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The Santa Fe Trail was a historic 19th century transportation route through southwestern North America connecting Missouri with Santa Fe, New Mexico. First used in 1821 by William Becknell, it served as a vital commercial and military highway until the introduction of the railroad to Santa Fe in 1880. At first an international trade route between the United States and Mexico, it served as the 1846 U.S. invasion route of New Mexico during the Mexican-American War.

After the U.S. acquisition of the Southwest, the trail helped open the region to U.S. economic development and settlement, playing a vital role in the expansion of the U.S. into the lands it had acquired. The road route is commemorated today by the National Park Service as the Santa Fe National Historic Trail. A highway route that roughly follows the trail's path through Colorado and northern New Mexico has been designated the Santa Fe Trail National Scenic Byway.


Map of the Santa Fe Trail (in red) in 1845. A very detailed present-day map is also available. [1]

Santa Fe Trail ruts at Fort Union

The eastern end of the trail was in the central Missouri town of Franklin on the north bank of the Missouri River. The route across Missouri first used by Becknell followed portions of the existing Osage Trace. West of Franklin, the trail crossed the Missouri near Arrow Rock, after which it followed roughly the route of present-day U.S. Route 24. It passed north of Marshall, through Lexington to Fort Osage, then to Independence. Independence was also one of the historic "jumping off points" for the Oregon and California Trails.

West of Independence, in the State of Missouri, it roughly followed the route of U.S. Route 56 to the town of Olathe. The section of the trail between Independence and Olathe was also used by immigrants on the California and Oregon Trails, which branched off to the northwest near Gardner, Kansas.

From Olathe, the trail passed through the towns of Baldwin City, Burlingame, and Council Grove, then swung west of McPherson to the town of Lyons. West of Lyons the trail followed nearly the route of present-day Highway 56 to Great Bend. Ruts in the earth made from the trail are still visible in several locations (Ralph's Ruts are visible in aerial photos at (38°21′35″N 98°25′20″W / 38.35959264, -98.42225502).[2] At Great Bend, the trail encountered the Arkansas River. Branches of the trail followed both sides of the river upstream to Dodge City and Garden City.

West of Garden City in southwestern Kansas the trail has a complex network of branches. One of the branches, called the Mountain Route or the Upper Crossing (of the Arkansas River) [3]:93 [4]:133 continued to follow the Arkansas upstream in southeastern Colorado to the town of La Junta. At La Junta, the trail continued south into New Mexico to Fort Union at Watrous.

The other main branch, called the Cimarron Cutoff or Cimarron Crossing or Middle Crossing [3]:93 [4]:133 [5]:144 cut southwest across the Cimarron Desert (also known as the Waterscrape or La Jornada[5]:148) to the valley of the Cimarron River near the town of Ulysses and Elkhart then continued toward Boise City, Oklahoma, to Clayton, New Mexico, joining up with northern branch at Fort Union. This route was generally very hazardous because it had very little water. In fact, the Cimarron River was one of the only sources of water along this branch of the trail.

From Watrous, the reunited branches continued southward to Santa Fe.

Part of this route has been designated a National Scenic Byway.

Threats Along the Trail[]

"The legendary Santa Fe Trail was a challenging 900 miles of arid plains, desert and mountains. On this trail unlike the Oregon trail, there was a serious danger of Indian attacks, for neither the Comanches nor the Apaches of southern high plains tolerated tresspassers. In 1825, Congress voted federal protection for the Santa Fe Trail, even though much of it lay in the mexican territory (Out of Many)." Travelers also faced many hardships along the Santa Fe Trail. Besides the frequent Indian attacks lack of food and water made the trail very risky. Weather conditions, like huge lightning storms, gave the travelers difficulty. If a storm blew up, there was often no place to take shelter and the livestock could get spooked. Rattlesnakes often posed a threat as many people died due to snakebite.

Historic preservation[]

Segments of this trail in Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma, and New Mexico are listed on the National Register of Historic Places.[6] The longest clearly identifiable section of the trail, Santa Fe Trail Remains, near Dodge City, Kansas, is listed as a National Historic Landmark.[7]

Notable features along the trail[]

New Mexico
  • Philmont Scout Ranch

See also[]

  • MO: Jackson County Historic Places
  • KS: Johnson County Historic Places
  • OK: Cimarron County Historic Places
  • NM: Colfax County Historic Places
  • Oregon-California Trails Association
  • Pawnee Rock
  • Related National Park Units
    • Fort Larned National Historic Site
    • Bent's Old Fort National Historic Site
    • Fort Union National Monument
  • Santa Fe Trail Remains


  1. ^ "Sante Fe National Historic Trail Map" (PDF). National Park Service. Retrieved 2008-07-20. 
  2. ^ "Aerial Photos Topo Maps of Santa Fe Trail Ruts and Sites". Retrieved 2007-12-28. 
  3. ^ a b Duffus, R. (1972). The Santa Fe Trail. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press. ISBN 9780826302359. 
  4. ^ a b Vestal, Stanley (1996). The Old Santa Fe Trail. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press. ISBN 9780803296152. 
  5. ^ a b Stocking, Hobart (1971). The Road to Santa Fe. New York: Hastings House Publishers. ISBN 9780803863149. 
  6. ^ Gallagher, Joseph J., Alice Edwards, Lachlan F. Blair, and Hugh Davidson (March 8, 1993). "National Register of Historic Places Multiple Property Nomination Form: Historic Resources of the Santa Fe Trail, 1821-1880". Retrieved 2007-04-10. 
  7. ^ "National Historic Landmarks Program (NHL): Santa Fe Trail Remains". Retrieved 2007-04-10. 

External links[]

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