The Story of the Santa Fé Trail


“ IN November, 1809, three men by the names of Smith, McClanahan, and Patterson, under the guidance of a Spaniard, Manuel Blanco, left St. Louis for Santa Fé. Nothing further is known of them.”

Thus, in its issue of the first week of October, 1810, the Missouri Gazette, the earliest newspaper which appeared west of the Mississippi, the progenitor of the present St. Louis Republic, referred to a commerce between the State of Missouri and the capital of New Mexico which was beginning to engage the attention of adventurers on the United States frontier. This commerce, which Pike’s explorations of 1806-07 may be said to have incited, and which was opened as a regular branch of trade in 1821-26, developed by Kit Carson and many others who were prominent in the annals of the Southwest, and enlivened by the forays and ambuscades of the Osages, Arapahoes, Pawnees, Kiowas, Cheyennes, Comanches, Apaches, and other red raiders, constitutes the Story of the Santa Fé Trail.

Romance and daring, however, had been busy in that region long before the persons here named were born.

In the half forgotten era,
With the avarice of old,
Seeking cities that were told
To be paved with solid gold,
In the kingdom of Quivira,
Came the restless Coronado,
To open Kansas plain,
With his knights from sunny Spain,
In an effort that, though vain,
Thrilled with boldness and bravado.

The reference in these lines by Eugene F. Ware, the Kansas poet, is to the dash by Charles V’s conquistadore, Coronado, from Culiacan, on the Pacific coast of Mexico, up to the present Kansas, in 1541, two-thirds of a century before Captain John Smith and his associates established at Jamestown, Virginia, the first permanent colony of the English-speaking race on the American continent; seventy-nine years before Carver, Bradford, and the rest of the Mayflower’s passengers landed at Plymouth; and eightyfive years before Peter Minuit, the Stadtholder, the representative of Holland’s Frederick, bought Manhattan Island from the Indians for sixty guilders ($24) in beads, ribbons and bright-colored calicoes, and started the career of New York City. At many points Coronado passed over the course on which the Santa Fé trail was to be traced in the after time. It was about sixty years later that the Spaniards founded La Ciudad Real de la Santa Fé de San Francisco (the Royal City of the Holy Faith of St. Francis), a designation which our busier day has shortened into Santa Fé.

But it was two and two-thirds centuries this side of Coronado that the trade between the American settlements and Santa Fé began. The latter was still Spanish territory. In 1804 William Morrison, a merchant of Kaskaskia, Illinois, sent Baptiste Lalande, a French creole, to Santa Fé with a small stock of goods, with the intention of opening a trade with that place. Lalande went up the Missouri to the mouth of the Platte, where the present Omaha stands, proceeded along the Platte to the Rocky Mountains, traveled south to the New Mexican capital, disposed of his goods at a profit there, and liked the people so well that he remained, pocketing Morrison’s money. Lalande was the advance courier of the army of commercial travelers, or “drummers,” who are diffused through the country in our day. He was perhaps the first man in the United States to start out to sell goods by sample.

Some of the Indians also began to take part in this traffic, although they never entered it in a large way. James Purcell, a Kentucky adventurer of a type familiar to the American frontier of that day, drifted to St. Louis in 1802, went up to the head of the Osage River with a few companions to trap and hunt, was driven into the Rocky Mountains by a large body of Sioux, captured by them, and sent with a few Indians to Santa Fé to ask the Spaniards to trade with them. Liking his white neighbors better than his red associates, Purcell, like Lalande, remained in the New Mexican capital. Pike met him there in 1807.

From these unpromising beginnings nobody could have dreamed that the traffic between Missouri River points and the Spanish-Mexican settlements would reach two hundred and fifty thousand dollars in a season by 1830, and touch seven hundred and fifty thousand dollars by 1843, the year in which President Santa Anna, believing that war with the United States was pending, shut the American traders out of New Mexico. Yet such was the fact. The commerce grew because the New Mexicans were as eager for it as were the Americans. Vera Cruz, the entering point for all foreign goods for New Mexico and Chihuahua, was farther from Santa Fé than Santa Fé was from the Missouri River, the time of transit was longer, and the cost of conveyance was greater. Under any reasonable tariff the Americans could sell their goods in Santa Fé — which was the distributing point for a large part of New Mexico and Chihuahua—and make a handsome profit.

Franklin, in Howard County, Missouri. which was swept away by the Missouri River afterward, was the American terminus of the trail until 1831, when the necessity for saving as much land travel as possible transferred that point westward eighty miles to Independence, which was four miles south of the Missouri; and in the trail’s latter days the outfitting point was shifted ten miles farther west, to Westport Landing, at the mouth of the Kaw, on the site of the present Kansas City.

