Western Trips

Western Trips

Friday, March 16, 2012

Santa Fe Trail / The Santa Fe Plaza

When you have the opportunity to visit Santa Fe New Mexico, chances are you arrived by automobile or by air. Over 150 years ago, the trek to Santa Fe was not a vacation or weekend trip outing but a sometimes quite dangerous months long journey to sell merchandise in this Mexican province.

Today, when you arrive in Santa Fe and stroll around it's plaza, you're walking in an area that was the most busiest of places when the traders from the east arrived. They came in the early 1800's along the new Santa Fe Trail route, one of the earliest westward trails. They traveled from Missouri with wagons loaded with goods purchased from merchants back east with the hope of selling them at a profit in Nuevo Mexico. When they arrived in Santa Fe, they pulled their wagons into the plaza area.

The Journey that Ended on the Sante Fe Plaza

santa fe plaza
Palace of the Governors as seen across plaza
The earliest of these traders were individuals. Not too long after that, the trail would be filled with caravans owned and operated by commercial traders.

The Santa Fe Trail was a conduit to a whole new trading market. The merchandise was welcomed at the trails western terminus of Santa Fe because goods could be acquired much more quickly than from shipments from Mexico to the south. The caravans would arrive in Santa Fe and congregate in the plaza in front of the Palace of the Governors. Mexican officials would impose a tariff on the merchandise and would inspect for contraband.

The traders who, after a long journey and braving Indian attack, viewed Santa Fe for the first time saw a settlement with mud structures and very narrow and winding roads. Typical of most Mexican villages, the town center was a plaza surrounded by buildings. These were wild times and when the caravan and it's traders were in town it was like a fiesta. Fandangos were held mostly in private homes where both the music and dancing were lively and the drinking almost out of control.

The Perils of Traveling the Santa Fe Trail

palace of the governors in santa fe
Palace of the Governors, Santa Fe
Traveling on the Santa Fe Trail was not without incident. The biggest threat was from Indian attack.

According to the book, The Santa Fe Trail by author William E. Brown, Indian attacks during the trail's very first years amounted to attempts to steal livestock and food supplies. That changed in 1828.

The large caravans, carrying more merchandise than any previous one, traveled the trail that year and had an uneventful journey to Santa Fe. On the return trip to Missouri, when the caravan was roughly where today's Oklahoma and New Mexico border is, two traders rode ahead of the group of wagons and came upon a stream. At that stream they decided to take a nap. While sleeping, Indians crept up and shot both men with their own guns. Both men died and while the burials were taking place, a group of Indians appeared on the opposite river bank. The angry traders shot all but one of them. That Indians returned to their tribe and told of the shootings. Revenge raids followed shortly after and the caravan was essentially under attack all the way across the plains. They reportedly lost about one thousand head of livestock to the raids. The Indians who were shot by the river were most likely not the ones who killed the two traders since those individuals most likely would have made themselves scarce.

The second caravan traveling behind the one who lost the two traders also skirmished with the Indians. One trader was killed and scalped and the remaining traders eventually had to abandon their wagons and make it back to Missouri in the cover of darkness. Some made it back to Missouri on the edge of starvation. The loss in lives and equipment outraged the Missouri populace and the federal government was criticized for dragging it's feet in building military forts along the trail. Threats were present from various tribes with the Comanches most likely being the biggest. This outrage reached the ears of the new president, Andrew Jackson, who ordered military escorts for the planned 1829 caravans.

The Trail's Two Routes

palace of the governors
Palace of the Governors, northeast corner
Regarding the Santa Fe Trail itself, there were two major routes that traders could take.

According to the book mentioned above, The Santa Fe Trail, when you view the map of the Santa Fe Trail. one segment was called the Mountain Route and the other referred to as the Cimmaron Cutoff.

Traveling westbound, at a point not far west of Fort Dodge Kansas, the trail forked. The Mountain Route went west into Colorado and then southward through the Raton Pass where it rejoined the main trail near Fort Union New Mexico.

