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New Map: The Santa Fe Trail


In honor of the 200th anniversary of the blazing of the Old West's most iconic trail, I'm happy to announce the release of my newest map: The Santa Fe Trail. This map highlights the full extent of the Santa Fe Trail from Franklin, Missouri to Santa Fe, New Mexico and is set in the year 1870. At that time Oklahoma was still "Indian Territory" and most of western Kansas and the Texas Panhandle had not yet been divided up into counties. Colorado and New Mexico were still US territories and the railroad had just reached Denver from Kansas City.

Along the Trail you'll find significant forts, campsites, landmarks, watering holes, river crossings other historic sites related to its story. The map also features an eight-panel interpretation of the progression of the railroad, which ultimately rendered the Trial obsolete in its final 15 years. Yet there are still more goodies for the history buff on the map, such as major wagon roads and the great cattle trails of Texas with their related historic sites.

As with all my old west maps, this one uses similar colors, styles and lettering commonly found on maps from the 1800's and has been meticulously researched for historical and geographical accuracy. It was designed to evoke the feeling of a genuine antique map from the dangerous and dusty days of the trail, while telling a story that was still being written.

A Brief History of the Santa Fe Trail

The Discovery of America

Italian explorer Christopher Columbus, sailing for the Spanish crown, famously arrived in the Americas in 1492 by way of a small island in the Caribbean, known today as San Salvador. This event ushered in three centuries of Spanish exploration and conquest throughout the Americas. The Spanish crown ravenously claimed territory in the New World, subjugating native peoples, plundering riches and resources, and establishing missions and settlements across thousands of miles. At its peak in the late 1700’s, New Spain claimed most of what is today the United States, all of Mexico and Central America, the Caribbean and parts of South America. The territory was vast, but it was not equally settled. While the seat of government was firmly established in Mexico City, and Coastal California was well-established with wealthy Spanish landowners, the region today known as the American Southwest was remote, sparsely settled and largely populated by powerful native tribes such as the Comanche, Apache and Navajo. The Spanish crown maintained a very tenuous grasp on the region for centuries through the tiny capital of Santa Fe, connected to Mexico City by a treacherous 1,600 mile overland route across mountains and deserts.

The Spanish Arrive in the Southwest

In 1540, Spanish Conquistador Francisco Vázquez de Coronado led Spain’s first major overland expedition in the Southwest from present-day Mexico through the future states of Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas. The Spanish would not return until 1598 when Don Juan de Oñate led settlers to the area around present day Santa Fe and claimed the region as a province of New Spain. The capital of the province was established at San Juan de los Caballeros (present-day Española) but in 1610 the capital was moved 25 miles south to the newer settlement of La Villa Real de la Santa Fé de San Francisco de Asís, or what today is simply Santa Fe.

For more than two hundred years Santa Fe was an extremely remote outpost in the vast Spanish Empire in the New World. Santa Fe was connected to Mexico City by a 1,600–mile wagon road called the El Camino Reál de Tierra Adentro. Santa Fe was also 700 miles from either the Pacific Ocean or the Gulf of Mexico. Nearly all non-Indian trade goods arrived in Santa Fe via the El Camino Real, a journey which could take six months to complete one way. Though New Spain’s eastern neighbor, the United States, was rapidly growing, the Spanish Crown forbade all international trade, leaving Santa Fe wholly reliant on the distant capital of Mexico City for goods from the outside world. However, this all changed in 1821 when Mexico won its independence from Spain after a brutal 11-year war.

Trade with Mexico

Though various overland trails had existed for decades between Santa Fe and the United States, trade was not welcomed until the Mexican government took control and the United States formally established the Santa Fe Road. In 1821, farmer William Becknell organized a trading expedition in Missouri, bound for Mexico. He started in Franklin and blazed the 900-mile road to Santa Fe. His action, combined with formal backing by the United States, opened up large scale trade between the two countries for the first time. Over the next 6 decades, the trail carried tens of thousands of traders, buffalo hunters, explorers, gold-seekers, military expeditions and millions of pounds of trade goods between the United States and Mexico. But the Santa Fe Road was not for the weak willed or the unprepared. Even the very prepared sometimes experienced tragedy on the Trail. The road crossed rivers and deserts and rugged terrain, with very long stretches devoid of water, fuel, food or shelter. In the 1830’s, Bent’s Fort was the only white settlement between Missouri and New Mexico, and bands of Indians were often hostile to the trespassers arriving on their hunting grounds. Disease was rampant, especially in the later years when traffic along the trail increased dramatically. Many travelers died and were buried in shallow graves along the Trail.

Around the time the Americans established the Santa Fe Trail, the Mexicans established what would evolve into the Old Spanish Trail. This “trail” was actually a network of routes that lead from Santa Fe to Los Angeles, California and they evolved significantly over time. The first trail was blazed in 1829 by Mexican trader Antonio Armijo. At this time the entire Southwest from New Mexico to California was part of Mexico. Subsequent trade routes were developed and used over the next twenty years, in many places following old Indian and Spanish routes. By the 1840's, the United States was in possession of the Southwest and new wagon roads to California rendered the Old Spanish Trail network obsolete.

The American Wild West

After 1848, Texas was a U.S. state and all the territory west to California had become part of the United States. Santa Fe was now an American city, but trade continued. The Civil War period from 1860–1865 saw a decline in traffic along the Trail and a marked increase in hostilities between whites and Indian tribes as U.S. military forces concentrated their resources in the East. But the end of the Civil War brought change at a scale previously unseen. This was the golden age of the Wild West. The railroad brought people and goods in vast numbers to the far reaches of the West, America’s famous cattle trails rose to prominence, and many of the most legendary Western figures such as Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday and Billy the Kid began making history throughout the Southwest. Many of America's other famous trails, such as the Chisholm and Western cattle trails and the California-Oregon trails intersected or branched off from the Santa Fe Trail, while the proliferation of the railroad began to erode it.

The End of the Trail

As the decades passed and Americans flooded into the Southwest, the Indians and the buffalo declined rapidly. The the sheer number of travelers left their mark along the trail as well. Carcasses of livestock and discarded goods littered the entire length of the road. The rare timber stands had been depleted, and many good watering holes were fouled by travelers carrying disease and leaving waste and garbage behind. But it was the railroad, which started overtaking the Santa Fe Trail in Missouri in the 1860’s, which ended the era of the famous road. By 1867 the railroad had reached Fort Dodge, by 1870 Bent’s Old Fort, by 1873 Fort Union, and in February 1880 it finally rolled a spur line into Santa Fe, rendering the old road obsolete.

Further Reading

If you'd like to read more about the Santa Fe Trail, check out my blog for additional articles on Trail history and my personal travels to historic sites along the trail. I make an effort to track down and visit every site shown on my Old West maps and then blog about it, posting photos, location details and other good stuff I find along the way.


Thanks for reading! All maps or portions of maps appearing in this post are original designs by Billy J. Roberts and may not be copied or used without express written consent. Prints may be available for purchase by visiting our Old West Maps store. As always, if you intend to visit any historic site, please make sure they are publicly accessible or that you have landowner permission before you go. Feel free to leave a public comment below or shoot me a message with the form at the bottom of the home page.

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