The Great Prairie Highway

The Santa Fe Trail stirs imaginations as few other historic trails can. For 60 years, the Trail was one thread in a web of international trade routes. It influenced economies as far away as New York and London. Spanning 900 miles of the Great Plains between the United States (Missouri) and Mexico (Santa Fe), it brought together a cultural mosaic of individuals who cooperated and sometimes clashed. In the process, the rich and varied cultures of Great Plains Indian peoples caught in the middle were changed forever. Soldiers used the trail during the 1846-1848 Mexican-American War, 1840s border disputes between the Republic of Texas and Mexico, and America's Civil War. The troops also policed conflicts between traders and Indian tribes. With the traders and military freighters tramped a curious company of gold seekers, emigrants, adventurers, mountain men, hunters, American Indians, guides, packers, translators, invalids, reporters, and Mexican children bound for schools in Los Estados Unidos.

Spain jealously protected the borders of its New Mexico colony, prohibiting manufacturing and international trade. Missourians and others visiting Santa Fe told of an isolated provincial capital starved for manufactured goods and supplies - a potential gateway to Mexico's interior markets. In 1821, the Mexican people revolted against Spanish rule. With independence, they unlocked the gates of trade, using the Santa Fe Trail as the key. Encouraged by Mexican officials, the Santa Fe trade boomed, strengthening and linking the economies of Missouri and Mexico's northern provinces. The close of the Civil War in 1865 released America's industrial energies, and the railroad pushed westward, gradually shortening and then replacing the Santa Fe Trail.

In 1821 the eastern terminus was Franklin, Missouri; by 1832, Independence, Missouri; and by 1845, Kansas City, Missouri. Textiles and hardware were traded west, silver, mules and furs were traded east.

Life on the Trail

Movies and books often romanticize Santa Fe Trail treks as sagas of constant peril, replete with violent prairie storms, fights with Indians, and thundering bison herds. In fact, a glimpse of buffalo, elk, pronghorns, or prairie dogs was sometimes the only break in the tedium of the 8 week journey. Trail travelers mostly experienced dust, mud, gnats, mosquitos, and heat. But, occasional swollen streams, wildfires, hailstorms, strong winds, or blizzards could imperil wagon trains.

At dawn, trail hands scrambled in noise and confusion to round up, sort and hitch up the animals. The wagons headed out, the air ringing with cries of "All's set!" and soon, "Catch up, catch up!" and "Stretch out!" Stopping at mid-morning, crews unhitched and grazed the teams, hauled water, gathered wood or buffalo chips for fuel, and cooked and ate the day's main meal, from a monotonous daily ration of 1 lb. of flour, 1 lb. or so of sowbelly bacon, 1 oz. of coffee, 2 oz. of sugar, and a pinch of salt. Beans, dried apples, or buffalo and other game were occasional treats. Crews then repaired their wagons, yokes and harnesses; greased wagon wheels; doctored animals; and hunted. They moved on soon after noon, fording streams before that night's stop because overnight storms could turn trickling creeks into raging torrents before morning. And stock that was cold in the harness first thing in the morning tended to be unruly. At day's end, crews took care of the animals, made necessary repairs, chose night guards, and enjoyed a few hours of well-earned leisure and sleep.

Copyright © 2006-21 Claud "Sonny" Rouch, all rights reserved. Website by OACYS Technology. Cover photo by Roberts Engineering.