Tuesday, April 23, 2019

The Santa Fe Trail

The Santa Fe Trail
The Santa Fe Trail linked the eastern United States with the undeveloped West. As for you who might not know too much about the Santa Fe Trail, basically it was America's first trading route. Or, as some like to say, it was America's first "commercial highway" going West.

We should understand that long before the opening of the Santa Fe Trail, there was trade taking place between the Great Plains Indians and early settlers along the route. Yes, especially those settlers of the Texas panhandle. In reality the Spanish had trade routes that extended along the Rio Grande reaching into the Spanish colonies of Texas and New Mexico long before the United States separated from Great Britain. For years, Spain stopped their people from moving eastward with trade by declaring trade with Native Americans and later with the Americans as illegal. There were heavy fines and even imprisonment if one was found trading with either.

Among the constants throughout mankind's history is the desire to create wealth for one's self and family. Private enterprise, free enterprise, private ownership, are what has been the great motivator when it comes to promoting innovation and our desire for freedom. Capitalism has pulled more out of poverty than any tyrannical system of government controls. Whether it was the ancient Romans or the Mexicans and Americans of the 1800s, people have always known that commercial trade, that Capitalism, means freedom.

So while the Spanish attempted to halt trade, as Spain banned trade for Mexico with anyone but Spain, a number of American explorers and adventurers attempted to travel West to conduct trade even though they knew it was illegal to do so. The Spanish actually detained many Americans at the time. Some were inevitability deported back to the United States. Yes, sent home in most cases by military escort. Others were never seen again.

Around 1810, some say sooner and some say later by 1812, Spanish subjects were tired of the over-regulation and high taxation. The people were fed up with the Spanish government's iron-fisted approach of governing the people. As with any form of dictatorship, Spanish rule was draconian.

Fact is Spanish laws were excessively harsh and violating them resulted in terribly severe consequences for the people. Ruling the people as subjects and peasants instead of as citizens is a recipe for failure. History tells us that people want freedom. For the Mexicans, it was about then in 1812 that the Mexican people had finally had enough of living under a Spanish boot and attempted to gain their independence. Sadly that first attempt failed. But as with people wanting to be free and get out from under an oppressive government, the Mexicans fought for their independence. After a successful revolution, the people there gained their freedom in 1821.

Among other things, their fight for freedom opened the door for those wanting to trade with Mexico. Connecting Missouri to Santa Fe, New Mexico, the Sante Fe Trail covered over 900 miles of the Great Plains. Who created this, traders did. Not the government, but people wanting to prosper. And with their efforts, the Santa Fe Trail served as a sort of highway for countless American merchants, settlers and pioneers, and of course our military which included engineers, surveyors, and adventurers. All who would play a critical role in America’s westward expansion.

One Missouri trader, a man who was also a veteran of our War of 1812, was William Becknell. He is said to have wasted no time heading for Santa Fe. In September of 1821, Becknell and a small group of men with a caravan of cargo carrying all sorts of goods left Franklin, Missouri.

William Becknell did't know if he would return safely. But along the way, a group of Mexican soldiers are said to have told him of their independence and desire for needed goods made him a welcomed sight. Becknell and his party arrived in Santa Fe, New Mexico, on November 16th of that year. They were welcomed with open arms by Mexican citizens and government officials there actually encouraged him to return soon with more goods to trade.

Becknell's original wagons laden with goods is said to have netted him a 1500% profit. Friends, that's the same as buying a load of guns for $100 and then selling them all and making $15,000. So yes, it was a win-win relationship born out of desire for goods and opportunity to make life better on both ends of the trail. Both ends of the Santa Fe Trail. Remember, he also returned to Missouri with goods from Santa Fe. Those goods quickly became in high demand there. Money was made and everyone benefited. Such is how our system works.

Becknell’s initial path to Santa Fe became known as the Mountain Route because it followed the Arkansas River to the Colorado Plains to the Purgatoire River and across what is know as the very treacherous Raton Mountain Pass and down into Santa Fe. The next time he returned to Santa Fe, that route became known as the Cimarron Route. The Cimarron Route followed the Arkansas River to Cimarron, Kansas, near what would later become Dodge City. From there, it lead through "southwest Kansas and the western panhandle of Oklahoma before venturing into Round Mound and Point of Rocks, New Mexico and San Miguel. After navigating the Glorieta Mountain Pass, it ended in Santa Fe."

