Why should we be concerned about place names? These names are a basic way in which we gain meaning about the surrounding landscape. We all use place names to mark our travels through everyday life, but we seldom acknowledge the stories enmeshed within these names.
The Santa Fe Trail is an ideal subject for a historical analysis of place names. As an economic lifeline connecting multiple cultural groups, the trail possesses richness beyond a simple story of westward expansion. The trail, established in 1821, connected Missouri, on the western margin of a growing United States, with New Mexico, at the northern end of a newly-created, Spanish-speaking nation. Even a rudimentary look at the linguistic origins of trail-related names reveals a complex and unpredictable mélange of U.S., Spanish, French, and Native American influence.
Place names also allow us to briefly enter the thought processes of trail users. What were their reference points? What events influenced their perception of the trail? How did they define certain places in relation to others? Place names can unlock countless narratives of the Santa Fe Trail, some better known than others.