish were afraid that any trade or even contact with the English or the French would lead to an invasion of what they claimed as Spanish territory. Thus they prohibited trade with their eastern neighbors and closed their area to foreigners. The few adventurous souls from the east or the north who ignored this ban were usually caught and their goods confiscated. Sometimes the interlopers were arrested, taken to Mexico and held captive.

Then, in August, 1821, the Spanish were expelled by the Mexicans who had been ill- treated by the often-arrogant Spanish government. This event opened the way for trade with the east- especially with the new state of Missouri.

At that precise time that a man, living in Missouri, was in desperate need of Spanish silver coin to pay his debts. Thus it was an accident of history that William Alexander Becknell was the first eastern trader to arrive and to be welcomed in Santa Fe after the trade embargo was ended. But he was certainly not the last.

When he used three wagons to carry trade goods to Santa Fe during his second trip in May, 1822 he opened-up what was called the Santa Fe Trail or Road which lasted for 58 years until replaced by railroads.

On this trail rode or walked thousands of traders, their employees and a few migrants. Much wealth was transported and, in 1846, provided the passage for the invasion of the southwest by the Americans who had seen the tremendous wealth which flowed from the southwestern area via the Santa Fe Trail and wanted that for the US.

The term “manifest destiny” was applied to this goal of conquest and annexation by a newspaper editor during the early 1840’s. However, the driving force behind the so-called manifest destiny was not only the desire to see the US territory span the land from sea to sea but to claim the wealth from trade and from the natural resources which were located in that area. Thus, the phony reasons which were given for the US invading Mexico’s territory (the Mexican “invasion” of a disputed portion of southern Texas). And then annexing some sixty percent of that countries’ territory via the Mexican War of 1846 to 1848.

What follows is the story of how and why the Santa Fe Trail operated for almost sixty years and of the resulting economic, political and cultural impact it had upon the US, the southwest of what is now the US and its neighbor, Mexico.

Introduction- Driven By Economics

The development, success and decline of the Santa Fe Trail (often called the “Road” not “Trail” in those times) was driven by economics. The economic based “Panic”(depression) of 1819 (caused by western land speculation on credit as well as inflation and the lack of “hard” currency) forced the founder of the trail, William Alexander Becknell, to undertake the risky journey to Santa Fe. He needed the silver coin in order to pay off his debts and to avoid, possibly, being put in debtor’s prison.

The success of the Trail itself was primarily an economic one since it always was basically a commercial trail and not an immigrant trail like the California or Oregon Trails which began two decades later.

Then, the quick demise of the Trail, after nearly sixty years of use, was due to the economic advantage which the new railroads had in shipping goods more cheaply and in larger quantity to the growing markets in the west.

The Trail had an important influence in focusing the attention of the eastern power brokers and Congress upon the economic potential of the southwest. This resulted in the annexation by conquest of the southwest by the US in 1848. It also had a major cultural impact upon the Indians and the former Mexican citizens of that area- an impact which still exists today.

Trade on the Trail developed rapidly after William Becknell’s three wagons reached Santa Fe in mid-1822. By 1825, a change in the nature of the organization and financing of the wagon trains was beginning to be seen. The reason was twofold. First the Native Americans often actively resented the intrusion of the strangers who crossed their land and killed their game in the process. And the trains were increasingly being run by merchant, trading and then freighting business operations rather than the small summer-time trader like Becknell.

These businesses had access to much greater funding. They could organize large trains for protection and could usually absorb losses caused by Indian raids and accidents. Another reason for this change was the growing recognition of the potential of the untapped market which Santa Fe and the entire southwest and Mexico represented. This market had been underserved during the Spanish occupation from 1598 to 1821. When Mexico finally evicted the Spanish government in 1821 the pent-up need for basic as well as luxury goods was ripe for development- first in Santa Fe and then soon in much of Mexico and the southwest.

Trade on the trail was two-way. As early as 1826 Mexican national merchants began coming to Missouri to purchase goods directly. This need for US obtained goods by Mexicans was increased by a Spanish fleet embargoing the primary Mexican seaport of Vera Cruz and preventing European goods from entering Mexico. This situation lasted from 1821 until 1827 when the Spanish finally abandoned the fort which was located on an island off the shore of their principal commercial port of Vera Cruz.

In contrast with the Mexican national merchants, at first the New Mexican Hispanic merchants, in Santa Fe and elsewhere, were short of the capital necessary to buy goods and to assemble wagon trains to go east. It was not until 1830 that the first merchant from Santa Fe, Jose Ortiz, went to Independence and then on to Philadelphia to buy goods to take to Santa Fe.

After that Mexican national merchants were known to have made many profitable trading trips to and from the US. Some of these merchants ventured as far as Philadelphia and New York City and even to Europe to buy the goods that they wanted. Also some, who had large wagon trains at their disposal, contracted with the US Government to carry Army supplies to Ft. Union and other US Army forts after 1851 when Fort Union was established as the Army’s supply center for the southwest.

One such Mexican family was the Aguirre family. They had built a ranching and a mercantile empire by the 1850’s. This was located in the Las Cruces (NM) to Chihuahua (Mexico) areas. The Santa Fe “New Mexican” newspaper at that time identified them as “the first large Mexican contractor” (with the US Army). Later they moved their operations to the Territory of Arizona where the family is still active. Closer to Santa Fe was the Romero Family who also were major traders and freighters on the Trail and had their headquarters in Romeroville, New Mexico located between Santa Fe and Las Vegas NM.

The volume and dollar amount of the trade over the Trail increased almost yearly. A conservative estimate of the total dollar value of trade, during the 58 years the trail was in operation, is one hundred million dollars or approximately three billion in 2011 dollars. However, because no records are available from Mexico, these figures do not take into account the Mexican portion of the trade which, if included, may well have doubled this amount.

Note: See below (end notes)for information related to the sources of the hard currency used by the Mexicans to pay for goods which they purchased.

The Trail lasted until 1880 when the railroads were able to supply the southwest with more goods more economically and almost overnight put the Trail out of business.

The People Who Traveled The Trail

The Santa Fe Trail was what is termed a “trade” trail. Thus the people who traveled the Trail were mostly male traders and teamsters who usually made a round trip. While most of the other major trails, used during the settling of the west, were traveled by men, women and children who were migrating westward across the US with no intent of returning.

Some of the other trade trails at that time which were inter- connected were the heavily traveled El Camino Real which ran north-south 1,500 miles to and from Mexico City and Santa Fe and Taos, New Mexico. The Spanish Trail, in its several route variations, was in use for only thirty or so years between Santa Fe and Los Angles. It was a pack trail of minor importance economically and was unable to accommodate wagons due to the rugged terrain. Later the Gila Trail across Arizona was developed to carry wagon loads of goods. Like the Santa Fe Trail, all of these trails had been Indian trade routes for centuries.

