The Santa Fe Trail is known as America’s first commercial highway, and before its demise due to the Santa Fe railroad, it served as a route for traders, pioneers, and America’s military, and it also played a crucial role in America’s westward expansion. The Santa Fe Trail crosses five states: Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma, Colorado, and New Mexico, and it begins in Franklin, Missouri and travels to Santa Fe, New Mexico. While on the trail, travelers faced many challenges and hardships. The trail spans a challenging length of almost 900 miles and it is full of dangerous plains, hot deserts, steep mountains, hot summers and bitterly cold winters. The Santa Fe Trail served as a vital commercial highway from 1821 to 1880.
The Santa Fe Plaza marks the end of the 900-mile international trade route. The Plaza was established in 1610 by Don Pedro de Peralta and has been the commercial, social and political center of Santa Fe since its creation. During the height of the Santa Fe Trail in the 19th century, the Plaza would have been constantly filled with carts, goods, livestock, traders, and townspeople. The busy plaza also catered to the traders from the trail with boarding houses, gambling halls, and other businesses used by traders. Today, the Santa Fe Plaza is a National Historic Landmark and part of the Santa Fe Historic District.
The original route of the trail was first used by Pedro Vial, a French explorer in 1792. French traders from St. Louis had a fur trading monopoly with the Spanish in Santa Fe. However, it was not until 1821 that the trail was improved and publicized as a route to take advantage of trade opportunities with Mexico. William Becknell, a Missouri trader, is credited with starting the Santa Fe Trail. Prior to Becknell, many traders tried to make their way to Santa Fe but were arrested by Spanish soldiers and brought down to Mexico City to serve long prison sentences. When Becknell traveled to Santa Fe, he was surprised to see that Mexico had overthrown its Spanish rulers and the newly established Mexican government was very open to outside trade. When Becknell returned, word traveled quickly among traders, and by 1825 goods from Missouri could be found in Santa Fe and even further south as well.
Between 1821 and 1846, the Santa Fe Trail became an international trade route between Mexican and American Traders. In 1846, the American army used the Santa Fe trail route to successfully invade New Mexico during the Mexican-American War. Following the war, and the US acquisition of the Southwest, the Santa Fe trail became integral to the US economic development of the region and connected the settled parts of the US to the new southwest territories. The trail thus became a vital part of the United States’ westward expansion and continued to be widely used for trade, with commercial freighting reaching new levels. The Santa Fe trail was not exclusively used for trade, it was also used by thousands of gold seekers traveling to California and Colorado during the California Gold Rush and Pike’s Peak Gold Rush. The Santa Fe Trail was also known to be used by adventurers, missionaries, emigrants, and wealthy New Mexican families.
In 1866, there was an unprecedented period of railroad expansion and growth in the US following the Civil War. New railroads were constructed throughout the west and southwest, and by 1880, the Santa Fe trail was no longer needed or used. However, the legacy and influence of the trail still lives on today. For nearly sixty years, goods, ideas, and diverse cultural interactions traveled across the Santa Fe Trail which contributes to the uniqueness of Santa Fe. Today, the road is commemorated by the National Park Service as the Santa Fe National Historic Trail. A highway route that roughly follows the original trail’s path through Kansas, Colorado, and northern New Mexico has been designated as the Santa Fe National Scenic Byway.