The conquest of the American West is one of the greatest adventure stories in history. The Santa Fe Trail was the roadway that helped make it possible.
The American tale of the Old West is wrapped in the legend of the Santa Fe Trail. An adventurous William Becknell headed his mules west from Franklin, Missouri, in 1821 loaded with goods he planned to take through what is now Kansas to the Mexican city of Santa Fe. The trip was long and hard but trading was good. Becknell returned home with money in his pockets and tales of the friendly people and the different lifestyle of Santa Fe.
As more and more traders took their goods over the Santa Fe Trail, the road to the West became a busy highway of commerce. After the Mexican War (1846-48), great caravans of freight wagons dominated the Trail. Loaded with trade goods, the wagons generated $5 million in 1855. But as the traders traveled through Native American lands, there was strife and bloodshed.
It took 200 years and a war to settle America from the Atlantic Ocean to the Mississippi River. It took 80 years for the rest of America to be settled to the Pacific Ocean. For well over half of those years the commerce of the West centered on the Santa Fe Trail.
While more Settlers traveled the Oregon and California Trails, it was the Santa Fe Trail that tamed the prairie. Military forts along the Trail provided the backing and support of the US Government, and subdued and relocated the native peoples of the Plains and the Southwest. In one six-month period during 1865, 5,197 men, 6,452 mules, 38,281 oxen and 4,472 wagons traversed the Trail.
In 1866 over 5,000 wagons carried $40 million worth of goods. Settlers streamed into Kansas Territory exploding the population from 8,600 in 1855 to 143,000 by 1861.
By the 1870s the barons of commerce turned their eyes to the railroads after the first Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad train reached Santa Fe. In 1880 newspaper headlines declared "The Santa Fe Trail Passes into Oblivion." The story of the Santa Fe Trail is not a long chapter in the history of the West, but there is no question it is an important and enduring chronicle in America's advance to become a great nation.
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