Most of the wagons (1851 and after) did not go to Santa Fe but unloaded their goods at Ft. Union or turned south and west at Ft Union or Las Vegas/San Miguel New Mexico to take branch trails to the many Army forts/encampments and civilian settlements which lay in that area.

During the first few years the men who rode or who walked the Trail alongside their draft animals were Anglos mostly from Missouri where the trail originated. Then in the late 1820’s Hispanic traders and their employees began to use the Trail in greater numbers to reach Santa Fe or to go directly to Missouri or further east to buy Anglo goods to resell in Mexico.

In the 1840’s the nature of the trade in Santa Fe itself was modified often by a few Jewish merchants from northern Germany who acted as middle- men. These experienced, well educated and highly organized merchants, were first located in Santa Fe then in Las Vegas and eventually thru-out the southwest. They bought goods from the traders from Missouri and Mexico and resold them often in their own stores. These Jews were sometimes financed by other Jews located in the east coast of the US or in Europe. The Jewish merchants often brought their families with them to the southwest and were some of the first people to do so. The history of these German Jews is an interesting story to read and can be accessed by Goolging “Jewish traders in the US”.

Women were scarce on the Trail until a few Hispanic traders in the late 1820’s brought women with them. The only documented name is that of Carmel Benevides of Santa Fe who accompanied a trader of French origin, Antoine Robidou, in 1829. Then in 1833 the first recorded Anglo woman, Mary Donohoe, accompanied her husband to Santa Fe where they operated the fonda or inn located on the city’s plaza. The hotel, “La Fonda”, is still located on that spot. Mary Donoho also gave birth to the first two documented Anglo children in Santa Fe, Harriet in 1835 and James in 1837. Due to local political unrest in 1837 they left Santa Fe to eventually settle in Clarksville, Texas.

Becknell Goes to Santa Fe (The story behind the story)

In September of 1821 William Becknell and five others embarked upon the, then, dangerous and arduous journey to the Spanish village of Santa Fe. This was not a journey to be done without taking major risks and careful planning. In 1810 the explorer Lt. Zebulon Pike had published his reports of his 1806 exploration of the Spanish held Colorado area. He had included information as to how much profit could be made by bringing eastern US goods to the Spanish occupied areas.

The only problem with doing this was that the Spanish Empire was in decline and all contact with foreigners was forbidden. Those Americans who had read or had heard of his report and then ventured to Santa Fe to trade or to trap furs were arrested. Several groups of would-be traders had experienced this. Some of these eventually made their way back to Missouri and, thus, the risk of venturing west into Spanish Territory was well known.

However, Becknell was in debt. Not only did he owe five creditors almost $1,200. (about $20,000. in 2012 dollars). But he had the misfortune to do so during America’s first major economic recession. The “Panic of 1819” was caused by major land speculation in the area located in western Great Lakes. Because a great deal of this speculation was done on bank credit the US government curtailed credit to banks. This had a ripple effect upon the US economy. Creditors everywhere called-in their loans. Not only did borrowers have to pay back their loans much sooner than they had planned upon but, frequently, their creditors demanded that repayment was to be in “hard” currency.

Repayment in gold or silver coin was usually not possible since the US Government had not minted enough coins in noble metals. The little hard money in circulation was the Spanish doubloon. The demand for these doubloons was so great that they were often split into eight pieces (thus the term “pieces of eight”). The only alternative offered to the debtor to paying back a loan in those days was to be placed, by court order, into “debtor’s prison” (Several decades later this archaic practice was replaced by the ability of a hopeless debtor to declare bankruptcy and the court system then provided them with specific relief from most of their debts).

In early 1821 William Becknell was quite possibly thrown in debtor’s prison. If so,this event influenced his deeds and his attitude from that point on. Becknell was a proud man. He had been a valued member of society wherever he had lived. His word was his bond. He held the position of Militia Captain and had earned that title defending Missouri’s citizens from Indian attacks during the recently completed War of 1812. He had also run for a seat in the new Missouri Legislature (he lost). In every way he was a pillar of the community in mid-Missouri.

We know that a friend was able to put up a bond of $400. But the judge gave Becknell only until early 1822 to come up with the hard currency to pay his debts or he would be put in jail. It is not difficult to imagine that Becknell was desperate to come up with the means to pay off his debts. What he did  from the time the bond was posted and the day that he embarked upon his historic journey is not well documented. What is known is that he placed an ad in the local “Missouri Intelligencer” newspaper asking for recruits to venture west to trade for horses, etc.

The ad was vague as to any details about where they were to go or with whom they would trade. Later it has been surmised that Becknell may have deliberately been vague and misleading in order to limit competition. It seemed to be common knowledge at the time that Mexico was about to become an independent country. When this happened it was lodigical to believe that the prohibition by the Spanish in relation to trade with the US would be removed.

Some deduction has to be done at this point using the sometimes vague information available. Some of that information was gleaned from “Becknell’s Journals” which were published in 1823. And some was obtained by identifying sources such as who Becknell knew who could possess the information which he required to plan his route out west and to determine what the political situation (risk) he would encounter was when he reached Santa Fe.

Probably his main sources of information were an old trapper, Zeke Williams and the man who was second- in- command under Zebulon Pike, Dr. Robertson. It is known that both men lived at that time within one hundred miles of where Becknell lived in Franklin Missouri.

Williams would have known the details of the fur trader’s route followed by Becknell on this first trip to Santa Fe. Dr. Robertson could have supplied the latest details about the political situation in Mexico because he was in correspondence with other doctors and, apparently, with political figures in both Europe as well as the US. Dr. Robertson is still an enigma. Many of his actions and his association with the US Federal government have led to the speculation that he was a spy- perhaps even a double agent. Also, Robertson’s special medical interest was seeking a cure and relief from malaria. He was known for his work with introducing quinine to the Missouri region and encouraging other doctors, world- wide, to use it. Through his correspondence it is possible that he also kept up to date with world events and could have passed on the information to Becknell. Adding credence to this Dr. Robertson connection is the current folklore in the Clarksville, Texas area that Becknell, who moved there in 1833 or 34, was known as the person who traded one thousand acres of valuable pasture land for a large quantity of quinine pills. It is quite possible that Becknell’s interest in quinine came from a contact with Dr. Robertson in his Missouri days. But it should be noted that Dr. Robertson was a “mystery man” the extent of his involvement with various government officials of several countries is a compelling mystery but not one to be explored in this treatment of the Trail.

After meeting with up to 75 men who responded to his ad, Becknell must have been disappointed that only five men showed- up on September 1, 1821 when they were to leave Franklin, Missouri. But leave they did with each man leading a pack- horse loaded with supplies and a small amount of trade goods.

The route which the little party took in 1821 went about 365 miles west- south- west from the town of Franklin to the Arkansas River and the boundary with Mexico. Then it took the travelers west along the river until they reached the Purgatorie River in southern Colorado. Next they went south over the Raton mountains (possibly through Emory Gap) and then down into the Great Plains. At that point they headed southwest and curved around the end of the Rocky Mountains until they reached Santa Fe on November 16th. The journey was almost 900 miles long and took them 77 days.

