The Santa Fe Road
An Anachronism
of the
Twenty First Century

     During the first decades of the nineteenth century, there were two types of roads in our young republic, improved and unimproved. Improved roads, toll roads known as turnpikes and public roads known as highways, had drainage ditches on either side of an elevated roadbed.[1] Unimproved roads, having neither drainage ditches or elevated roadbeds, might well be characterized as routes, that is passageways across the countryside. In this regard, the etymology of route might be helpful. Route is derived from the Latin rumpere, to break, literally a broken or beaten way. Such is in keeping with another term for unimproved roads, trace. Trace refers to the scar left on the terrain by the traffic of vehicles and animals and was sometimes used with reference to the Santa Fe Road. John Taylor Hughes, en route to Santa Fe at the onset of the Mexican War, wrote, "We at length struck upon the Old Santa Fe trace."[2]

     In the trans-Mississippi West during the early nineteenth century, there were no improved roads, only unimproved such as the overland routes. This was the case with the trade route from Missouri to Santa Fe initiated by William Becknell in 1821. Three years later, Missouri Senator Thomas Hart Benton led his state's congressional delegation in the support of a bill "authorizing the President to cause a road to be marked out from the frontier of Missouri to the boundary of Mexico."[3] On March 3, 1825, President James Monroe signed the bill into law.[4] Consequently, the trade route to Santa Fe became known as the Santa Fe Road or the Road to Santa Fe.

     George C. Sibley, one of three commissioners appointed to oversee the survey of the Santa Fe Road, after seven years of seeking to be reimbursed $1,054.54 for overrun expenses of the original $10,000 appropriation to survey the road, "lost patience," and called the trade route "Benton's d--d Santa Fe Road." His claim finally settled, Sibley wrote, "So that the whole of the business of the Road to New Mexico is at length finally and fully settled."[5] Regardless, writers of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries have consistently referred to the trade route as the Santa Fe Trail.

     Although "trail" was seldom used in the nineteenth century to refer to the road to New Mexico, the term "Santa Fe trail" appeared in print in a U. S. Senate report and the Missouri Intelligencer in 1824.[6] Common use of "Santa Fe Trail" came much later.

     The use of "trail" to represent overland routes may well have its roots in two books, both the result of western expeditions undertaken by two young men in 1846: The Oregon Trail by Francis Parkman and Wah-to-yah and the Taos Trail by Lewis Garrard.

     In the spring of 1846, Parkman, a 23-year-old Bostonian, made his way to St, Louis, upriver to Kanzas (Kansas City), on to Westport, and finally Fort Leavenworth which he called the "jumping off" place to Fort Laramie.[7] From Laramie, he traveled south to Pueblo, thence eastward to Bent's Fort and farther east on the Santa Fe Road, finally arriving back at Kanzas and then on to St. Louis. Between 1847 and 1849, Parkman published The Oregon Trail by installments; and in 1849, the installments were incorporated into a book of the same name.[8]

     Like Parkman, Garrard, a 17-year-old from Cincinnati, began his journey to the West from St. Louis, thence to Westport where he began his expedition on the Santa Fe Road to Bent's Fort, on to Taos, back up to the Arkansas and eastward to Fort Leavenworth by way of the Santa Fe Road. From there, he traveled by steamboat to St. Louis. His book was published in 1850.[9]

     Both volumes are literate, well written travel narratives which have become classics of their kind. That said, the western experience of both writers was limited to a single year, perhaps, in part, the reason for which they superimposed trail upon road.

     Speaking to that concept, Janet Lecompte wrote of experienced travelers engaged in the Santa Fe trade and military writers of the period as follows:

     "Neither 'Santa Fe Trail' nor 'Mountain Branch' was used by prominent journalists of the Santa Fe Trail - Josiah Gregg in Commerce of the Prairies, James Josiah Webb in Adventures in the Santa Fe Trade, Matt Field in Matt Field on the Santa Fe Trail, Susan Magoffin in Down The Santa Fe Trail and into Mexico, and the military reports of Lieutenant James W. Abert in 1845 and 1846 and of Major W. H. Emory in 1846. Nor did I find documentary reference (although plenty of editorial reference) to those names in a cursory survey of Reuben Gold Thwaites's series Early Western Travels and LeRoy Hafen's Southwest Historical Series and Far West and Rockies Historical Series. The earliest reference to 'Santa Fe Trail' I have found is in an emigrant guidebook of 1859, and the 'Mountain Branch' did not show up in print until the 1860s - but a more dedicated researcher may well prove me in error. Travelers on the two branches of the trail before the 1850s generally called them the 'road to Santa Fe' and the 'Bent's Fort road.'"[10]

     The use of road in contrast to trail continued in use into the 1860s when W. D. Wheeler advertised the amenities of his ranche in the March 23, 1861 Council Grove Press:

