Santa Fe Trail Opens Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The opening of the Santa Fe Trail extended American commerce to the Mexican-ruled Southwest, helped to disintegrate the Indian frontier, and paved the way for the later U.S. occupation of the Southwest.

Summary of Event

During the early years of the nineteenth century, Santa Fe was an isolated Spanish outpost fifteen hundred miles from the center of Spanish authority in Mexico City. Its inhabitants possessed an abundance of silver, Silver;Mexican furs, and mules, but they suffered from a lack of fabricated goods. Traders on the Missouri frontier were eager to obtain products from Santa Fe in exchange for inexpensive textiles, cutlery, utensils, and a wide variety of other items. The mutual advantage of trade was obvious, but venturesome traders arriving in Santa Fe between 1804 and 1820 were forcefully reminded that the Spanish Empire was not open to foreigners. Those who failed to heed the warnings had their property confiscated, and some were imprisoned. Mexico’s overthrow of Spanish rule, which was achieved in 1821, brought an end to Spanish restrictions on commerce in New Mexico, which became a northern province of the Republic of Mexico Mexico;and New Mexico[New Mexico] New Mexico;and mexico[Mexico] . Santa Fe Trail Exploration;American West Santa Fe, New Mexico New Mexico;Santa Fe Trail Frontier, American;and Santa Fe Trail[Santa Fe Trail] [kw]Santa Fe Trail Opens (Sept., 1821) [kw]Trail Opens, Santa Fe (Sept., 1821) [kw]Opens, Santa Fe Trail (Sept., 1821) Santa Fe Trail Exploration;American West Santa Fe, New Mexico New Mexico;Santa Fe Trail Frontier, American;and Santa Fe Trail[Santa Fe Trail] [g]United States;Sept., 1821: Santa Fe Trail Opens[1160] [c]Transportation;Sept., 1821: Santa Fe Trail Opens[1160] [c]Expansion and land acquisition;Sept., 1821: Santa Fe Trail Opens[1160] [c]Trade and commerce;Sept., 1821: Santa Fe Trail Opens[1160] Becknell, William Fowler, Jacob Glenn, Hugh James, Thomas

The Mexican War of Independence Mexican War of Independence;and Santa Fe Trail[Santa Fe Trail] and the Panic of 1819 Panic of 1819;and Mexico[Mexico] in the United States intensified the need for commerce between the United States and Mexico. For years, Mexico Mining;in Mexico[Mexico] had suffered from currency Currency;Mexican depletion, as its mineral wealth was shipped to faraway Spain. The revolution, which lasted more than a decade, further weakened the Mexican economy. At the same time, the Panic of 1819 worsened a currency Currency;U.S. shortage in the western United States. Adventurers hoped to trade durable goods in New Mexico for precious metals, easing their fiscal plight.

In the long run, the conditions that prompted trade did not produce economic equality. Between 1821 and 1846, the Santa Fe Trail, which connected Independence, Missouri, and Santa Fe, served as a conduit of economic and social change. Mexican officials lacked the personnel to regulate the northern border Borders, U.S.;with Mexico[Mexico] , so smuggling was rife. North-south trade within Mexico was reoriented to an east-west trade along the Santa Fe Trail, resulting in a further loss of Mexican wealth. Euro-American merchants married Mexican and Indian women, contributing to the social diversity of the Southwest. Euro-American entrepreneurs displaced many Mexican merchants who earlier had traded in New Mexico.

Contemporary illustration of a wagon train approaching the town of Santa Fe on the Santa Fe Trail.

(Courtesy, Museum of New Mexico)

The initial exchange along the Santa Fe Trail occurred in September, 1821, when William Becknell Becknell, William and his band of thirty men, who had been catching horses near Raton, New Mexico, learned of Mexican independence and proceeded to Santa Fe, where the party exchanged their supplies for silver dollars. The exchange was lucrative: One investor in Becknell’s expedition reaped a return of nine hundred dollars on a sixty-dollar investment.

Even before Euro-Americans learned how profitable the Santa Fe trade could be, other trading parties followed Becknell. Thomas James James, Thomas of St. Louis reached Santa Fe in December, 1821, and spent the winter there attempting to persuade its citizens to buy his drab cotton fabrics. Another party, led by Jacob Fowler Fowler, Jacob and Hugh Glenn Glenn, Hugh , reached Santa Fe and enjoyed a profitable business. Fowler had first scouted the Sangre de Cristo Mountains to the north and concluded that a profitable fur trade Fur trade;and Santa Fe Trail[Santa Fe Trail] could be developed.

During the following spring, William Becknell and a score of men returned to Santa Fe with three wagons of merchandise. Becknell Becknell, William thus gained celebrity as the founder of the Santa Fe trade. Knowing that it would be difficult to ascend Raton Pass with heavily laden wagons, Becknell pioneered a new direct route to Santa Fe from the Arkansas River Crossing through the Cimarron Desert, a route known as the Cimarron Cutoff.

