This episode of America’s National Parks was hosted by Jason Epperson, with narration from Abigail Trabue.
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I’m standing on the Powder Mill Pedestrian Bridge, which spans Interstate 435 in southern Kansas City, Missouri. I’m looking south at the confluence of I-435, I-49, I-435, I-470, U.S. 50, and U.S. 71. Over 250,000 cars a day pass through here, making —which is known to the locals as Grandview Triangle—one of the busiest interchanges in the country. In fact, this has been one of the most traveled stretches of road since before there was a road.
The Grandview Triangle officially goes by another name — the 3-Trails Crossing Memorial Highway. Two hundred years ago, about 15 miles north of this spot, wagon trains set out on their journies along one of three routes towards the largely unknown West.
For about 50 miles, the trails were one before they diverged. This bridge I’m standing on is, in fact, part of the 46-mile 3-trail corridor, as it’s now known. It was erected specifically to allow people to walk or bike the 46-mile journey before the trails separate, through the concrete jungle of Kansas City, passing many historic sites, until it reaches beyond the edges of town, where green grass fields still show the wagon ruts from 19th-century pioneers looking for a better life.
The upper route headed towards Oregon and the middle route to California. The Oregon and California trails were the pathways to the Pacific for fur traders, gold seekers, missionaries, and emigrants. For almost 30 years, beginning in 1841, more than 300,000 emigrants followed this route from the Midwest to fertile Oregon farmlands or California gold fields—trips that took five months to complete.
But the lower route was another matter altogether. It was an international road for American and Mexican traders, until 1848 when the Mexican-American War ended, and New Mexico joined the United States. It became a national road for commercial and military freighting, stagecoach travel, emigration, and mail service.
History of the Santa Fe National Historic Trail:
On June 10, 1821, a 31-year old saltmaker named William Becknell published a notice in the Missouri Intelligencer newspaper soliciting participants for a trip “to the westward for the purpose of trading for Horses & Mules, and catching Wild Animals of every description, that we may think advantageous.” Becknell was bankrupt and facing jail for debts, as Missouri fell under the grip of a devastating depression.
Becknell left Franklin, Missouri, for Santa Fe in September of 1821 with five other men, the first to journey on this particular route to the almost mythical city of Santa Fe, New Mexico.
Spain jealously protected the borders of its New Mexico colony, prohibiting manufacturing and international trade. Those that journeyed to Mexico before Becknell had been arrested by Spanish soldiers and hauled south toward Mexico City to serve lengthy prison sentences. Those that made it back told of a land starved for manufactured goods and supplies. Becknell was pleasantly surprised to find upon his arrival that Mexico had overthrown the Spanish, and the new Mexican government – unlike their predecessors – welcomed outside trade.
Not surprisingly, others got into the trade soon after Becknell returned, and by 1825 goods from Missouri were not only being traded in Santa Fe but to other points farther south as well. Some traders used the so-called Mountain Route, which offered more dependable water but required an arduous trip over Raton Pass. Most, however, used the Cimarron Route, which was shorter and faster but required knowledge of where the route’s scarce water supplies were located.
From 1821 until 1846, the Santa Fe Trail was a two-way international commercial highway used by both Mexican and American traders.
Suspicion and tension between the United States and Mexico accelerated in the 1840s. With the American desire for territorial expansion, Texans raided into New Mexico, and the United States annexed Texas. The Mexican-American War erupted in 1846. General Stephen Watts Kearny led his Army of the West down the Santa Fe Trail to take and hold New Mexico and upper California and to protect American traders on the trail. He marched unchallenged into Santa Fe.
After the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo ended the war in 1848, the Santa Fe Trail became a national road connecting the more settled parts of the United States to the new southwest territories.
Commercial freighting along the trail boomed to unheard-of levels, including considerable military freight hauling to supply the southwestern forts. The trail was also used by stagecoach lines, adventurers, missionaries, wealthy New Mexican families, and emigrants. The Santa Fe Trade developed into a complex web of international business, social ties, tariffs, and laws, passing goods from as far as New York, London, and Paris.
Movies and books often romanticize Santa Fe Trail treks as sagas of constant peril, with violent prairie storms, fights with Indians, and thundering buffalo herds. In fact, a glimpse of bison, elk, antelope, or prairie dogs was sometimes the only break in the tedium of 8-week journeys. Trail travelers mostly experienced dust, mud, gnats and mosquitoes, and heat. But occasional swollen streams, wildfires, hailstorms, strong winds, or blizzards could imperil wagon trains.
