Special History Study
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The Santa Fe Trail has attracted the attention of scholars and lovers of adventure for over a century. [1] Nearly all of the studies published, however, focus exclusively on the route between Missouri and Santa Fe, the activities of American traders and freighters, and the period prior to the Mexican War. This account broadens the approach and addresses some important, neglected themes.

First, the geographical boundaries of the Santa Fe Trail extend far beyond the more familiar stretch connecting Missouri and Santa Fe. This was but one segment of a complex network of commercial operations, which this study identifies as the Santa Fe trade (see Figures 1 and 2). This extensive pattern of economic relations involved two continents—Europe and North America—and several countries—Mexico, the United States, England, and France. Activities associated with the Santa Fe trade extended west to the California coast; south from the Arkansas River into Mexico; southeast to New Orleans; east beyond Missouri to New York, Baltimore, Pittsburgh, and other castern cities; and across the Atlantic Ocean, particularly to England's Liverpool and London. By the 1850s the Santa Fe trade was characterized by commercial hubs in Mexico, the United States, and Europe, where commission merchants, wholesalers, and agents completed intricate transactions that required advance planning and information on prices and demand, a complicated credit system, coordination between various types of transportation, and considerable risk-taking and entrepreneurial skills. [2]

hispano muleteer
Figure 1. "Loading Up." J. Gregg marveled at the dexterity and skill with which hisapnos harnessed and adjusted packs of merchandise. Photo: William H. Jackson, ca. 1875, courtesy of the Museum of New Mexico.

Figure 2. The Santa Fe Trade: An International Trade Network (click on image for an enlargement in a new window)

Second, this study examines how cultural and socioeconomic conditions in New Mexico contributed to the development and success of the Santa Fe trade. Isolated from Mexican markets by both distance and stifling commercials constraints, New Mexicans turned to the Santa Fe trade for survival and success. Fortunes were both founded and augmented by this trade. Additionally supplying products for transport on the Trail provided some income for hispanos. Their celebrated skill at both packing and managing the cargo-carrying mules was widely sought by freighters. The ricos (wealthy) were the prime beneficiaries of the profits which resulted from a dramatic increase in merchandise entering the territory, but the working hispano population also enjoyed some improvement in their standard of living. [3]

Third, this study principally focuses on the commercial activities of New Mexican merchants. The literature on the Santa Fe Trail tends to celebrate Americans (and some western Europeans) and often portrays them as the daring explorers and visionaries who opened commercial relations between the United States and Mexico. Sometimes overlooked is the equally significant role played by hispanos. [4] After the Santa Fe Trail officially opened they contributed to its growth and geographical expansion, developing their own commercial networks or joining foreigners in the crossing of the plains and in business transactions. [5] By 1835 they were the majority of those traveling into the Mexican territory, owned a substantial portion of all the merchandise freighted south, and specialized in hauling efectos del pais (local manufactures). At the end of the 1830s wealthy Mexican and New Mexican merchants expanded their operations, and traveled to the eastern United States where they established direct relations with wholesalers and commission merchants. They took advantage of their resources, skills, and knowledge of the territory to develop a form of commercial capitalism well-suited to the special circumstances of the New Mexican economy.

This study emphasizes the need to make a distinction between traders or traveling merchants, who were transient and exposed to the hazards of acquiring and marketing eastern merchandise, and sedentary merchants, who attempted to establish a permanent business based on a well-calculated balancing of risks. The majority of studies have focused exclusively on traders and those who accompanied the loads. Freighters were highly visible along the Trail and probably owned some of the merchandise they carried. Yet they merely conveyed the outcome of the investment decisions of others and played a secondary role in acquiring credit, arranging purchases in various commercial hubs, and coordinating shipments.

Finally, the Santa Fe trade did not decline after the Mexican War. The volume and value of the merchandise that crossed the plains increased steadily after the 1840s, and climaxed during the 1870s when it exceeded that of the previous five decades combined. [6] Wealthy New Mexican merchants contributed to this expansion. Between 1846 and 1880 they solidified their economic situation as they developed and refined a system that permitted them to take advantage of their geographical location and available resources to enhance their socioeconomic status and influence. The nature of their operations changed with time, as they became aware of the need to diversify their activities and investments in an effort to minimize the risks that characterized the economy of the western frontier.

This study calls for a more systematic approach to the study of the commercial system that characterized the Santa Fe trade and its evolution through time. It extends beyond the physical stretch between Missouri and Santa Fe and freighting operations. And it details to the extent possible the involvement of major hispano families in establishing and maintaining trade along the Trail. Historical literature abounds with Anglo tales of the trip across the prairie, but there is little information on the owners (particularly after the 1840s); the source, nature, amount and value of the merchandise; the commission merchants who facilitated the purchase and delivery of the goods, and the credit system that allowed commerce to develop and thrive for almost 60 years.

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Last Updated: 30-Sep-2005