MoboReader > Literature > The Way to the West / and the Lives of Three Early Americans: Boone—Crockett—Carson

   Chapter 3 THE SANTA Fé TRAIL

The Way to the West / and the Lives of Three Early Americans: Boone—Crockett—Carson By Emerson Hough Characters: 34362

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:02

To-day we think in straight lines. We believe, ignorantly, that our forefathers moved directly westward from their former homes. We do not ask how they did it, but think that in some way they must have done so. Dwellers in Chicago think of New York, and it means New York in a straight line due east. They think of California, and it implies a straight line due west. To us of to-day all railroads run without curves, and are governed only by time-schedules, which annually grow shorter. Geography is well-nigh a lost art. Indeed, there is but little use for it, since the time-tables of the great railways answer all our questions so conclusively. To-day it matters not to us what may be the course of a journey; the sole question is as to the time that journey will require. The railroad men do our thinking for us. We do not concern ourselves with how those good, but somewhat old-fashioned folk, our ancestors, got about in a country that once was large. We care not at all for matters of down-stream or up-stream.

In a general way, therefore, we are prone to believe that the way from the Alleghanies to the Missouri was in a straight line. It was not so. We think that the way to the Rockies and across them was equally straight, because the railways now make it so easy. Yet as a matter of fact the railways proceeded, without much difficulty as to exploration, to lie sure, for nothing new was left for them to discover, yet in hesitating and halting steps westward, shortening the old trails, destroying the old history, wiping out the old geography of the West.

All America can remember the days when we were agitated by the tremendous problem of a line of rails across the American continent, a feat so long regarded as chimerical. We knew of California and we wished for a road thither, had long wished for it. But many years before we had begun to dream of an iron road, and many years after we had dreamed of it, we made our way from the Missouri to the Rockies, over the Rockies to the Pacific, by the same methods that had brought us to the heads of all our Western rivers. We used the pack-horse and the wagon train. Those were the days of the heroically great transcontinental trails. It is interesting to study these ancient land routes; and for our purposes we shall start the wagon roads at the Missouri River, and shall speak chiefly of the two historic and great Western pathways, that by the Arkansas and that by the Platte.

Of these two great land trails west of the Missouri, one, broken midway, does not deserve actually the name of transcontinental trail. This was the old Santa Fé trail, which could be called continuous only as far as the Spanish province of New Mexico. Commerce got westward even so far as California in some fashion, now and again, from Taos and the old city of Santa Fé, but Spanish trails and the old trapping roads west of New Mexico were commonly concerned with the pack-train and not the wagon.

The other overland trail, and the greatest of all American roads, if we measure length and importance as well, was the ancient Oregon trail up the Platte, over the South Pass and down the Columbia; a trail forgotten by most of the young men of to-day, and existing no more to terrify the young women whom young men marry, as they did in the times of our fathers, when moving West meant tearing out the heart.

As to the theory of straight lines, Lieutenant Pike tells us that the first men to reach Santa Fé did not go straight westward, but also wandered up the aboriginal highway of the Platte valley, over what was later to be the course of the Oregon trail, turning to the southward when far up the stream, and following the South Fork of the Platte down into the Rockies, which would bring the traveler within wilderness-touch of the Spanish settlements. La Lande, the perfidious trader, who so sadly left in the lurch his patron, the merchant Morrison of Kaskaskia, and took up his permanent abode in Santa Fé, is thought to have reached that city, in the year 1804, by this route; and it is known that James Purcell (or James Pursley, as Pike has the spelling) was directed to Santa Fé in the year 1805 by some Indians whom he met on the upper Platte.

This route by the Platte was not, however, either the permanent or the original one. Indeed, the first expedition between the Spanish and the American settlements came, strangely enough, from the west, and not from the east, and was undertaken by the Spaniards as early as 1720. Then, in 1739, the Mallet brothers, Frenchmen from the settlements along the Mississippi, started for New Mexico by the strange route of the upper Missouri River, getting far up into the big bend of the Missouri before they discovered that they were going quite the wrong way! Their belief that the Spanish settlements could be reached by way of the head streams of the Missouri is strange confirmation of our doctrine that early traveling man ever clung to the waterways. The river-it would lead anywhere! The Mallet party returned in 1740, some of them by way of the Arkansas River, which presently brought them out at New Orleans!

