The Santa Fe Trail: History & Facts

Instructor: Christopher Prokes

Chris is an instructional designer and college faculty member. He has a Master's Degree in Education and also umpires baseball.

The Santa Fe Trail was an early trade route between the eastern U.S. and the undeveloped West. It was very profitable and helped open the West. Learn about this early route in this lesson, and take a short quiz at the end.

East Meets West

Surely you remember learning about trade routes in your scholastic history classes. The routes that were developed for the purposes of trade rather than travel or immigration have connected various parts of the world since ancient times. The development of the United States benefited from their use, especially when connecting the eastern states with the undeveloped territories of the West. A prime example is the Santa Fe Trail. A commercial trade route, the trail was very profitable and aided in opening up the West for development. Although it declined due to the rise of railroads, its legacy signified westward expansion. To know the trail, let's view it through the lenses of its origins, the heyday of the trail, and its closing.

The Concept: Origins

This lesson began with asking if you recalled trade routes from your schooling. Here's another question: Remember that, at one point, we didn't have 50 states? Hard to believe, but, at one point, the U.S. did not extend past the Mississippi River. Eventually, for many reasons, we would go past its mighty waters and into the unknown.

The West was a tantalizing place for Americans for two reasons. First, the obsession was strong due to the stories told by early explorers such as Lewis and Clark and Zebulon Pike. Their tales enticed Americans to want to explore. Second, going there was dangerous and in some cases prohibited. One place in the West that fit this bill was called Santa Fe.

Our southern neighbor, Mexico, also played an important role in the trail's rise. In 1821, Mexico gained independence from Spain and was opened to trade with anyone. Mexico had territory farther north than it does today, including what was called New Mexico which included Santa Fe.

  • FACT: Spain banned trade for Mexico with anyone but Spain. Needless to say, upon independence, Mexico likely would have traded with literally anyone who wanted to.

In 1821, William Becknell left Missouri for New Mexico not knowing if he would return. Along the way, he met a group of Mexican soldiers who told him of their independence and willingness to trade. Becknell hurried to Santa Fe and traded his goods and was told to return with more. A new relationship was born as not only did he bring items to Santa Fe, but also back to Missouri where people demanded them. Money was to be made, indeed.

Wagon trains arrived at Santa Fe bearing goods
Arrival

  • FACT: Becknell's original load of goods netted him a 1500% profit. That's like buying a jacket for $100 and selling it for $150,000!

The Trail's Heyday, War, and Peace

The route between Missouri and Santa Fe (between 800 and 900 miles) became a very profitable one. Many goods were traded along the Santa Fe Trail (see picture). Eventually, the New Mexico territory had too many gods and traders. But the travelled route dispelled any misconceptions of danger about the journey, and traders had no issue going further and further into Mexican territory. Also, goods obtained from this journey would travel farther back east than Missouri, eventually going overseas to Europe.

  • FACT: More than 2,000 wagons were leaving Missouri each spring by the 1830s bound for Santa Fe.

Goods traded to and from Santa Fe along the trail
goods

As stated in the introduction, it's important to remember that the Santa Fe Trail was never an immigration route like the Oregon Trail. It was strictly an economic route with one exception. In the late 1840s, the U.S. and Mexico went to war over territory the U.S. wanted. The U.S. Army used the trail as a military transportation path and one to supply its troops. Many civilians along the way made quite handsome profits (after all it was an economic route) by contracting with the U.S. government to move supplies.

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