Of all the historic trails of the Great West, the old Road to Santa Fe was the most adventurous, and it is the one directly connected with local history. In 1821, a small group of Mexican soldiers altered the route of an Indian trader and thus changed the course of history.
William Becknell of Missouri turned south at the soldiers' invitation, taking his small stock of trade goods on pack mules into Santa Fe. This was the first year of Mexican independence from Spain, and the first year of trade with New Mexico. Although there were earlier expeditions, Becknell was the first American trader ever to enter Santa Fe without being arrested and jailed.
Captain Becknell's first trip to Santa Fe was so profitable that he decided not only to make another trip, but to transport his goods in wagons. This decision led to his title; father of the Santa Fe trail.
His second caravan set out in 1822 with three ordinary farm wagons loaded with $3,000 worth of goods. Buffalo stampeded the horses; Indians harassed the train; the party nearly died of thirst and exhaustion while traveling the Dry Route across the Cimarron desert. But the traders disposed of their goods in Santa Fe at a 2,000 per cent profit, one person realizing $900 on an investment of $60. Becknell sold for $750 a wagon that had cost only $150 in Missouri.
The publicity attending Becknell's success led to three trading expeditions in 1823, and for the next ten years there was an annual increase in the Santa Fe trade of 40 percent. As with any good thing, everyone wanted into the action. The United States government was quick to recognize the importance of commerce with the southwest, and in 1825, a survey of the trail was authorized. Surveyor Joseph C. Brown gives the earliest written directions and descriptions of the area.
As he and his crew marked it, the trail left the Arkansas River at Chouteau's Island (West of the present town of Lakin, Kansas), came through the old Bear Creek pass in the sand hills, straight south to Lower Spring. This route was never popular with the traders, since it was a few miles longer than the Jornada, and the businessmen of that period were just as anxious to beat the competition as are their counterparts of today.
Mr. Brown cautioned the traveler; "Before leaving the river (Arkansas), where fuel is plenty, the traveler will do well to prepare food for the next 100 miles, as he will find no timber on the road ... at least, he should prepare bread. In dry weather, buffalo dung will make tolerable fuel to boil a kettle, but it is not good for bread baking...
"Lower Semaron Spring is at the west edge of a marsh green with bulrushes. The marsh is north of the river and near it. The Spring is constant, but the creek is sometimes dry until you ascend it ten or twelve miles, where it will be found running..."
It is hard to imagine now the difficulties encountered then along the Jornada. Sixty miles means little today, but to the early travelers it meant at least three days of plodding monotony, the possibility of Indian attack, and no dependable water. The first few years, there was no beaten path to follow. Wagon masters just took a southwest heading and hoped for the best.
Many men familiar to readers of western literature traveled the Jornada and visited the spring on the Cimarron. Kit Carson probably camped at Lower Spring when he was on the trail in 1826. He was back on the Jornada in 1829, and several times in 1864.
Charles Bent, later appointed the first American governor of New Mexico Territory and brutally murdered in the Taos uprising of 1847, made his first journey to the southwest over the Cimarron Cutoff in 1829, as captain of a trading caravan. William Bent often traveled this way before building Bent's Fort on the mountain route of the trail, and Ceran St. Vrain was a regular.
"Old Bill" Williams, mountain man of renown, stopped at the Spring at least once, and the Sublette brothers used the dry route after. Simeon Turley, of "Taos Lightning" fame, was an early trader on the Cutoff, and "Broken Hand" Tom Fitzpatrick ranged back and forth across this area many times during his long years as trapper, scout, guide and Indian agent.
A great tragedy of Trail days was the senseless death of a great man. Jedediah Smith, the Bible carrying mountain man and fur trapper, explored and mapped most of the Far West in the 1820s, from Colorado and Wyoming to Utah, California and Oregon. His story is best told in David Lavender's book, Bent's Fort. This account is only a brief paraphrase from and expert:
"He led a train composed of 74 men, teams, wagons, and pack mules onto the Santa Fe trail early in the spring of 1831. He was confident there would be no problems he couldn't handle, with his long, experience, but he hadn't dealt before with the torrid Cimarron Shortcut, nor with the fierce Comanches.
The spring of 1831 was very dry, and the tough buffalo grass showed no traces of previous travel on the Jornada de Muerte. There were no landmarks such as Jedediah was accustomed to see -- no mountains, no hills, not even so much as a tree. Somehow the caravan got off course and missed Lower Spring.
After three days without water, men and animals were desperate. Jedediah Smith and Tom Fitzpatrick left the halted caravan and began the search for the Spring. They separated, and the members of the wagon train never saw Smith again.
Not until the expedition reached Santa Fe (they did find water) was Jedediah's fate known. Austin Smith noticed his brother's gun and pistols in the marketplace and purchased them from Mexicans who had obtained them from the guilty Comanches.
Jedediah had happened upon a hunting, party waiting for buffalo to come to water. They surrounded him, whooping and waving lances. Smith tried to communicate with them in sign language, but they were interested only in his horse and his guns. A threatening movement at the flank startled the horse. It turned, and Jed's back was toward the larger group of Indians. A shot rang out. With his last effort, Smith pulled up his gun and shot the chief, but when he tried to lift his pistol, it was too much. He fell.
None but his murderers knew the exact spot, and they certainly didn't trouble to mark it.
Until 1833, there was no definite trail to follow across the Jornada. That year, however, was exceptionally wet, and travel by that time had become fairly heavy, so the wagon wheels made deep ruts, and from that time onward, the trail was clearly marked. It eventually became 200 yards wide in places, as trains detoured around previous ruts, and on uncultivated land there still are traces of the old road to be seen, along the Cimarron. The aerial photograph of Grant County taken by the Soil Conservation Service in 1939, on display at the Historic Adobe Museum in Ulysses, Kansas, shows definite ruts across the county from the trail's entrance to its exit.
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