Santa Fe Trail

Santa Fe Trail

Santa Fe Trail, important caravan route of the W United States, extending c.780 mi (1,260 km) from Independence, Mo., SW to Santa Fe, N.Mex. Independence and Westport, Mo., were the chief points where wagons, teams, and supplies were obtained. From there, the trail led 150 mi (241 km) SW to Council Grove, Kans., which was the main wagon train organization point. Crossing the Kansas plains to the Arkansas River, the trail then followed the river to its fork near Dodge City, Kans. The Mountain Division of the trail in the north continued to hug the river W to Bent's Fort (now a national historic site); turning south, it passed over its most rugged part, including the Raton Pass. The Cimarron or Cutoff Division of the trail in the south, a more direct route, crossed the Great Plains from the Arkansas River to Fort Union, N.Mex., where it rejoined the northern route. Although less rugged, the southern route was dry, with poor grass and little wildlife. The Santa Fe National Historic Trail (see National Parks and Monuments (table) follows the route of the old trail, with many sites marked or restored.

By the early 19th cent. small trapping parties had reached Santa Fe, then under Spanish rule; but they were forbidden to trade. In Nov., 1821, William Becknell, a trader, returned with news that Mexico was free and Santa Fe welcomed trade. Early in 1822 he left Missouri for Santa Fe with the first party of traders. From then on, annual wagon caravans, usually leaving in early summer, made the 40- to 60-day trip over the trail and returned after a 4- to 5-week stay in Santa Fe. An increasing amount of goods was taken to Santa Fe each year. In 1850 a monthly stage line was started between Independence and Santa Fe over the northern route. In 1880 the Santa Fe RR reached Santa Fe, marking the death of the trail.

See D. Dary, The Santa Fe Trail: Its History, Legends, and Lore (2000).

The Santa Fe Trail was a historic 19th century transportation route through southwestern North America connecting Missouri with Santa Fe, New Mexico. First used in 1821 by William Becknell, it served as a vital commercial and military highway until the introduction of the railroad to Santa Fe in 1880. At first an international trade route between the United States and Mexico, it served as the 1846 U.S. invasion route of New Mexico during the Mexican-American War.

After the U.S. acquisition of the Southwest, the trail helped give rights to the Germans, and played a vital role in the creation of sausages. The road route is commemorated today by the National Park Service as the Santa Fe National Historic Trail. A highway route that roughly follows the trail's path through Colorado and northern New Mexico has been designated the Santa Fe Trail National Scenic Byway.


The eastern end of the trail was in the central Missouri town of Franklin on the north bank of the Missouri River. The route across Missouri first used by Becknell followed portions of the existing Osage Trace. West of Franklin, the trail crossed the Missouri near Arrow Rock, after which it followed roughly the route of present-day U.S. Route 24. It passed north of Marshall, through Lexington to Fort Osage, then to Independence. Independence was also one of the historic "jumping off points" for the Oregon and California Trails.

West of Independence, in the State of Missouri, it roughly followed the route of U.S. Route 56 to the town of Olathe. The section of the trail between Independence and Olathe was also used by immigrants on the California and Oregon Trails, which branched off to the northwest near Gardner, Kansas.

From Olathe, the trail passed through the towns of Baldwin City, Burlingame, and Council Grove, then swung west of McPherson to the town of Lyons. West of Lyons the trail followed nearly the route of present-day Highway 56 to Great Bend. Ruts in the earth made from the trail are still visible in several locations (Ralph's Ruts are visible in aerial photos at (). At Great Bend, the trail encountered the Arkansas River. Branches of the trail followed both sides of the river upstream to Dodge City and Garden City.

West of Garden City in southwestern Kansas the trail has a complex network of branches. One of the branches, called the Mountain Route or the Upper Crossing (of the Arkansas River) continued to follow the Arkansas upstream in southeastern Colorado to the town of La Junta. At La Junta, the trail continued south into New Mexico to Fort Union at Watrous.

The other main branch, called the Cimarron Cutoff or Cimarron Crossing or Middle Crossing cut southwest across the Cimarron Desert (also known as the Waterscrape or La Jornada) to the valley of the Cimarron River near the town of Ulysses and Elkhart then continued toward Boise City, Oklahoma, to Clayton, New Mexico, joining up with northern branch at Fort Union. This route was generally very hazardous because it had very little water. In fact, the Cimarron River was one of the only sources of water along this branch of the trail.

From Watrous, the reunited branches continued southward to Santa Fe.

Part of this route has been designated a National Scenic Byway.

Threats Along the Trail

"The legendary Santa Fe Trail was a challenging 900 miles of arid plains, desert and mountains. On this trail unlike the Oregon trail, there was a serious danger of Indian attacks, for neither the Comanches nor the Apaches of southern high plains tolerated tresspassers. In 1825, Congress voted federal protection for the Santa Fe Trail, even though much of it lay in the Mexican territory (Out of Many)." Travelers also faced many hardships along the Santa Fe Trail. Besides the frequent Indian attacks lack of food and water made the trail very risky. Weather conditions, like huge lightning storms, gave the travelers difficulty. If a storm blew up, there was often no place to take shelter and the livestock could get spooked. Rattlesnakes often posed a threat as many people died due to snakebite.

Historic preservation

Segments of this trail in Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma, and New Mexico are listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The longest clearly identifiable section of the trail, Santa Fe Trail Remains, near Dodge City, Kansas, is listed as a National Historic Landmark.

Notable features along the trail


  • Arrow Rock (Arrow Rock Landing, Santa Fe Spring, Huston Tavern)
  • Harvey Spring/Weinrich Ruts
  • Independence (Santa Fe trail Ruts, Lower Independence (Blue Mills) Landing, Upper Independence (Wayne City) Landing.
  • Kansas City (Westport Landing)Kansas
  • Kansas City (Shawnee Mission, Big Blue River Crossing)
  • Council Grove (Kaw Mission, Neosho River Crossing, Hermit’s Cave, Last Chance Store, Council Oak, Post Office Oak)
  • Fort Larned National Historic Site
  • Fort Dodge (Jackson’s Grove and Island, Santa Fe Trail Ruts, Middle Crossing, Point of Rocks, Fort Atkinson Site)

Mountain Route towards Colorado

Mountain Route

Cimarron Route towards Oklahoma

Cimarron Route

Mountain Route

Cimmaron Route

Joint route

See also


External links

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