Draw a line from Independence, Missouri, southwesterly into Kansas to the present Ellinwood, in Barton County, on the Arkansas River. Let the line follow the north bank of the Arkansas (which stream was part of the boundary between the United States and the territory of Spain and Mexico until the close of the war of 1846-48) to a point about twentyfive miles west of the present Dodge City, in Ford County. There, at what was called the Ford of the Arkansas, carry the line across the river southwesterly to the Cimmaron, continue it along the valley of that stream to the southwestern corner of Kansas, push it down into New Mexico to Las Vegas and San Miguel, and swing it northwestward to Santa Fé.

This was the route followed by most of the traders during the most flourishing days of the trail. By that course the distance from Independence to Santa Fé was about eight hundred miles, half of which was in Kansas. Some of the traders, however, in order to escape the sixty miles of desert between the Ford of the Arkansas and the Cimmaron, continued along the Arkansas into Colorado to Bent’s Fort, which was erected by Charles and William Bent in 1829, near the present La Junta, from which point they proceeded southward till they struck the principal route where it crossed the Mora, in New Mexico. This was called the mountain branch of the trail — the branch which is followed by the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fé Railway to-day.

The starting time of the caravans from the Missouri River was usually between the middle of April and the middle of June, and the length of the downward journey ranged from fifty to eighty days, while the return, with its lighter loads, was generally made in quicker time. But the length of the trip, or the decision as to whether there would be a trip at all, depended largely upon the temper of the Indians who infested the trail from 1825 onward, — especially from the Ford of the Arkansas down to the Rio Gallinas, — and upon the number and courage of the whites who were present to fight them.


Immediately behind Lalande and Purcell, who represent for us the Santa Fé trade in its adverse beginnings, came the man who was to give the United States and the world their first authentic account of the people and the conditions in New Mexico and much of old Mexico, to point out the possibilities for profit in a traffic which could be carried on between Missouri and that region, and to suggest the line along which it could be conducted. This was Captain Zebulon M. Pike — the Pike for whom the Rocky Mountain summit near Colorado Springs was afterward named, the General Pike who, as commander of the Americans at the battle of York, now Toronto, in the war of 1812, was killed by the British while leading his men to victory.

On July 15, 1806, Pike, with Lieutenant Wilkinson, son of General James Wilkinson, the commander at St. Louis, and sixteen soldiers, a surgeon and an interpreter, started from the cantonment at Belle Fontaine, a few miles north of St. Louis, near the confluence of the Missouri and the Mississippi, ascended the Missouri by boats to the mouth of the Osage, went up that stream to the Osage village, to which he escorted a party of Osages and Pawnees, and thence pushed westward overland through the present Kansas and Colorado.

Under the instructions given to him by General Wilkinson, Pike’s mission was to endeavor to bring peace between the Osages and the Kansas tribes, and also between the Yanktons and the Comanches; to urge the chiefs of all those Indians to visit Washington and call on President Jefferson; and to “ ascertain the direction, extent and navigation of the Arkansas and Red rivers,” which were part of the boundary between our newly acquired Louisiana province and Spain’s territory of New Mexico. Pike was cautioned to “ move with great circumspection ” when he arrived in the neighborhood of New Mexico, “ so as to avoid giving alarm or offense, because the affairs of Spain and the United States appear to be on the point of amicable adjustment.”

These were the written orders which Wilkinson gave Pike. It is believed that Pike also had secret orders from Wilkinson to find a pass through the mountains by which Santa Fé could be reached readily and Mexico invaded. Spain in those days was a very disagreeable neighbor to the Americans. She held the province of Louisiana from 1763 until Napoleon coerced her into ceding it back to France in 1800, when he intended to utilize it, but the stress of a new war between him and England caused him to sell it to Jefferson. Spain also held the Floridas, comprising not only the present state of that name, but the southern ends of Alabama and Mississippi; and thus, in the whole region between the Atlantic and the Mississippi, barred the Americans’ way to the Gulf of Mexico. As the owner also of part of the present Kansas and Colorado, and all of Texas, Arizona, New Mexico, Utah, Nevada, and California, Spain was obnoxious not only to the restless spirits in the Mississippi valley, but also to many conservative people in the thirteen original states. Clashes with Spain, both in Florida and the Southwest, were often threatened.

Although wearing the American uniform, and in command of the most important military post in the West, General Wilkinson was in the pay of Spain, and had been for years. That affiliation did not hamper him, however, from conspiring against Spain whenever his interest, or imagined interest, might be promoted thereby. At that moment he was deep in Burr’s plot to separate some of the Western states from the Union, to unite them with Mexico, and to take Mexico from Spain and erect an empire or a republic there, with himself at the head.

