The Santa Fe Trail exists in the American historical memory as a misty, romantic evocation of the United States' irresistible westward movement. Noted western historian David Dary, in "The Santa Fe Trail," dispels that mist as he gives us a well-researched account of the trail and its place in history, from the founding of Santa Fe by the Spanish conquerors in 1610, the city's development as a trading center and the arrival of French and American fur trappers to the trail's establishment as a commercial link between Missouri and New Mexico and its legacy in history.
Dary does not attempt to dispel, though, the aura of romance that envelops the trail and the city it led to, for no matter how embellished both were in later years, there was in Santa Fe for the Americans who first came there the indisputable air of the unfamiliar and the picturesque. In religion, language and situation, Santa Fe was everything the first Americans who arrived there were not. They were chiefly Protestant, English-speaking and, above all, enterprising traders.
The Spanish-speaking Roman Catholics who inhabited northern New Mexico with the Pueblo Indians (whom they had not wholly conquered) lived in a remote outpost of the Spanish Empire. Trade with Mexico City was minimal; trade with the rest of the world, forbidden by Madrid, was nearly nonexistent.
French traders from Louisiana and Americans from the growing republic on the Atlantic from time to time reached Santa Fe before 1820, but it wasn't until Mexico wrested its independence from Spain in 1821 and permitted trade between Santa Fe and the Americans that the trail took shape. The later Oregon Trail and its spur to California were different. They were essentially one-way routes: the way west for tens of thousands of emigrants headed for their new homes.
The Santa Fe Trail was a two-way path for commerce. Americans looking for markets discovered they could make good money buying goods as far away as Philadelphia and Cincinnati, transporting them by steamboat on the Ohio, Mississippi and Missouri rivers to points in Missouri from which wagon trains went west to Santa Fe. Some traded down to Chihuahua. Pulled by teams of mules or oxen (preferred over horses for their tenacity), these wagons carried dry goods, gloves, medical supplies, violins and music boxes, whiskey, stoves, axes, plows, tableware, paper--all those manufactured goods a less advanced society wanted and could not supply on its own.
The Santa Fe Trail was never a road, nor even a trace, like the Natchez Trace from Natchez to Nashville in the early part of the 19th century. In parts of the Natchez Trace you can still see the deep single rut the passing men and animals made. Where the Santa Fe Trail is still visible, it is in a band of swales in the land. On the Santa Fe Trail the wagon trains went in the same general direction and used the same landmarks, like the Rabbit Ears peaks in northeastern New Mexico, but the bullwackers (oxen-drivers) and muleskinners avoided the precise tracks of their predecessors because the prairie sand made the ruts too deep.
Dary has combed the newspapers of the day, and he has made good use of the journals of those on the trail to paint vivid pictures of life on the prairie and in the mountains in the 19th century. From the 1824 journal of Meredith M. Marmaduke, later governor of Missouri: "June 10. Pass the Sand Hills, saw on this day at least ten thousand buffalo, the prairies were literally covered with them for many miles." As Americans inexorably moved onward, to the east they encountered the Kiowas and Comanches, to the west Navajos and Apaches. Fights were frequent.
Nevertheless trade grew until it reached its peak during the Civil War. By this time New Mexico was a territory of the United States as a consequence of the Mexican-American War and the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo of 1848. But the arrival of the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad put an abrupt end to the trail. "The Old Santa Fe Trail Passes Into Oblivion" read a headline in the Santa Fe New Mexican in 1880 as the railroad reached Santa Fe. Dary won his solid reputation as the author of definitive books on cowboys ("Cowboy Culture") and western newspapers ("Red Blood, and Black Ink"). He has done it again with this masterful treatment of a great American emblem.