At dawn, trail hands scrambled in noise and confusion to round up, sort, and hitch up the animals. The wagons headed out, the air ringing with whoops and cries of “All’s set!” and soon, “Catch up! Catch up!” and “Stretch out!”
Stopping at mid-morning, crews unhitched and grazed the teams, hauled water, gathered wood or buffalo chips for fuel, and cooked and ate the day’s main meal from a monotonous daily ration of 1 pound of flour, 1 pound of bacon, 1 ounce of coffee, 2 ounces of sugar, and a pinch of salt. Beans, dried apples, or bison and other game were occasional treats. Crews then repaired their wagons, yokes, and harnesses, greased wagon wheels, doctored animals, and hunted.
They moved on soon after noon, fording streams before the night’s stop because overnight storms could turn trickling creeks into raging floodwaters. At day’s end, crews took care of the animals, made necessary repairs, chose night guards, and enjoyed a few hours of well-earned leisure and sleep.
Westward from Missouri, forests gave way to Kansas prairie. Long days traveling through seemingly endless expanses of tall and short grass prairie, with a few narrow ribbons of trees along waterways, evoked vivid descriptions. “In spring, the vast plain heaves and rolls around like a green ocean,” wrote one early traveler. Another marveled at a mirage in which “horses and the riders upon them presented a remarkable picture, apparently extending into the air. . .45 to 60 feet high. . . At the same time, I could see beautiful clear lakes of water with. . .bulrushes and other vegetation. . .” Other travelers dreamed of cures for sickness from the “purity of the plains.” As the route was mainly commercial, once most wagon trains made it to Santa Fe, they turned around and headed right back.
As void of human presence the prairie landscape might have appeared, the lands the trail passed through were the long-held homelands of many American Indian people. Most early encounters were peaceful negotiations centering on access to tribal lands and trade in horses, mules, and other items that Indians, Mexicans, and Americans coveted. As trail traffic increased, so did confrontations, as the travelers disrupted more and more traditional ways of American Indian life. Mexican and American troops began providing escorts for wagon trains.
In 1862, the Civil War arrived in the West. The Confederate plan for the West was to raise a force in Texas, march up the Rio Grande, take Santa Fe, turn northeast on the Santa Fe Trail, capture the stores at Fort Union, head up to Colorado to capture the goldfields, and then turn west to take California. They pushed up the Rio Grande Valley into New Mexico. Albuquerque and Santa Fe fell. But the tide turned at Glorieta Pass, on the Santa Fe Trail. In the most decisive western battle of the Civil War, Union forces secured victory when they torched the nearby Confederate supply train. The Confederates abandoned any hope of reaching Fort Union – and with it, their foothold in New Mexico. The Union Army held the Southwest and its vital Santa Fe Trail supply line.
The close of the Civil War in 1865 released America’s industrial energies. The railroad pushed westward, gradually shortening and then replacing the Santa Fe Trail. Within two years, rails had been laid across central Kansas, and by 1873, two different rail lines reached from eastern Kansas into Colorado. As lands were parceled out for railroads and the bison were hunted nearly to extinction, Native people were pushed aside or assigned to reservations.
Because the Santa Fe Trail hauled primarily commercial goods, the railroad expansion meant that the trading caravans needed to traverse increasingly shorter distances. During the early 1870s, three different railroads vied to build rails over Raton Pass in order to serve the New Mexico market. The winner of that competition, the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railroad, reached the top of Raton Pass in late 1878. In February 1880, the railroad reached Santa Fe, and the trail faded into history.
The Santa Fe National Historic Trail:
For nearly 60 years, goods were exchanged on the Santa Fe trail, as well as knowledge and culture. It’s no accident that there are towns in Missouri named Mexico and Santa Fe.
The Santa Fe National Historic Trail spans 900 miles of the Great Plains and traverses five states. The route was commemorated in 1987 by the National Park Service as the Santa Fe National Historic Trail. A highway route that roughly follows the trail’s path through the entire length of Kansas, the southeast corner of Colorado and northern New Mexico has been designated as the Santa Fe Trail National Scenic Byway. Museums, interpretive centers, and historic sites pepper the journey today – places like Fort Dodge, Fort Union, and the Cimmaron National Grassland.
The National Trails website on NPS.gov does a fantastic job of showing the hundreds of sites along the route, and you can find a wealth of information at SantaFeTrail.org, the website of the non-profit Santa Fe Trail Association. For more information about the 3 Trails Corridor, visit 3trailscorridor.com.
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