by Heather Long
Look left, look right or look straight ahead, everywhere in the west, the land has a story to tell. From swells and swales, to creek crossings and river routes to dips and ruts are parts of the first international highways. From 1820 to 1880, five major trails crossed from the Eastern states to the untamed west:
- The Oregon Trail
- The California Trail
- The Mormon Trail
- The Old Spanish Trail
- The Santa Fe Trail
Long before there was a Route 66, the Santa Fe Trail allowed traders of silver, fur and manufactured goods to travel from Independence, Missouri to Santa Fe on the edge of the then Mexico and later in the Territory of New Mexico. The trail was about 1,000 miles in length. For travelers, average speed on horseback was twenty to thirty miles a day, although a hundred miles in a day was possible with relay horses (the fresher the horse, the faster the speed).
For traders hauling huge wagons, speed slowed by the cargo and the passengers. From 1821 to 1846 the Santa Fe trail was primarily a commercial highway used by Mexican and American traders alike. When the Mexican-American War began in 1846, the Army of the West (the Union Army) used the trail to invade New Mexico. It took a couple of years, but the Union won the war and the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo effectively ended the war in 1848.
After the treaty, the trail became a national road linking the eastern United States to the new southwestern territories. Commercial freight, military dispatches, stagecoach lines and settlers fired up by gold fever took advantage of the Santa Fe Trail and joined fur trappers and adventurers.
The thousand-mile journey offers a history of constant peril, prairie storms, Indian battles, buffalo herds and more. Travelers took eight weeks to get from Independence, Missouri to Santa Fe. Dust, mud, hailstorms, blizzards, wildfires and swollen streams were expected hazards of the trail. The average day began at dawn, wagons would be hitched up and the travelers would gather in and then the wagons would set out, one at time until the line stretched out, sometimes riding abreast, sometimes riding one after the other.
A mid-day break would allow for hauling wood and water, gathering together buffalo chips and building fires to cook meals. Common dishes included coffee, beans, dried bison, sowbelly (bacon) and whatever game they may have caught to add to the meal as a treat. It was monotonous and boring food, but it sustained them.
Wagons had to be repaired on the go, tack constantly refurbished, wagon wheels greased and the animals treated for injuries. Hunting took place, often as not with men taking a parallel path as the wagons to scare up some game.
By sunset, the travelers would pause to set up camp for the night. Night travel was perilous with danger to wagon, animal and human alike. Animals were cared for, food was eaten and all had a well-earned sleep save for the chosen few set to watch over the camp. With the first fingers of dawn the trip began all over again.
Today, the Santa Fe National Historic Trail is one of 19 in the National Trails System. While Santa Fe was the destination of the Santa Fe Trail, it opened onto the Old Spanish Trail that took trappers, traders and settlers across the west to Los Angeles, another 1,200 mile journey.
The Territory of New Mexico was incorporated in 1850 and for the next thirty years, the Santa Fe Trail would provide the most direct access root for Easterners, traders and more to arrive. Visitors can take time to visit the entire length of this trail crossing five states even today.
It’s my birthday week (April 2) and...
I want to give you a present for my 40th!
I’m giving away an eCopy of
Brave are the Lonely,
just leave a comment with your name and why you like westerns to be entered!
You can find Brave Are the Lonely at
Happy Birthday, Heather
Thanks for spending your special week with RTW!
PLEASE leave your email address with your comment or else we have to draw another name. Last week, the first two names drawn had to be eliminated because they left no contact information.
Drawing will be held April 7th at 9pm Pacific Time.
Thanks for joining us at Romancing The West!