Pike, who was a loyal and gallant soldier, was undoubtedly ignorant of Wilkinson’s treasonable dealings with Spain, and also of his connection with Burr’s designs. The telling of all this, however, may throw a light on Pike’s movements in Colorado, and may explain why it was that his report of the things which he saw in Spain’s territory was so interesting to his countrymen.

On November 14, four months after he left Belle Fontaine, he, as his journal tells, discovered a summit “ which appeared like a small blue cloud,” and then his party, “ with one accord, gave three cheers for the Mexican Mountains.” The “ Mexican Mountains ” which he saw were the Rocky Mountains, and the towering, cloud-like point was that which is now known as Pike’s Peak. Pike then crossed the range, struck the Rio Grande, which he supposed was the Red River, and was thus in Spanish territory, near the site of the present town of Alamosa, in southern Colorado. In the mean time Burr, having been betrayed by Wilkinson, and his expedition dispersed, was arrested on the Tombigbee, in the State of Mississippi, by order of Jefferson.

Lieutenant Salcedo, with one hundred dragoons, arrived, on February 26, 1807, at the stockade which Pike had erected, and demanded his surrender for trespassing on the territory of Charles IV. He and his men were marched to Santa Fé and he was brought into the presence of General Allencaster, the Governor of New Mexico, to explain his presence in Spain’s domain. Although a prisoner, Pike was treated with distinguished consideration. From Santa Fé he was taken to Chihuahua, to be examined by the military commandant of the territory, at which place he was liberated. He was then conducted through Coahuila and Texas, which was part of Mexico, and at Natchitoches, in the State of Louisiana, he touched United States soil. This was July 1, 1807, almost a year from the time when he started from the mouth of the Missouri.

On the theory that Pike had secret instructions from Wilkinson to trace out a route from which Santa Fe could be entered from the direction of the Missouri River, he may not have been as ignorant as he pretended to be that he was on Spanish territory when captured by Salcedo. He found a route to that capital, and his journey through Mexico to Natchitoches gave him the opportunity to study the people, the resources, and the topography of that region, and to gauge the sort of resistance which the Spaniards could make to attack from within or without. All of this information was set forth in his report to General Henry Dearborn, Jefferson’s Secretary of War.

In this report Pike cited a large number of articles which entered into the trade between Santa Fe and the other important towns in its locality; declared that Mexico surpassed all the other countries of the world “ for riches in gold and silver, producing all the necessaries of life and most of the luxuries; ” said that, notwithstanding these advantages, it had more beggars than any other country on the globe; and added that Spain was feeble, and also was hated by the people. As an evidence of their desire for independence, he mentioned a demonstration in which one hundred and thirty thousand people in the City of Mexico hailed the Count of Galves, the viceroy of Charles IV, as “ King of Mexico.” Galves refused the honor, but he was poisoned shortly afterward, showing, as Pike said, that “ it is dangerous to serve a jealous tyrant.” The priests, according to Pike, all wanted a “ change of government,” and he declared that if Napoleon should seize the Spanish crown it would be the duty of the United States to drive Spain out of Mexico.

Just as Pike was penning these lines in 1808, Napoleon was deposing Ferdinand VII, Charles IV’s successor, and Napoleon’s brother Joseph was then placed upon the throne at Madrid, and ruled until 1814. And as an illustration of the attitude of the clergy, just as Pike’s words were going through the press, Don Miguel Hidalgo, a priest, started a rebellion, which soon spread over a large part of Mexico; but after many victories he was captured and executed.

Raids into Mexico by Guiterrez, Kemper, Taylor, Lafitte, Long, and other adventurers, American and foreign, in the next few years, were the response to Pike’s disclosures of her wealth and the weakness of Spanish authority. Several years later Pike’s story sent Moses Austin to Mexico, where he obtained permission from Spain’s representative to plant a colony of Americans in Texas, and his son, Stephen F. Austin, began to establish settlements there in 1822, just as the Mexicans were expelling Spain and winning their independence. Thus was started the chain of events which led to the inevitable divergence in race, language, and politics of the Texan Americans from the Mexicans, to the rebellion by the Texans, to San Jacinto and independence in 1836, to the annexation of Texas to the United States in 1845, to the Mexican War in 1846, and to the placing of New Mexico and California under the stars and stripes.


Unknown to caplive and captors alike, manifest destiny marched with Pike into Santa Fé on that day in early March, 1807, when Salcedo escorted him before the grand inquisitor, General Allencaster, to tell what his mission was in the territory of his Catholic majesty Charles IV. It was the traders, however, and not the filibusters, and not even the empire-builders, Austin, Houston, and Rusk, who were destiny’s advance couriers. The men in the caravans on the Santa Fe trail americanized the people of New Mexico long before Zachary Taylor’s shot on the Rio Grande in April, 1846, started the Mexican War. And one little passage in Pike’s report, one which probably received no attention from Pike, President Jefferson, Secretary Dearborn, or General Wilkinson, showed a phase of life in Spanish territory which probably aided, more than any of those personages could possibly have dreamed, in making the trade attractive to many of the Americans who engaged in it.