This route is said to have been the most popular track on the Santa Fe Trail. Becknell found it when he was looking for a faster route than that of the Mountain Route and it seemed to workout better than the other. While the Cimarron Route was about 100 miles shorter than the Mountain Route, and is said to have been a lot less dangerous as far as terrain goes, water was scarce and Indian raids were very common.

Because of the Indian raiding parties, the Bent, St. Vrain and Trading Company built what became known as Bent’s Fort, also known as Fort William after William Bent, on the north bank of the Arkansas River in 1833. While some think it was built by the U.S. government, that's not the case. Bent's Fort was actually built by the company owned by brothers William and Charles Bent, and their partner Ceran St. Vrain. William Bent, like his brother, was born in St. Louis, Missouri.

There was actually eleven Bent children in that family. Brothers William and Charles were in their teens when they left St. Louis to try their luck at fur trapping in the West. Joining in on the beaver trade where pelts and furs were in great demand because of the latest fashions taking place in the East, especially the beaver used to make men’s hats, was something that many young Americans only dreamed of doing.

While the Bent brothers lived the adventure, they traveled the Santa Fe Trail and traded with Whites, Mexicans, and Indians, and Mexicans. When beaver hats went out of fashion in the East, they started trading buffalo hides used for factories in the big cities of the East. While their fort started out as a trading hub for fur-traders, mountain men, and Plains Indians, it later evolved into a rest stop for settlers and traders traveling the Santa Fe Trail. And for the record, Bent's Fort was considered the biggest building between Missouri and the Pacific Ocean at the time. Imagine that!

The Bent brothers made friends with the Cheyenne, and in fact worked hard to keep the peace between them and the white settlers. William's first wife was the daughter of a Cheyenne chief. Her name was Owl Woman. They had four children together. One would later turn renegade. After Owl Woman died, William Bent remarried three times. Of them, two were Cheyenne women.

In 1845, the United States voted to annex Texas from Mexico. Of course at the time, the area known as Texas also included parts of what is today New Mexico. Needless to say that the annexation of Texas cause tensions which resulted in the United States declaring war on Mexico in 1846. As for the Santa Fe Trail, U.S. Army General Stephen Watts Kearney along with 1,600 of his troops used the  Santa Fe Trail to go to New Mexico and occupy it.

General Kearney is said to have taken to the Mountain Route specifically hoping that its hazardous terrain would give his troops an edge against Mexican troops. Though the Raton Pass was hard going for Kearney's troops and equipment, they took Santa Fe without resistance. While that may have been the case, instead of conquest, the United States actually purchased Mexico’s southern territories including New Mexico, California and Arizona, from the Mexican government when the Mexican-American War ended. I guess it was cheaper to just buy them. Especially considering the problems the Mexican government was having maintaining people in position while governing those lands.

Bent's Old Fort was rebuilt as a National Historic Site
While some say it was the fear of small pox that made William Bent burn down Fort Bent in 1849. Others say it was burned to the ground as a casualty of the war with Mexico. Either way, a few years later in 1853, William built a new fort thirty miles to the East of the first site. The new trading post was called Bent’s New Fort and it was built on a bluff further downriver at Big Timbers. The New Fort was also a trading post, but it became more when it was used as a place for Indian tribes and government officials to meet.

Because the U.S. Army was sending troops out West to attend to troubles between American settlers and the Plains Indians, the U.S. Army ended up leasing Bent's New Fort. The Army renamed it Fort Fauntleroy, it was later renamed Fort Wise, and then later it was designated Fort Lyon.

At first, it was considered a good turn of events when William Bent went to work for the government as an Indian agent. He was well like by the tribes, the settlers, and the Army. And while it's said that William Bent tried hard to keep the peace between the Indians and the settlers, especially those pouring in the area during the Colorado Gold Rush of 1859, he resigned out of frustration with all parties. Fact is, it appeared no wanted peace and war seemed to be the only answer for those there. That included some of the Indians, the settlers, and some in the U.S. Army who looked at Native Americans as a nuisance that needed to be eradicated.

Things came to a head in 1864. Yes, while the Civil War raged on in the East, a slaughter of American Indians was being planned in the West. The man to carry out the massacre was U.S. Army Col. John Chivington. He is known to have said, "Damn any man who sympathizes with Indians. I have come to kill Indians, and believe it is right and honorable to use any means under God's heaven to kill Indians. Kill and scalp all, big and little; nits make lice." And believe it or not, this man is described as being a Methodist preacher and a Freemason who was an ardent opponent of black slavery in the South. Imagine that. 