We may therefore discover that neither the Missouri nor the Platte could have been called the accepted highway into the lower West at the time Lieutenant Pike set out to find the headwaters of the Red River. There is a shrewd doubt as to Pike's innocence in getting over on the head of the Rio Grande instead of the Red River. It was at least a lucky mistake; and his captivity among the Spaniards was productive of very good results to the United States later on, one of its most important results being his suggesting the route along the Arkansas, instead of the Platte, for the west-bound travelers. It was strong-legged, stout-hearted Zebulon who told of the profits of the possible Spanish trade, and credit is usually given him for first outlining the historic trail along the Arkansas.

It grew shorter and shorter, this wagon trail to the West, as the traders came to know the country. The government surveyed a fine way for the caravans, which took them around the dangerous Cimarron desert, and clung to the waters a trifle longer; yet the travelers would have none of it, but built their trail so direct from Independence to Santa Fé that not even those air-line lovers, the railway engineers, could so very much improve it when they came to make their iron trail between those two points.

One finds something uncanny when he reflects upon the discoveries of these Western regions. The ancient ways seem to have lain ready and waiting, the lines of travel simply falling into the foreordained plan, so that there remains no extraordinary credit to any venturer, no matter how early. For instance, we know that our hardy young soldiers, Lewis and Clark, to whom we habitually ascribe the credit of being the first white men up the great waterway of the Missouri, were preceded by half a century by the Frenchman, Sieur de la Verendrye, who took his two sons and started west by way of the Great Lakes in 1742, jumped from the Red River of the North to the Mandan villages on the Missouri, and explored the region along the Missouri, the Yellowstone and the Bighorn rivers, just one hundred years before Frémont "discovered" the Rockies!

De la Verendrye is thought to have been the first man of the North to see the Rockies; yet back of him we have Nicollet and Champlain, and all those hardy ancients who sought cheerfully and hopefully for the China Sea by way of the Green Bay portage, and the Wisconsin and Minnesota rivers, in search of the fabled "Asian Strait," which later was practically materialized in the interlocking Western rivers of America.

As to Pike's journey across the plains, we must know that the Spaniards had sent out an expedition, under Malgares, to meet him or anticipate him. The Spanish leader who thus ventured boldly so far to the east to head off this dreaded invasion of the Northern whites, and to set the Indians against them, must have traveled somewhat along this same pre-ordained trail of the Arkansas. Not all Spain could keep the feet of the young Anglo-Saxons out of that trail. There were always the adventurers; and there were always the trails there, ready, waiting, expectant, prepared for them. There is no reading so thrilling as the bare truth about our West; and the most thrilling part of it is the awesome feeling that our venturers were after all themselves but puppets in a grim and awful game. There lay the Missouri, the Platte, the Arkansas; and stretching out to meet them reached the Columbia and the Colorado. It was appointed, it was foregone!

Among those to go out early into the unknown Southwest, after Lieutenant Pike had told us some few things regarding the pueblos of old Spain among the mountains of the Rockies, were the fur trader Phillibert, and the traders Chouteau and De Munn, of St. Louis, who bought out Phillibert's goods and men in the Rockies. Phillibert had planned a rendezvous on Huerfano Creek. This was in 1815, the year following that in which Phillibert had made his first trip into that Western region.

These St. Louis men met the officials of Santa Fé, and were warned out of the country. Na?vely, since they could not trade in New Mexico, they started for the Columbia River, by way of the high mountains of Colorado; and the mountains, of course, stopped them. They fell back on the Arkansas, were caught by the Spaniards, had their goods confiscated, and so lost three years of time as well. Not even this pointed advice as to Spanish preferences served to hold back the west-bound men, and no doubt they sent out some party for Santa Fé every year thereafter, until they had their way, and until the Anglo-Saxon grasp was fixed upon that sleepy old Southwest, which lay winking in the sun a couple of centuries belated by the way.

