The Old Santa Fe Trail

The Old Santa Fe Trail

The Old Santa Fe Trail

The Old Santa Fe Trail


The Santa Fe Trail was one of the two great overland highways originating in Missouri in the nineteenth century. Several decades before settlers streamed over the Oregon Trail, traders were heading southwest. The caravans carried the wares of Yankee commerce; they returned loaded with buffalo robes and beaver pelts and the rich metals of Mexican mines. The thousand-mile journey "was a perilous cruise across a boundless sea of grass, over forbidding mountains, among wild beasts and wilder men, ending in an exotic city offering quick riches, friendly foreign women, and a moral holiday", writes Stanley Vestal. Vestal begins where the trail does. He describes outfitting for the trip, the society formed for survival, the hunt for meat, landmarks, and the dangers. He evokes the history and legends surrounding the trail at every point, including figures like Kit Carson, Jedediah Smith, the Bent brothers, and Uncle Dick Wooton.


In 1821, Mexico, which then included today's American Southwest, broke away from mother Spain and launched herself on the stormy sea of independent nationhood. At Santa Fe in the old province of New Mexico, officials hurried to open the border facing the United States, displaying their approval of the change. The Spanish colonial regime had not allowed overland commerce between its subjects and the bumptious, business-minded Americans whose frontier was expanding westward from Missouri. But once the trade barriers were down, New Mexicans proved hungry for Yankee goods.

William Becknell, resident of the central Missouri town of Franklin, led the way. With five companions and a string of ware-laden pack mules, he headed for the Southwest in the fall of 1821, blazing a trail that would soon become a major commercial artery. With profits realized from this first venture, Becknell in 1822 outfitted three farm wagons and drove them loaded with merchandise to the New Mexican markets. When again he was amply rewarded, word spread through the borderlands community and men rushed to join this lucrative new enterprise. Historians of a later day would credit William Becknell as the Father of the Santa Fe Trail.

Around this, the first great American trailway in the Far West, there has accumulated over the years an enormous and marvelous history. Not only was the route to Santa Fe the oldest, but in the course of westward expansion it also became the most enduring, not closing down until arrival of the railroad at trail's end in 1880. That life of nearly three-score years contrasted sharply with the Oregon Trail whose heyday lasted a mere quarter century.

Among the many general accounts dealing with this historic road, Stanley Vestal The Old Santa Fe Trail (1939) must be regarded as one of the most engaging and readable. Houghton Mifflin brought out four hardbound printings, and a single paperback printing (without the index) was released by Bantam Books in 1957. Its reappearance now as a . . .

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.