“ Send this evening six or eight of your handsomest young girls to the village of St. Fernandez, where I propose giving a fandango for the entertainment of the American officers arrived this day.


This is a request which was sent to the alcaldes of several small villages by Lieutenant Don Faciendo Malgares, the officer who commanded the escort of Spanish troops who conveyed Pike from Santa Fé to Chihuahua. Pike mentions this ball as an illustration of the “degraded state of the common people.” He concedes, however, that at it “ there was really a handsome display of beauty.” Pike’s fellow countrymen, among the traders of the after-time, were not quite so puritanical as he was. As a diversion in New Mexico’s principal towns, particularly in Santa Fé, the fandango not only remained throughout Spain’s and Mexico’s days of ascendancy, but lingered almost to the advent of the railway in 1880. The bright garb and the graceful movements of the women who engaged in it, and the sound of the guitar, the tambourine, and the castanet which were its accompaniments, gave a dash of color and gayety to life in that ancient community, especially from early June to late September, from the arrival to the departure of the caravans. And during that time, in a direct and emphatic degree, the American visitors were a part of that life.

Pike’s report, published in 1810, and Hidalgo’s insurrection in that year, which promised to subvert Spain’s authority in Mexico and abolish her prohibitory tariffs, sent Robert McKnight, Samuel Chambers, James Baird, and a few companions from the Missouri to Santa Fé in 1812; but by that time Hidalgo had been executed and his revolt suppressed. McKnight and his associates were seized by the Spaniards as spies, their goods were confiscated, and they were thrown into prison in Chihuahua, where they remained until the revolution, under Iturbide, drove Spain out of Mexico in 1821. Auguste P. Chouteau and Julius De Mun of St. Louis, with a few companions, tempted fate in 1815 ; but they were tried by court martial in Santa Fe, and their wares, valued at thirty thousand dollars, were appropriated by the authorities. With one horse each, which was allowed them by the Spaniards, they made their way to St. Louis, and appealed to Congress for the relief which a committee of the House said was due them, but which they never received.

When the news of the expulsion of Spain reached the Missouri, the tidings dispatched parties of traders, at different dates and by slightly different routes, under the direction of Jacob Fowler, Hugh Glenn, Braxton Cooper, and William Becknell, to Santa Fé, with small stocks of goods which they disposed of at a profit. These were the first successful ventures of Americans there, and they make 1821 notable in the annals of the trail.

Encouraged by this good fortune, Becknell, with twenty-one men, three wagons (the first wheeled vehicles which appeared on the trail), and five thousand dollars in goods, left Franklin, on the Missouri, in May, 1822, successfully ran the gauntlet of the hostile Osages between that stream and the Arkansas, and encountered trouble of a more serious sort just afterward. Intending to make a short cut to Santa Fé this time, and avoid the détour westward along the north bank of the Arkansas to the mountains, Becknell and his party forded that river at “The Caches,” five miles west of the present Dodge City, Kansas, and struck a direct line southwestward across the desert toward the Cimmaron. However, the stock of water in their canteens and kegs was soon exhausted, and they were forced to kill their dogs and cut off their mules’ ears in order to drink the blood. At last, tantalized by mirages, half crazed by thirst, and almost exhausted, they were compelled, although at one time close to the Cimmaron without knowing it, to make their way back to the Arkansas. This they followed westward for several days, then pushed southward by way of Taos, and reached Santa Fé without other serious mishaps.

In the next few years the trail’s activities rapidly expanded, and among the participants in them, in addition to those mentioned in the preceding paragraphs, were Marmaduke, St. Vrain, and the Bents. And now appears a person whose name has traveled farther than any of these, and written itself in more languages.

“Notice is hereby given to all persons that Christopher Carson, a boy about sixteen years old, small for his age, but thick-set, with light hair, ran away from the subscriber, living in Franklin, Howard county, Missouri, to whom he had been bound to learn the saddler’s trade, on or about the 1st of September last. He is supposed to have made his way to the upper part of the state. All persons are notified not to harbor, support, or assist said boy, under penalty of the law. One cent reward will be given to any person who will bring back the said boy.

“ (Signed) DAVID WORKMAN.”

This advertisement in the Missouri Intelligencer of Franklin, Missouri, in the issue of October 12, 1826, is Kit Carson’s introduction to the country. In the fortytwo years between his advent upon the scene and his death he played many parts, but his first appearance on the world’s stage was as a mule-driver in the caravan of Ceran St. Vrain on the Santa Fé trail. Neither David Workman, himself a mountain and overland trader of some note, nor the town of Franklin, saw Kit Carson again until many years after this time, and the saddler’s shop knew him no more.

