Santa Fe Trail – the journey

“There is properly no history, only biography”  Ralph Waldo Emerson

The history of the Santa Fe Trail is one of myths and legends, romanticized by artists, novelists and Hollywood film makers. There are heroes and great adventures that truly happened but the reality of life on the trail we will never experience. The last of those who knew the truth have been laid to rest a hundred years ago. What is left for us are faded pages of financial ledgers, recorded dates on maps and artifacts that are only pieces of the story. There are many who have recorded lives and recollections of those former days but time has a way of filtering memory of past events when only even a few years distant. Journals written as life unfolded provide a good description of land and people but they to can be tinted by perception. When looking back into the past to try and get a feeling for the journey of these stalwart pioneers there is little more than a hint from silent graves and the rest is our imagination.

Three years after William Becknell made the first trading expedition between Franklin, Missouri and Santa Fe, New Mexico the ‘Road’ was well enough established that wagons could be employed to haul large loads. A train of 25 wagons went out the first year. Four years later 100 wagons were employed. In 1846 on the eve of the Mexican War, 414 wagons had gone out carrying $1,752,250 worth of goods.  By 1860 9,084 men were employed, and 6,147 mules, 27,920 oxen and 3,033 wagons were used. The Santa Fe Trail became not only a route of commerce but also a conduit of cultural exchange which exists to this day.

On the first wagon journey to Santa Fe, M.M. Marmaduke a former LT.Colonel in the War of 1812 and farmer near Arrow Rock, Missouri threw in his lot with a party of 81 men, 25 wagons and 156 horses and mules and set out from Franklin, Missouri on May 15, 1824. Marmaduke wrote a detailed account of what he experienced on the expedition and the Journal of M.M. Marmaduke was printed in the Missouri Intelligencer of September 2, 1825.

“7th- Travelled 14 miles over a very hilly and broken road. This night had a tremendous gust of wind and rain, and the horses broke by the guard in defiance of every exertion to stop them.

8th – Travelled 14 miles and encamped on one of the branches of the Little Arkansas; killed 3 buffaloe and 1 antelope. An alarm was this evening given by our hunters that several hundred Indians were approaching; a party went out to reconnoiter, found them to be buffaloe.

9th – Encamped on the Little Arkansas river, near the sand hills; killed 9 buffaloes. Saw this day at least five thousand buffaloe, chiefly bulls.

10th – Passed the Sand Hills – saw this day at least ten thousand buffaloe, the prairies were literally covered with them for many miles. Killed 9 buffaloe today-we this evening arrived at G. Arkansas river, and we encamped on it; this river at this place is about 200 yards wide, but quite shallow, as the hunters forded it, and killed several buffaloe on the south side. At this place there is not the smallest appearance of any kind of tree or shrubbery of any kind; the whole country being entirely prairie. From Franklin, Missouri, to this place, I make distance 355 miles, and the course generally about W. S. W.

[July] 22nd – Arrived at the ranche or temporary residence of a Mr. Juan Peno, which is the first civilized habitation we have seen since we left the U.S. This was a pleasing prospect, as we were politely received. This man is wealthy, having 160,000 head of sheep, and many cattle, horses and mules. We encamped near his house, where we had fine spring water.

28th – Arrived Santa Fe about dusk. This is quite a populous place, but it is built entirely of mud houses; some parts of the city are tolerably regularly built, others very irregularly. The inhabitants appear to be friendly, and some of them are wealthy; but by far the greater part are the most miserable, wretched, poor creatures that I have ever seen; yet they appear to be quite happy and contended in their miserable priest-ridden situation.”

The U.S. military took to the ‘Road’ in 1846 when a company of Dragoons under the leadership of Stephen Watts Kearney marched into Las Vegas, New Mexico and conquered the south western United States (no shots fired) and took that land from Mexico. Posts and forts were built to protect travelers on the trail and the traffic continued to increase each year leading up to the Civil War. The Indian Wars started shortly after that due to the pressure and competition for limited resources  on the prairie environment. Before the wars though the ‘Road’ was relatively safe and stagecoaches were departing twice a week from each end of the trail.

