Francois Xavier Aubry
I - The Santa Fe Trail
For students of the American West, one of the most important and interesting areas of study is the Santa Fe Trail. This early American freeway ran from Westport, on the western boundary of Missouri through an area now encompassing Kansas and part of Oklahoma, Colorado, and New Mexico. The settlement of the western portion of Kansas, as well as partial settlement of the other states, came directly from establishment of the Santa Fe Trail and its subsequent use. Origins of the trail were largely economic. Hundreds of wagons loaded with goods in Missouri made the trek to Santa Fe, where the eager New Mexican populace from Santa Fe, Taos, and the surrounding areas paid premium prices for the merchandise.
While most of the trading was done in the Santa Fe-Taos area, records exist telling about tradesmen who ventured as far south as Chihuahua and Durango in Mexico. The remote geographic location of Santa Fe was the chief contributing factor to the success of the trading business. It was on the extreme northern edge of the Spanish Empire in the New World, and later after 1821, of the Republic of Mexico, serving throughout as the seat of government for the New Mexico Territory.
Santa Fe was a considerable distance from any close trading center, and supplies had to come chiefly from the internal provinces by way of Vera Cruz or Durango. Lines of communication between Santa Fe and these towns were quite poor. The overland distance was some two thousand miles to Vera Cruz through the deserts and rough mountains of northern Mexico. Goods were carried by pack-train, which considerably limited quantity. 
People of New Mexico had always wished for faster, safer, and more frequent trips to the South, but they never came. They were quick to realize that trading with the Americans was faster and offered better quality goods at a cheaper price. They literally pounced upon the wagon trains as they arrived. The American traders, in turn, quickly saw that fortunes could be made in a short time, and many traders set out with just that purpose in mind.
A specific time of origin for the Santa Fe Trail is nowhere recorded. It is known that Frenchmen crossed the high plains to trade in Santa Fe in 1739, 1749, 1750, and 1751, but few of these venturers were allowed to return to the Mississippi River area from which they had come.  The Spaniards usually jailed these early traders and this, no doubt, was a deterrent to others who might have attempted trade in these early years. When Spain acquired the Louisiana Territory, a naturalized citizen, Pedro de Vial, was commissioned to blaze a trail between St. Louis and Santa Fe. In 1792 Vial traversed almost exactly the route that was later known as the Santa Fe Trail. Secrecy and caution veiled his journey, however, and it did not stimulate immediate large scale commerce. That condition did not occur until the route was rediscovered and tested by Americans some thirty years later. 
The American encroachment into Santa Fe began when James Purcell conducted an expedition there in 1802, and then Jean Baptiste Leland, a French creole, followed in 1804. The real impetus to a flourishing trade with Santa Fe came about three years later, in 1807. At this time Captain Zebulon Montgomery Pike returned from expeditions up the Arkansas River and was captured by the Spanish authorities. The subsequent publication of the accounts of his experiences created great interest. 
In 1812 and expedition of about twelve men set out under the direction of Robert McKnight, James Baird, and Samuel Chambers. They followed Captain Pike's directions, reached Santa Fe, and were arrested as spies. They spent the next nine years in confinement at Chihuahua and Durango, and were finally released in 1821. Those able to return to the United States spread their story. Other men were inspired to consider similar journeys for the purpose of trading with Santa Fe and thus capitalizing on the potential wealth. 
On September 1, 1821, William Becknell started from Franklin, Missouri, with a pack train of mules loaded with goods to sell. He was going to Comanche country to do his trading. Becknell's train followed the trail across the prairie as far as the big bend of the Arkansas River. The traders then followed the river west to the Rocky Mountains. Upon reaching the mountains, on November 13, 1821, they were met by a Mexican army patrol. The patrol escorted them to Santa Fe and they arrived there on November 16, 1821. At Santa Fe they heard news about Mexico's recent separation from Spain. This spelled the end of Spain's restrictive trade policy. Becknell was allowed to freely sell his merchandise, and in doing so, recorded a considerable profit. He then returned to Missouri with the information that Santa Fe and all of New Mexico would welcome commercial exchange with tradesmen of the United States. 
Becknell's favorable reports led directly to other expeditions, including a second mission by Becknell himself in 1822, famous because wagons were first used.  On this trip Becknell also scored another first when he tried to establish a more direct route to Santa Fe. He attempted and completed a crossing of the southwest Kansas area from the Arkansas River to the Cimarron River, followed that river, and then proceeded to Santa Fe. 
The Santa Fe Trail ran through harsh rugged land. The eastern portion of the trail was in hilly country, making travel difficult, but containing abundant streams ensuring fresh drinking water. More formidable were the plains of Western Kansas and Eastern Colorado and New Mexico through which most of the trail ran. The farther west the land, the more level it became, until, as it reached the Rocky Mountains, it was but a great plain, arid and stark. This plain was dominated by its lack of trees, sandy soil, and shallow rivers, drying up in the spells of drought that so frequently occurred. Water became the most precious commodity to the adventurers who made crossings of this Great American Desert. This area was also the hunting ground for several Indian tribes. As the traders moved across these hunting grounds, they became a definite threat to these Indians, and the conflicts that developed between the two groups were severe and violent.
In order to avoid Indian conflicts, the traders were continually searching for newer and safer routes to Santa Fe, with some of the new routes developing into major cutoffs of the main trail. As a rule, these cutoffs offered shorter distances to cover, hopefully less Indian encounters and more plentiful water supplies.
One such branch of the trail divided from the main trail at a point about twenty miles west of the 100th meridian (presently the sight of Cimarron, Kansas), while the regular route continued on westward to Bent's Fort in Bent County, Colorado. The Cimarron Cutoff, as it was called, is also known as the water scrape. The supply of water on the Cimarron Trail was notably scarce. After leaving water on the Arkansas River, travelers had to cover sixty-six miles until they again reached water, this time at a point on the Cimarron River. Nevertheless, the Cimarron Cutoff became extremely popular. Even though it was dry and subject to Indian attacks, it was considerably shorter than the regular route and this feature was highly prized by the traders. They wanted as short a route as possible to the wealth of Santa Fe and then wanted the fastest route home again so they could reload their wagons and go after more money.
A dedicated young man who helped to make the West more accessible to the East was one who searched the area along the Santa Fe Trail to find an even faster and safer route to Santa Fe, and he continued to use this new route on all his trading ventures to Santa Fe thereafter. The shortcut he established was more accessible to water and there was less Indian trouble along it than on the regular Cimarron Cutoff. This cutoff, known as Aubry's Route, an army fort and a town named in his honor, and Aubry himself combine to make one of the most interesting stories of the settlement of the West.
* E. P. Burr was a member of the faculty and Assistant Principal of Dodge City, Kansas High School now retired. This study originated as a master's theses in 1971 under the direction of Professor W. W. Butcher in the Division of Social Sciences, Emporia Kansas State College.
This detailed study used with permission of the author E. P. Burr.
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