“Below are just a few of the Frequently Asked Questions I have received through the years. You could ask several knowledgeable members of the Santa Fe Trail Association these questions and probably get different answers. So just be aware that these answers are from one person’s point of view—mine”. Harry C. Myers, 2010
1. Am I correct in thinking Becknell has not received sufficient recognition for his journey west? It seems his name should be better known.
Becknell is known amongst Santa Fe Trail (SFT) folk as the “Father of the SFT.” But there are others to who had a major hand in the opening of the trail who deserve credit with Becknell. Two of those are Captain Don Pedro Ignacio Gallego who met Becknell and the five men with him south of Las Vegas, NM, and Governor of New Mexico who welcomed Becknell to New Mexico - Facundo Melgares, who several years earlier escorted Zebulon Pike through New Mexico.
2. Are ruts of the old trail still being discovered?
Since the designation of the SFT as a National Historic Trail and more attention directed to it, in the past 10 years new ruts of the trail have been discovered, especially in the Kansas City area. And there is the possibility of more being discovered, although the major remains of the trail are known.
3. What was the most difficult part of the trail?
For the early period of the trail, it was probably the “Jornada” which was a waterless stretch of about 90 miles between the Arkansas river and the Upper or Wagonbed Spring. That is between modern-day Lakin, Kansas and just south of Ulysses, Kansas. Traders would start in the evening or night-time to travel in the coolest time possible, after they had loaded all the water they could carry in barrels. Sometimes in wet years they would find pools of water on the way and in others, found no water until the Upper Spring. Meredith Miles Marmaduke gives a good account of crossing the Jornada in 1824 that I can provide you.
In 1846 the Mountain Route of the trail began to be used on a regular basis and Raton Pass was pretty rough going due to steep grades, rocks and trees in the path, and general lack of improvement. In 1864 “Uncle Dick” Wootton improved the road and opened a tollgate on the Colorado side of Raton Pass. Then it became pretty easy.
4. Why did it stop in Santa Fe versus California? Was that a central place to buy and sell and trade?
The SFT was a route of commerce and not immigration like the Oregon-California Trail. Since at least 1725 Frenchmen and others from the east had been trying to get to Santa Fe because of fabled riches from the mines and other imagined glories. In 1749 the Mallet brothers reached Santa Fe and were able to trade what meager goods they had that they had not lost on the way. But trade outside of the Spanish empire which included what is now New Mexico and Santa Fe, was illegal. Only trade could take place within the empire to benefit the King of Spain. In other words, it was a mercantilist or colonial policy. Same reason those Boston Indians threw tea overboard in Boston harbor.
So trade was, except for illegal and surreptitious trading, banned from the east and those attempting it who were captured were thrown in jail. In 1821 Mexico and thereby New Mexico gained independence from Spain, Becknell lucked into Santa Fe just afterwards followed by two other parties, and Governor Melgares knew and took a chance that Mexican independence would hold this time. It did, Melgares encouraged Becknell to return to Missouri and bring back more goods. Santa Fe on the far reaches of that Spanish empire in the New World was starved for goods and it turned out that bringing them over the 800 miles from Missouri was cheaper than bringing them from the City of Mexico 1600 miles to the south. Within just a few years, however, Santa Fe was saturated enough with goods so that the SFT Traders had to go down into Mexico to sell their goods. And so, Santa Fe became a pivot point. The old Spanish Trail to California also began or ended in Santa Fe (depending on you starting point) and El Camino Real de Tierra Adentro ended or started in Santa Fe. It was the right town in the right place at the right time.
That is a long answer - did it answer your question?
5. Any marked graves along the trail of those who died heading to Santa Fe?
I understand that in the Larned, Ks vicinity some graves have been marked. Antonio Jose Chavez who was murdered on the trail in the Lyons, Ks vicinity had a marker about the event which was stolen in historic times. I believe it has been remarked. Samuel Hunt who was a Dragoon in 1835 died on the Trail to the east of Burlingame, Ks. His grave was marked and has been remarked with a military stone in more recent times. There’s Ed Miller’s grave in the Quivira Chapter area.
There are several graves at Point of Rocks in New Mexico. One was marked with the name and date and while that stone is in existence, a replica has been erected over the grave because the original was broken in two pieces.
6. What would you want to be sure people know about the SF Trail?
That it is a trail of trade and not immigration and that until the Mexican-American War it was a trail between two nations. The SFT was not a cattle trail.
7. What is your impression of the National Frontiers Trails Museum in Independence? How about other Museums?
It has been a number of years since I have been in the museum, but as I recall it was a very good museum. Small, but with quality exhibits and information. There are many fine museums along the Santa Fe Trail—ones that tell the story very well and display a variety of artifacts. Just to mention a few—the Santa Fe Trail Center in Larned, the Morton County Historical Museum in Elkhart, the museum in Boise City, the Herzstein Museum in Clayton, there’s one in Lakin, Lamar, La Junta, Springer and of course there are the NPS sites, Ft. Larned, Bent’s Old Fort, Fort Union and Pecos Pueblo—all that provide information on the Santa Fe Trail.
8. How many people came back along the trail after they made the trip? Was this common for people who felt they were disenchanted?
Again, the SFT was a trail of trade. Almost everybody came back, got more goods and returned to Santa Fe as that was the business. Some traders stayed in New Mexico and married local women, and some of that was for trade advantage. Some just liked the relative freedom of the southwest. Most traders who finished with the trade then remained in the states. They made their profit or went bust and decided to retire and I would say only a very few stayed in the southwest.
9. Any idea how many died along the trail?
No clue. No records of any kind relating to that were kept. But probably not many compared to the totality of those who traveled the trail back and forth. And rather than sickness on the trail, Josiah Gregg, who was the Trail’s most famous chronicler, traveled the trail originally for his health. Recovered, he traveled the trail 7 or 8 more time as a trader, but I think because he really loved it. That is another book you should read or at least review, printed in 1844 and still in print - Josiah Gregg, Commerce of the Prairies. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1959 and a couple of more printings. Journals, diaries and newspaper accounts provide information of people who died along the Trail—many were buried in unmarked graves.