Near today’s Las Vegas, New Mexico, on November 13th they had a scare. They sighted a dust cloud which could only mean that a large group of horsemen were heading toward them. If these were Spanish troops their trip had been in vain. But, Pedro Gallegos, the leader of the troops, who were in pursuit of Comanche raiders, welcomed Becknell’s party. It is the diary which Gallegos kept which gives us the names of some of Becknell’s companions. He lists Becknell, Ewing Young, a Mr. Laughlin and three others who are not named. But one of them could have been Becknell’s brother, Thomas, because the later publication of “Becknell’s Journals” attributes these to a “Capt. Thomas Becknell.

The Mexican troops then accompanied Becknell’s party to Santa Fe. At Santa Fe Becknell confirmed that Mexico had gained her independence in mid-August and that trade with Santa Fe was now considered desirable by the then Mexican Governor Facundo Melgares.

While in Santa Fe selling their goods Becknell’s party was joined by two other groups of Americans. About ten days behind Becknell was the Thomas James and John McKnight party who also wanted to trade. Then, a second new party arrived in mid-December headed by Hugh Glenn and Jacob Fowler who had little to trade but who wanted permission to trap in Colorado.

Note: The story of the trip west by the James/McKnight party makes for interesting reading. They took a different route from Becknell. They went by water down the Mississippi River to the Canadian River where the went north west. They eventually had to trade their boats for horses but were then held captive by several Comanche groups until being rescued by Mexican troops and taken to Santa Fe.

Becknell spent until early December exchanging his goods for silver coins. On December 13th he was in the eastern most Mexican town of San Miguel. From there he headed northeast on animal and old Indian trails until he reached the Arkansas River. By taking  this route his party avoided the rugged mountains. Accompanying him were Mr. Laughlin and two other unnamed men.

Becknell’s group arrived back in Franklin, Missouri, on January 30, 1822. This time the trip took only 48 days. During the return trip it appears that Becknell satisfied himself that he had found a route which could accommodate wagons. This was, basically, the route which Becknell used when he returned to Santa Fe with wagons in May of that same year.

Note: While Becknell was given the title of “The Father of the Santa Trail” It was actually a Frenchman, Pedro Vial in the late 1700’s, who had plotted basically the same the route for the Spanish. But, for various reasons possibly because of concern about the aggressively expanding US, the Spanish never used the route. However it was Becklnell who first brought wagons to the Trail.

Economic Impact

The introduction of the $6,000. in Mexican silver, which Becknell had exchanged for about $300. in trade goods as a result of his first trip, and the subsequent trade by Americans with the southwest had a welcome impact upon the economy of first Missouri and then the US. For example, in 1839 the Santa Fe traders were reported to have saved the Bank of Missouri from failing because of a lack of faith in paper currency by its depositors. The traders sent to its vaults some $45,000 (almost $1,350,000. today) in silver specie obtained that year from the Santa Fe trade. Prior to the Civil War Missouri was known as “the hard currency state” and was claimed to be the soundest in the Union in her monetary affairs. Thus, the value of this hard currency had a major positive impact upon the commerce of the United States in general since goods used to supply the Trail’s traders were made or grown mostly in the US.

The first wagon train to Santa Fe was organized and led by William Becknell in 1822. It consisted of three medium-sized wagons with some $3,000 to $5,000 in trade goods and about twenty men. By 1824 traffic on the trail had increased to a total of about 25 wagons carrying $35,000 worth of goods and about 100 men. Then in 1824 one train alone accounted for 25 wagons and 81 men. By 1831 this had grown to 130 wagons carrying over $130,000 in goods. By 1843 annual trade had increased to over 230 wagons with over $250,000 in goods which were being hauled as far away as the middle of Mexico by traders from Missouri. Then in 1846, after the Mexican War had begun, this trade increased to almost one million dollars in goods and was transported that year in over 500 wagons.

By 1851 traffic on the trail was greatly enhanced by the establishment of Ft Union by the Army. This new fort was located to the east of Las Vegas, New Mexico, near the junction of the two most popular Trail routes. Fort Union was the supply depot for the Army’s forts in the southwest and soon accounted for much of the traffic on the trail from the east. After the mid-1850s it was Army expenditures in the southwest which drove that economy for years to come.

By 1855 the estimated value of goods hauled over the Trail to the entire southwest exceeded $5,000,000. ($126 million today) Note:The value of goods hauled to Mexico itself is not known since no records were kept by the Mexicans). In 1866 alone over 5,000 wagons were counted going to or passing through Fort Union. By 1870 trade over the trail exceeded ten million dollars (some have put this estimate as high as thirty-five million).

Note: The above figures are estimates from information gathered from Missouri and Kansas located merchants. It is reasonable to believe that these figures can only be relied upon to estimate the increasing volume of trade.

Note: While still named the “Santa Fe Trail”, after the mid- fifties most of the traffic on the Trail was to Ft. Union and to the southwest of the Fort. Thus, ironically, most of the trade never reached the town of Santa Fe after the mid-fifties and the city went into an economic decline. this impacted primarily those people who were involved in the cash economy there. Except for Hispanic traders and merchants, the majority of people were still practicing the barter form of economy and were not affected much by the down turn in commerce.

Embarkation Points

Becknell’s first pack trip and, next, his first wagon train left from the little town of Franklin, Missouri. Later, in the late 1820’s, Franklin had been damaged by a flood and was eclipsed as a starting location by better-situated Lexington.

Then, as steamboats began to convey most of the trade goods to the wagon train assembly points further up the Missouri River, the starting location gradually moved west to Westport Landing (now Independence-Kansas City areas). They also were located on the Missouri River and in the beginning were also connected to the “Boones Lick” trail, a trade and migration route, which ran across the state from below St. Louis to the Missouri River in the western part of the state. These locations allowed the considerable amount of trade goods to be transported either by water or by road from their sources in St. Louis, back east or in Europe.

What is often misunderstood is that for the first approximately 150 to 200 miles of the trail it was a network of lesser trails leading from and back to the many starting points. These points came together at Council Grove, Kansas and proceeded west from there. These many starting points for the first ten years or so represented the home base of the many merchants and traders who were initially involved. Then as the summer trader like Becknell were superseded by the larger and better funded professional merchant the starting points became the larger population points where they had their businesses. These points of departure were usually Independence, Kansas City and Fort Leavenworth where the proximity to the Missouri River and steamboat landings supplied the trade goods from eastern and European sources.

Destinations Changed after 1851

When Becknell went west his destination was, eventually, Santa Fe. But for the traders from the east who soon followed him the Santa Fe area rapidly absorbed all of the goods which it had both the money and the need for. After that point trade began to be extended down to Mexico and to the developing towns located in what would become the American southwest.

