The Santa Fe Trail turns 200

Meghan Flynn
Garden City Telegram
Linda Peters, president of the Wagon Bed Springs Chapter of the Santa Fe Trail Association, talks about the Santa Fe Trail at the final "History at High Noon" event, hosted by the Finney County Historical Society and Museum on Wednesday.

The use of the Santa Fe Trail 200 years ago became more popular after William Becknell, a pioneer farmer from Franklin, Mo., and five others made a trip to sell goods.

Becknell's story and the popularization of the trail were discussed at the final spring Finney County Historical Society and Museum "History at High Noon" event on Wednesday.

Linda Peters, president of the Wagon Bed Springs chapter of the Santa Fe Trail Association, gave the presentation.

Beckness wasn't the first person to go out on the Santa Fe Trail for trade, Peters said, but he did it at the right time after Mexico gained their independence from Spain and traders were welcome.

"The people that had gone before were really taking a chance, they could have been killed, they could have been in prison, definitely could have been arrested for a while and all of their goods confiscated," she said.

Becknell decided to make his first journey to Santa Fe because he was deeply in debt, his creditors were suing him and he was threatened with prison, but he had heard rumors that Mexico was winning their fight for independence and thought if they won the new government might repeal the old Spanish laws forbidding trade with foreigners, Peters said.

The first person to bring desirable goods to the northern province of Mexico, modern New Mexico, might expect to turn a good profit, Peters said. Becknell rounded up five other men, and on mules they made the journey, arriving in Santa Fe in November 1821.

While selling his wares Becknell noticed a shortage of silver pesos, which were worth $1 each in Missouri, in northern Mexico and knew that traders were coming and became concerned that there wouldn't be as much to trade, so he hurried back to Franklin to secure more goods before prices were reduced by the competition.

Becknell and is companions left Santa Fe on Dec. 13, 1821 and arrived back on Jan. 29, 1822. They took a different route than the one they used to get there.

The Santa Fe Trail has two routes, Peters said, the Mountain Branch and the Dry Route. The Mountain Branch goes through Kansas and part of Colorado before turning south into modern day New Mexico.

The Dry Route goes through Kansas, through the tip of the Oklahoma panhandle and then through New Mexico.

Peters said the Dry Route is 100 miles shorter than the Mountain Branch, but as the name indicates, the Dry Route had less water, not to say that water was in abundance on the Mountain Branch, but the Dry Route has less.

Upon return to Franklin, Becknell paid off some of his debt and with the remaining funds bought a wagon for $150 and loaded it with goods, and then started off to Santa Fe again around May 1822, Peters said. Others in his group pooled their money together and also bought a couple wagons and filled them with goods.

"These would have been the first wagons to travel on the Santa Fe Trail, he had used mules the first time, and they found that you have to unpack the mules at the end of the day when you're going to camp and you got to pack them all back up again the next morning to go off," she said. "That took time. With these wagons you pack it in there at the beginning and you don't unpack it until you get to Santa Fe, so that saved them a lot of time."

When Becknell arrived in Santa Fe he sold his wagon for $700.

After Becknell's two trips the Santa Fe Trail began to be see increased trade, Peters said.

"In 1823, $12,000 worth of goods were taken to Santa Fe in a few wagons, 20 years later the amount had grown to $450,000 worth of goods, hauled in 230 wagons," she said. "By 1855 the trade was valued at about $5 million that year. In 1866 alone 5,000 wagons hailed $40 million worth of goods and supplies down the trail."

Traveling the trail wasn't easy, Peters said. People could be triumphant and make a lot of money from the journey, but there was tragedy as well.

One of the biggest dangers of the trail was the weather and the short supply of water no matter what route you took, Peters said.

"If you went maybe a little too early or you went a little too late you could run into those winter blizzards that would kill the animals, trap the men, perhaps kill the men," she said. "Then there was the summer heat that would dry up all the water holes. If you did the Dry Route you just might not find much water at all."

Additionally people had to worry bout attacks from Native Americans, bandits and stampeding buffalo, Peters said.

As the years progressed the trail itself started to shrink as the railroad pushed further west as it was built, Peters said. Eventually the railroad essentially took over the trail.

"The railroad reached Santa Fe in February of 1880 and the Santa Fe Trail closed as a wagon road," she said.

Vivian Funk said the presentation Wednesday was interesting. She and her husband, Rodger, attend all of the "History at High Noon" events, and were looking forward to this one because they've followed the trail before.

"We've followed the trail driving and it's just interesting," she said. "She did a good job, she was very informative."

Jean Strandmark, Heather Davis and Cherie Davis attended the event together, they've attended each event since 2020.

Cherie Davis enjoyed the event.

"I thought it was really good," she said.

Strandmark said she was knowledgeable about the trail prior to event because living in Kansas you always hear about it. She would like to follow some of its path one day with her grandchildren.