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Pale Horse Revelations #32 - The Santa Fe Trail

Hello readers and welcome back to Pale Horse Revelations. where we explore significant people, places, and events in Old West history. While I make no promises, don't be surprised if some of these places, people, or events find their way into future Pale Rider adventures.

In this week's edition we'll explore the famous Sante Fe Trail. Although it predates the traditional Old West time period, this trail was of vital importance. As we will see, it was the creation of the Santa Fe Trail that helped open the west to exploration and settlement. Let's delve a little deeper together.

At its most basic, the Santa Fe Trail was a transportation route that extended from present-day Missouri to its terminus in Santa Fe, New Mexico. It originated in the mid 1700's as an effort to establish a trade route between French colonies in the East and the Spanish colony of Santa Fe. The first successful trip occurred in 1739 and 1740, though that route originated in Kaskaskia, Illionois. The trail would see sporadic use over the next century.

Much of the territory through which the trail traversed was acquired by the United States in 1803 as a result of the Louisiana Purchase. Extensive use of the trail by Americans began in 1821 thanks to the efforts of William Becknell. That year Becknell took out an advertisement in the Missouri Intelligencer looking for men to invest in and join a trade expedition to the West. They set off from the Franklin and Arrow Rock area of Missouri on September first. This first expedition was made using pack mules. The next year Becknell made the second, this time relying on wagons.

In these early years it was used primarily to transport manufactured goods from Missouri to Santa Fe (still a part of Mexico at the time). But it soon became much more. Settlers seeking the opportunity to hold free land thronged to the jumping off point of Franklin, Missouri, located in the central part of the state.

Despite the singular form of the name, the Santa Fe Trail was not a single trail. It led westward from Franklin, crossing the Missouri River at Arrow Rock. It passed north of Marshall, through Lexington to Fort Osage, and on to Independence. From there settlers could pick up either the Oregon or California Trail. Or they could continue westward along the Santa Fe trail to Olathe along the Kansas border.

From Olathe the trail passed through Baldwin City, Burlingame, and Council Grove. It then swung a left around McPherson and passed through Lyons. West of Lyons the trail encountered the Arkansas River. Here it split into two branches, one on either side of the river, which led to Dodge City and Garden City Respectively.

West of Garden City the trail again split into two primary branches. The Mountain Route, alternatively called the Upper Crossing, followed the Purgatoire River upstream to Trinidad then south through the Raton Pass and into New Mexico. The other main branch, known alternatively as the Cimaron Cutoff, the Cimaron Crossing, or the Middle Crossing, cut southwest through the Cimaron Desert. It led through the valley of the Cimaron River near Ulysses and Elkhart before continuing on through Boise City, Oklahoma to Clayton, New Mexico. It reconnected with the northern branch at Fort Union.

Despite the existence of an established trail, the journey westward was no sure thing. Travelers faced numerous hardships and dangers along the way. All told the trail spanned 900 miles across treacherous terrain that included high plains, hot dry deserts, and steep mountains. Settlers had to endure extremely hot and dry summers as well as long, bitter cold winters. Huge thunderstorms could come suddenly and without warning, often trapping settlers out in the open and spooking the animals.

Starvation was a real risk as food and water could be scarce along significant portions of the trail. This was especially true along the southern branch that passed through the Cimaron desert. The Cimaron River was the only significant source of water along this route.

As if these dangers weren't enough of a challenge, travelers along the trail also risked attack by Native Americans. The trail passed through the lands of the Comanche and Apache and neither tribe was tolerant of trespassers. Over time caravans grew in size in an attempt to prevent such attacks. Settlers also began to replace mules with oxen. Not only were oxen able to haul heavier loads but they were less valued by Native Americans, thereby further reducing the risk of attack.

Native Americans were not the only natural habitants along the trail that caused problems for settlers. Rattlesnakes posed a serious threat. Numerous settlers saw their journey, and life, ended prematurely as a result of a snake bite.

In time, the trail would see less and less traffic as the railroads stretched further and further across the western United States. But in its heyday the trail was so heavily traveled that there are places where the ruts made by the thousands of wagon wheels are still visible. Today, segments of the trail are included in the National Register of Historic Places.

This brings us to the end of another edition of Pale Horse Revelations. I hope you found it to be both interesting and entertaining. As usual, I have tried to provide some interesting historical information while trying not to bog the casual reader down with too much detail. I encourage anyone interested in learning more to dig in and do a little research of their own.

As a reminder, I would love to hear your suggestions for topics to focus on in future editions of Pale Horse Revelations. If there's a particular location, person, or event that you would like to know more about, please let me know. Just fill out the Contact form found near the bottom of my home page ( and indicate your desired topic in the message box at the bottom of the form. I look forward to hearing from you all.

Please be sure to check back next week for the next installment of Pale Horse Revelations and thank you for your continued interest and support.

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