Covered Santa Fe Trail wagon in a museum display.

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

In 1821, the western edge of the United States was in the Boone’s Lick area of Missouri. The center was Franklin, a growing town on the Missouri River’s south bank. The financial Panic of 1819 had been hard on the frontier. A young man from Franklin, William Becknell, lost everything in the Panic. He was desperate with a wife, four children, and no money or land. His creditor had taken him to court. The judge placed Becknell on probation, ordering him to pay off his debt or be put in debtor’s prison. He was given six months.

As a trader and businessman, he would have heard of those who attempted to trade with the Spanish colonies, especially the northern territory around Santa Fe and Taos. There were dreams of profit, but they turned into nightmares of imprisonment at the hands of Spain. But rumors were spreading on the frontier. Mexico had tried again to free itself from Spanish rule. This time they were successful.

Not wanting to announce his intentions of trying to trade with Mexico, Becknell placed an ad in the Franklin paper looking for partners to head west “for the purpose of trading for horses and mules and catching wild animals of every description.”

In September 1821, Becknell and his five partners climbed on their horses and headed west into history.

Two hundred years later, anyone can follow in the footsteps of William Becknell and the thousands who followed him during the sixty years the Santa Fe Trail was active. From the site of Franklin to the plaza in Santa Fe, there are dozens of places to visit and immerse yourself in history.