But neither his new employer nor his old could have dreamed of the large rôle which that boy was to assume in the coming time. Let us take a glance at a few of its episodes. In a circuit of three thousand miles through the present New Mexico, Arizona, Utah, Nevada, and California, in 1828-29, with Ewing Young’s party of hunters, Carson made a reputation as a trapper, Indian fighter, and leader which obtained him an engagement from Thomas Fitzpatrick, of the Rocky Mountain Fur Company, in the latter year. In that company’s service, and independently, in the next few years, he trapped along the more important rivers of Nebraska, the Dakotas, Wyoming, Montana, Idaho, Washington, Oregon, Utah, and Colorado, fighting Blackfeet, Crows, Sioux, and Utes, and coming into companionship with Ashley, Henry, Bridger, the Sublettes, Fontenelle, and other prominent plainsmen. Induced by Charles Bent to become hunter for Bent’s Fort on the Arkansas in 1834, it was his duty to provide meat for a garrison of from twenty to thirty hungry men, with such frequent guests as the Santa Fé trade and the exigencies of Indian warfare cast into that post. And he did his work so well that it was with keen regret that Bent permitted him to leave his employ in 1842.

Now Carson enters the service of the government, in which he remains, with one or two short interruptions, until his death. After blazing the way for Frémont, in the exploring expedition of 1842, from the Missouri to South Pass, he, from 1843 to 1846, found paths for that “pathfinder” from the Rockies to the Pacific. He was active in the fighting in 1846 under Frémont, and Commodores Sloat and Stockton, in which the Mexicans were driven out of Northern California; and in September of that year, in command of fifteen men, he started on horseback for Washington with dispatches to tell President Polk of the empire which had been won on the Pacific,

Meeting General Kearny near Santa Fé, just after that officer’s conquest of New Mexico, Carson was induced to hand his message to another courier, to be carried to Washington, while he placed himself at the head of Kearny’s column in its march westward. At the battle of San Pasquale, in Southern California, when Kearny was outnumbered and surrounded, Carson went to the rescue. Making his way at night through the cordon of Mexican sentinels, he traveled on foot to San Diego, from which place Stockton sent a force to Kearny’s relief. With dispatches, he left California in March, 1847, dodged some Indians and Mexicans and fought others, reached Washington in June, and shortly afterward, as bearer of a message, he crossed the continent westward, and arrived at Monterey in October. Appointed Indian agent in New Mexico in 1853, he held that station to the end of his days, dealing out Solomonic justice in the feuds between red men and white, and red men and red. In an intermission he fought Confederates and Indians in the Civil War, in which he attained the rank of brigadier-general. At his death at Fort Lyon, Colorado, in 1868, there departed as heroic, and also as modest, a spirit as the American frontier had seen.

By an odd coincidence the Indian fighting on the Santa Fe trail began just after Kit Carson’s arrival. In 1828 Samuel C. McNees and Daniel Munroe, while asleep on the bank of a stream, which was afterward called McNees Creek, a branch of the Cimmaron, in southern Kansas, almost within sight of their comrades, who were returning from Santa Fé, were killed by a party of Pawnees. Many traders had had horses, mules, and other property stolen from them by Indians, but so far as is known, these were the first murders committed by red men on the trail.

The comrades of the dead men, meeting a band of innocent Indians a day or two later, killed all except one, who escaped to his band, which retaliated by attacking the culprits. These escaped with their lives, but they lost all the proceeds of their trip to Santa Fé, including one thousand horses and mules. A few days afterward the same Indians fired on a party of twenty-five whites, who were returning from New Mexico but who had had no hand in the crime committed by the friends of McNees and Munroe. One of them, Captain John Means, wars killed, and the horses and mules belonging to the rest were stolen. The other men, after “caching” their money, managed to escape.

Thus began the vendettas which, for the next forty years, etched in red the entire trail of prairie, desert, and mountain pass, from the Pawnee Fork of the Arkansas to the Rio Mora. Through Senator Benton of Missouri, the traders induced the government to furnish escorts for them; and in 1829, from the newly established Fort Leavenworth, Major Bennett Riley, for whom the present Fort Riley in Kansas is named, with four companies of infantry, convoyed a caravan commanded by Charles Bent. Riley stopped at the Arkansas, the national boundary, but Bent was attacked by Comanches just south of that stream, and Riley was compelled to go to the rescue. Several times afterward also the government furnished aid of this sort. In general, however, the traders were compelled to rely on themselves, and this necessity forced them to go in large parties, and well armed.

