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American Latino Heritage

Santa Fe National Historic Trail

Missouri, Kansas, Colorado, Oklahoma, and New Mexico

Santa Fe Trail Logo and Map

The official logo for the Santa Fe Trail (left) and a map of the Santa Fe Trail (right)
Courtesy of the National Park Service

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 routes 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, Latinos, Anglos, 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 traces 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 commercial aspects, daily activities, traveling obstacles, scenic views, cultural relations, and military presence, which were 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. By 1880, the railroad had reached Santa Fe. It replaced the Santa Fe Trail as the most the viable trading and traveling method in the area. However, between 1821 and 1880, the Trail 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.

Bent's Old Fort National Historic Site
Bent's Old Fort National Historic Site
Courtesy of the National Park Service

Today, travelers can visit historic trading posts along the Santa Fe 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. Today it is 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, 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 to prepare for the long journey ahead. In these towns, travelers would stock-up supplies for travel ahead, repair their wagons, converse with other travelers, interact with American Indians, and learn about important natural features that could help them navigate the vast terrain of the western frontier.

Last Chance Store
The Last Chance Store (1857)
Courtesy of J. Stephen Conn,
Flickr's Creative Commons

Today, in Council Grove, Kansas, visitors will feel transported 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. The Council Oak is the site of a treaty in 1825 between the Osage tribe and the U.S. 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 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. Today, 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 today, visitors can view the remnants of these trading stores and also follow a hiking path and read interpretive markers exploring this town’s Santa Fe Trail connections.

Before leaving a town like Council Grove or Boggsville, a Trail traveler likely obtained bacon, coffee, flour, sugar, a small amount of salt, and a bag of beans as supplies for the journey ahead. Today, evidence of travelers’ journeys exists in the preserved wagon ruts found in various locations along the 1,200 miles of the Trail. Visitors can see Ralph’s Ruts on the Ralph Hathaway Farm near Chase, Kansas or the Boot Hill Museum Ruts that are 9 miles west of Dodge City on the north side of U.S. Highway 50, Kansas. With these ruts visitors can walk alongside the historic remains of westward expansion, travel, and trade.

Rabbit Ears Mountain
Rabbit Ears Mountain
Courtesy of Jimmy Emerson, Flickr's Creative Commons

Along their journey on the Santa Fe Trail, travelers used natural landscape features to provide important navigational clues. Places such as Pawnee Rock, Rabbit Ears Mountain, and Wagon Mound helped guide and navigate travelers through the terrain. Pawnee Rock, a large sandstone rock, is a well-known natural feature along the Trail in Kansas marking the halfway point of the Trail. This large natural landmark is protected in the 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.

The twin 6,062 feet volcanic peaks of Rabbit Ears Mountain and Round Mound (Mt. Clayton) in Clayton, New Mexico were very important natural features on the Cimarron Cutoff of the Santa Fe Trail. These natural features effectively guided travelers as they trekked across the Oklahoma panhandle. The name, Rabbit Ears, honors the Indian Chief Orejas de Conejo, who died in a battle with Spanish colonists in the early 1700s. Today, Rabbit Ears Mountain and Round Mound (Mt. Clayton) and the campsites between them, McNees Crossing, Turkey Creek Camp, and Rabbit Ears Creek Camp, are recognized as the Clayton Complex National Historic Landmark. The campsites offered access to water, wood, and grass where the wagon trains could rest to refresh themselves and their animals. Upon reaching the area, travelers along the trail customarily sent runners on ahead to Santa Fe to arrange with Mexican customs officials and to see what was in the market.

Wagon Mound
Wagon Mound
Attributed to Alix King, Public Domain

Wagon Mound, still another important natural landscape feature on the Trail, is near the town of Wagon Mound, New Mexico. This mound is a 6,930-feet high lone stone butte that has a shape similar to oxen pulling a wagon. Wagon Mound was a guidepost observed by all travelers on the High Plains segment of the Cimarron Cutoff of the Santa Fe Trail. This region became a prized rest stop for travelers because of its appealing lush green grass and abundant water supply. Santa Clara Spring camping spot, located two miles northwest of the mound, became the site of numerous Indian ambushes. Wagon Mound not only served as a guide and a rest area on the Trail, but also as a warning to travelers of possible danger. Wagon Mound, the last major landmark on the westward journey across the plains of northeastern New Mexico, is also designated a National Historic Landmark. Landmarks like these provided weary travelers with the visual encouragement to continue their journeys along the Trail.

Places like Pawnee Rock, Rabbit Ears, and Wagon Mound provided travelers with natural visual cues. At other sites travelers left their own mark on the natural landscape, such as at Autograph Rock, located approximately seven miles west and seven miles north of Boise City, Oklahoma, where people chiseled their names in the surrounding sandstone bluffs. Today, visitors can examine these inscriptions to better understand the variety of people--including soldiers, merchants, gold seekers, and adventurers-- who ventured along the Trail.

As the Trail became more popular and the number of travelers significantly 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 American 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 caravan 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.

Palace of the Governors
Palace of the Governors
Public Domain Image

Ultimately, travelers reached the end of the trail, the Santa Fe Plaza. Established c.1610 by Don Pedro de Peralta, the Plaza has long stood as 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 now is part of the Museum of New Mexico. Both the Santa Fe Plaza and the Palace of the Governors are featured in this itinerary.

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 other historic sites await visitors in the five States that the Santa Fe Trail traverses. Please see the “Plan Your Visit” and “Learn More” sections of this itinerary and follow this link, Visiting the Santa Fe Trail Today, for a more extensive listing of National Register of Historic Places sites on or near the Santa Fe Trail.

Plan your visit

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.

Santa Fe National Historic Trail is also featured in the National Park Service Places Reflecting America's Diverse Cultures: Explore their Stories in the National Park System Travel Itinerary.

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