From Fort Lyon, Col. Chivington took over 700 troops of the First Colorado Cavalry, Third Colorado Cavalry, and a company of First New Mexico Volunteers to Chief Black Kettle's campsite at Sand Creek which was about 40 miles from the fort. Black Kettle was told that their people would be regarded as friendly. In fact, Black Kettle was given an American flag which he flew over his lodge. He was told that by our Army officers that our flag would show everyone that he was friendly. He was told that our flag over his camp would prevent an attack by American soldiers.

On the day of the attack, most of the warriors were off hunting buffalo. This meant that only old men and women and children were in the village. Most of the men were said to be either too old or too young to hunt, nevertheless fight against American troops. The Cheyenne Dog Soldiers who were not interested in surrendering to our military refused to be there. Instead, those Indians actually responsible for the raids on miners and settlers were not part of those at the camp at Sand Creek.

On the morning of November 29th of 1864, American troops were ordered to give no quarter!

The order of "no quarter" means that they were instructed to show no mercy, have no pity, demonstrate no compassion, and to use their overwhelming power to slaughter those there. This is the equivalent to the orders "take no prisoners." Today, this would certainly be considered a war crime.

It is important to note that two officers in his command refused to carry out what would be a massacre. It's true. Captain Silas Soule commanding Companies D, and Lieutenant Joseph Cramer commanding Companies K, refused to follow Chivington's order and told their men, those of the First Colorado Cavalry, to hold their fire. Though that was the case, other soldiers in Col. Chivington's command are said to have immediately attacked the village.

Disregarding Black Kettle's American flag, or the white flag that was run up shortly after the soldiers commenced firing, Chivington's troops slaughtered the village wholesale. Those who did follow Chivington's orders massacred the camp's inhabitants without compunction. Some of the Indians cut horses from the camp's herd and fled up Big Sand Creek. Others fled upstream and actually dug holes in the sand beneath the banks of the stream to hide in. They were pursued by the troops and fired on, but many survived. One witness said that most of the Indian dead were killed by cannon fire. That is especially true regarding those troops firing from the south bank of the river, as they are said to have cut down the Indians retreating up the creek.

In his testimony before a Congressional committee investigating the massacre, Col. Chivington bragged that as many as 500 to 600 Indian warriors were killed. I read where historian Alan Brinkley wrote that 133 Indians were killed, 105 of whom were women and children. An American eye-witness, John S. Smith, reported that 70 to 80 Indians were killed. That included 20 to 30 warriors. His account agrees with Brinkley's figure as to the number of men killed.

After the initial attack, Chivington's troops killed many of the wounded. It is also said that they scalped a number of those dead and wounded regardless of whether they were women or children. As for claims that Chivington's men plundered the tipis for anything that may have been of value or that the troops also took their horses, I could not find anything to support those claims.

One of the more horrible reports says that Chivington himself joined his men and dressed their weapons, hats and gear with scalps and other body parts. Supposedly, the scalps were also publicly displayed as so-called "war trophies" in places like Denver's Apollo Theater as well as in saloons.
After the horrible massacre on Sand Creek, a massacre where Col. John Chivington had 163 men, women, and children killed, William Bent left Colorado for good.

Then there was the Plum Buttes Massacre. On September 9th, 1867, Frank Huning was on his way home with a small group of seven wagons and a carriage when his party was attacked by renegade Indians.

Frank Huning was said to be a merchant from Albuquerque, New Mexico, and was supposedly experienced when it came to knowing the dangers along the Santa Fe Trail. As I've said before, merchants like Huning found it extremely profitable to trade along the Santa Fe Trail while actually helping to open the West. Besides the other teamsters in his party, Huning had his mother-in-law and 16-year-old brother-in-law with him on that trip. They were making their way on the Santa Fe Trail returning home from a business trip to Ohio.

While in Junction City, Kansas, the Huning party was warned to hold up for a few days. There were raiding parties on the warpath and they would be safe if they stayed there. At the same time, there were other freight wagons there. They were all planning to travel in a larger group for protection.