The Spaniards were suspicious, as are ever the slothful, and they made a practice of imprisoning the whites that got down into their country. They imprisoned Pike, they imprisoned Merriwether, an intrepid trader who reached that country in 1819; and history tells us how, in 1812, they imprisoned the first party of the white traders to venture into New Mexico after the return of Lieutenant Pike, the twelve men who made up the party of Baird, McKnight and Chambers, commonly called the party of McKnight, Beard and Chambers. This gallant little company they kept in the fearsome penitentiary at Chihuahua for nine long and weary years,-a fate terrible enough, one would certainly think, to warn away all other adventurers from a neighborhood so hostile.

As to this first and most unfortunate of the early trading expeditions to the Southwest, that of Baird, McKnight and Chambers, there is first-hand information in the form of a personal letter from J. M. Baird, of Louisville, Kentucky, a grandson of the early trader that helped to lead the way of commerce across the plains. Mr. Baird writes:

"As to the expedition of Baird, Chambers and McKnight, it is often spoken of as that of 'McKnight, Beard and Chambers.' Gregg, in his book 'The Commerce of the Prairies,' published in 1846 (I think), first mentioned the matter. He derived his information from James Baird's sons, and they were much disgusted to have him print the name 'Beard.' All other writers seem to have derived their particulars from him. James Baird was my grandfather. He was personally known to Lieut. Zebulon Pike, had known him at Fort Duquesne and at Erie. Baird went to St. Louis in 1810, where he again met Lieutenant Pike upon his return from Mexico, and learned from him the possibilities of trade with that country.

"Upon hearing of the success of the Hidalgo revolution, and believing the embargo upon trade with the United States raised, he organized a venture with Chambers and McKnight, left St. Charles, Mo., May 1, 1812, and reached Santa Fé in regular course, to find the embargo rigorously enforced. He was arrested and imprisoned in Chihuahua prison for nine years and three months, until released by Iturbide in 1821. Chambers and McKnight started back at once. McKnight was killed by the Indians on the Arkansas River. Chambers succeeded in getting back to St. Louis. Baird started back two months later, could find no company, and rode alone from Santa Fé to St. Louis. This ride has been credited to Bicknell and one Kennedy or Kendall, but James Baird was the man that did it.

"Baird and Chambers organized a second expedition in 1822. They started too late, and were caught in a blizzard at the crossing of the Arkansas, where their animals froze to death. They were compelled to remain the entire winter upon the island at that place. It was Baird and Chambers' second expedition that made the caches near there (in 1822), and near where Dodge City now stands. Inman in his 'Old Santa Fé Trail,' chapter 3, says Bicknell[33] crossed the river at the Caches in 1812. No other caches were made in that vicinity. Bicknell was a trader with the Iatan Indians and did not go into Mexico until after Baird and Chambers' second venture, which was made in 1822. However, it was through some of Bicknell's men writing from Franklin, Mo., to my grandmother, in 1816, that she learned of grandfather's fate, they saying that they heard of it from the Indians.

"Baird, Chambers and McKnight followed the course marked for them by Lieutenant Pike, and that course became the great Santa Fé trail. The Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fé R. R. follows practically the same course. If any one is entitled to credit for the selection of the route, Lieutenant Pike ought to have it. However, my purpose is to ask you to correct the name Beard to read Baird. If one will refer to 'American State Papers,' Vol. 4, folio 207, and Executive Papers, p. 197, 8th Vol., 15th Congress, he will see that it is Baird."

