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Santa Fe Trail

Arrival of the Caravan by Josiah Gregg, circa 1844

The Santa Fe Trail was the most important route to the West from the Missouri River to Santa Fe, Mexico, before the era of the railroads. It was used extensively by traders, freighters, those headed to Pikes Peak, and the military from its survey by the federal government in 1825 until the 1870s. Of its approximate 750 miles, two-thirds of the route lay in Kansas. It also passed through portions of what is now Missouri, Oklahoma, Colorado, and New Mexico.

On September 1, 1821, Captain William Becknell and a party of traders left Arrow Rock, Missouri, to trade horses and mules with American Indians and hunt wild game on the plains. The expedition met a troop of Mexican soldiers in November and traveled with them to Santa Fe, where they were greeted warmly. Their trade goods, including calico and other printed cloth, sold at high prices in the isolated Spanish town. The Becknell party returned to Missouri on January 30, 1822, after only 48 days travel. Profits from the expedition were so high that other trading ventures were organized almost immediately. Thus began the lucrative trade along the Santa Fe Trail.

Unlike the Oregon-California Trail, which also cut across Kansas but was a highway for settlers, the Santa Fe Trail's traffic was mostly traders and the military. This was an active military road during the Mexican War (1846-1848) and afterward served as a supply route for military posts in New Mexico and Arizona territories. In addition to traders' caravans, stage and mail lines often followed the trail and set up stations along the route. The completion of the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railway to Santa Fe in 1880 ended the trail's reign in the West.

Numerous segments of the trail were considered much safer to travel than others. Those posing greater risks to the traveler and a liability to traders with their cargoes were found on the central and southwestern parts of the trail.

One such area was known as the Jornado portion, which was located on the "dry routes" to Santa Fe. It lay on what was known as the Cimarron cut-off. This "uninhabitable desert region," as it was known to the early caravans and travelers, encompassed an area bounded on the north by the present-day city of Cimarron to the Cimarron River on the south.

The Spanish word Jornado means "long journey." This approximate 50 to 60 mile stretch was usually devoid of water during the dry season and was considered by those who traveled the region to be traversed without delay. Not only was water a scarce commodity but also the trail markings were invisible with no landmarks to guide the traveler. It was not until the mid-1830s, during an uncommonly wet year, that wagons were to leave their imprints in the form of permanent ruts. It was only then that the trail could be traveled with any degree of certainty.

Stories were told of a large company of men and animals traveling through this region in 1822 who nearly succumbed to thirst. They were only able to satisfy this need by killing buffalo and drinking the blood. In spite of the dangers, the Jornado continued to be traveled as it allowed a shorter route to Santa Fe than the more northerly mountain route.

Historians note more than 130 trail-related sites along the Kansas portion of the Santa Fe Trail, including segments of trail ruts, campgrounds, forts, trading posts, battle sites, and burials. Several Kansas trail sites are listed in the National Register of Historic Places.

Entry: Santa Fe Trail

Author: Kansas Historical Society

Author information: The Kansas Historical Society is a state agency charged with actively safeguarding and sharing the state's history.

Date Created: June 2003

Date Modified: July 2017

The author of this article is solely responsible for its content.