Then, after the Americans seized the southwest in 1846, the US government gradually began to build a series of forts to try and stem the increasing raids by the Native Americans upon whose land the Trail and the new settlements were located. As mentioned above, Ft. Union and the southwest replaced Santa Fe as the destination for most of the goods carried along the Trail. These goods were mostly destined for the, eventually, up to 74 Army forts, camps and temporary locations or the towns which grew up nearby.

The Nature of Goods Transported

Of the total value of goods, transported west over the years up to 1851- 1852, woven cotton products, obtained from the newly invented steam mills in England and New England, accounted for up to one-third of the total. They consisted of bolt fabric (about 20 percent) and finished clothing (about 15 percent). Taken together, household goods amounted to about 25 percent and “personal use” items added about 10 percent to the list. The remainder included tools (8 percent), food (4 percent) and medicines (about 4 percent). The balance consisted of spirits, and miscellaneous goods. Miscellaneous goods included finished metal products and ingots of iron, copper and lead plus other items such as books, safety matches, firearms and coffee which could not be made locally in the southwest.

It should be noted that the need for Army goods, to supply the growing number of forts, vastly increased trail traffic in the 1851-52 era. After that point the above goods continued to be transported but were eclipsed in value and quantity by the vast amount of Army supplies.
In fact the direct and indirect commerce paid for by the Army was by far the largest source of income in the southwest during the period up until the Indian Wars ended in 1886.

The goods required by the western trade came from manufacturers who were located in the big cities of the northeast and in Europe. Philadelphia and New England were major supply sources as was New York City. Many of the goods were transported both by roads and by canals to Pittsburgh and Cincinnati on the Ohio River and some to Chicago. In New Jersey the Delaware and Raritan canal and in Pennsylvania the cross- state canal system were used. In New York State goods were sent up the Hudson River to the Erie Canal to Lake Erie to Chicago and down a canal there to the Mississippi River. Then they went by steamboat to the trail heads in Missouri.

New Orleans was also a point from which goods from the east coast and Europe were  transshipped up the Mississippi River to Missouri and the Trail’s embarkation points.

Trade ran both ways over the Trail with ingots and coins of gold and silver plus furs, mules and buffalo robes accounting for much of the trade going to the US from the Mexico/ New Mexico regions. Some of these items represented barter payment for goods sold in the west but much of it represented goods sent or brought to Missouri by Mexican or New Mexican traders and silver/gold mine operators. Some of these Mexican traders/merchants traveled as far as the American east coast and Europe in order to obtain the goods they wanted at the best prices.

As mentioned above, after the US Army began building forts throughout the southwest in the 1850s and on, the bulk of the goods transported were Army related. And were usually transported by private contract freighters including some Mexican freighters on their return trips. However, two-way trade with Mexico and the US southwest also remained just as strong as before the addition of the Army related supply trade. It was just that the Army’s requirements after 1851 dominated the trade.

Payment for Goods Sold

Goods which were sold in the west were paid for by both barter and by silver and some gold both in raw, bullion and coined form. The hard currency greatly benefited the Americans who, as a growing nation, were continually strapped for hard currency. Most commerce in the United States at that time, was paid for by a cumbersome and fragile, many-layered system of loans, credit and letters-of-credit. Anyone paying in hard currency usually commanded a discount. After 1851 the Army usually paid the freighters by deposits to their bank accounts located mostly in Missouri.

Payment for goods sold by the traders and merchants from Missouri and elsewhere was often not solely in hard money (coin or bullion). Mules and horses, fur pelts and other items of value in the States were also received as payment. In his book “Trail of Commerce and Conquest” Rittenhouse states: ” In the first years of the Santa Fe trade, most of the hard money of New Mexico was carried to Missouri (therefore there was only barter available to pay for the goods brought from the US). …mules were as good as money in Missouri. Before 1824 the records make no mention of mules in a state that later became nationally famous for them. The first ones of them came over the Santa Fe Trail. Not until 1838 was…breeding stock brought in from the island of Malta.” By then the “Missouri Mule” had established it self.

During the years up to the 1840’s, because the US government often allowed small, local banks to print paper money which was not sufficiently backed by either gold or silver, the value of that paper was not trusted by the public. Thus there was a reliance by US businesses upon credit arrangements.  This vague and fragile series of credit arrangements greatly hampered trade and was the cause of a continuing series of personal bankruptcies, bank failures and periodic nationwide economic recessions.

The Mexican silver and gold was essential to the economic welfare of the US all during the Trail’s life. The vast Mexico located deposits of particularly silver from the mines in Zacatecas became essential to the US economy during the period. This period (1820 to 1880) was a period of rapid geographic expansion and technological growth and required a  source of specie (hard) money to support it. But, during most of that period the US did not mint sufficient capital in hard currency. In fact, until the great 1849 California Gold Rush the US did not have much gold or silver available to mint coins with. Without the infusion of Mexico’s gold and particularly silver the economic growth of the US would have been seriously hampered.

Profits Made

The Santa Fe Trail trader who merely resold his goods to a middle man located in the towns of the southwest or in Mexico was, by the late 1820’s, making a profit in the range of twenty to forty percent after his expenses and duty fees. Any greater net profit, after the initial inflated five hundred percent plus profits enjoyed by the early traders, was quickly eroded by competition from the many traders who hoped to become as rich as Becknell had. (Becknell paid between $3,000 and $5,000 for his goods in 1822 and sold them for a reported $60,000 to $91,000 which would be equal, in purchasing power, to over $1 million today). In addition, profits could also be made from the sale of the goods brought back from the southwest to Missouri- Mexican mules were a particularly profitable item back east. The above figures do not include the often huge profits made by the Santa Fe and other southwest merchants from their reselling of the goods to the end users or from the sale of their wagons and draft animals if they intended to return home by horse back without wagons.

Wagons Used

Transportation of goods required wagons which could withstand the rigors of the trail. The most important consideration beside the wagon’s design was the type and the seasoning of the wood used. Once a wagon reached the dry regions of the Trail improperly seasoned wood would shrink resulting in constant maintenance or, in some cases, the abandoning of the wagon because the spokes fell out of the wheel rims.

The most frequent repairs were related to the suspension and wheels of the vehicle. At Ft. Union worn-out wagons were often rebuilt and businesses existed in the form of reselling used wagons as well as the trading of used-up draft animals for ones which had been allowed to recuperate. Axles or wheels could break if the wagon was not steered around the ever-present holes or rocks in the trail. Leather harnesses could dry-out or wear-out. Evening stops would often see the teamsters working into the night making essential repairs in order to be able to continue on with the train in the morning. To not be able to continue with the train could easily be disastrous since Indians often lay in wait hoping to be able to pick-off a lone wagon.

Initially the most common early design of freight wagons used on the Trail was a version of what looked like a farm wagon with a canvas hood. Most of the early Trail wagons had no springs to absorb the bumps. These types of wagons were able to carry up to three thousand pounds of carefully packed goods in barrels or in wooden boxes. Later some goods were encased in tin boxes (tin was available in Missouri). These boxes were soldered shut to prevent pilfering or water damage.