This communication would seem to a certain extent to discount the claims on reputation of William Becknell, generally known as the "father of the Santa Fé trail." It ascribes the credit for the original selection of the Arkansas River route to Pike, with what justice we may ourselves determine as well as any. Our venturesome Southerners, of the Baird, McKnight and Chambers party, had lain in jail for nine years before John McKnight, the brother of Robert McKnight, in the year 1821, undertook the long journey to Chihuahua, which seems to have resulted in the setting free of all these Americans. Coming back to the United States over the Arkansas River trail, Baird and the two McKnights met the Ohio man, Hugh Glenn, and his associate or friend, Jacob Fowler, who were already at Taos, regardless of the ill-fortune of their predecessors in the hazardous game of prairie commerce. Becknell himself did not start out until 1821, and he did not intend to trade in Santa Fé, but only went thence after he had met some Mexicans on the headwaters of the Arkansas, who persuaded him to take his goods to Santa Fé instead of trading them among the Indians. Hugh Glenn and Becknell were thus both at Santa Fé during the winter of 1821-22.

That following summer Braxton Cooper and his sons, as well as Becknell, made trips to Santa Fé, and it seems to have been on this second trip that Becknell attained the distinction commonly accorded him. He took three wagons through to Santa Fé, and instead of hugging the Arkansas clear out to the mountains, he struck off southwest toward San Miguel, by way of the Cimarron desert, the risky but shorter route to which the later traders adhered ever after, in spite of surveys and all else. It is really only upon the ground of his wagons and this cutoff angle that Becknell is entitled to the glory of his title as "father of the Santa Fé trail."

Our prisoners, who nine years before had taken the chance of the far-off Southwestern trade, were willing to take another chance, for no sooner had they reached the States than they outfitted and started back again for the Mexican trade. Their second party, that which made the famous caches referred to in the grandson's letter above, was made in 1822. By that time there was little glory left for any one; and indeed, when we come to sift it, there was never very much glory in any part of the history of the Santa Fé trail. It was not a pathway of heroes. The true hero trail lay farther to the north, as we shall presently see.

The first mergers, the first combinations of capital ever made in the commerce of America began here on the far-off prairies, when the traders of the Arkansas began to band up and pool their outfits for mutual protection. The strength of these great companies rendered the danger of attack by Indians very slight, and it is a fact that but few lives were ever lost on the Santa Fé trail, scarce a dozen in a dozen years. It was indeed irony of fate that splendid Jedediah Smith, the hero of such tremendous undertakings in the mountains of the Northwest, should meet his fate while hunting for a water hole in the hated desert of the Cimarron, afar down in the dry Southwest.[34]

By 1824 the Santa Fé trade was well organized. The route was proved feasibl

e, and the business assured of profit, wherefore many went into it, and presently the old trail became a great road, later to be very prominent in the history of the West. The Spaniards did their best to keep on both sides of the fence in this matter. They wanted the goods of the Americans, but hated the Americans themselves. They tried to kill the trade with excessive frontier duties, yet allowed smuggling and bribery to any limit; and these latter two industries were accepted as part of the conditions of the trade. The greatest loss of life began to occur when the fighting Texans from below, actuated by a desire for revenge and pillage, began to push up and to harass the commerce which was proving so profitable to Mexico, in spite of Mexico's vacillation.

These fighting Texans traveled far to the north of the trail, indeed, and followed the Mexicans into their villages, where they killed them in numbers. Texas, we must remember, was not yet a state, and little answer was made to the wail of the thrifty traders, who besought the United States government to give them protection against the Texans. The latter did some things not altogether pleasant to recount, but were for the most part serving nearly right the government of the United States, which could so long hesitate in accepting Houston's gift of Texas, the "bride adorned for her espousal;" which, indeed, so long hesitated to believe that there was or could be a West really great. Small indeed were some of the "great" men of that time; and small are some of our great men to-day.

The common belief is that all the capital engaged in this trade toward the Southwest was American capital, and that the enterprises ran all one way. This was not the case, for by 1843 the Mexican capital embarked in the commerce to the Spanish colonies was about equal to that of the Americans. The trade grew steadily, even subject as it was to the caprice of Mexican governments, and of Texas privateers on the high seas of the prairies.

