[logo: Kansas Heritage Group] [image: old west covered wagon]

Santa Fe Trail History

William Becknell, 1821

The Santa Fe Trail (aka, Santa Fe Road) was an ancient passageway used regularly after 1821 by merchant-traders from Missouri who took manufactured goods to Santa Fe to exchange for furs and other items available there. Mexican traders also provided caravans going to western Missouri in this international trade.

For many years after the Santa Fe Trail was opened, Council Grove was the only trading post between Independence, Missouri and Santa Fe, New Mexico. Council Grove was the rendezvous of westward bound travelers and freighters and traders who were crossing the plains. The region from Council Grove to near Santa Fe was the most hazardous part of the trail, which was about eight hundred miles long when Westport or Independence, Missouri were the jumping-off-places.

In western Kansas a Santa Fe-bound caravan had the choice of two routes:

The Mountain Route (Long Route) of the Santa Fe Trail was the 230 miles of unprotected campsites between Fort Larned and Fort Lyon in Colorado. It followed the Arkansas River into Colorado before turning south.

The Jornada Route was the water less (dry or desert route) stretch cutting southwest at Cimarron Crossing and other Arkansas River crossings. This route saved ten days and would carry 75 percent of all future trade.

1821 - William Becknell, a Missouri trader, was the first to follow the route that later became known as the Santa Fe Trail. His mule train passed through Morris County at what became known as Council Grove. The Santa Fe Trail was established to haul freight from Kansas City to Santa Fe, New Mexico and to trade with the Spanish.

Early in the 1820s wagon trains were being sent over this route (Santa Fe Trail) from the Missouri River to Santa Fe, NM.

1822 - William Becknell used wagons instead of pack mules or horses to take trade goods over the Santa Fe Trail. Because Becknell found a good mode of transportation and a passable wagon route, he is credited as the Father of the Sante Fe Trail.

1825 - By a council under a tree (Council Oak) and a treaty signed with the Osage Indians, the United States Government obtained the right of way for a public highway, established as the "Sante Fe Trail."

1825-1827 By 1825 the Santa Fe Trail had become so important that Congress authorized an official survey of the route by George C. Sibley and Brown. Major George C. Sibley was an Indian agent and the Factor at the Indian Factory (trading post) at Fort Osage (later Fort Sibley) on the Missouri River east of Independence, Missouri. Sibley was involved in the negotiations for the opening of the Santa Fe Trail in 1825 and the inspection of the trail with the official surveyor. He stated his mission to survey the Santa Fe Trail from Fort Osage. This survey was completed in 1826 and provided an alternate, little-used 773-mile route south from Chouteau's Island; two-thirds of it was in Kansas.

1827 Independence, Missouri founded. By 1832 it was the outfitting point for, and eastern terminus of, the Santa Fe Trail.

1834 Bent's Fort (Fort William), fur trade post on the upper Arkansas established. A Bent, St. Vrain and Company party (with wagons) eastbound from Santa Fe, NM in the late summer traveled by way of Taos and Raton Pass to Fort William; then came down the Arkansas to the Santa Fe Trail--thus opening the Bent's Fort branch of the Santa Fe Trail.

1845-1846 Kearny's expedition of 1845 left the Santa Fe Trail east of Willow Springs and blazed a route northeastward to Fort Leavenworth, ferrying the Kansas, near the Wakarusa's mouth, on flat boats operated by Shawnee Indians. In 1846 Kearny dispatched his Army of the West to New Mexico over this Fort Leavenworth branch of the Santa Fe Trail. Much-traveled in 1846, the road seems to have had limited use after that. Some '49ers traveled it.

1849 - The Sante Fe Trail to New Mexico having been established, a contract was let by the Government to Waldo, Hall & Co., to carry the United States mail to Santa Fe, a point seven hundred miles west of the Missouri River.

1849 A branch trail from the Missouri border by way of Fort Scott and the "Old Pottawatomie nation reserve" joined the Santa Fe Trail east of Council Grove.

In 1849 (and succeeding years) westbound emigrants (in increasing numbers) traveled the Santa Fe Trail-Bents Fort route to the upper Arkansas, and journeyed northward by a trail along the base of the Rockies to the South Platte, and to Fort Laramie.

1849 From Harrisonville, Missouri, a new branch trail west joined the Santa Fe Trail east of Council Grove. Presumably the traffic passing Ottawa Baptist Mission (described by Missionary Meeker) was on this route.

1851 Aubry, in October (after a first attempt in May), found a good Santa Fe Trail cutoff that avoided the Jornada. He turned off the established route near (or at) Cold Spring, on the Cimarron, and traveled "from 10 to 40 degrees east of north" to the Arkansas.

The Santa Fe Trail was heavily used during the Mexican War because of the large volume of military supplies that were transported from the Missouri River Towns to the Southwest.

1860s Santa Fe Trail was shortened at its eastern end, and with the coming of the Santa Fe Railroad, the trail was virtually deserted. Wagon caravans picked up goods at the railhead, decreasing the length of the trail as the railroad increased.

1866 The long wagon trains that previously formed at Council Grove now formed at Junction City and moved westward over the Smoky Hill route. The Stage Company moved its entire outfit from Council Grove to Junction City.

1872 When the Santa Fe Railroad was completed to the Colorado border, the days of the Santa Fe Trail as a main transportation route were over.

Also see: Santa Fe Trail Route

Related sites: Dodge City history | WWW-VL: American West Virtual Library.
Return to the Interactive Santa Fe Trail (SFT)
or to the Kansas Historic Trails or to Old West Kansas
or to Kansas History Web Sites or the Kansas Heritage Server.