Note: In Santa Fe and elsewhere in the southwest the tin boxes were of little use to the merchants. However for the thrifty Hispanics they soon became a new industry. Household and religious items were crafted from the tin. Today this craftwork is still in existence and brings an income to local craftspersons throughout the southwest.

Often the wagon’s floor or bed was slightly curved to help prevent the load from shifting on steep grades. This was a feature which marked a Conestoga wagon. The rear wheels of the early wagons were usually four to eight feet in diameter and had rims of three to eight inches in width. The front wheels measured three to six feet in diameter for easier steering. Beginning in the 1840’s b0th the wagon bodies and the wheels grew to be up to 18 feet tall and nine or more feet in diameter. The bed was four feet wide and some twelve to sixteen feet long. Variations upon this wagon design were many and customized to the nature of the goods transported. However, a bed width wider than four feet was not common since this required the space between axles to be larger than the well-worn six foot wide ruts of the trail.

The well-known Conestoga type wagon had its origin in Pennsylvania but eventually it was built in Missouri as were most of the other trail wagons used. Many of these wagons were built by Joseph Murphy and Company in St. Louis. But there were over 100 manufacturers of trail wagons including including those made by Studebaker.

In addition to the freight wagons there were a number of carriages and small wagons for the transport of the traders themselves. They also were used to haul food and other consumables required during the trip.

Draft Animals

Pulling these wagons were teams of oxen (cattle, usually castrated bulls), mules (a cross between donkeys and horses) or, infrequently, large (beer-wagon type) draft horses. Each type of animal had its merits and detractions. Of the three types of animals the mule was initially favored for general use but soon the stronger oxen were required for extra heavy loads or for springtime travel when the trail was expected to be muddy. Then, after a trial use by the Army in 1830 ,the merits of oxen caught-on and by the demise of the Trail in 1880 some reports indicate that five out of six wagons were pulled by oxen. A distinct advantage of using oxen and mules was that they ate the grass and weeds which grew along the trail. But of the three types of animals the oxen was by far the strongest animal.

The number of teams required varied according to the size and the loaded weight of the wagon and, thus, the pairs used ranged from one or two to up to ten or more pairs. Oxen were also favored, at least in part, because of their lower, per head, cost (on average $25 vs. $100 for mules and horses). However, an ox needed iron shoes and was an eastern animal and not available in the southwest until much later. In addition, the oxen were often worn- out upon reaching Ft. Union and mules usually were not. Accompanying each wagon train was an extra supply of draft animals to allow for rotation and replacement.

Often, due to the heat, the draft animals, particularly oxen, had to be rested in mid-day. The train would move only early in the morning until about noon and then again in the later afternoon and averaged ten hours of movement per day. By contrast, a man on a horse, who wanted to, could average close to four miles per hour on a flat land trail if he had a strong, well-fed and watered horse and, thus, he could cover forty miles or more per day. An ox train averaged about 15 miles and a mule train about 20 miles per day. However, this figure can be misleading due to bad weather, the weight being pulled, breakdowns and other factors. Thus the the average time to complete the 770 mile trip from Westport Landing to Santa Fe, took 62 days which averages just 12 miles per day.


The wagons, especially the larger ones which were usually owned by the larger trading businesses or contract freight outfits, were driven by teamsters (often termed “Bullwhackers”) who usually walked alongside an oxen pulled wagon and controlled the team with both verbal and whip commands. For a mule pulled wagon a teamster rode one of the rearmost mules and steered with a line connected to one of the lead animals. Some of the smaller mule or horse pulled wagons were driven from a seat mounted on the front of the wagon.
The life of a teamster was one of hardship and low pay (four to ten dollars per month plus food in the 1830’s). Later more money was offered for an experienced man who could control one of the large (10 plus pairs of animals) multi-teams. Often this job was occupied by the type of man who could not obtain another job due to a lack of education, inferior work skills or a criminal history. These were difficult people to organize and to control and it took a special type of leader to accomplish that.

In the early days of the Trail the “train” was often led by a person of experience who was responsible for the operation of the train. Gradually in the 1820’s as trading businesses and freighting outfits replaced the earlier summertime traders, wagon masters or “captains” were hired to lead each train. He had a number of assistants to scout, hunt, guard, to keep order of the wagons movements and speed, act as teamsters and to also herd the extra replacement livestock. For large trains of up to 100 wagons or more the total personnel could number as much as 150 or more men.

The teamster’s boss, the wagon master/captain, was responsible for the entire wagon train’s operation. He had to be a big, tough- minded and savvy individual and was usually paid well. The reputation of these wagon masters was well known along the Trail and, during that time, rivaled that of the various frontier scouts such as Kit Carson. While the train was moving the wagon-master usually rode ahead of the first wagon to scout the trail ahead. His assistants usually placed themselves at the center of the train (on the left or “near” side which was the side that the walking bull-wackers drove from) in order to be able to monitor both ends of the train. They usually rode mules.

Each wagon’s bull-wacker walked along- side of his rear most team (the “wheelers”) next to the wagon. That was the reason behind the extremely long whips which they used.

Often the trader or merchant or their representative accompanied the valuable goods but they usually were happy to delegate the wagon master’s job to a proven person.

Work Day

The work day was long and difficult during the journey. The men began work as soon as it was daylight enough to see. And they worked until it was dark. In the west this timeframe for working was and still is known as: ”from can see to can’t see”. A break, due to the heat, was often observed from about 11AM to midafternoon. The midday break was helpful to allow the men the rest needed to make up for the guard duty which was mandatory after nightfall. The guard duty was made necessary by the possibility of Indian raids to steal livestock as well as to help[ prevent stampedes. The theft or loss of enough of the draft animals could leave a wagon train helpless to move the wagons.


As the Indian problems increased in the late 1820’s many wagon trains hired guards, who were usually mounted on horses or mules, to act as outriders to detect the presence of hostile Indians and to help in the defense if the wagons and the stock.

In terms of the vast number of trains which traveled the Trail over the years, Indian attacks, which were intended to kill people, were not numerous overall. But, some years saw enough attacks as to actually either close the Trail or to divert traffic to the longer and more rugged Mountain Road or to require an Army escort.

Several methods for circling the wagons in the event of an attack were used. Each variation of the “circle”, such as a “square”, provided room at the center of the circle for the draft animals. However, during the day, it was not unusual for the herd of spare animals to be far enough behind or otherwise away from the moving wagon train so that, if attacked, they would not be able to reach the shelter of the wagon circle in time to prevent the spare animals from being driven off. The worst job in the wagon train was that of the men who rode “drag” in the heavy dust and herded the spare animals and were, therefore, exposed to attack.


