Missouri, Kansas, Colorado, Oklahoma: Santa Fe National Historic Trail

Wagon Mound
Wagon Mound

Courtesy of Alix King, Public Domain

The Santa Fe Trail stretching 1,200 miles from Franklin, Missouri, to Santa Fe, New Mexico was one of America’s great trading routes. The trail followed several different paths depending on weather conditions and terrain. From 1821 until 1880, the Santa Fe Trail served as a vital commercial and military trail, and sometimes as an emigrant trail. Americans, American Indians, Hispanics, and African Americans encountered one another along the Santa Fe Trail creating an avenue of commercial and cultural exchange. 

Designated a National Historic Trail in 1987, the National Park Service’s Santa Fe National Historic Trail commemorates the route thousands of people traveled in order to participate in trade, commerce, and western expansion. Today, visitors can travel between western Missouri and Santa Fe on the Santa Fe National Historic Trail and drive the Santa Fe Trail Scenic & Historic Byway, a road route that captures the historic experience of the Santa Fe Trail. Many of the sites listed in the National Register of Historic Places near and along the trail played a critical role in the history of the Santa Fe Trail. Visiting these historic places provides visitors with a glimpse into the commerce, daily activities, traveling obstacles, scenic views, cultural relations, and military presence, which were all part of life along the historic Santa Fe Trail. Some of the historic places for visitors to see along the Trail are highlighted below. The Trail crosses five States: Missouri, Colorado, Kansas, Oklahoma, and New Mexico.

In 1821, Mexico gained its independence from Spain’s 200 years of control and unlocked a great gateway to the West- the Santa Fe Trail. From 1821 until 1880, trade between Mexico and the United States flourished along the trail, which became a major component of an international web of business, social ties, tariffs, and laws. The trail made possible the transporting and trading of goods such as woolens, cottons, silks, linens, china cups, whiskey, champagne, combs, forks, spoons, watches, dry goods, hardware, razors, and jewelry. By 1880, the railroad reached Santa Fe and replaced the Santa Fe Trail as the most viable means of trading and traveling.

Travelers can visit historic trading posts along the trail such as Bent’s Old Fort National Historic Site, located about eight miles east of La Junta, Colorado, and Kozlowski’s Stage Station and Spring, which is about three and a half miles north of I-25 on New Mexico Highway 63. Bent’s Old Fort served as a trading post, a social center, a place of refuge and safety, a rest and relaxation point, and a repair depot. Cheyenne, Arapaho, Kiowa, Comanche, Ute, and Lakota Indians participated in trade at the fort, as did westbound traders, and local mountain men. Kozlowski’s Stage Station and Spring, now known as the Forked Lightning Ranch, was a trading ranch and station along the Santa Fe Trail especially known for its good food. The ranch is now a part of Pecos National Historical Park. Trading posts like Bent’s Old Fort and Kozlowski’s Stage Station played a pivotal role in the success of the Santa Fe Trail.

Thousands of people traversed the Santa Fe Trail attempting to benefit from trade and commerce in places like Bent’s Old Fort, the Kozlowski’s Stage Station, and ultimately in the plaza in Santa Fe. While making this journey, with their hearts and minds filled with commercial hopes and opportunities, travelers stopped in towns such as Council Grove, Kansas and Boggsville, Colorado in order to prepare for the long journey ahead. In these towns, they stocked up on supplies for upcoming travel, repaired their wagons, conversed with other travelers, interacted with American Indians, and learned about important natural features that could help them navigate the vast terrain of the western frontier. 

Council Grove, Kansas still transports visitors back in time by exploring many sites listed in the National Register of Historic Places. They can see the Council Oak, Hays House Restaurant, the Conn Stone Store, and the Last Chance Store. Council Oak commemorates the site of a treaty in 1825 between the Osage tribe and the United States government giving Americans and Mexicans safe passage along the Santa Fe Trail through Osage territory. Built in 1867, the Hays House Restaurant was a gathering place for meals, mail distribution, court trials, and church meetings. The Conn Stone Store has an interpretive sign that explains its history as an important trading post, where Santa Fe Trail travelers, Kaw Indians, and local merchants exchanged their goods. The Last Chance Store dates from 1857 and served travelers by providing them one “last chance” at stocking up for their journey to Santa Fe.

