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The Santa Fe Trail

The Multiple Property listing titled Historic Resources of the Santa Fe Trail, 1821-1880 was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1994. Portions of the text below were adapted from a copy of the original nomination document. [†] Adaptation copyright © 2011, The Gombach Group.

The 1,200 mile Santa Fe National Historic Trail (including the Mountain and Cimarron Routes) traverses thirty-six counties in Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma, Colorado, and New Mexico. It represents the first great trans-Mississippi trade route, and was the first road to be surveyed west of Missouri. However, the importance of the Trail goes beyond that of trade: the Trail significantly aided in the development of a quarter of the North American continent. The Trail itself began as an international trade route in 1821, only to become a domestic trade route in 1848 following U.S. victory in the Mexican War. American, American Indian, and Hispanic cultures came into contact with one another along the Santa Fe Trail, thus contributing to a mosaic of varying social and cultural aspects of the route. Several notable individuals and groups have a connection with the Santa Fe Trail, including William Becknell, Christopher "Kit" Carson [1], Manuel Alvarez, and Josiah Gregg [2] in addition to Apache, Kiowa, Osage, Pawnee, and various other American Indian peoples. This interaction of cultural groups along the Trail provoked more fighting than occurred on any other western trail. Conflict along the Trail led to a new national policy toward American Indians, and to the development of new types of military units such as the U.S. Dragoons [3], as well as to the establishment of satellite frontier forts. The military significance of the Trail is further emphasized by the Santa Fe Trail's contribution to the "Manifest Destiny" [4] doctrine which led to the Mexican War, to the expansion of the Union in the 1840s, to government communication with civil and military officers, and to the preservation of the Union in the 1860s. The route also accommodated the railroad in its expansion westward and aided in the settlement of western lands. The material culture which emerged along the Trail, while contributing to regional cultures, is unique when viewed in light of the factors, conditions, and processes which produced it.

The popular perception of the Santa Fe Trail is that of a single route with two branches joining Franklin, Missouri and Santa Fe, New Mexico. This image is misleading, and is the consequence of early twentieth century mapping and marking of two branches of the Trail. [5] Actually, various routes to and from Santa Fe were followed depending on weather conditions, terrain, and the state of man-made hazards, as well as other considerations. [6] Several major historic branches of the Santa Fe Trail have been identified including the Aubry Cutoff and the military roads from Granada, Colorado to Fort Union, New Mexico; Fort Hays, Kansas to Fort Dodge, Kansas; and the various branches to Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. [7] Franklin, Missouri, the original eastern terminus of the Trail, was founded in 1817 close to the Missouri River with many of the housing lots platted at the river's edge not allowing for its floodplain. [8] Materials and participants in the Santa Fe trade originated at locations farther east with other routes such as the Boon's Lick trail from St. Charles, Missouri to Boon's Lick, Missouri contributing to the Santa Fe trade. From Franklin the traders would proceed by ferry to Arrow Rock, Missouri or to Boonville, Missouri on the west bank of the Missouri River. [9] New Franklin, Missouri was built two miles northeast of Franklin after its abandonment due to flooding in 1828. Steamboat navigation allowed freight to be transported to Blue Mills Landing, Missouri or Independence Landing, Missouri and from there, three miles south to the town of Independence, Missouri the eastern terminus of the Trail in 1827. [10] By 1833, steamboat navigation had reduced the length of the Trail by another ten miles with freight transported to Westport Landing, Missouri and then south to the town of Westport, Missouri. [11] Traders traveling westward on the Trail also sought different destinations for their trading of goods with many of them continuing on to Chihuahua (five hundred miles south of Santa Fe), Durango, Zacatecas, and San Juan de Los Lagos. [12] The first printed use of the term "Santa Fe Trail" appeared in the Missouri Intelligencer and Boon's Lick Advertiser. (Franklin, June 18, 1825, page 4, column 1.) [13] Prior to this date and afterwards, the route was known by a variety of names which included the "Mexican Road," "Mexican Trail," "Spanish Trace," "Santa Fe Trace," "Santa Fe Road," and "Missouri Wagon Road." [14] The dangers the Santa Fe Trail posed to travelers were varied and numerous including American Indian attacks in response to trespassing issues, high temperatures, prairie fires, icy blizzards, buffalo stampedes, polluted water, blowing dust and sand, mosquitoes, rattlesnakes, dysentery, cholera, fever, contusions, exhaustion, flies, gnats, bushwhackers, "Red Legs", guerrillas, jayhawkers, and ordinary highwaymen. [15]