Weather conditions were often the single most critical factor outside of sickness, preparedness and leadership of the wagon train itself. Departure from the assembly points in Missouri was usually delayed until late May or early June in the hope that the muddy trails, encountered in the eastern portion of the Trail, would have dried from the spring rains. But, rain was often a constant factor in the eastern portion of the trail during many years and could last until the area near the 100th meridian (longitude) was reached. This location was just west of today’s Dodge City. Here the climate changed in a matter of a few miles to an increasingly dryer one. It was at this point that any inferior wood or workmanship used in constructing the wheels was usually first encountered. During the mid summer months on the Plains it was common to experience sudden, severe thunder storms which could turn the road to an impassable mass of mud. This situation would require at least an over- night stop in order to let the road dry-out.

During an average journey the weather conditions expected to be encountered included: periods of rain with resulting muddy footing, often violent thunder showers and lighting, hail, wind storms, tornados and snow in October or later. Also encountered was debilitating heat (up to 120 degrees in summer) and, in winter, temperatures down to 20 or more below zero.The incessant wind was also a debilitating factor.


As a result of the extreme variations in climatic conditions clothing and gear worn during a journey had to be versatile. Contrary to popular belief, fostered by Hollywood, “buckskin” or other leather clothing was not favored on the Plains. While many artists depict men who accompanied the wagons as wearing leather clothing in fact it was not versatile enough for those who had a choice of wearing woven cotton or wool cloth clothing instead.

The reason is that leather, of the thickness used in making clothing, was hot to wear and, once wet, stretched often to a great degree and also took a long time to dry. Then, once dry, it had to be smoked over a fire in order to restore its flexibility. So leather clothing was mainly limited to footwear, gloves, vests and hunting shirts/jackets but not pants or shirts.

A popular joke played upon “greenhorns” new to the prairie and deserts was to talk them into buying a “buckskin” outfit of pants and shirt in Missouri. Then, when it rained for a prolonged period, the experienced plainsmen would watch with amusement as the “buckskin” pants stretched to such a degree as to have their owner walking on what was the knees of his pants. Usually this inspired that unfortunate to cut-off the excess pant leg. That was fine until the pants dried out and then he became the owner of a very short pair of pants.

The basic outfit used by the teamsters and scouts or guards consisted of a wide- brim felt hat, cotton or wool shirt, vest, canvas-like pants held up with suspenders and knee high boots (moccasins were preferred for the grass covered stretches of the trail since the hard leather soles of the boots slipped badly on the smooth grass). Some men were fortunate to be able to obtain long cotton canvas coats which were often saturated with linseed oil. The oil turned them yellow but made them waterproof. Even today many ranchers and other riders opt for yellow- colored “slickers”.

The wealthier traders and travelers usually wore fancier clothing of the same basic design as that worn by the teamsters. Often, the mark of the trader/captain was a long corduroy coat, a pocket watch, a pistol and a fancy hat.

Whips And Team Direction Changes

The “bull whips,” were used with surprising accuracy by the teamsters. They could measure up to twenty feet long and took a great deal of practice to learn to use effectively. The whips were not used to hurt the animals. They were used to get the animal’s attention and to help steer the wagons or to increase the speed or pulling action on upgrades or when the wagon was stuck. It has been reported that, in the hands of an experienced “bullwhacker” or teamster, a fly could be knocked off of an animal without hurting that animal. The directional commands used by the teamsters to turn a moving wagon and team included the terms ”gee” (right) and “haw” (left). The Indian tribes, through whose land the Trail passed, came to call the wagons “geehaws” because of these commands given to the animals.

Guns and Knives

Guns and knives were essential tools of the trade. They were necessary for hunting and for protection. Without them possibly the westward expansion by the white man could not have happened at the time in history when it did. The Plains Indians obtained the horse in 1680 as a result of the “Pueblo Revolt” in Santa Fe when the Europeans were driven out and had to abandon their horse herds. Once the indians became proficient in the use of the horse they often could outrun and outfight groups of white men. While some Indians were able to obtain guns from traders, without the gun white men possibly could not have survived during their trek across the plains.

By the early 1840’s most long guns were rifles as opposed to the less accurate smooth bore muskets used previously and were using the newly invented and more reliable percussion caps to fire the guns. The guns themselves were a much beefed-up version of the older Kentucky or Pennsylvania rifles. They were somewhat shorter but heavier to allow quick use while riding and to handle the stress from larger black powder charges. They had a large bore to allow the use of bullets which were often one-half inch or larger in diameter. By 1830 most “long” guns had rifled barrels and were quite accurate to a range of more than a quarter mile.These modifications were necessary in order to shoot the long distances encountered on the prairies and to knockdown big game such as buffalo. The more efficient cartridge type repeating rifle or the single shot, rear loading rifles began to be used about 1868. Pistols were the cumbersome and unreliable flintlocks until the revolutionary Colt five then six- shot percussion cap revolver became available in the 1840’s.


Food was a constant problem for wagon trains because most of it had to be carried in the wagons. Some trains hired a man or two to just hunt and bring in game each day. However, due to the high volume of wagons on the trail after the mid-1830’s and the resultant resistance by the native population, this was not always practical. A typical food manifest for a freight outfit lists: flour, bacon, coffee, beans, salt, sugar and dried fruit. To this was added any fresh meat, including snake meat, obtained along the trail.

The cooking was done in a cast iron “Dutch oven” or simply a metal shovel over a wood or dung fire. The wood or buffalo “chip” was carried in a canvas sling called a ”possum” and tied under the wagon bed.

In regard to forage for the animals, only the horse required supplemental food in the form of oats. All three types could eat the grass and weeds which grew along a trail. But that was often a problem to find when the Trail began to serve many wagons and the animals which pulled them. Sometimes the animals could not obtain sufficient forage for several days at a time and when forage was then reached the wagons had to lay over for a day or two until the animals regained their strength. This was a common problem particularly during late summer and at specific locations such as the mountainous stretch from Bents Fort Colorado over the Raton Pass to the plains of New Mexico or the dry 60 mile stretch below the Arkansas River.


Water was also a major item of concern. Each wagon carried a large water barrel or two attached to its exterior. But the thirst of the livestock often used up that supply on a daily basis and some portions of the trail were void of water for up to sixty or more miles. That meant that a train would have to carry water enough to last from two to six days. Sometimes either this could not be obtained or an unscheduled delay happened which imperiled the whole train because the animals used up the water in order to survive in the heat. Water is heavy and weighs seven pounds per gallon plus the weight of the container. Thus a twenty-five gallon barrel of water would weigh upwards of 200 pounds. Thus enough water to supply both men and beasts, for the four day journy over the 60 miles of the dry portion of the Cimarron Route, could easily add 1,000 pounds of weight to a wagon.

Over the years a number of trains, which chose the faster but dryer Cimarron Route, were caught short on water. It has been reported that some had to resort to notching the ears of their live stock and drinking the blood in order for the men to survive. Worse still were the trains which had their animals die of thirst and had to abandon the wagons and try to reach help on foot. Sometimes the men died of thirst like their animals.

