This study stresses the need to scrutinize the Santa Fe Trail from a broader geographical perspective than has generally been used. The portion linking Missouri with New Mexico was only one segment of a complex transportation network that brought together two continents and several countries and facilitated the development of a complex system of international trade. The Santa Fe trade reached east well beyond Missouri to include New Orleans, New York, Baltimore, Pittsburgh, and other eastern cities; west, it extended as far as the California coast; it stretched south deep into the Mexican territory to include most of its western and central provinces. The merchandise hauled across the prairies was often European in origin and arrived in the southwest as a result of the involvement of commission merchants in England, France, Italy, Spain, and Portugal, as well as the United States and Mexico.
Patterns of trade that resulted from the Santa Fe Trail were complex. They required sound credit, coordination in the delivery of merchandise that often originated hundreds of miles away, and reliable up-to-date information on prices, demand, and supply. Diversification was also essential. Those New Mexican merchants who did well economically participated in a variety of economic activities. They farmed, raised sheep and mined, shipped wool and precious metals, introduced large amounts of American and European merchandise, and acted as intermediaries for other businessmen, bankers, wholesalers, and retailers. They developed close relations with merchants and commission agents in Mexico, the United States, and Europe. They had scattered stores where they exchanged manufactured goods for the efectos del país and produce. They were cautious, but understood that in order to thrive economically it was important to adapt and to take some measured risks. They delayed for over a decade the establishment of direct commercial relations with businesses in the United States until they were moderately assured that the enterprise would be rewarding. Once they made the decision to trade east, they invested a substantial portion of their assets in this business.
New Mexicans were well-suited for their roles as international merchants since their ancestors had made commercial activities an important focus of the provincial economy. For decades they had traded legally and illegally with French, British, Americans, Mexicans, and various Indian tribes. They also took advantage of their knowledge of local conditions to gain access to important cash-producing products, such as grains, that were overlooked by foreign merchants who tended to be interested in quick profits. Between 1820 and 1880 New Mexican merchants showed a remarkable ability to adapt to the unstable political and economic circumstances that affected the southwestern trade during this period. The rebellion in Texas and its subsequent annexation, the Mexican War, the Civil War, all contributed to make commercial enterprises uncertain and risky. Major business ventures, even those of American commission merchants, such as the Glasgow Brothers and many other smaller ones, went bankrupt. Economic success, or even survival, in such circumstances was an indication of exceptional talent, resources, and hard-work.
The form of mercantile capitalism that evolved in New Mexico was dependent on mutual cooperation, even among those of different ethnic origins. Hispano merchants tended to travel together, but often they joined foreign caravans because of common ventures or because they hoped that larger trains might deter Indian attacks. New Mexicans understood that mutual support and cooperation were essential for success. They were not reluctant to lend money, take care of each other's children, act on each other's behalf, and provide necessary information and advice. They resorted to strong familiar alliances through marriages and business partnerships in another attempt to strengthen their social and economic position.
The Santa Fe trade brought change to the territory. It contributed to a slight improvement in the standard of living of all segments of the population, as scarce and expensive manufactured goods became cheaper and more readily available. Trade activities also offered employment, which often was not very remunerative, but nevertheless it allowed even peones, the poorest element of the population, the chance to earn scarce cash. New Mexicans' skills as packers brought them not only some measure of financial reward but, perhaps more important, recognition as master muleteers. Like the majority of New Mexicans they were affected by the Santa Fe trade and made significant contributions to its development and success.
Last Updated: 30-Sep-2005