The Santa Fe Trail: Its History, Legends, and Lore by David Dary

Book Summary

David Dary’s The Santa Fe Trail: Its History, Legends and Lore begins with the early Spanish exploration of New Mexico and the surrounding territory. All of the most well known expeditions are covered including Coronado, Cabeza de Vaca, Fray Marcos, and others. An emphasis is placed on Juan de Oñate who left Mexico City in 1598 to claim New Mexico for the Spanish crown and establish settlements. Oñate did as planned, and shortly before he was replaced as governor, he established the village of Santa Fe which would soon become the permanent capital of New Mexico and eventually the target of the Santa Fe Trail. The Camino Real, the trail that Oñate followed north from Mexico City, became the first trail of commerce to Santa Fe.

Dary writes in fair detail about this early trade to Santa Fe from Mexico City and Chihuahua and its pitfalls and benefits. Suffice it to say, that while the merchants profited from the trade and the Spanish government from taxes, many New Mexicans were touched in negative ways by the corruption and exploitation that came along with the trade.

Other than some trade that existed with the Indians, trade to Santa Fe was almost completely dominated by the Spanish until the 1800s. There were some attempts to establish permanent trade with Santa Fe, but they were either unsuccessful or came at the wrong point in time to survive very long. One of the attempts described by Dary was by Frenchmen living in the mid-west and southern part of the present-day United States. This area was referred to then as the Louisiana Territory, and at this time, 1739, was still under rule of the French crown. After a series of obstacles placed by the Spanish government were overcome, trade opened between New Mexico and the French in the Louisiana Territory. Traders achieved limited success for about ten years until Spain grew tired of the growing French influence in New Mexico, and in 1752, the trade all but ended.

In 1762, France ceded its territory west of the Mississippi River to Spain. This huge tract of land included all of what was to become the Santa Fe Trail. Frenchmen then founded St. Louis, in the newly acquired Spanish territory in 1764 with no objection or protest from Spain. Trade in the new lands was still, however, dominated by Spanish merchants from Chihuahua. In 1801, France regained control of the Louisiana territory due in part to Spain’s financial hardships and a new revolutionary government in France. Then in 1803, the President of the United States, Thomas Jefferson, bought the Louisiana Territory from France, thus ushering in a new era and further clearing way for future American trade to Santa Fe. The realization of potential of America trading with Santa Fe became more apparent as explorers like Zebulon Pike traversed the territory along the new American frontier.

Spain, however, was still not open outside trade with Santa Fe. Nevertheless, in 1821 William Becknell set out with a small trade expedition from a point near Franklin, Missouri. On the way to Santa Fe, Becknell learned that Mexico had achieved independence from Spain. Becknell’s trade expedition was successful, and the new government of Mexico announced essentially that trade with the U.S. was now open. Shortly after Becknell reached Santa Fe, the McKnight-James party arrived from St. Louis. Others followed in 1822, and then more still in subsequent years. Missouri was already a state, and soon the success of the Santa Fe trade, among other things, prompted Missouri Senator Thomason Benton helped get a bill passed in the U.S. government to that commissioned a survey and the marking of a road from Missouri to Santa Fe.

Until the twentieth century, there was never a very accurate marking of the Santa Fe Trail, nor was there a road built. Travelers relied strictly on available maps and landmarks along the way. It is critical to note that at a landmark called Point of Rocks about fifty miles west of present-day Dodge City, Kansas, the Santa Fe Trail branched into two trails which did not meet up again until they reached Mora, New Mexico. The southern or "dry route" was the more direct route and went southwest from Fort Dodge through the Oklahoma Panhandle, northeastern New Mexico, Wagon Mound, Mora, Las Vegas and finally to Santa Fe. It was a shorter trip, but as indicated by the route’s name, there was a profound lack of water on the southern route.

The northern or "mountain route" went west from Fort Dodge into present-day Colorado and then turned southwest near modern-day La Junta, Colorado and Bent’s Fort. Bent’s Fort was an important location along the northern route of the Santa Fe Trail that served as a fortification and a supply point for travelers. After Bent’s Fort, the northern route crossed the western plains of Colorado, over Raton Pass, and on to Mora and Santa Fe. This route was longer and had more rugged terrain, but if taken during the summer, the climate was often more livable and had a more plentiful water supply.

The Santa Fe trade and traffic on the Santa Fe Trail increased dramatically from 1822 until its demise in 1880 after the arrival of the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railroad to Santa Fe. During the Mexican-American War (1848) and on through the Civil War and the conquest of the American Indians, much of the traffic on the trail consisted of private companies or traders hauling military supplies to the Army of the West in Santa Fe and Fort Union, New Mexico. After the arrival of the railroad, the Santa Fe Trail was no longer needed to haul freight. Today, the only physical remains today of the trail is historical markers, wagon ruts, a few ruins, some artifacts, and the volumes of information contained in the many publications and memoirs written about the trail and life on it.


The Santa Fe Trail: Its History, Legends and Lore is by no means a complete history of the Santa Fe Trail. Many volumes would have to be written in order to fully cover a story that spans such a long period of time and such a large geographic area. The book does provide a very thorough overview of the trail, some of the people who traveled it. The book also gives insights into the economic, and to a lesser extent, the social impact the trail and trade had on the United States and the southwest. I am somewhat baffled by the "Legends and Lore" part of the title of this book. Dary does make reference to legends of lost gold along the trail and some trader’s tales that seem to be romanticized and embellished, but overall, I consider this to be a historical book which uses what seem to be believable historical sources. I cannot help but wonder if someone at Penguin Publishing added the legends and lore part of the title to help sell books.