In 1822 Becknell’s party took the route which he had explored during the winter on his return to Franklin several months before. In mid-Kansas they crossed over the Arkansas River and began following the new route southwest. This route, which was suitable for use by wagons and which became the Cimarron “Cutoff” route, was thought by Becknell to have more water available than it actually proved to have. In fact, to Becknell’s dismay, no water was available in summertime for the first sixty miles after crossing the Arkansas River. The sandy ground conditions dragged at their wagon wheels slowing progress and causing the draft animals to become unusually thirsty. This used- up the water supply in much less time than planned on. The journey to the first water supply at the Cimarron Springs took longer than anticipated. Undocumented stories contend that somewhere through that stretch the party ran out of water. They struggled on traveling at night to avoid the heat and the legend has it that the men resorted to drinking blood from the ears of the animals.

The legend also has it that they were saved from death by Becknell’s discovery of a lone bison which he shot. After drinking the contents of the animal’s two stomachs, Becknell followed the bison’s tracks to a water source and the party was saved. True or not, life on the Trail was often that precarious.

Accidents, Disease and Bad Water

Adding to the hardships encountered was the constant threat of accident and disease. Mosquitoes were a common occurrence. They brought malaria. Unsanitary toilet conditions and food preparation brought cholera, dysentery and other diseases. Small pox was often present and if a human carrier introduced it to a wagon train it could devastate the whole train in a matter of a week.

Water,when available, was often laced to some degree with minerals, mud and/or algae growth. Sometimes the water, if consumed by men or their animals, was poisoned by natural arsenic or so polluted by other minerals, that it caused constipation. Constipation of that sort could be so severe that drinkers died.

Almost forgotten today is the great number of accidents suffered by the people who lived and worked with animals and firearms. A kick by a draft animal was often crippling if not fatal. Riding animals often tested the alertness and skill of the rider and many a rider was thrown by their mount. It was common, during their lifetime, for a person who rode to have had several bad ”wreaks” or serious accidents from being pinned under or thrown from an animal.

Then there was the danger of an accidental firearm discharge which could occur during the daily necessary cleaning or a careless firing. As a result, every major trail system was lined with graves of people who had died of disease or accidents. Compared to this, the number of deaths resulting from Indian attacks was not a major cause of death during that era.

Trip duration

The duration of the approximately 775 mile trip (from Independence to Santa Fe via the shorter Cimarron Route) could vary from as little as about forty days with good luck, light loads, a relatively small train (20-25 wagons) and good planning and leadership. The average duration seems to have been about 62 days but could extend to as much as ninety days or more with bad luck or poor planning- if they made it at all. If the trip began ninety miles further east at Franklin, as Becknell’s did, an additional five to seven days would be required depending upon the weather. If the Mountain Route was used it would add about ten extra days to the trip. If a traveler was on horseback and was unencumbered by wagons or a pack train he could make the trip in about 45 days- some had claimed to make it in 30 days or less.

The most popular route, except during the Civil War years of 1861-65, was called the “Cimarron Route” (also known incorrectly as the Cimarron Cut-Off) because its goal was to reach the water source at the Cimarron River Springs before their water supplies ran out. This route departed from the Arkansas River at a point near Dodge City, Kansas and went southwest through the dry country.

The Mountain Route gained in popularity during the Civil War because it was considered safer from possible attack by Confederate raiders from Texas. Prior to that it was only used more frequently than the Cimarron Route during the years when Indian attacks were the most frequent. A former mountain man, Uncle Dick Wooton, improved it in the 1860’s and opened it as a toll road. Even improved that portion of the Mountain Route was both dangerous and exhausting to man and beast alike.

Occasionally the narrow road up to the top of Raton Pass collapsed in places which were propped-up and narrow. The five day average transit time required to cover the 27 miles which climbed almost 2,000 feet in elevation and consumed the draft animals strength. The land below the narrow trail was said to have been littered with the remains of dead draft animals as well as wagons which fell off of that dangerous trail.

The two trails merged near Watrous (aka La Junta) and Fort Union which are located some fifty miles east of Las Vegas NM. After 1851, the wagons which did not go to Fort Union or to Mexico but to Santa Fe, would proceed west to ford the Pecos River at San Miguel, go through narrow Glorietta Pass and on to Santa Fe.

Most trains left Missouri by the end of June and arrived in Santa Fe by mid-September at the latest. After selling their goods, and sometimes their wagons and draft animals, they would head back home by mid-October to avoid the dangerous winter conditions often encountered on the open plains.

Even keeping to this schedule was no guarantee that the returning traders and teamsters would not encounter an early, sometimes deadly, “blue northerner” snowstorm on the Texas or Oklahoma plains or an early winter in Kansas.

Trail Locations

It is often a matter of confusion to some people today, who visit known Trail locations, as to where the Trail’s two major routes were actually located as they proceeded over the land. This stems from the fact that there were not just the two versions of the Trail. Each of the two routes had numerous shortcuts or “cut-offs”. In fact, in total, including connected military roads and various short cuts, the whole trail complex measured about 1,600 miles in length. Sometimes because of the heavy traffic on the Trail, trains were forced to widen the trail which they were using because of the deep ruts made by previous trail traffic or because of the dense dust raised by other wagons in their train. Also it was a defense technique, practiced by some wagon masters, to have four columns traveling side by side in order to be able to quickly maneuver the wagons into a defensive formation in case of attack. Thus today, a person looking for the Trail maybe confused because they either find many trails instead of just one or do not recognize a “swale” because they expect to find wagon ruts and not the eroded swale which is left after so many years of erosion.

Note:  An example of this can be seen at Fort Union today. There the ruts cover an area up to several miles wide. Today often the ruts are now worn by the elements into swales which look like wide ditches. Only where geographic factors, such as the narrow Glorieta Pass, caused the compression of the trail is there only one trail visible. If a reader would like to see examples of these wide trails, they can do so by visiting Google Earth and following the ariel view of the Fort Union, new Mexico area.

Note:  For maps of the Trail see the section entitled Cimmeron or Mountain Trails shown in this website or see the National Parks Service website; (http//www.nps.gov/safe/historyculture/timeline-map.htm) for maps which illustrate the changing use of the Trail’s two major routes over time. These maps also illustrate the increasingly shortened routes from the east which reflect the westward advance of the railroads after the Civil War. By 1880 these railroads had put the Trail out of business.


The Santa Fe Trail lasted from 1822 to 1880. Over those fifty-eight years the Trail had a major economic impact by contributing to the US economy what today would be equal in purchasing power to at least three billion dollars.

This infusion of hard currency was a vital element in the support of the rapid expansion of the US from an essentially eastern seaboard to Mississippi River located group of settlements to a continent-wide nation. This occurred in just sixty years. Then the Trail was eclipsed by the new railroads and was no longer necessary or economically practical.

Also not to be forgotten is that the Santa Fe Trail materially influenced a continuing change in the culture and the politics of the southwest by adding the Anglo culture to that of the Indian and the Spanish peoples when US troops used the Trail as an invasion route and seized the southwest from Mexico in 1846.

