An overland trail from the eastern United States to the Southwest was first popularized by the trading venture of William Becknell in 1821.
History of the Trail
Others soon followed Becknell's route, bearing textiles, printed materials and a host of manufactured items, then returning with Mexican gold and silver, blankets and furs. The earliest cross-country trips were made by pack horse, but later trade was carried in wagon trains. Forty to 60 days was the period typically required to complete a one-way trip.
The Santa Fe Trail's eastern terminus lay in various locales of western Missouri, most frequently in Independence or Westport. For a short distance it followed the same route as the Oregon Trail, then headed southwestward to Council Grove, Kansas. At Dodge City the trail forked.
A northern route extended almost due west along the Arkansas River into present-day Colorado at Bent’s Fort (near present-day La Junta), then south through the Raton Pass to Santa Fe.
The southern route (or Cimarron Cutoff) headed across the plains and Cimarron Desert to Fort Union and Santa Fe. The southern approach was shorter and covered less difficult terrain, but was much more dangerous. The travelers were subjected to intense heat and lack of water in summertime, experienced few opportunities to find game and were the frequent target of attack by Native Americans.
The trail had played a vital role in integrating the Southwest into the American economy. Among those who contributed to that integration included Jedediah Smith, who left his home in St. Louis, Missouri, and began the trek in 1831, before meeting his death at the hands of a band of Commanche Indians at a watering hole in New Mexico.
The Trail Today
The Santa Fe National Historic Trail, "the Great Prairie Highway," was designated in 1987 and commemorates the history of the area. A highway route also roughly follows the trail, the Santa Fe Trail National Scenic Byway, through Kansas, the southeast corner of Colorado and northern New Mexico.