By 1824, wagons were being used extensively on the trail, and the numbers of people and amounts of goods increased steadily each year until 1838, despite many difficulties. Hazards included the problems of conducting wagon trains across treeless plains and desert terrain and the chances of attack by Kiowas Kiowas and Comanches, Comanches who resented having their homelands invaded. Upon arriving in Santa Fe, traders had to pay import taxes that sometimes ran as high as 60 percent of the value of their goods. To avoid paying taxes, traders often resorted to bribery. In 1839, the Mexican government moved to counter cheating by imposing a flat tax of five hundred dollars per wagon. This measure merely encouraged traders to use larger wagons, which they often overloaded. Nevertheless, despite the taxes and uncertainties, the average wagon train earned a profit of between 10 and 40 percent.


In the total economy of the American West, the value of the Santa Fe trade was minimal, averaging only $130,000 a year between 1822 and 1843. The best year was 1841, when the value of trade goods reached $450,000. The trade was temporarily stopped by the Mexican government between 1843 and 1844 but was revived during the Mexican War and attained a wartime peak value of $1,752,250 in 1846. The business continued after the war, not as an international trade but as a means of supplying U.S. military forces in the Southwest. Trade was also brisk during the Civil War (1861-1865), and the Santa Fe Trail continued to be used for commercial purposes until the railroad era.

This military commerce resulted from the U.S. policy of trying to maintain a permanent American Indian frontier along the western boundary of Missouri, while simultaneously trying to guarantee the plains region to the tribes and encouraging and protecting traders who were intruding upon Indian domains. Major Stephen Cooper Cooper, Stephen had led a company of thirty traders to Santa Fe in 1823. Two years later, the federal government appropriated thirty thousand dollars to mark the route within the limits of the United States and to seek concessions from the tribes guaranteeing safe passage to the traders. However, the markings were made of earthen and stone mounds and were placed upon the little used and longer Mountain Route that ascended the Arkansas River to Bent’s Fort near La Junta, Colorado, thence south to Santa Fe, rather than along the Cimarron Cutoff.

Fort Leavenworth Fort Leavenworth was established in 1827, principally to guard the trail, but the following year, Native Americans attacked the caravans headed for Santa Fe. Several traders were killed, others were robbed, wagons were abandoned when the animals drawing them were killed, and at least one party had to walk home. Military escorts were provided at government expense in 1829, 1834, and 1843 to protect the traders as far as the United States boundary. After the Mexican War, additional forts were erected. These forts not only helped to secure trade over the Santa Fe Trail but also provided new markets for agricultural products raised in the Southwest.

The Santa Fe trade not only initiated the disintegration of the Native Americans;and Santa Fe Trail[Santa Fe Trail] permanent Indian frontier but also turned the attention of the United States toward the Mexican territory in the Southwest. Reports from traders dispelled the illusion of Mexican military power and demonstrated the ease with which the United States might take over the region. In addition, Santa Fe traders assisted in destroying the concept that the Great Plains were the Great American Desert. "Great American Desert"[Great American Desert]

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Coues, Elliot, ed. The Journal of Jacob Fowler, 1821-1822. New York: Frances P. Harper, 1898. The classic work describing how Fowler and Hugh Glenn followed the course of the Arkansas River and secured permission to trap and trade in Mexican territory in 1821.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Dary, David. The Santa Fe Trail: Its History, Legends, and Lore. Reprint. New York: Penguin Books, 2002. Engagingly written account of the full history of the Santa Fe Trail.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">DeBuys, William. Enchantment and Exploitation: The Life and Hard Times of a New Mexican Mountain Range. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1985. Details the social and economic changes of the lower Rockies after the opening of trade between Mexico and the United States along the Santa Fe Trail.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Field, Matthew C. Matt Field on the Santa Fe Trail. Edited by John E. Sunder. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1960. A vivid memoir of an able journalist who spent the summer of 1839 on the Santa Fe Trail and in the settlements of New Mexico.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gregg, Kate L. The Road to Santa Fe. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1952. A definitive account of the survey and marking of the Santa Fe Trail by the U.S. government, 1825-1827. Includes the journals and diaries of George Champlin Sibley and others.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hall, Thomas D. Social Change in the Southwest, 1350-1880. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1989. Details the impact of marriage and commerce on family units in the Rio Grande region.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Magoffin, Susan S. Down the Santa Fe Trail and into Mexico: The Diary of Susan Shelby Magoffin, 1846-1847. Edited by Stella M. Drumm. Rev. ed. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1962. The account of an observant young woman who accompanied her husband, a veteran Santa Fe trader, to New Mexico and south to Chihuahua City during the Mexican War.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Moorhead, Max L. New Mexico’s Royal Road: Trade and Travel on the Chihuahua Trail. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1958. A scholarly and interpretive study emphasizing the nature and importance of trade between Santa Fe and Chihuahua City and explaining its relationship to the Santa Fe Trail.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Simmons, Marc, and Hal Jackson. Following the Santa Fe Trail: A Guide for Modern Travelers. Rev. ed. Santa Fe, N.Mex.: Ancient City Press, 2001. Modern travel book that follows the historic Santa Fe Trail, providing numerous photographs, maps, and directions that make it easy to connect historical sites with modern locations.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Vestal, Stanley. The Old Santa Fe Trail. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1939. A popular account that attempts to recapture the experience of those who traveled to Santa Fe.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Young, Otis. The First Military Escort on the Santa Fe Trail, 1829. Glendale, Calif.: Arthur H. Clark, 1952. Synthesizes available source materials to describe the attacks made on caravans traversing the Santa Fe Trail in 1828.

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Categories: History