Visitors will also feel transported back in time by a stop in the Boggsville Historic District, located about two miles south of Las Animas, Colorado on Colorado Highway 101. Founded in 1862 by Thomas O. Boggs, Boggsville was the last home of the famous frontier scout Kit Carson. The reconstructed homes of Boggs and Kit Carson give visitors a sense of life in the 1860s. For about a decade, Boggsville thrived as a center of trade, agriculture, and culture along the trail. Two trading stores that John W. Prowers and Thomas O. Boggs owned separately made it an important stage stop along the trail. In Boggsville, visitors can view the remnants of these trading stores and also follow a hiking path and read interpretive markers explaining this town’s Santa Fe Trail connections.

Before leaving a town like Council Grove or Boggsville, a trail traveler likely stocked up on bacon, coffee, flour, sugar, a small amount of salt, and a bag of beans to supply themselves for the journey ahead. Wagon ruts preserved in various locations along the 1,200 miles of the trail document the journey. Visitors can see the Ralph’s Ruts on the Ralph Hathaway Farm near Chase, Kansas or the Boot Hill Museum Ruts 9 miles west of Dodge City on the north side of U.S. Highway 50, Kansas.

Along their journey on the Santa Fe Trail, travelers used natural landscape features to provide important navigational clues. Places such as Pawnee Rock and Wagon Mound helped guide and navigate travelers through the terrain. Pawnee Rock, a large sandstone rock, was a well-known natural feature along the trail in Kansas marking the halfway point of the trail. This large natural landmark is preserved and protected in Pawnee Rock State Historic Site located on Centre St. (SW 112th Ave.), one-half mile north of U.S. Highway 56 near the town of Pawnee Rock. Wagon Mound near the town of Wagon Mound, New Mexico looks similar to oxen pulling a wagon. It was the last major landmark on the westward journey across the plains of northeastern New Mexico. Landmarks like these encouraged weary travelers to continue on to their destinations. At places such as Autograph Rock, located approximately seven miles west and seven miles north of Boise City, Oklahoma, travelers left their own mark on the natural landscape by chiseling their names in the sandstone bluffs. Visitors can examine these inscriptions to understand better the variety of people--including soldiers, merchants, gold seekers, and adventurers-- who ventured along the trail. 

As the Santa Fe Trail became more popular and the number of people using it increased, relations with American Indians began to deteriorate. For thousands of years, this vast terrain was home to many American Indian tribes including Comanche, Kiowa, southern bands of Cheyenne, Arapaho, Plains Apache, Osage, Kansas (Kaw), Jicarilla Apache, Ute, and Pueblo Indians. During the early years of the Santa Fe Trail, most encounters between travelers and the Indians were peaceful. As trail traffic increased, the Indians began to retaliate as they experienced more and more disruptions to their traditional ways of life. The governments of Mexico and the United States responded by providing troops to escort caravans of travelers. The United States also established military forts along the trail to ensure the safety of travelers. Visitors can explore forts such as Fort Union National Monument in Watrous, New Mexico on NM 161 and Fort Larned National Historic Site, located six miles west of the town of Larned on Kansas Highway 156, to understand the vital functions these forts played during the years of western expansion and the heyday of the Santa Fe Trail.

Ultimately, people reached the Santa Fe Plaza in the heart of Santa Fe, the traditional end of the Santa Fe Trail for westbound travelers. Established c.1610 by Don Pedro de Peralta, the plaza has long been the commercial, social, and political center of Santa Fe and would have teemed with carts, goods, livestock, traders, and townspeople during the 19th century at the height of the Santa Fe Trail. Buildings constructed in the Pueblo, Spanish, and Territorial styles ring the plaza reflecting the diverse cultural history of this historic place. One of the most noted historic buildings on the plaza is the Palace of the Governors. Constructed in 1610, the Palace of the Governors served for 300 years as the seat of the Spanish, Mexican, and American territorial government in New Mexico. The Palace of the Governors is the oldest extant public building in the United States and is now a part of the Museum of New Mexico.

Extensive use of the Santa Fe Trail ceased by 1880, but its legacy, lore, and influence live on. Goods, ideas, and diverse cultural interactions traversed the Santa Fe Trail for nearly 60 years, and the mixing of cultures and ideas that followed created a unique experience that lives on today. While this travel itinerary only discusses a handful of historic sites, many others await visitors in the five States the Santa Fe Trail traverses. Please see the “Plan Your Visit” and “Learn More” Sections of this itinerary and click here for a more extensive listing of National Register of Historic Places sites on or near the Santa Fe Trail.

Santa Fe National Historic Trail, administered by the National Park Service, crosses the five States of Missouri, Kansas, Colorado, Oklahoma, and New Mexico. For more information, directions, maps, an places to see and things to do, visit the National Park Service Santa Fe National Historic Trail website or call 505-988-6098. Visit this website for lists of places to go in each State along the Santa Fe National Historic Trail.

Last updated: August 8, 2017