To Old Santa Fe

Once upon a time the Spanish citizens of Santa Fe looked to the South, namely Mexico City, for most of their needs to be met or unmet, as was often the case when it came to requesting material goods. What few visitors came from the East, namely the United States of America, were not welcome. Change was in the works in 1821 when Mexico gained its independence from Spain, and many Santafesinos put out the alfombra de bienvenida (“welcome mat”), desiring the arrival of American goods if not non-Catholic American settlers. William Becknell of Franklin, Mo., arrived that fall with a trading party and conducted the first successful legal commerce with New Mexico province, eventually earning Becknell the title “Father of the Santa Fe Trail” (see our cover story on the bicentennial of that trail on P. 36). Mexico’s declaration of free trade came two years later.

Some argue that the capitalization of New Mexico’s economy brought on by the trade with Americans benefited the upper classes in Santa Fe but didn’t end poverty in the province, thus making it dependent, in neocolonial fashion, on the United States. Of course, that was of little concern to the stampede of traders who followed in Becknell’s tracks and earned profits galore. From 1821 to ’48 the 900-mile trail was “a highway between nations,” as U.S. Senator Thomas Hart Benton of Missouri dubbed it in 1825. The route started in western Missouri, which meant travelers spent most of their time crossing the rolling prairies of what would become Kansas, whether they chose to take the trail’s Mountain Route or the shorter Cimarron Cutoff.

Either way, the travelers eventually rolled through Mexican-controlled northeast New Mexico to reach Santa Fe. That final destination has always appealed to me, even as a kid. For much of my life I thought Santa Fe, which became a town under Spanish law 10 years before the Mayflower Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock, was the oldest surviving European settlement in the contiguous United States. Much later I learned that it was No. 2, behind St. Augustine, Fla. But that was good enough for me, as the Southwest fascinated me more than the Southeast. (Only this year did I finally visit St. Augustine, founded in 1565, for the first time, and it is indeed historically cool, too, even if I failed to locate the Fountain of Youth). Santa Fe, which celebrated its 400th anniversary in 2010, does, of course, rate as the United States’ oldest capital city, and no matter how many scenic trails there are in Florida, none comes close to capturing the imagination of historically minded Americans as does the Santa Fe Trail.

The much longer Oregon Trail may have passed through more interesting terrain, but the Willamette Valley meant nothing to me, and I was 30 before I actually laid eyes on any part of Oregon Country. On the other hand, I had visited New Mexico several times early on and was fascinated with its historic adobes, Pueblo Indians, green chile, roadrunners, Billy the Kid and a señorita or two. Photographer Bart Smith has walked the Santa Fe Trail—as well as the other 18 national historic trails (see his “Trailing Western History” in the April 2021 issue)—though most people prefer to experience the trail from the vantage of a motor vehicle traversing the Santa Fe Trail National Scenic Byway from Independence, Mo., through Kansas, Colorado and New Mexico.

There are countless reasons to celebrate the bicentennial of the Santa Fe Trail this fall. But I can’t help wondering how many 19th-century New Mexicans came to regret welcoming all those Santa Fe–bound caravans, which from 1829 on were often escorted part of the way by U.S. soldiers. In 1846 the United States went to war against Mexico, and the Santa Fe Trail became a route of invasion for Brig. Gen. Stephen Watts Kearny and his Army of the West. WW

Wild West editor Gregory Lalire’s latest historical novel is Man From Montana (2021). His earlier novels include 2019’s Our Frontier Pastime: 1804–1815 and 2014’s Captured: From the Frontier Diary of Infant Danny Duly. His short story “Halfway to Hell” appears in the 2018 anthology The Trading Post and Other Frontier Stories. This article was published in the October 2021 issue of Wild West.