  1. Christopher "Kit" Carson (1809-1868)
    Christopher Carson was born in Madison County, Kentucky on December 24, 1809 to Lindsay and Rebecca Carson. In 1810, the family moved to Howard County, Missouri where they lived with other families in a stockade. Carson received no formal education. At the age of fifteen, he became a saddlemaker apprentice-an occupation he gave up in 1828 when he joined a caravan bound for Santa Fe. This journey ultimately led Carson to California since en route he had met Ewing Young, a western trader and trapper, whom he accompanied to the Rocky Mountains fur country. In 1830, he accompanied a second trading party to the central Rocky Mountains where he lived as a mountain man for the next twelve years. During that time, he married an American Indian and they had a daughter. In 1841, he became a hunter for Bent's Fort in Colorado. While visiting relatives in Missouri in 1842, Carson met Lieutenant John Charles Fremont who enlisted his services as a mountain guide and adviser on two expeditions westward. Carson served in California during the Mexican War and was a guide for the army under the command of General Stephen Watts Kearny on its route to California. Between 1846 and 1865, Carson became involved in limited farming activities, scouting for the U.S. army, and in battle with American Indians. Carson also took an active role in the Civil War. Carson served as brevet brigadier general at Fort Garland, Colorado before his death at Fort Lyon, Colorado on May 23, 1868.
  2. Josiah Gregg (1806-1850)
    Josiah Gregg was born in Overton County, Tennessee on July 19, 1806 to Harmon and Susannah Gregg. They moved to Cooper's Fort (near Glasgow, Missouri) in 1812 and from there to Blue River country in 1825. The Gregg family resided in a log house about five miles northeast of modern-day Independence in Jackson County, Missouri. Josiah Gregg was the fifth of eight children and suffered from consumption. As a young man, he developed an interest in medicine and was sent to medical college in Philadelphia where he became a doctor. After receiving this qualification, he returned to Jackson County to practice medicine. The people of Jackson County were only too familiar with the Santa Fe trade and Harmon, Josiah Gregg's father, was a member of Becknell's expedition to Santa Fe in 1822. Furthermore, Josiah Gregg's brother, Jacob, accompanied Sibley's 1825 surveying party to New Mexico and saw Sibley recover en route. Gregg was also aware that the Trail had helped relieve some people who had become afflicted with tuberculosis, so he joined a caravan bound for Santa Fe in 1831. He participated in the Santa Fe trade from 1831 to 1840. During the Mexican War, Gregg became a newspaper correspondent and returned home to Missouri after the conflict. In 1849, he joined the California gold rush and, at San Francisco, he embarked upon an expedition to the Trinity River region of northern California. On a lake shore in present-day Lake County, California, Gregg fell from his horse, became unconscious, and died a few hours later. His book Commerce of the Prairies was first published in two volumes simultaneously at New York and London in 1844. His famous account of the Santa Fe trade incorporates details about the history of the Trail and the states through which it passed, American Indian peoples encountered along the route, and information about the Mexican people, in addition to a geographical description of the country at that time. Barton H. Barbour, "Westward to Health: Gentlemen Health-Seekers on the Santa Fe Trail," Journal of the West. Vol. XXVIII, No. 2, pp. 39-43; Josiah Gregg, The Commerce of the Prairies. Edited by Milo Milton Quaife, Bison Book edition (Lincoln, Nebraska and London: University of Nebraska Press, 1967), pp. xi-xxii.
  3. The term "Dragoon" refers to a mounted soldier trained to fight either on horseback or on foot. The application of the term to such soldiers lies in the belief that their muskets were said to spit fire like a dragon. The first Dragoons were known as "arquebusiers a cheval" and were organized in France by Piero Strozzi in 1537 for Francis I. In the case of the United States, four regiments of Dragoons existed in the Continental Army until they were consolidated with the cavalry at the beginning of the Civil War in 1861.
  4. In the case of the United States, the Manifest Destiny doctrine implied divine sanction for territorial expansion by this young and emerging nation. The original use of the term appeared in an anonymous article in the July-August, 1845 issue of the United States Magazine and Democratic Review referring to the annexation of Texas by the United States earlier that year. Since that time the term has been used by advocates of other annexations including the Mexican territory after the Mexican War and Oregon Country after a dispute with Britain.
  5. William G. Buckles, "The Santa Fe Trail System," Journal of the West. Vol. XXVIII, No. 2, April 1989, p. 79.
  6. Otis E. Young, "Military Protection of the Santa Fe Trail and Trade," Missouri Historical Review. Vol. XLIX, No. 1, October 1954, p. 20.
  7. United States Department of the Interior/National Park Service, Santa Fe National Historic Trail: Comprehensive Management and Use Plan (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1990), p. 15.
  8. Joan Myers and Marc Simmons, Along the Santa Fe Trail (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1986), p. 4.
  9. Jack D. Rittenhouse, The Santa Fe Trail: A Historical Bibliography (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1971), p. 14.
  10. Ibid.; Young, p. 20.
  11. Ibid.
  12. Mark L. Gardner, "Introduction," Journal of the West. Vol. XXVIII, No. 2, April 1989, p. 3.
  13. "Council Trove-Documents: Use of Word 'Trail'," Wagon Tracks: Santa Fe Trail Association Quarterly. Vol. 5, No. 2, February 1991, pp. 25-26.
  14. Gardner, p. 3.
  15. Leo E. Oliva, "The Santa Fe Trail in Wartime: Expansion and Preservation of the Union," Journal of the West. Vol. XXVIII, No. 2, April 1989, p. 54; Rowe Findley, "Along the Santa Fe Trail," National Geographic. Vol. 179, No. 3, March 1991, p. 102.

† Joseph Gallagher, Cultural Geographer, Alice Edwards, Preservation Planner, Lachlan F. Blair, Preservation Planner, Editor, and Hugh Davidson, consultant, The Urbana Group, Historic Resources of the Santa Fe Trail, 1821-1880, nomination document, 1993, National Park Service, National Register of Historic Places, Washington, D.C.

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The Gombach Group • Morrisville, PA • 215-295-6555