Exhibition Overview

Between 1821 and 1880, the Santa Fe Trail was primarily a commercial highway connecting Missouri and Santa Fe, New Mexico. The route was pioneered by Missouri trader William Becknell, who left Franklin, Missouri in September 1821. Others before him had been arrested by Spanish soldiers once they neared Santa Fe, and most had been hauled south toward Mexico City to serve lengthy prison sentences. Becknell, however, was pleasantly surprised to find that Mexico had overthrown the Spanish yoke, and the new Mexican government – unlike their predecessors – welcomed outside trade. Not surprisingly, others got into the trade soon after Becknell returned, and by 1825 goods from Missouri were not only being traded in Santa Fe, but to other points farther south as well. Some traders used the so-called Mountain Route, which offered more dependable water but required an arduous trip over Raton Pass. Most, however, used the Cimarron Route, which was shorter and faster but required knowledge of where the route’s scarce water supplies were located.

This exhibition recognizes the bicentennial of this most important National Heritage Trail and its role in connecting Mexico with the United States, its role in the Texas Revolution, and the Mexican War, and how these events shaped the history of the American West from Central America to western Canada. After opening up trade between Missouri and Santa Fe, Nuevo Mexico, the Santa Fe Trail became a superhighway of the day carrying goods both ways and directly affecting cultures in both countries, along the way especially with native peoples in the territories west of Missouri.