For several reasons 1831 is memorable in the annals of the trail. The principal outfitting point had by that time been shifted to Independence. That year saw the largest and best equipped expedition which had yet appeared in the trade. One of its members was Josiah Gregg, who remained on the trail for many years; his book, The Commerce of the Prairies, published in 1844, gives by far the best account of that traffic ever furnished by any participant in it. His description of his first trip is remarkably vivid.


Bustling, swaggering little Independence saw, on May 15, 1831, as gay and stirring a scene as the frontier had ever beheld. Straggling for miles over the daisy-dotted and butterfly-bespangled prairie, all headed southwesterly, were dozens of wagons, — the conestoga, canvas-top, “prairie-schooner” variety, so familiar on the frontier until the frontier vanished, — heavily loaded with calicoes, ginghams, velvets, cotton goods, cutlery, firearms, and other light articles, each drawn by four or five pairs of oxen, or in some cases by mules, with scores of men, some on horseback, others on foot driving the wagons, and a few in dearborns and other small vehicles. With the party were some ladies belonging to a Spanish family who had been driven out of Mexico two years earlier by the authorities, but who, the ban against them having been raised, were now returning home. The air rang with the jingling of bells, the clattering of ox-yokes, the pistol-like cracking of the long swinging lashes of the whips of the drivers, the vociferous leave-takings of relatives or acquaintances at the outskirts of the town, and the singing and the shouting of the muleteers and campfollowers in anticipation of the adventures and the delights of the eight hundred miles of journey which were ahead of them. The armament, consisting of rifles, yagers, fowling-pieces, pistols, and all the other weapons then extant, was as miscellaneous as the dispositions and the costumes of the members of the expedition.

The rendezvous of the caravan was at Council Grove, one hundred and fifty miles southwest of Independence, in the present Morris County, Kansas, on the banks of the Neosho, one of the tributaries of the Arkansas. This point was reached on May 26. Council Grove was so named because the commission appointed by the United States government in 1825 to mark out a course to Santa Fé (which, by the way, the traders refused to follow, because it was too circuitous) met the Osages in council there, and induced them to agree to let all Americans and Mexicans who were engaged in this traffic pass through their territory unmolested. For many years all the detached parties of traders met there, chose officers and adopted military usages and discipline, so as to be able to combat the perils which were just ahead of them. No village was there. In those days there was not a habitation of white or red men on the trail between Independence and Las Vegas, within fifty miles of Santa Fé.

On this occasion “a gentleman by the name of Stanley, without seeking or ever desiring the office, was unanimously proclaimed captain of the caravan.” So Gregg, the Xenophon of this Anabasis, relates. And the story of this “journey to the interior ” registers the experience of scores of expeditions through all the years of the trail.

“Catch up! Catch up! ”

This command by Captain Stanley and his aides, on May 27, aroused a hallooing of wagoners, and a hurried hitching of oxen and mules.

“All’s set.” “All’s set,” was the response from every direction.

“ Stretch out.”

Chaos slowly wriggled itself into two files, each about a mile long and two hundred feet apart, to be shortened and broadened into four files when approaching the danger-point at Pawnee Rock a few days later; and the caravan of two hundred men, two six-pounder cannons and one hundred wagons, carrying two hundred thousand dollars of merchandise, and preceded by half a dozen horsemen, the largest outfit which had yet appeared on the trail, swung away from Council Grove, and headed for New Mexico’s capital, six hundred and fifty miles distant.

Gregg, middle-aged, refined, and an invalid, quickly found, as did all the others in the train to whom the experience was new, that the prairie’s sunshine, its ozone-laden winds, and its wild, free life, had reversed the cycle of the years. Before they reached Cottonwood Creek, a branch of the Neosho, two days out from Council Grove, he left his carriage, mounted his horse in youthful glee, joined with the others in helping to pull the wagons out of quagmires, took his turn promptly and cheerfully in mounting guard at night, ate the buffalo meat and the coarse food with a relish which dainties could not have excited before he left Independence, slept on boxes under the wagons in rainstorms, and on clear nights lay down upon prairie or desert with nothing but his mackinaw blanket between him and Vega and Arcturns.

After passing Cottonwood Creek, and near the present Emporia, a wild dash was made at a buffalo herd by nearly everybody in the caravan. Several fat cows were killed, the meat from which was dried in the sun, and the odor from which, in cooking, brought a coyote serenade round the camp. Close to the Pawnee, a branch of the Arkansas, the sight of embers of recent fires, the bones of buffalo meat cooked upon them, old moccasins, and other Indian “ sign,” brought the command from Stanley which threw the train from the two-file into the four-file formation, hoppled the horses, mules, and oxen inside the wagon corral at night, and increased the number and vigilance of the camp guard.

“ Fill the water-kegs.”

The Ford of the Arkansas, twenty-five miles west of the present Dodge City, in southwestern Kansas, had been crossed on June 14, and the Cimmaron desert, a barren prairie with a succession of low sandhills and beds of dry streams stretching to the North Fork of the Cimmaron, sixty miles away, was now to be traversed.