The Cimmaron Cutoff forked to the southwest over a very dry desert like land and also rejoined the main trail near Fort Union. While the Cimmaron Cutoff lessened the distance, the desert like topography made it a difficult journey and also heightened the chance of Indian attack. Regardless, history tells us that this was the preferred route.

The Mexican American War

During the Mexican American War in the mid 1840's, the Santa Fe Trail was more than a route of commerce.

To General Stephen W. Kearny, the Santa Fe Trail was also a route to conquest. At that time, the Santa Fe Trail represented a route into both Nuevo Mexico and Mexican Alta California. By the means of war with Mexico, which was sparked by incidents along the lower Rio Grande in Texas, the U.S. government had an opportunity to make good on Manifest Destiny. The Santa Fe Trail and the Spanish Trail beyond was the shortest route to the Pacific.

When the conquest of Mexico was realized in 1848, General Kearny set up operations in Santa Fe and oversaw the construction of Fort Marcy. Kearny felt that a fort was necessary to solidify the U.S. hold on the area and town. Fort Marcy, a short distance north of the Santa Fe plaza, represented the very first U.S. Army fort established in lands ceded from Mexico. Years later during the American Civil War, one of the most decisive battles in the southwest was fought at Glorietta Pass, between Santa Fe and Las Vegas New Mexico on the Santa Fe Trail.

santa fe trail historical marker
The photo at right is of the historic marker at the very end of the Santa Fe Trail. It's located near the plaza's southeast corner.

The end of the Santa Fe Trail of course was predestined. The railroad kept expanding westward and with each new railhead established the trail became shorter and shorter.

First the rail head of Abilene Kansas was established and then it was Dodge City Kansas near Fort Dodge. Both of these rail heads grew to be famous cow towns where ranchers drove their cattle to from Texas.

Santa Fe Prospered From the Railroad

Railroad expansion took on a feverish pace after the end of the Civil War. The rail route from Kansas to the southwest followed roughly the Santa Fe Trail. The railroad was built somewhat along the Mountain Route to Colorado and entered New Mexico through Raton Pass. There's a lot of history as to how the AT&SF obtained rights through Raton Pass at the expense of the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad.

It's an interesting topic we'll explore in another article. Along with the Santa Fe Trail and the results of the Mexican American War, the Atchison Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad was one of the major catalysts for the city's growth.

When the railroad was built to Las Vegas New Mexico, just about 60 miles east of Santa Fe, the old Santa Fe Trail was history. The trail of course was still used for wagons but traffic was only a fraction of earlier numbers.

columbus new mexico raid On a historical side note, the Atchison Topeka & Santa Fe Railroad mainline made it to Santa Fe using Lamy New Mexico about a dozen miles to the southeast. The railroad surveyors decided that the grade up to Santa Fe was prohibitive on a cost basis for the main line and Santa Fe was reached by a spur line from Lamy. You can still see that rail line today of which a small part of it is used by the modern New Mexico Rail Runner train.

The clock shown at right is on display at the New Mexico History Museum in Santa Fe. The hole in the clock was said to be from a gunshot by a Villista during Poncho Villa's raid on Columbus New Mexico during the early 1900's. 

There's never a shortage of things to do in Santa Fe and stopping by the New Mexico History Museum, located directly behind the Palace of the Governors on the north side of the plaza, offers great historical exhibits about the city's past. Also, the museum inside the Palace of the Governors is also a great place to learn more about Santa Fe's Spanish rule of the region.

Being one of the very oldest settlements in North America, Santa Fe is one of the most historic cities you'll find in the United States and an excellent destination for your next western vacation or weekend trip.

(Article and photos copyright Western Trips)


  1. Kansas and New Mexico don't touch. The map depicted on the monument isn't accurate.

  2. It sure did when the Mexicans ruled Nuevo Mexico during the 1820's,30's and part of the 40's. What you appear to be looking at is a map of the modern state of New Mexico. What you see today as the upper Texas Panhandle was disputed land. The monument on the Santa Fe Plaza is very accurate.


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