"Little Arkansas Ranche
     "The Traveling Public are respectfully informed, that the undersigned is located on the Little Arkansas, where the great Santa Fe road crosses the same. I keep always on hand, Provisions, groceries and Liquors, also are prepared to accommodate travelers. I have several large (stone) corrals 10 for penning stock. Also, have built a strong and substantial bridge across the Little Arkansas, for the accommodation of the traveling public. W. D. Wheeler"

     The same wording with reference to the Santa Fe Road is found in a certificate of incorporation dated January 10, 1863:

     "This is to certify that we, Charles Rath, John F. Dodds, James A. Robbins, F. Lederick, and A. D. Robbins, have associated ourselves together, under the name and style of the 'Walnut Creek Bridge Company,' with a capital stock of one thousand dollars which is divided into shares of Ten dollars each for the purpose of building a toll bridge over Walnut Creek, in Peketon County, State of Kansas, where the Great Santa Fe Road crosses said stream. The lands on each side of said stream belongs to the Government of the United States and we claim the exclusive right and privilege of said stream for that purpose to the exclusion of all others for the distance of five miles above and below said bridge."[11]

     At this point, a discussion of the terms "road" and "trail" seems appropriate. In this regard, James Mead's description is instructive: "The great Santa Fe Trail connected people of diverse race and language, separated by hundreds of miles of savage wilderness. The huge trail, 60 to 100 feet wide, was worn smooth and solid by constant travel of ponderous wagons carrying 8,000 to 10,000 pounds each."[12] Mead's description, 60 to 100 feet wide, belies the notion of trail in spite of his use of trail in the description. Mead wrote his memoirs near the end of the nineteenth century when trail had become the popular designation for what previously had been called road. Contrast Mead's description with what is known as the Applachian Trail, a footpath for hikers, extending 2,050 miles along ridges of the Applachian Mountain system from Mt. Katahdin, Maine, to Mt. Oglethorpe, Georgia.[13]

     Another testimony to the road versus trail comes from an unlikely source, the Little Arkansas Peace Treaty conducted October 14, 1865, between the United States and the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes. One of the terms reads as follows:

     "It is further agreed by the Indians parties hereto that when absent from their reservation they will refrain from the commission of any depredations or injuries to the person or property of all persons sustaining friendly relations with the Government of the United States: That they will not, while so absent, encamp by day or night within ten miles of any of the main traveled routes or roads through the country to which they go, or of the military posts, towns, or villages therein, without the consent of the commanders of such military posts."[14]

     Still another such testimony is derived from the township plat maps compiled during the survey of counties in west central Kansas during the early 1870s. The surveyors carefully identified the course of existing roads long before township roads came into being. By way of example, the surveyors noted the Santa Fe road and sometimes wagon roads in Pawnee County. In Ellis County, what we now call the Smoky Hill Trail was labeled the road to Denver.

     Incongruously, while Santa Fe Trail remains unchallenged in present-day print, those routes which emanated from the various railheads of the Union Pacific Railway, Eastern Division to connect with the established route of the Santa Fe Road were not known as trails. Rather, as they became the far eastern legs of the Santa Fe Road, they maintained road as their designation. The route from Junction City to Walnut Creek was known by several names. Deputy U. S. Marshal H. L. Jones referred to it as "the Fort Riley and Fort Larned Road." James Mead called it "the old military road running from Ft. Riley to Larned." A. C. Spilman, Mead's contemporary, referred to it as "the Fort Zarah road." Lt. M. R. Brown designated it the Santa Fe Road.[15] Never known as a trail, it to this day is known as the Fort Riley-Fort Larned. The same could be said for the route from Hays City to Fort Dodge. From its advent, the route has been known as Fort Hays-Fort Dodge Road.[16] Regardless, the roadside marker at Alexander, Kansas, erected by the Kansas State Historical Society and the Kansas Department of Transportation is titled"The Fort Hays-Fort Dodge Trail."

     Consideration should also be given to the routes reconnoitered by Captain John Pope and Francis X. Aubry. In August-September, 1851, Pope scouted the area between Cedar Creek in the present Oklahoma panhandle and the Big Timbers on the Arkansas River. His assignment was "to find a better and more direct route to Missouri, avoiding if possible the large arid plains." Pope was successful in finding such a route to the Arkansas, but his subsequent search for a route to the Kansas River failed.[17]

     In May 1851 Aubry made the first of several attempts to find a better route from the Cedar Creek area to the Arkansas. Unsuccessful in his first venture, he tried again the following October. Aubry reported finding "an excellent wagon road, well supplied with water and grass." A dispute developed as to who discovered the new way to the Arkansas from Cedar Creek. The Santa Fe Gazette Extra of July 17, 1852, concluded, "The probability is that the civilians will generally called it Aubry's Route, while the military will designate it as Pope's Route."[18] Regardless, neither route was ever known as a trail.

     The shift from road to trail was in full swing by 1897 when Henry Inman published The Old Santa Fe Trail. Soon to follow were the markers placed by the Daughters of the American Revolution, beginning in 1906. The distribution of these markers incised with Santa Fe Trail in Missouri, Kansas, Colorado, and New Mexico no doubt influenced the preference for trail as opposed to road. There is one exception. Such markers between Bent's Fort and Fort Union were incised with Bent's Fort Road.