from the  Missouri Commonwealth  July, 1850

We briefly alluded, some days since, to the Santa Fe line of mail stages, which left this city on its first monthly journey on the 1st instant. The stages are got up in elegant style, and are each arranged to convey eight passengers. The bodies are beautifully painted, and made water-tight, with a view of using them as boats in ferrying streams.The team consists of six mules to each coach. The mail is guarded by eight men, armed as follows: Each man has at his side, fastened in the stage, one of Colt’s revolving rifles; in a holster below, one of Colt’s long revolvers, and in his belt a small Colt’s revolver, besides a hunting knife; so that these eight men are ready, in case of attack, to discharge one hundred and thirty-six shots without having to reload….we have no fears for the safety of the mails

Historians can piece together information but the best descriptions are best heard from those that were there, like Colonel Henry Inman, assistant quartermaster, United States Army, published “….” 1897…The Macmillon Company…dedicated to..Honorable William F. Cody “Buffalo Bill” This volume is gratefully enscribed as a slight tribute to a generous nature and a noble manhood. Inman shared a wealth of knowledge in the following book.

The Old Santa Fe Trail: The story of a great Highway : by Henry Inman.

“The monthly stages started from each end of the route at the same time; later the service was increased to once a week; after a while to three times, until in the early 60’s daily stages were run from both ends of the route, and this was continued until the advent of the railroad.”

“Each coach carried eleven passengers, nine closely stowed inside-three on a seat-and two on the outside on the boot with the driver. The fare to Santa Fe was two hundred and fifty dollars, the allowance of baggage being limited to forty pounds; all excess of that cost half a dollar a pound. In this now seemingly large sum was included the board of the travelers, but they were not catered to in any extravagant manner; hardtack, bacon, and coffee usually exhausted the menu, save that at times there was an abundance of antelope and buffalo.”

“It required two weeks to make the trip from the Missouri River to Santa Fe, unless high water or a fight with the Indians made it several days longer. The animals were changed every twenty miles at first, but later every ten, when faster time was made. What sleep was taken could only be had while sitting upright, because there was no laying over; the stage continued on night and day until Santa Fe was reached.”

“After a few years, the company built stations at intervals varying from ten miles to fifty or more; and there the animals and drivers were changed, and meals furnished to travelers, which were always substantial, but never elegant in variety or cleanliness.”

The 1800s was a time of great change in the United States. Did the men and woman that lived along the Santa Fe Trail feel that they were players in the wheels of history or were their lives like ours, simply carrying on with the business of daily living. What stories of the journey, those who lie here on the hill above Cimarron might have told. Now there are only stones and dates that whisper of the trail.

“It is good to have an end to journey toward; but it is the journey that matters, in the end.”  Ernest Hemingway

In the old section of the Cimarron cemetery the names are all American and it is more than likely that these folks  would have started life at the other end of the Santa Fe Trail.

WM. A. Vance, Born Apr 21, 1836 – only twelve years after the very first wagon rolled across the western prairie.

Mary wife of Henry Lambert died at Cimarron, NM, Oct 28, 1881 the same year the Atchison Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad reached Las Vegas, NM and made the ‘Road’ obsolete.

W.A. Croker died March 13, 1881, not knowing that three months later, president of the United States, James A. Garfield would be assassinated.

Jonathan H. Hunt  1816-1902, born before the Santa Fe Trail was charted.

Rev. F. J. Tolby assassinated Sept. 14, 1875 and imagination must fill in the question.

Henry, husband of Elizabeth Pascoe, died April 7, 1880. You are ever to be remembered.

Via con Dios, Henry.

About earthstonestation

promoting environmental education, protecting all species and preserving the wild places with art, music and storytelling.
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11 Responses to Santa Fe Trail – the journey

  1. Kyle Horton says:

    This is a really cool blog. Can I ask where you found that red wagon up at the top of this post?

  2. charltonestatetrust says:


  3. K D says:

    Enjoyed the blog post. The photos nicely highlight the article.

  4. Many thanks for your beautiful and interesting writes I discovered on your blog.

  5. Lots of work to research and written for easy reading. Nice post. Interesting information. Thank you for sharing with us who are foreigners.

  6. Paul says:

    Love it. I’m just now starting to study the (non-romanticized) history of the American West — and your primer on the Santa Fe Trail urges me onward!

  7. Beautifully written and researched piece thank you Dohn, and such a fascinating story, both brave and sad, and rather haunting. And the photos were such an integral part of your description. More please – when you have time!

  8. McEff says:

    Another fascinating piece, Dohn. People’s lives scattered across a nation like stones at the side of a road. And poor old Reverend Tolby – one of many stories left untold.

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