We learn that in 1831 a party of two hundred persons, with one hundred wagons and two hundred thousand dollars' worth of goods, started for Santa Fé. This party was notable in that one of its members was Josiah Gregg, a level-headed, shrewd man, who was later to become famous as the historian of the Santa Fé trail. Nearly all the later histories of that highway and its peculiarities are based upon Gregg's able work; which fact he himself points out with a certain plaintiveness in his later years (1846), stating that pillagers of his papers did not always stop to give him credit. Gregg was a big man, a thinker, a man whose sound sense would succeed in any time. One likens him to the good, sensible business man of to-day, the mainstay of our republic, the practical conductor of affairs.

One detail will serve to show how much in advance he was of his time. In 1846 we find the Easterner, Francis Parkman, and his friend Shaw, killing scores of the great bisons of the plains for no better purpose than the securing of the tail for a trophy. It makes one blush to read of such wasteful barbarity as this, which could kill tons and tons of such creatures and leave the meat to rot on the ground. Our sensitive Eastern writer Parkman, keen mind and able pen as were his, was a very savage in his lust for "sport;" indeed worse than any savage, for the latter never killed for sport alone. Gregg was neither a Parkman nor a modern "lover of nature," but something much better, a man of forethought and of good sense. His protest at the waste of life and food in the wanton killing of buffalo is one of the most worthy things of his worthy book. He prophesied what Parkman could not see with all his florid pictures of the West that was to be-a West soon to be barren of the great game that did so much to win that West from savagery. The wicked wastefulness of the killing of the buffalo was one of the American national crimes. Stout Josiah Gregg saw it and deplored it, knowing as he did that much of the success of the Southwest trade ever depended upon the buffalo.

As to the distances and the direction of the ancient trail, we may consider it as starting at the old Western town of Independence, on the Missouri River, and extending properly no farther than the town of Santa Fé, in New Mexico. Many traders went on down into Old Mexico, as far as Chihuahua, which city so many of the first adventurers knew against their will. We have heard of Kit Carson, as a teamster, as far to the south as Chihuahua, and know that in 1828 he hired out there to Robert McKnight, one of the long-time prisoners in that city, later prominently identified with the history of the trail. Different Missouri towns outfitted parties for the trading to the Southwest, among these prominently St. Louis, and the less important point of Franklin. We may consider the Missouri River as our frontier at this epoch, and find most of our traders among those who lived near the border or were concerned in business ventures in that neighborhood. Assuredly this talk of the Santa Fé trade was the first Western bee in the Kit Carson bonnet, while he was yet a boy in Missouri.

The course of the old trail was astonishingly direct. It left little to be gained in distance saving, or in the essential qualities of grass and water, except along the cut-off over the Cimarron desert, which the travelers would not forego. The first section of the trail, that from Independence to Council Grove, the place where the wagon trains usually organized and went into semi-military formation, was over a pleasant, safe and easy country, a distance of one hundred and forty-three miles, according to Gregg.

Thence the next stage was to the Great Bend of the Arkansas, in the line of such modern towns as Galva, McPherson and Great Bend, although probably it touched the Arkansas at the top of the bend, near the village of Ellinwood, the first railway station east of Great Bend. This lies in a region now tamed into a wheat country and settled with contented farmers, raising crops that have, by the education of the years themselves, grown fit to endure that high, dry air, on the edge of the once rainless region. It was two hundred and seventy miles out to the Bend of the Arkansas, and two hundred and ninety-three miles to the noted Pawnee Rock, which to-day has a town named for it. Not crossing the Arkansas as yet, the trail kept down the western leg of the Great Bend, passed the islands known as the Caches, kept up-stream for a time to a point twenty miles west of the town now known as Dodge City-the same "Dodge" so famous in the cattle days-and reached then the ford of the Arkansas, which Gregg says was three hundred and eighty-seven miles west of Independence.[35]

This was about half way on the journey, and on the border line between the United States and the Spanish provinces. Gregg makes the jump from the safe Arkansas to the risky Cimarron a distance of fifty-eight miles, two or three days' travel, and without water, as well as without landmarks. The erstwhile boom town of Ivanhoe, of which one remembers talk in county-seat wars as far back as 1886, a little town far down in the dry country, is near the line of the old trail. Reaching the Cimarron, the trail bent up that doubtful waterway to Cold Spring, five hundred and thirty-five miles from Independence. There it took another leap to the southwest, over a country then fairly well known from the Spanish end of the line, and over a well defined road, which could not be mistaken.