     By 1930, with the publication of Robert L. Duffus's The Santa Fe Trail, the trail nomenclature was fully in place; and in time, other books came off the press in a predictable manner.

     The list is littered with examples: Matt Field on the Santa Fe Trail, Soldiers on the Santa Fe Trail, Medicine on the Santa Fe Trail, Murder on the Santa Fe Trail. There were two notable exceptions: Kate L. Gregg's The Road to Santa Fe: The Journal and Diaries of George Champlin Sibley and Hobart Stocking's The Road to Santa Fe. In my meager library, no less than 20 titles reference the Santa Fe Trail. One glaring example is Stella M. Drumm, editor of Susan Magoffin's diary. She chose to title the publication Down the Santa Fe Trail and Into Mexico. This, in spite of Susan never referring to the Santa Fe Road as a trail.

     Thus, the general public, history aficionados, and professional historians all are comfortable with designating the Road to Santa Fe as the Santa Fe Trail. Such accommodation was extended to the federal government in 1987 when President Ronald Reagan signed into law the bill by which the trade route to Santa Fe was designated the Santa Fe National Historic Trail. In addition, the national organization created to preserve, protect, and promote the trade route was officially named the Santa Fe Trail Association. It would appear that even an old curmudgeon like me will be forced to make the same accommodation.


  1. Highway was first used in England to describe a public road built by digging ditches and heaping up the earth in the middle, thus creating a way higher than the adjacent land. Such was the origin of the term "highway." Encyclopedia Americana 23 (Danbury: Grolier Incorporated, 1972), 558.

  2. A dictionary definition of "trace": "A trail or path especially through wild or open territory made by the passage of people or vehicles." Jess Stein (ed.), The Random House Dictionary of the English Language (New York: Random House, 1967), 1500: John Taylor Hughes, Doniphan's Expedition (College Station: Texas A & M University Press, 1997), 21.

  3. Kate L. Gregg, (ed.), The Road to Santa Fe: The Journal and Diaries of George Champlin Sibley (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1995), 5.

  4. Ibid, 7.

  5. Ibid, 48.

  6. Missouri Intelligencer, May 8, 1824: Osage Indian Agent Richard Graham, in testimony before a Senate committee inquiring about the trade with Santa Fe, called the route "the Santa Fe trail."

  7. Reflecting on his departure from Westport, Parkman wrote, "Emerging From The Mud-Holes of Westport, we pursued for sometime along the narrow track." Francis Parkman, The Oregon Trail (1849; reprint, Washington, D, C.: National Geographic, 2002), 7. Matthew Field used similar language to speak of the Wet and Dry Routes of the Santa Fe Road between present Dodge City and Larned, Kansas. He wrote, "From the 'Arkansas to el Rio de Pananas' which the Americans call 'Pawnee Fork,' there runs two tracks." Matt Field on the Santa Fe Trail (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1960), 291. Both were first time travelers in the West. Track was not a word commonly used as a synonym for road.

  8. Parkman, Oregon Trail, xvi.

  9. Lewis Garrard, Wah-to-yah and the Taos Trail (1850: reprint, Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1987), xi.

  10. Janet Lecompte, "The Mountain Branch: Raton Pass and Sangre de Cristo Pass," The Santa Fe Trail: New Perspectives (Denver: The State Historical Society of Colorado, 1987), 63. As to being more dedicated to research than Janet Lecompte, I make no such a claim. However, I discovered John Taylor Hughes's statement of June 1846: "There was no road, nor even a path leading from Fort Leavenworth into the regular Santa Fe Trail." Hughes, Doniphan's Expedition, 19; also G. Harris Heap's 1853 "1st Crossing, S. Santa Fe Trail," Louise Barry, "The Ranch at Cimarron Crossing," Kansas Historical Quarterly, 39 (Autumn 1973): 347.

  11. Ida Ella Rath, The Rath Trail (Wichita: McCormick-Armstrong Co. Inc., 1961), 3-4.

  12. Schuyler Jones (ed.), Hunting and Trading on the Great Plains 1859-1875 (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1986), 46.

  13. The Columbia-Viking Desk Encyclopedia (New York: The Viking Press, 1935), 44.

  14. Charles J. Kappler (ed.), Indian Affairs: Laws and Treaties 1778-1883 (New York: Interland Publishers, 1972), 888.

  15. David K. Clapsaddle, "Conflict and Commerce on the Santa Fe Trail: The Fort Riley-Fort Larned Road, 1860-1867," Kansas History 16 (Summer 1993): 124-137.

  16. David K. Clapsaddle, "The Fort Hays- Fort Dodge Road," Kansas History, 14 (Summer 1991): 100-112.

  17. Louise Barry, The Beginning of the West (Topeka: Kansas State Historical Society, 1972), 1038-1039.

  18. Ibid., 999, 1042-1043, 1123.
         Used With Permission of the Author
         David Clapsaddle

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