Huning did not heed the warnings and set out alone. His party made their way south along the Santa Fe Trail, then southwest. After traveling about 45 miles, they arrived at the Little Arkansas River Crossing. At the crossing, Huning is said to have met with Captain Edward Byrne of the U.S. Army Tenth Cavalry. Bryne's Buffalo Soldiers were known as fierce fighters and seeing them gave Huning a newfound sense of security.

It was there that Huning requested a military escort, but Captain Bryne refused. Believe it or not, Byrne refused because his famed Buffalo Soldiers were "out on a picnic." And by the way, keep in mind that those troops were specifically stationed there for the purpose of escorting civilians if requested. Angered at the refusal over such a thing, an impatient Huning decided to again set out alone.

Frank Huning is said to have grown worried and decided to saddle a mule to ride ahead of his freight train. While scouting ahead of the wagons, he heard a call come from a teamster in the last wagons. The cries of "Indians! Indians!" went out and then screams were heard.

Kiowa, Arapaho and Cheyenne warriors sneaked up on Huning's wagon train from behind. The warriors pulled the last four wagons and the carriage away from the train. The teamsters of first three wagons responded by circling their wagons and wait for an attack. But no attack came. Instead, the warriors focused on the wagons they had in their possession.

Most say the warriors were actually a small rogue renegade band. They are said to have moved the wagons away from the others by a couple of hundred yards. From their position, Huning is said to have just about ran out of ammunition firing his rifle at the Indians. He and the remaining teamsters later reported that because of being low on ammunition and being outnumbered, they had to sit there helplessly and listen to the screams coming from the wagons as the Indians tortured Huning's mother-in-law and the others in the distance.

At one point, Huning and the others heard pistol shots in slow succession being fired from the direction of the captured wagons. At the same time, Huning's mother-in-law's torturous screams went silent.

It was at that point that Frank Huning re-mounted his mule and left for help from the nearest Army fort. That fort was about 20 miles from the Plum Buttes. When he arrived at the fort, he only found civilian scouts, a man named Charles Christy and another man only known as Roma. Because the soldiers were no where to be found, the three armed themselves for bear and returned to the Plum Buttes.

Upon arriving, the warriors were gone. They rejoined the remaining teamsters and then set out to search the wreckage of the wagons. There they found the scalped and mutilated bodies of the teamsters, his mother-in-law and his young brother in-law. The wagons were pillaged and most were burned. The mules were killed.

The men loaded the dead into a wagon and returned to the fort. Huning went on to take his family member on to Albuquerque where they were buried. Huning himself would live to be a successful merchant. And yes, if you are wondering, Frank Huning may be the first person in the West to complain, "Where's the cavalry when you need them?"

It's said that for many years after the Plum Buttes Massacre, travelers passed the burned out wagons and bones of the mules. It's said that Huning's goods such as cookware and dishes, most broken, were found scattered there. There are some who say that William Bent's renegade son Charley Bent led the attack that night. Some say Charley Bent was actually one of the half-breed renegades that made up that group of Dog Soldiers.

These are just a couple of the many stories of what took place on the Santa Fe Trail. While the Santa Fe Trail was a trade route, it saw its share of those headed West during the California Gold Rush and later Pike’s Peak Gold Rush. As for the route that saw tens of thousands come West, the Santa Fe Trail was also used as a stagecoach route and a route for the short-lived Pony Express. But all in all, its days were numbered when the Union Pacific Railroad expanded west.

The first Santa Fe railroad train entered Santa Fe, New Mexico on February 9th, 1880. It came by way of an 18-mile spur track that Santa Fe County voters had funded in an October 1879 bond election. Because of that event, the entire 835-mile Mountain Route of the Santa Fe Trail, from Kansas City to Lamy and then on to Santa Fe, could then be traversed by rail.

So when that first train arrived with considerable fanfare at the Santa Fe, New Mexico, railroad station, it was obvious to all that mule teams and oxen-drawn carts and wagons couldn’t compete with Union Pacific's trains. When it came to hauling freight or getting passengers out West faster and safer, wagons and carts couldn't match what trains were capable of doing. Thus, the railroad ended the need for the Santa Fe Trail. After that day, the Santa Fe Trail either served local needs or simply wasn't used.

Tom Correa


  1. Enjoyable and educational as always. Thanks for all the work you put into your posts.

  2. I wish I could go back in time to that event. I would have enjoyed going on that long journey. But I might need plenty of water though.


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