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Determining the Facts

Reading 1: The Traders

William Becknell was the "father of the Santa Fe trade." In the summer of 1821 he started west from Franklin, Missouri, with 20 or 30 men. He followed the Arkansas River and spent two days moving rocks so his horses could get through 7,834-foot-high Raton Pass, where Indians, Conquistadors, trappers, and traders had already established a rough trail. He soon learned that the newly established Mexican government had reversed the traditional Spanish policy of excluding foreign merchants from its territory and was prepared to welcome traders from the east. He hastened to carry what goods he had with him to Santa Fe. In January he returned to Missouri with bags of Mexican silver dollars. The next year, Becknell went back to Santa Fe, following a shorter route across the Cimarron Desert where he could use wagons.

The Cimarron Cutoff soon became "the" Santa Fe Trail. The hazards of the desert and the constant threat of Indian attack were soon judged to be less troublesome than the difficulties of crossing Raton Pass. The original trail, now known as the Mountain Branch, followed the rocky beds of Raton Creek on one side of the pass and Willow Creek on the other. A traveler described the journey in 1837:

We were obliged to follow the wandering of a clear, pebble-paved stream, called the Ratone [sic.], and sometimes, where cliff and precipice utterly barred our way, the wagons were obliged to be drawn along in the bed of the creek. At one place, so difficult was our progress, that we advanced but a mile and a half in a day. Overhanging branches and projecting roots were obliged to be cut away, and heavy rocks removed, for the creek was barely wide enough to admit the wagons between the rugged banks . . .One unfortunate wagon was upset three times, and once right into the creek.1

Neither route could avoid Glorieta Pass, where the trail turned south to cross the Rocky Mountains. A traveler described the pass in 1844:

...the road winds and turns, crossing steep pitches and ravines, over rocks, and around boulders, making short and difficult turns, with double teams to make an ascent. . . . One of these difficult passes we called the "S" which required all the skill of the best drivers to get around.2

Profits were high during the early years of the trade. A caravan leaving Missouri in May 1824, consisted of 25 wagons carrying $30,000 of textiles, clothing, hardware, and other goods. It returned the following September with $180,000 in gold and silver and another $10,000 in furs. American traders soon extended their journeys south to Chihuahua and Mexican caravans began to move eastward along the trail. By the 1840s, international trade over the Santa Fe Trail was valued at hundreds of thousands of dollars.

New Mexico, which had been one of the most isolated parts of Mexico, was now heavily dependent on the trade that came in over the trail. Although Anglo-Americans continued to be a small minority, many were connected by business and marriage with influential local families. Anglo-American newspapers, books, and fashions in clothing and architecture were changing traditional patterns. According to one historian of the trail:

Commercially, New Mexico had been conquered by the United States long before 1846. The path of empire soon to be followed by the American army had been fashioned by the wagons of the traders.3

Questions for Reading 1

1. Who pioneered trade on the Santa Fe Trail?

2. What difficulties did traders encounter on the trip from Missouri to Santa Fe?

3. Why did they prefer the Cimarron Cutoff to the mountain route?

4. Why do you think the value of the trade expanded so rapidly? What effect did it have on New Mexico?

Reading 1 was adapted from Richard Greenwood, "Raton Pass" (Las Animas County, Colorado, and Colfax County, New Mexico) National Historic Landmark Nomination Form, Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service, 1975; and William E. Brown, The Santa Fe Trail: National Park Service 1963 Historic Sites Survey (St. Louis, MO: The Patrice Press, 1988).

¹ John E. Sunder, ed., Matt Field on the Santa Fe Trail(Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1995), 100; cited in David Dary, The Santa Fe Trail: Its History, Legends, and Lore (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2000), 160.
2 James Josiah Webb, Adventures in the Santa Fe Trade, 1844-47; cited in William E. Brown, The Santa Fe Trail: The National Park Service 1963 Historic Sites Survey (St. Louis, MO: The Patrice Press, 1988), 158.
3 Brown, The Santa Fe Trail, 41.

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