Not Your Every Day Hike
My home the Lower Farm in northern New Mexico is a mile distant from the village of Ledoux, which is just a small cluster of adobe homes. Past my gate men on horseback frequently drive a few head of cattle to fresh pasture and other neighbors come down the road from the mountains loaded with firewood to heat their homes. Life has changed since the Americans came but much is as it was.
While on retreat there this summer I spent a week doing restoration on the old adobe home. Mixing mud in the traditional way and plastering walls by hand, all the while reflecting on the history of this place.With work complete I had some time and planned to spend a day or two in the ancient city of Santa Fe. Instead of driving straight on in I thought I’d start where the road begins.
History books describe the settling of North America from the perspective of a steady expansion from the Atlantic seaboard westward. Often overlooked is the fact that Spain had explored the southwest and established a capitol at Santa Fe in 1598, …. years before the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock. For over 200 years Santa Fe remained an isolated outpost of the Spanish empire and all goods and supplies to this capitol of the territory were transported along the Camino Real that linked villages southward towards El Paso and Durango, Mexico. The colonials were not only isolated but suffered the isolationist policies of Spain. Foreign trappers, explorers and traders were not permitted in the region and considered as spies of the U.S. government or France. Zebulon Pike for instance was captured in the San Juan Valley of Colorado on February 26, 1807 and sent to Santa Fe and then on to Chihuahua, Mexico for questioning by the governor before he was released and escorted to the Louisiana border in July. Some of his soldiers remained in Mexican custody for years. It was through Pikes (1810) published journals of his expedition and his description of trade conditions in New Spain that later on contributed to development of the Santa Fe Trail.
In the early 1800s the citizens of old Mexico grew restive. The Spanish policies that favored a few individuals and allowed them to amass huge landholdings and vast wealth while the common peon lived in servitude, poverty and landless had lasted too long. Seeking land reform and freedom from Spanish rule Mexico erupted in war September 16, 1810. The war had an ebb and flo for the next 10 years but on the August 24, 1821 signing of the Treaty of Cordoba the insurgents had gained independence.
At that same time the United States was in the midst of a severe economic depression that began in 1819. Manufacturing had stalled, unemployment was high, there were defaults on debt, foreclosures and paper currency issued by local banks was worthless. Agriculture business was particularly hard hit in places like Missouri. William Becknell of Boone’s Lick, Missouri was one such individual that was facing financial ruin. A salt works business he had purchased in 1818 was going under and he had accumulated serious debt financing a failed run at the Missouri legislature in 1820. In an effort to gain hard currency he formulated a plan for an expedition and in June 1821 he ran an advertisement in the Missouri Intelligencer for:
“A Company of men destined to the westward for the purpose of trading horses and mules, and catching wild animals of every description”
Becknell was probably a bit surprised when less than a dozen men answered his call. Not dissuaded he and and five others departed Arrow Rock, Missouri on September 1st, 1821 intending to trap furs in the Rocky mountains and trade with the Comanche. It is not proven but Becknell may have secretly also planned to travel as far as New Mexico where he could obtain specie in the form of Spanish gold and silver coin.Traveling across the open rolling prairie the group made good headway for several days along known trail routes. Once they reached the Arkansas River they continued to follow it to a point in southern Colorado and the foothills to the Rocky Mountains. There they spent several arduous days traversing what is now Raton Pass and dropping down the other side into New Mexico. Continuing south and outside the town of Las Vegas on November 13th they encountered a militia of 450 men led by Captain Don Pedro Ignacio Gallego that was leading an expeditionary campaign against the Navajo. The soldiers were friendly and Gallego sent the party on to Santa Fe the next day. On November 16th Governor Facundo Melgares welcomed Becknell and his men to La Villa Real de la Santa Fe de San Francisco de Assisi. Mexico was now a free country and could trade with who it pleased. Governor Melgares encouraged Becknell a safe journey home and to return soon bringing more goods to trade. The Americans quickly sold what merchandise they had and began the return trip to Missouri on December 13th arriving at their destination 77 days later on January 22, 1822.
The initial trip from Missouri to Santa Fe along the upper mountain route had been a challenging 900 miles of plains, desert and mountains and took the party 2 1/2 months of hard travel. On the return William Becknell decided to exlore a new route to avoid the mountains at Raton and was able to shave about 1oo miles and several weeks by establishing the Cimarron Route. The expedition was a success. He had traded $300 worth of goods and returned with $3,000 worth of coin. He quickly paid his debts, gathered his resources and prepared for a second expedition.
On May 28, 1822 William Becknell departed Franklin, Missouri for his second expedition to Santa Fe. On this trip he would take three wagons, 24 oxen, a pack train and 16 hardy men. Following the Cimmaron Cut-Off Route was treacherous because little or no water was available for a portion of the trail. He arrived in Santa Fe 48 days later. Again he was welcomed by the citizens eager for his cloth, calico and manufactured goods. He had brought $3,000 worth of merchandise and returned to Missouri with $91,000.
The excitement was on. There was money to be made. Others were now following the Santa Fe Road and had ventured into Mexico. Becknell outfitted himself for a third trading venture and left Missouri in May of 1824. This time he took a train of 25 wagons and was accompanied by 81 men. He returned a few months later with $190,000 in gold and furs. In 1825 William Becknell made a final trip to Santa Fe for the purpose of assisting a team of surveyors to map the trail for the U.S. Congress.
For the next 60 years the Santa Fe Trail would serve as a major route of commerce for civilians and military. Thousands of wagons, horses, oxen, mules and men would follow in Becknells footsteps.
I will follow this post with several more installments describing the landmarks, cultural impact and some of the famous stops along the way such as Cimarron, Fort Union and Pecos that are on the New Mexico portion of the trail.
Buenos Dios, Dohn.