Timeline of the Santa Fe Trail

Historical Context

1806 – Zebulon Pike led a small military expedition across the plains and into Colorado to explore the Southwestern corner of the Louisiana Purchase.  At this time the area below the Arkansas River belonged to the Spanish Empire and Spain kept its remote province of New Mexico closed to foreigners. 

1821-- Mexican Independence; William Becknell opens Trail.  Left Franklin MO will a small group of men and mules packed with $300 worth of trade goods, supposedly to trade with the Indians.  Becknell’s route led him past the western boundary of MO and into the unorganized Indian Territory, which became the State of Kansas 40 years later (1861).  He and his men traveled across the open prairies to the Great Bend of the Arkansas river, and then following that waterway into Colorado.  In the vicinity of present-day LaJunta, the party forded the Arkansas River and entered into a foreign land, owned by Spain.  Following a well-worn Indian trail, the men and mules struggled over the heights of Raton Pass.  The group eventually bumped into group of soldiers out of Santa Fe.  They were escorted on into Santa Fe.  If Spain had still been in control, they would have been promptly arrested, relieved of their trade goods and most likely imprisoned.   However, they were told at once that Mexican Independence had been realized and free trade across the international boundary was now allowed and was actively encouraged.  Becknell’s party quickly sold its small stock of merchandise for an enormous profit. (1500%). 

1822--As soon as Becknell returned to Franklin, MO and immediately set about making plans for a return trip—this time with three farms wagons loaded with wares he had learned would appeal to the New Mexicans.  Becknell and his group followed what would later become known as the Cimarron Route.  This was the only wagon road to Santa Fe until the 1840s, when the Mountain Branch was opened. 

During the decade of the 1820’s, New Mexican officials encouraged American merchants to take part in trade with Mexico.  Beginning in 1824 Chihuahua and New Mexican merchants traveled from Santa Fe to Missouri.  From 1823-1825 a delegation of Mexican merchants was in Washington, D.C., sent by NM Gov. Baca, to negotiate commercial agreements for New Mexico. 

Also during this decade, the government made treaties with Indian Tribes near the eastern end of the Trail.

Origin of trade goods-- The point of purchase of trade goods varied – from cities in the Eastern United States, to cities in Europe.  Trade goods were shipped up the Missouri River from St. Louis, before being transferred to wagons for the trip to Santa Fe. The earliest wagon trains left Franklin and Arrow Rock, MO.  Other river towns, such as Lexington, were also points of departure.  By the early 1830s, most traffic on the Trail began at Independence, MO, which remained the major outfitting point until the 1840s, when Westport and Fort Leavenworth became the primary points for departure.  The vicinity of present day Council Grove, KS was a major point of rendezvous for caravans organizing for the trip west.  Until the 1850s, there was little in the way of civilization beyond Council Grove. 

1824 – A wagon caravan, led by Alexander Le Grand left Missouri with hardware and dry goods for trade.  It returned from Santa Fe with $180,000 in gold and silver and $10,000 in furs, as well as mules. 

1825 -- Government survey of the Santa Fe Trail led by George Sibley  
1827-- Fort Leavenworth, KS opens 
1829-- Military escorts begin because of Indian attacks.  Pres. Andrew Jackson ordered army troops, under command of Major Bennett Riley, to escort a Santa Fe Trail wagon train to the Mexican border (present-day vicinity of Dodge City).  This army escort used the first oxen on the Trail and these animals proved to be better able to withstand the hardships of Trail travel, were less attractive to the Indians to steal, and could be eaten if needed. 
1833 -- Bent's Fort, CO established 
1836 -- Texas declares independence 
1846 – War with Mexico.  Colonel Stephan Kearny and his Army of the West marched over the Santa Fe Trail to Bent’s Fort, on to Raton Pass and arrived unopposed at the Santa Fe Plaza on August 18. 

1849 – Monthly stage service begins on the Santa Fe Trail.  
1849 -- California Gold Rush--Indian attacks increase.  Example, a mail carriage from Fort Leavenworth with ten men aboard was attacked by Utes and Apaches at Wagon Mound in NM

1850, July 1 – Monthly mail service begins on the Santa Fe Trail  
1851-- Fort Union, NM opens

1854 -- Kansas Territory established  
1858 -- Colorado Gold Rush

1859 – Fort Larned established

1861 -- Kansas becomes a state. 
1862 -- Glorieta Pass, NM Civil War battle 
1864 -- Indian attacks; Sand Creek Massacre 
1865 -- Fort Dodge, KS opens

1876 -- Colorado becomes the 38th State

1880, Feb. 9 -- Railroad reaches Santa Fe

1906 – Daughters of the American Revolution mark the Santa Fe Trail with stone monuments.

1987 -- Santa Fe National Historic Trail established

1996 --175th Anniversary celebrations 

2021—200th Anniversary of the SFT

      Length of Santa Fe Trail 800 – 900 miles, depending upon the point of departure and the route taken; travel time – also varied, depending on weather and mishaps along the route. Generally, it took about 8 weeks.