“ Catch up.”

The caravan was off again. Neglect to take a sufficient supply of water in crossing the desert was at that moment bringing fatal consequences to a party a few days in advance of Stanley and Gregg, headed by Jedediah S. Smith, David E. Jackson, and William L. Sublette, mighty hunters all of them of the northwestern prairies and mountains, but all of them new to the southwestern trade. After they had lost their way and had exhausted the contents of their kegs and canteens, Smith started in search of water, with the hope of rescuing his comrades. lured by a mirage to a branch of the Cimmaron, which he found to be dry, he was scooping a hole in the sand in its bed in an attempt to get water, when he was pierced by a score of arrows from a band of Comanches who had crept up behind him. The news of his death, which was one of the most notable of the tragedies of the trail, did not reach his associates until several weeks later. In the mean time, after terrible sufferings, and with further loss of life, they extricated themselves, and at last reached Santa Fé.

On the desert, Gregg’s expedition met eighty well-mounted Sioux on a piratical tour; but the Indians, finding this particular outfit too strong to be attacked and too vigilant to be stolen from, told them, by signs, that great numbers of other Indians were just ahead. Next day, June 19, as the caravan was entering the Cimmaron valley, large bands of mounted Blackfeet and Gros Ventres, with a sprinkling of Comanches and Arapahoes, suddenly dashed out from the shallow ravines in the front and on the flank, and, with wild yells, swept down upon it. Instantly the wagons were thrown into a square, with the animals and men on the inside, the cannon were swung into position, and the men were at their posts ready to fire. The Indians galloped back, but immediately pressed forward again, though in less hostile array. Then the calumet was produced by one of the chiefs, a peace-talk was had, by signs, and the warriors gradually and sullenly retired, joining the squaws, who swarmed in great numbers across the hills, and soon the valley was dotted with five hundred lodges, containing four thousand persons, over one thousand of whom were warriors. To these Indians probably belonged the band which had killed Smith a few days before. Though the presence of the squaws and papooses showed that, primarily, this was not a war-party, its great strength made it dangerous, and the whites put on double guards at night, and attempted, by rising before the sun, to escape. For two or three days the Indians hung round them as they traveled, the squaws and children begging and stealing little articles, and the warriors making away with a few stray horses and inciting many day and night alarms of threatened attack. At last the red men made it known that a peace pact is never binding until it is ratified by presents, whereupon the traders handed over a few blankets, knives, and trinkets, and their tormentors vanished.

Toiling on into New Mexico, crossing the Rio Mora, the Rio Gallinas, and other streams, past Wagon Mound, Las Vegas, San Miguel, and other places through which the traveler on the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fé dashes in 1909; greeted at San Miguel by lance-bearing cibeleros (buffalo-hunters), and convoyed for the last few miles by a companv of Mexican soldiers and some customs officers, to prevent smuggling, the caravan, skirting the base of the mountains, ascended to a tableland, and saw, in the valley to the northwest, a collection of low, unburned brick houses strewm on both sides of a small stream which flowed into the Rio Grande, twenty miles away. This was the point toward which they had journeyed for ten weeks. This was Santa Fé.

“Los Americanos.” — “Los Garros.” — “La entrada de la caravana.”

The outfit had been discovered as it descended the declivity, and men, women, and children rushed out and gave it a clamorous welcome. Down along the narrow, crooked streets, which appeared to lead anywhere or nowhere, through crowds of shouting men and boys, and women waving hands and scarfs, the caravan strode, with bells jingling, the horses and horsemen in the advance holding their heads high, the strutting and halloing drivers, with new “ crackers ” on their lashes, swinging their whips ostentatiously, into the plaza publica, and onward to the palace and custom-house, where the tariff on the goods was assessed and collected.

Any one who has seen the hilarious welcome which a circus gets on entering a country town may form at least a faint conception of the wild delight which the members of the caravans, their months of hardship and peril ended, exhibited when filing into Santa Fé, and of the enthusiastic greeting extended to them by the people of that place, particularly the women.

Now, for the owners of the merchandise, came sale, exchange, barter. For their attaches and the camp-followers came days and nights at fandangoes, with drinking, gambling, wild carousal, and barbaric abandon. Then came the leavetaking and the long, perilous journey homeward.

With sharp fluctuations, the trade over the trail increased till 1843, when it amounted to four hundred and fifty thousand dollars with Santa Fé, and three hundred thousand dollars with other points in the territory. That was the end of the traffic until after the expulsion of Mexico in 1846, for President Santa Anna, foreseeing the war with the United States which was just ahead, and foreseeing also that the Americans were making social conquests in New Mexico, closed all the ports to them.