End Note:

Research has indicated that the gold and the silver used by the New Mexican and the Mexican national traders and merchants to pay the Americans for their goods came from mines located in both the Santa Fe area and in northern Mexico. In the 1820’s gold was discovered in the Ortiz Mountains some thirty-five miles south of Santa Fe. In the Zacatecas area of Mexico a major silver ore deposit was discovered in 1548. From these two sources came most of the bullion and the coins used to pay for the goods purchased by Mexican merchants and the general southwest population.

Sources- The Above Information Was Compiled From:
“The Santa Fe Trail”, David Dary, Alfred A. Knoff, 2000, ISBN0-375-40361-2. This 360pp. book provides a comprehensive overview of the history of the trail and is a good starting place for understanding all aspects of the trail.

“To the Westward: William Becknell and the Beginning of the Santa Fe Trade”, “Journal of t he West”, (publishing date, author and availability unknown). Some unique background information.

“Sky Determines”, Ross Calvin, MacMillian Co., 1934/High-Lonesome Books, 1993, ISBN 0-944383-19-X. Some unique background information.

“The Santa Fe Trail”, R.L. Duffus, Tudor Publishing Co., 1930, (out of print). A good look at an early interputation of the trail in general.

“The Old Santa Fe Trail”, Stanley Vestal, Univ. of Nebraska Press, 1939, ISBN0-8032-9615-0. One of the most respected accounts of the history of the trail. A must read source.

“The Look of the West”, William Foster- Harris, Skyhorse Publishing, 2007, ISBN-10-1-60239-024-X. Some unique background information.

Jackson, Hal E., “Boone’s Lick Road” (Woodston, Mo, 2012, Trails Press, ISBN 978-0-9859098-0-2. The original beginning of the Santa Fe Trail. Illustrated with maps and drawings  to explain how this road contributed to the development of the west.

“Mary Donoho-New First Lady of the Santa Fe Trail”, Marian Meyer, Ancient City Press, 1991. This is a biography of the first Anglo woman to travel the Santa Fe Trail (1832). It contains good background information about life in those times.

Wikipedia.org: “Santa Fe Trail” and “Zacatecas, Mexico” for general information about mining and the Trail itself. Also background information related to the eastern US canal transportation system.

Map: “Western Migration 1841-1869”, National Geographic Society, Sept.2000. The map shows the migration and trade routes used during the period, 1841 to 1869.

Inflation calculations by: Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis (“Consumer price estimate of inflation rates and price index 1800 to current”).

Gregg, Josiah. ”Commerce of the Prairies”. Edited by Max L. Moorhead. Norman: Univ.of Oklahoma Press. 1950 . Somewhat dated and limited to the 1830’s, this is still one of the most referenced documentations about the Trail. It provides an overview as to the basic operation of the Trail and its importance as well as to verify Becknell’s involvement in the early days of the Trail (p.13 and pp.37-43). A must read source.

Rittenhouse, Jack D. “Trail of Commerce and Conquest”. Univ. of New Mexico Press. 1971. An excellent overview of the trail’s history. Sold by the Santa Fe Trail Association. A good starting point for the serious researcher but contains several errors such as saying that the first train”…steamed into Santa Fe” (The railroad referred to never reached that city but, due to track grade conditions had to pass some twenty miles to the south at Lamy.

Cleland, Robert G. “This Reckless Breed of Men”. New York: Random House. 1950. This book provides a look at early attempts by Anglos to trade with the Spanish in Santa Fe and their disastrous results. It underscores the risk which Becknell took and the emotional and legal (debt) implications which may have influenced his desperate journey to Santa Fe with only five companions. To understand Becknell’s daring first journey to Santa Fe one must understand not only his character which demanded that he pay his debts but also his anger at having his debts called-in many years prior to what he had planned and putting him in such an embarrassing position. Pages 128-132 describe Becknell’s trading trips to Santa Fe (1821-24).

Simmons, Mark. “Opening the Santa Fe Trail”. Cerrillos: Galisteo Press. 1971. A good, contemporary overview of the history of the Trail written by a recognized historian who has specialized in the history of New Mexico. A must read source which serves to verify other source information.

Hulbert, Archer B. “Southwest on the Turquoise Trail”. 1933. Information about the history of trade with Mexico including trade from Missouri to Mexico City.

Beachum, Larry Mahon. “William Becknell the Father of the Santa Fe Trail”. El Paso: Texas Western Univ. Press. 1982. Perhaps the single most informative and comprehensive document about Becknell’s life. Written by the author as his master’s thesis, it covers Becknell’s life from his birth to his death. But, it does leave out some valuable information especially about Becknell’s siblings as well as his children. However, this information can be obtained from old US Census documents available at AncestryLibrary.Com.

Beachum, Larry M.” The Handbook of Texas Online”. Basically a brief summary of Beachum’s earlier thesis but with a few additional bits of later discovered information added. A good basic source.

“The Journals of Capt. Thomas (i.e. William?) Becknell from Boone’s Lick to Santa Fe.” Missouri Historical Review, Vol.: 4, Issue: 2, Jan. 1910. Accounts of Becknell’s first and second trips to Santa Fe. Printed in 1823 in the local newspaper in Franklin Missouri, it is not clear who actually wrote it as it finally appeared. An essential source.

Parrish, William E. Oklahoma Historical Society ”Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History & Culture”. Basically valuable to support other information about Becknell but with the understanding that some information about Becknell may have been gathered from the same sources years ago and just repeated thus, may not be based upon proven fact.

“Best of Wagon Tracks “(Santa Fe Trail Ass’n.). The official publication of The Santa Fe Trail Ass’n. This source is known for its carefully researched articles written mainly by scholars who are interested in various facets of the Trail. As an example of the information available,the statistics related to the percentage of total dollar value relative to the types of goods transported over the Trail can be found in Vol. 27, No. 3, p. 27 (May 2013). The some thirty years of “Wagon Tracts” should be regarded as a basic source if any but the basic facts about either Becknell or the Trail are desired.

The Author’s Personal Sources: The author’s friendship with the former Santa Fe Trail Association’s Operations Manager, Mr. Harry C. Myers of Santa Fe, as well as his being a past officer of the “End of Trail Chapter” and a current (2011) director of The Santa Fe Trail Association, has opened up doors of information which, while available to others, is not often sought. An example is Harry showing the author the location of Becknell’s encounter with the Mexican troops near Las Vegas NM in 1821. He has also led field trips to various locations along the Trail, which have served to help envision what Becknell actually saw and experienced when the author “becomes” Becknell during reenactments.

© 2015 by Allan J. Wheeler. All rights reserved.



  1. Banana Joe says:

    I absolutley love this website!!!

  2. Cormac Gibney says:


  3. Evie says:

    I think this is a lot of information. It’s really going to help me with my project for history. THANKS!!!

  4. Reagan says:

    This has helped me SOOO much I can’t even begin to thank you enough, but what Indian tribes would the travelers encounter?

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