The Wagon Mound was a point of note, situated about six hundred and sixty-two miles west of the starting point. One might depart thence for Bent's Fort on the Arkansas, located in a country very profitable for traders to keep in view; for above Bent's famous hostelry on the mountain branch of the trail lay the yet wilder pack-horse commerce of the mountain trappers' rendezvous, far more romantic and profitable, if less safe and steady than the wagon commerce of the prairies. From the Wagon Mound to the first settlements of the Mexicans, on the Rio Gallinas, was an easy stage, and to Santa Fé by this time all roads of the mountains thereabout pointed. It was seven hundred and eighty miles to Santa Fé, according to Gregg, the more modern chronicles making it seven hundred and seventy-five miles, the latter figures being for a part of the time above, and part of the time under the old Gregg estimates, which are singularly correct in view of Gregg's facilities. The present Santa Fé railway follows the upper or mountain leg of the old trail, which went on up the Arkansas to Bent's Fort, and did not take the leap into the desert. From the Wagon Mound on into Santa Fé the railway route is practically identical with the old wagon way.

Thus we may see that this great highway, broken midway and deflected to the southward, was less than one thousand miles in length. There was no connection, except a rude sort of pack route by way of Taos and the Colorado River country, between the end of the Santa Fé trail and the California country. The wagons did not go that way. The later railway drops down along the Rio Grande valley, just as did the Chihuahua wagon road; and bends westward far below the old trails of Walker and Jedediah Smith, who started on their transcontinental voyagings from points higher up in the mountains than Santa Fé or Taos.

The way from Santa Fé to California seems to have been well known, but the trade did not dare to attempt a commerce so distant, and so unprofitable as it must have been, consumed by such necessarily heavy transportation charges. We speak of the Santa Fé trail as one of the great Western highways, but it was a halting and broken and arrested highway. It was not yet quite time for the straight leap across the rivers. The trail clung to the rivers as far as it might, and the attempts to cut loose from the streams, and go straight across from the Red River to Chihuahua, proved to be unprofitable or impracticable.

The total amount of merchandise carried in these picturesque caravans of the prairies was perhaps not so great as we should imagine, though we must remember that a dollar was larger then than it is to-day. The extent of the trade varied from year to year, and did not regularly increase; for though we note one caravan in 1831 taking out two hundred thousand dollars' worth of goods, we find that in 1841, ten years later, the whole annual trade was but one hundred and fifty thousand dollars. The climax was in 1843, when goods to the value of four hundred and fifty thousand dollars were transported.

The pay for this came back partly in specie, partly in furs, sometimes largely in horses and mules, the trade thus bearing a double profit and a double risk. The Indians did not care for gold or silver so much as they did for horses and mules, and diligent enough were their efforts to stampede the live stock of the traders. Upon occasion the United States Army was asked to escort a caravan, but this aid was not generally to be expected, especially since the worst part of the route, that infested by the Comanches, lay west of the then accepted western border of the United States. The average value of the trade was about one hundred and fifty thousand dollars yearly, and the total sum for the duration of this strange branch of American commerce was only about three million dollars.

The goods carried were at first largely prints and drillings, for the Mexicans got such goods from Vera Cruz on the coast, and only at great expense. Later silks, velvets, hardware and the general line of American goods began its first westward way across the American borders. Sometimes the stocks were retailed, sometimes sold at wholesale, the latter more often when the trader was in a hurry. It was a wild, peculiar and fascinating sort of commerce, and strong was the hold it naturally took upon the people of the Western border.