Dary documents his research by using footnote style numbers, all of which are organized by chapter and explained in the back of the book in the "Notes" section. In addition, Dary lists a thirteen-page bibliography, and there is also a handy glossary and index. Among the works listed in the bibliography are books, articles, government documents, pamphlets, and dissertations. I thought Dary used quotes well in the book. Almost all, if not all, were from primary documents, which I thought added great effect and was far better than quoting another researcher. The various maps, tables, and illustrations also added to the overall effect of this book.

The Santa Fe Trail: Its History, Legends and Lore is written in an easy to read style. Dary’s writing flows and I believe that just about anyone would be able to follow the story without a problem. The only difficulty I had was in trying to keep straight all of the towns, forts, and other geographical places he mentions. This was easily remedied, however, by use of the included maps and glossary. My impression is that Dary was aiming to a wide audience that could feasibly include anyone from high school up.

Dary went into much more detail than I expected about the background information concerning New Mexico and Missouri. He did a good job in building up to the actual use of the Santa Fe Trail and showing the previous successes and failures in trade with Santa Fe. While at first, I thought the background information was overkill, looking back, I think it was very useful in laying the foundation for what was to come in later chapters.

The book gives a very good explanation of the mechanics of trade along the Santa Fe Trail. From the different wagons and pulling systems used to the various ways traders obtained water and defended their wagon trains from Indian attacks, Dary covers it all. I also thought he did a good job of showing the relationship and reaction of the Santa Fe Trail and trade to events such as the Mexican-American War, the Civil War, economic ups and downs, the westward expansion of the United States, and others. Chapters eleven through fourteen are all devoted to these type of events, their effect on the Santa Fe trade, and vice versa.

One minor complaint I had about the book is Dary’s extreme specificity about the loads of goods carried, number of mules, men, oxen, and other figures he lists about the many known expeditions that were taken on the trail. These figures were useful, however, in seeing how the volume of trade along the trail ebbed and flowed with the economy and world events. Given the specificity about the expeditions to Santa Fe, I thought there was a glaring lack of information on the amount of goods taken back to and sold in Kansas and Missouri on the way back. Perhaps there is simply a lack of historical data on this aspect of the Santa Fe trade, but I do not remember seeing anything to that effect in the book.

Another flaw in The Santa Fe Trail: Its History, Legends and Lore is that Dary does not present much information from the perspective of the Native Americans. Again, this may be due to a lack of available historical information. I suspect there might be a little more available than presented in this book, possibly in the form of oral tradition. Similarly, Dary does not place much significance on the trading of Native Americans with Santa Fe. He devotes a good deal of chapter two to the trade from New Spain to New Mexico, but little to the trade that was going on with the Native Americans during the same period. On the upside, however, Dary does deal with the cruelty meted out to the Native Americans in retaliation for their raids on commerce along the Santa Fe Trail.

While I did not get the impression that Dary was trying to make a specific argument or point in this book, I found a couple of points he made, whether intentionally or not. One is the extreme to which American capitalists were willing to go to try and milk every ounce of profit out of the Santa Fe trade. A perfect example of this is in chapter 11 where Dary relays the tale of Francis X. Aubry. Aubry overused and killed many of his animals, lost several men, and almost killed himself in his successful attempt to make three trade expeditions from Missouri to Santa Fe in one year. While this is an extreme case, at least some degree of Aubry’s ambition can be seen in almost all the trading expeditions in the book. The traders literally faced death at every turn. Of course the reward for doing so was often big bucks.

Another point that I thought was clear in the book was that the Santa Fe Trail and trade was extremely important to the westward expansion of the United States. This point is made at several points in the book, but one in particular concerns the establishment of Fort Union located on the Santa Fe Trail, about one hundred miles northeast of Santa Fe. Dary wrote,

[Fort Union] became the principal supply and staging center for all military operations in the Southwest, and within a few years it became the hub of a great network of forts located in Texas, New Mexico, and parts of Arizona, Colorado, and Kansas. Fort Union’s lifeline was the Santa Fe Trail which linked the post to Fort Leavenworth" (p. 216.)

The Santa Fe Trail also helped the Union to defend its extreme western flank during the Civil War, and a portion of the trail served as a highway for prospectors going west in search of gold. Also related to this point is the interesting westward migration of the eastern end of the Santa Fe Trail that coincides with the western expansion of the settlers. Initially, the trail began in Franklin, Missouri and then sixty years later, just before the railroads made the trail virtually obsolete, the easternmost point was Las Animas, Colorado.

Overall, The Santa Fe Trail: Its History, Legends and Lore is a useful, interesting, and telling book. The complaints I had could have been addressed, but the addition of things I felt were left out might have pushed the book past Dary’s intended scope. This book presents a wealth of information in an easy to read, understandable, and entertaining fashion. I believe The Santa Fe Trail: Its History, Legends and Lore would be a very good read for a class studying the American Southwest, American westward expansion, or pioneer America if used in conjunction with other books or sources.

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