The Santa Fe Trail, Following Becknell’s Footsteps – Introduction

Origins of the Santa Fe Trade

History is not linear. It is like a spider’s web. Pull in one place, and another spot moves. Things can get complicated and tangled up. The origins of the Santa Fe Trail are one of those things.  


Web of History

Source: Original by Author

 After the Revolutionary War, America was a small country, mainly along the Atlantic ocean. Some ambitious people had moved over the Appalachian Mountains and were moving west.

The Northwest Territory Ordinance of 1787 pushed the boundary of the US to the Mississippi River. The expanding country wanted the port at the southern end of the river, New Orleans. At that time, the city was owned by France. In 1803, President Thomas Jefferson sent envoys to Paris. Their mission was to negotiate the purchase of New Orleans.

European Origins of the Santa Fe Trail

Remember the tangle of history? Let’s jump over to France. Between 1699 and 1762, France controlled a vast empire in North America and the Caribbean. They lost much of that land to Spain at the end of the Seven Years’ War. A side theater of the War was known to English colonies as the French and Indian War. That War saw Canada become British and Louisiana become Spanish.

Map of North America in 1763

Louisiana Purchase. (2023, February 4). In Wikipedia.

In 1800, the leader of the Frech Republic,  Napolean Bonaparte(we will see him again later in this narrative), wanted to rebuild the French North American empire. For the previous 400 years, France had been winning and losing territory on the Italian Peninsula. Napoleon traded part of the peninsula to Spain for France’s old North American territory. 

Have you gotten confused yet? This was the situation for Napoleon in 1803 when the US showed up at his front door: England controlled all of Canada and part of what is now the US Pacific Northwest. The US had everything between the Mississippi River and the Atlantic Ocean except for Florida. Spain owned the land west of the Rocky Mountains and South of the Arkansas River. France has the land in the middle of everyone. Alaska and the Caribbean mess up the picture, so I will ignore them.

Map of North America in 1800

Napoleon was having second thoughts about a North American Empire and thinking of a European one. When Jefferson’s envoys asked about purchasing New Orleans, he convinced them they needed all of the territories on the continent. It was a win-win deal. The US had much room to expand, and France had money to finance a war.

The losers of the transfer of land were the Spanish, who didn’t trust the US, and the natives living on the land that they thought of as theirs. Why didn’t Spain trust the US? It was a doctrine that later became known as Manifest Destiny. Religion now sneaks into the story.  

A nondescript and relatively unknown monk in Germany decided the Church and the Pope had gone too far. The Reformation he started spread throughout Northern Europe. Spain remained Papist(Catholic), and at the same time, England and her colonies became Protestant. After freeing themselves from England, the US argued that it was their religious duty to people the continent with Protestant citizens. Catholic Spain and “savages” without religion needed to be removed or converted. If you were Spanish, would you trust the US? Or, for that matter, those living on the land?

North American Origins of the Santa Fe Trail

A year after purchasing the Louisiana Territory, in 1804, President Jefferson sent out an expedition known as the Corps of Discovery Expedition to explore part of the new territory. Led by Merriweather Lewis and William Clark, it traveled up the Missouri River to its source. They then crossed the Rockie Mountains and traveled to the Pacific coast. 

More relevant to the Santa Fe Trail was the Pike Expedition of 1806. Led by Zeublon Pike, the group explored the Spanish border in present-day Colorado. In early 1807 after splitting into two groups, Pike led one group south and ‘accidentally’ crossed into Spanish territory. Spanish troops captured Pike and his group, labeling them as spies.

The soldiers led Pike and his men on a long overland journey to Chihuahua in Mexico. There the governor decided that as Spain and the US were not at War, it would be best to return the Americans. The Spanish military escorted Pike and his band through Texas to the border with Louisiana, where they were turned over to the US. This escapade did not help Spain-US relations.

Map of Pike’s Expedition 1806-1807


Spain, for economic reasons, wanted its colonies, especially northern Nuevo Mexico, to refrain from trading with anyone. The colonial government wanted all trade to flow through Mexcian ports. This meant all the money would stay in Mexico and the government’s banks.

The people around Santa Fe and Taos preferred something else. Goods were expensive, and it took a long time from Mexico to the colony’s cities. The goods that finally arrived were of poor quality and did not meet all the inhabitant’s needs. Some illicit trading was going on with the French in what is now Colorado. The Spanish colonist traded with and raided native tribes for some goods. However, the residents were hungry for trade goods.

Remember Napolean? The money he received for Louisiana was used to finance several wars. In 1808, through trickery, Napoleon took over Spain. With the Spanish monarchy in turmoil, Spain’s colonies decided it was time to become independent countries. By the 1820s, Mexico had tried to become free. The lower class wanted independence, but the rich sided with the royalist who wished to remain part of Spain.

In August 1821, the fighting was over, and Mexico became independent. The date is significate if we remember William Becknell left for Santa Fe in September 1821.

Economic Origins of the Santa Fe Trail

Things were beginning to come together. We had an expansionist US and a free Mexico desiring trade. One more factor was needed to complete the picture: the economy. Our old friend, Napoleon, makes another appearance in our story. After fighting all over Europe, from the Iberian Peninsula to the Gates of Moscow, things turned for the worse for France.

During the long wars, much of European factories and fields suffered from the ravages of wars, as well as a shortage of labor. America was all too happy to supply Europe’s needs. Cotton and wheat prices soared, along with other agricultural products. The factories of the New England states hummed with around-the-clock activity. Money flowed, much of it paper currency.  

At this time in history, banks could print their own money. Deposits in the bank backed it. During the prosperity, everything was fine. As the saying goes, all good things come to an end. With the return of soldiers to work, English goods, cheaper than locally produced ones, swamped the US markets. The price of cotton dropped by two-thirds. Over-mortgaged farmers could not pay their debts. Banks could not redeem paper currency for silver or cover their own loans. The financial system in the US collapsed. The country was awash in paper money, but little hard specie existed. Desperate people like William Becknell looked west at the unmet demand for products in newly free Mexico. They gambled. The Santa Fe Trade was born as the road that carried merchandise one way and silver back the other. The Santa Fe Trail was created.