The Way to Santa Fe

Apache chief Dor-con-each-la in traditional dress
Apache chief Dor-con-each-la in traditional dress
Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railroad depot in Sibley, Missouri
Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railroad depot in Sibley, Missouri
Map of The Old Santa Fe Trail from Old Franklin, MO to Santa Fe, NM
Map of The Old Santa Fe Trail from Old Franklin, MO to Santa Fe, NM

On August 10, 1825, the U.S. government acquired a right-of-way for the Santa Fe Trail from representatives of the Great and Little Osage Nations. The treaty, and others like it, greatly reduced the danger of hostilities with Native Americans along the trade route between northwestern Missouri and the city of Santa Fe, then a part of Mexico (the U.S. would acquire the territory in 1848 as a result of the Mexican-American War). The route carried almost all of the wagon-based trade between the United States and Santa Fe between 1825 and 1872, when it was finally replaced by railroads. Along the way, its eastern terminus enriched the Missouri towns of Independence, Westport and Kansas City.

Between 1810 and 1821, the unrest of the Mexican Revolution hindered trade between Americans and Mexicans. In 1821, Mexico finally won its independence from Spain, clearing the way for broader commercial relations with the United States. Starting in 1821, William Becknell, widely considered to be the "father" of the Santa Fe Trail, made several trips between Franklin, Missouri and Santa Fe to map out a reasonably safe route for wagon traffic. The travelers who followed in Becknell's wake stood to profit greatly from the trade, but they took many risks along the daunting 900 mile trail. Most dangerous were attacks from the inhabitants of the lands along the route. Especially feared by the American traders were the members of the Apache, Comanche, Osage, and other tribes who wanted to protect their land from encroachment.

Regardless of these dangers, Santa Fe residents desired manufactured products from the United States and Europe. In exchange, American traders sought the silver and furs that Santa Fe had to offer. Seeing these potential profits, the U.S. Congress passed a bill introduced by Senator Thomas H. Benton, of Missouri, to establish a "highway" between Missouri and Santa Fe. President James Monroe signed the bill into law on March 3, 1825, and ordered that treaties be made with the Native American inhabitants to create a safe passage for the trail.

Commissioners Thomas Mather, George C. Sibley, and Benjamin H. Reeves were dispatched from St. Louis with 30 men and seven wagons as representatives of the U.S. government. On August 10, 1825, they held their first meeting with representatives of a Native American tribe; the Great and Little Osage Nations. They met at present-day Council Grove, Kansas, which would become an important site along the trail due to a natural spring that provided fresh water. In exchange for a $500 payment, the Osage agreed to allow safe passage to travelers and to permit the U.S. to survey and place markers along a path through their land. Council Grove eventually served as a place where traders organized into larger traveling caravans for greater security along the rest of the journey. The commissioners made similar agreements with other tribes along the trail, and by the end of 1825 the Santa Fe Trail opened as an official U.S. highway.

In 1827, Independence, Missouri was founded and soon began service as the eastern trailhead. Traders from the east could disembark from their steamboats at the Blue Mills Landing on the Missouri River and head four miles to Independence, where they rested or purchased supplies before disembarking. Then, in 1833, John Calvin McCoy, the son of a Baptist missionary, opened a store and declared its surroundings to be the town of "West Port." After a flood disrupted operations at the Blue Mills Landing in 1844, Westport quickly replaced Independence as the disembarking point for the Santa Fe Trail.

Traders could now travel by steamboat a further 12 miles westward from Independence on the Missouri River and disembark at a small landing north of Westport. This spot, initially known as Westport Landing, eventually grew into the Town of Kansas and was later renamed Kansas City. In addition to being further west, this new terminus enjoyed the added advantage of allowing traders to bypass the difficult Blue River crossing. Within a few years after the establishment of the Santa Fe Trail, the Kansas City area also become the embarkation point for the Oregon and California trails, which were used primarily by settlers moving westward.

By the early 1870s, the Hannibal Bridge had placed Kansas City at the crossroads of railroad-based trade with the West. One of the railroads, the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad, connected Kansas City with the Southwest by roughly following the route of the old Santa Fe Trail. A train traveling on that line finally signaled the close of the Santa Fe Trail when it arrived in Santa Fe, New Mexico, in February, 1880.

 

Read full biographical sketches of persons involved in the trade along the Santa Fe Trail; prepared for the Missouri Valley Special Collections, the Kansas City Public Library:

 

View images associated with the Santa Fe Trail that are a part of the Missouri Valley Special Collections:

 

Check out the following books, articles, and films about the Santa Fe Trail, held by the Kansas City Public Library:

 

Visit websites for external resources about the Santa Fe Trail:

 

Continue researching the Santa Fe Trail using archival material held by the Missouri Valley Special Collections:

 

References:

Carrie Westlake Whitney, Kansas City, Missouri: Its History and Its People, 1808-1908, volume 1 (The S.J. Clarke Publishing, Co: Chicago, IL, 1908): 162.

Rick Montgomery and Shirl Kasper, Kansas City: An American Story (Kansas City, MO: Kansas City Star Books, 1999), 22-39.

A. Theodore Brown, Frontier Community: Kansas City to 1870 (Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 1963), 44, 53-58, 214-215.

About the Author

Dr. Jason Roe is a digital history specialist and editor for the Library’s digitization and encyclopedia website project, Civil War on the Western Border: The Missouri-Kansas Conflict, 1854-1865. He earned a doctorate in American history from the University of Kansas in May 2012 and is the author of the Library’s popular “This Week in Kansas City History” column. For assistance with general local history questions, please contact the Missouri Valley Special Collections.
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