This trade was carried on mostly by our Southern-Western men, our new-Americans, as we may see by the letter of the grandson of James Baird, written from Kentucky. Glenn came from Cincinnati, Fowler from Covington, Kentucky, most of the other familiar figures from St. Louis, Franklin and other Missouri points. Morrison, the merchant of Kaskaskia, was a man who came down-stream. The Northern man, the man of New England or New York, had not yet become very much of a Westerner. The West was not yet safe enough for him. Nor indeed was he to lead the vanguard of the men who, far to the north of the old Santa Fé trail, were building another, a greater and more significant trail, one whose end we do not see even to-day; the men that were tapping all the secrets of the upper Rockies, that were to lead us to the brink of the Western sea and even to point beyond that sea. But for politics, the Southerners of to-day, the sons of the old daring ones, would admit the virtue of that finger pointing over seas.

There is still in New England something of the old timidity, the old unwillingness to see the pointing finger, the same un-American tardiness to recognize the challenge of the West. Had it not been for the fascinations of this upper country, for the allurements of the great trail that was to run across the continent to the far Northwest, there had been more competition in the Southwest trade, and mayhap a swifter crowding of events toward that state of affairs that Parkman saw when he visited the Santa Fé trail on his way home from the Rockies in 1846-the volunteers of Missouri, kindred to the men of Doniphan, who were straggling on out toward Mexico on an errand of justice that had long been overdue. Shuffling, angular, awkward, uncouth we may, with Parkman, admit these Southern-Western men to have been; each man his own commander, reluctant to admit a superior officer, as had been the fathers of these men from the time they left the Atlantic coast; but they did the work in Mexico. They opened the trail forever, and saw to it that the borders stretched and spread and gave us room. It is of no use to talk politics in questions like these, nor is there need to speak of the moralities. It is for the most part a matter of transportation. It was the Arkansas River trail that conquered Mexico.

This, then, was the great thing that the Santa Fé trail did for us, although we have forgotten it. It taught the people of New Mexico that the Americans were a greater and stronger people, a more just and steadfast people, than those to the south, who had done naught in all their lives but butcher and hesitate, butcher again and vacillate. They were not sad to take on the institutions of the United States in exchange for those of Spain. The Old World had not established its ways on the soil of the New World. The greatest of all Monroe doctrines still prevailed, the doctrine of the fit, the doctrine of evolution, of endurance by right, of hardihood got by a sane dwelling close to the great things of nature.

Far to the north, the Oregon trail led to California and the Orient. The Santa Fé trail, broken as it was in its transcontinental flight, points now in the same direction. The only ignoble part of the American story is the history of American politics. All politics aside, is it not easy to see that the old broken trail is a fate-finger pointing to Mexico and the trans-Isthmian canal; to an America wholly American; and to an Orient that again and by another trail is destined to be our West? We may spill our oratory, may deplore utterly and sincerely, yet we shall not prevail to build any wall high enough to stop this thing. The Old World might combine for the time against the New, might for a term of years conspire to put our venturers in prison; but at last it all were futile. Much of the temperate zone of the world belongs to a people whose history is but the history of a West; it will always so belong while the character of that people shall retain the dignity and force of those men who "could not otherwise."

This people is concerned to-day, as it has always been, not with sentiment but with self interest. Its great movements have been based not on theories but on common sense. Its great policies have been founded on geography and not on polemics. Its great adversities have been those of transportation; its great successes have been those built on transportation problems ably mastered. To-day this American people waxes somewhat flamboyantly boastful, according lightly and cheerfully to itself the title of the greatest nation of the world. It may indeed be such, or potentially such; but it will retain better claim upon that greatness if in all humility it shall remember the slow days wherein that greatness was founded, wherefrom that greatness grew. Therein lies the import of the early Western trails.

* * *


The spelling of this name is by most authorities given as "Becknell," which is thought to be correct.


V. Chapter IV, Vol. III; "Early Explorers of the Trans-Missouri."


Other authorities, as for instance Chittenden, make it 392 miles.

(← Keyboard shortcut) Previous Contents (Keyboard shortcut →)
 Novels To Read Online Free

Scan the QR code to download MoboReader app.

Back to Top