Along the trail in the summer of 1846 the “ réveillé ” and “ boots and saddles ” sounded. War between the United States and Mexico had begun. Down that thoroughfare, from the mustering point at Fort Leavenworth, went Sumner’s dragoons of the regular army, Doniphan’s regiment of Missouri mounted volunteers, Clark’s artillery, and Aubery’s infantry. It was the army of the West, under General Stephen W. Kearny. Down by way of Pawnee Rock, Bent’s Fort on the Arkansas, and the Spanish Peaks, through the Raton Pass, over the divide which separates the waters of the Purgatoire, the Cimmaron, and the Rio Colorado past the Rio Mora and San Miguel, along the paths blazed many years earlier by the traders, the column marched; and it entered Santa Fé on August 16. Immediately the stars and stripes were raised over the palace, from which Governor Don Manuel Armijo, commanding three thousand Mexican troops, had just fled: the palace, from which, for centuries, Spain gave the law to that part of America; the palace to which Pike was summoned in 1807 by General Allen caster.

“ New Mexicans! We have come among you to lake possession of New Mexico, which we do in the name of the government of the United States. . . . We have come as friends, to better your condition, and to make you a part of the American republic. . . . Armijo is no longer your governor. His power is departed. You are no longer Mexican subjects, but have become American citizens, subject to the laws of the United States.”

The voice was Kearny’s, but the deed was merely the completion and ratification of the work begun by Becknell, Fowler, Bent, St. Vrain, Marmaduke, Gregg, Kit Carson, and their associate traders Jong before President Polk dispatched General Zachary Taylor, in the early months of 1846, through the disputed territory between the Nueces and the Rio Grande.

Annexation, which was proclaimed by the treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo of February 2, 1848, brought practically all of the present New Mexico and Arizona, the southwestern sections of Kansas and Colorado, and all of California, Nevada, and Utah, under the American flag, and immediately and rapidly extended and diversified the activities of the trail. With the custom-house embargo Lifted at Santa Fé, the commerce with that region quickly expanded to figures never closely approached in the days of Mexico’s ascendancy. In the later sixties and early seventies from five to eight million dollars in merchandise passed over the trail annually, for New Mexico and California.

In 1848 the mail and passenger stagecoach, the coach being made water-tight so that it could be transformed into a ferry boat in crossing streams, made its appearance, and was a familiar object on the trail till the end. Starting in 1849, eager parties of gold-seekers, on horses, mules, or in stage-coaches, began to surge down the trail to California, hurrying past the slow-moving ox-trains of the traders. By 1850 home-builders began to move into New Mexico, and some of them continued onward to Texas and California; and the stream of these immigrants along that national pike expanded in volume when, under the Douglas Act of 1854, Kansas, including Colorado, was separated from the “ Indian country,” and thrown open to settlement.

In the mean time life along the trail did not lose any of its old spice of peril. Pawnee, Comanche, Arapahoe, and Apache were more active and pervasive for many years after the Mexican War than they had been before, for the provocation and the temptation were larger. Moreover, a new and more versatile and persistent enemy had made his advent bv 1849. This was the brigand, or roadagent, whose favorite object of ambuscade and attack was the returning trader and argonaut.

Nevertheless, despite the dangers which remained with it to the end, some of the old-time attraction of the trail was lacking. The element of the alien, the mysterious, and the unknown, had vanished. Possession, familiarity, and the advent of American settlers along its line and at its western terminus, few and far apart as these were previous to 1860, robbed it of much of the charm which it had when Becknell, Gregg, and Kit Carson first saw it. Never again could the trail have the color, the contrast, and the romance which surrounded it in the days before the Gringo came.

And now enters a factor which eventually abolished the trail and its red, white, and yellow raiders. This is the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fé Railway. Pushing onward through Missouri, Kansas, Colorado, and New Mexico, with the eastern terminus of the caravans retreating before it, and making a stand, successively, at Hays City, Kit Carson, La Junta, El Moro, and Las Vegas, that railroad reached Las Vegas in 1879, while, by a branch line from Lamy, the locomotive dashed into Santa Fé on February 9, 1880, and the career of the trail had ended.

In the Kansas counties of Ford, Gray, Haskell, and Grant, comprising part of the Cimmaron desert of the old days, — the desert upon whose horizon the mirage painted its fantastic pictures of forest, oasis, and river, — deep ruts made by the wagon wheels of the traders may still, in some places, be traced for distances of many miles. And as the passenger on the Atchison railway in 1909 — the passenger with an imagination, who is also familiar with the story of the trail — hears the stations Big Bend, La Junta, El Moro, Raton, Wagon Mound, and others called out by the conductors, he will, in fancy, see before him a vast procession of great figures, stretching from St. Vrain, Chouteau, and Pike, back to Coronado.