When I drove to Fort Union National Monument from Santa Fe, I traveled the last 100 miles of the Santa Fe Trail. For 60 years, the trail ferried traders, soldiers, emigrants, adventurers, and many others between Missouri and Santa Fe, in the heart of the New Mexico Territory. It was a major international trade route and military supply road. But as with many historic trails, there wasn’t just one way to get from here to there. And in Cimarron, Kansas, trail travelers had a choice. They could turn southwest on the Cimarron Route, crossing the Oklahoma panhandle and coming into New Mexico along its border with Texas. Or they could head west on the Mountain Route into Colorado and following the Arkansas River before turning south and crossing over Raton Pass into New Mexico.
The Cimarron Route was shorter, but water was scarce and travelers more susceptible to Indian aggression, since the trail plowed through the traditional homelands of the Kaw, Comanche, Jicarilla Apache, and several other tribes. The Mountain Route was longer but safer. The two routes reconverged just south of Fort Union.
The ranger at the Fort Union National Monument visitor center encouraged me to head north along the Cimarron Route, then cut west to the Mountain Route before meeting the main trail again at Las Vegas. I thought that sounded like a good idea.
The long drive gave me time to think about trails. Thanks to the National Trails Act, we’ve chosen to preserve and interpret many of our historic trails, like the Santa Fe and the Lewis and Clark. Our storytelling about trails has, I think, gotten better over time. Thankfully, trails are no longer the sole province of the wide-open-space-seeking hardy pioneer, leading his burly oxen, doughty wife, and passel of kids across the plains. Sure, the romanticized long walk still resonates, but most of us now understand that the long walk went right through inhabited places, upending cultures and traditions. Trails are instruments of conquest and destruction as much as they are instruments of commerce and progress. Trails have winners and losers. And although the losers are now commemorated in interpretive signs, visitor center videos, and brochures, the fact is that simply by choosing to commemorate a particular trail, we ALSO exalt COMMEMORATE [privilege] those who benefited from it. Driving two-lane roads through enormous ranches east of Cimarrón reminded me of this truth.
The village of Cimarrón (motto: “Where the Rockies meet the Plains”) itself is a tumbleweedy pause on the road to the mountains, and is actually on the Mountain, not Cimarron, branch of the Santa Fe Trail. Don’t ask. Today Cimarrón best known as the jumping-off point for the Philmont Scout Ranch, where thousands of Boy Scouts go to test their mettle each year. It’s got a few false-front buildings, but the Santa Fe Trail attraction is the St. James Hotel a few blocks off the highway.
The hotel is famous for its ghosts and for having hosted numerous colorful figures of the Wild West, including Jesse James (who always stayed in Room 14), Wyatt Earp, Buffalo Bill Cody, and Annie Oakley. Things got rowdy often enough that visitors today can gaze at more than 20 bullet holes in the dining room’s pressed tin ceiling, evidence that Americans’ proclivity for addressing perceived slights with gunshots is nothing new. The hotel’s heyday ended when the Santa Fe Trail became obsolete, about 1880. It’s now listed on the National Register of Historic Places and new owners are sprucing it up. Unfortunately, the St. James was closed when I drove through, so I kept driving.
Just west of Cimarron the road enters Cimarron Canyon, a gloriously scenic gorge carved by the Cimarron River. The road twists and turns and offers precious few pullouts. Trout fishers flashed by in my peripheral vision as I kept my eyes glued to the asphalt, which climbed up to a high alpine valley at Eagle Nest. In the heart of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, the wind howls through the valley, creating whitecaps on the lake there and giving everything a scoured look. Maybe it’s calmer during the summer.
Turning south at Eagle Nest, I drove past Wheeler Peak, New Mexico’s tallest at 13,161 feet, and through Angel Fire, a popular ski destination, and into denser alpine forest. The Fort Union ranger had promised I’d see few other cars along this stretch, and he was right. The road turned into a narrow, unstriped affair. I slowed down again. Suddenly, I dropped into the north end of the Mora Valley, passed a gristmill built to supply grain to Fort Union, and ended up at the historic plaza in Las Vegas, NM.
Las Vegas lies about halfway between Fort Union and Santa Fe, so the town would have been one of the last stops trail travelers made. A pleasant park today, the plaza would have served defensive purposes as a Santa Fe Trail stop, with buildings surrounding the central area. The imposing Plaza Hotel reigns in one corner of the plaza, but it was more important to rail travelers than trail users. Like the St. James farther north, the Plaza Hotel hosted a number of notorious Westerners. Besides the usual mix of outlaws and businessmen, Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders held their first reunion at the Plaza in 1899. Easy Rider and No Country for Old Men are among the movies filmed here.
The hotel is undeniably cool, but even better, and more relevant to the Santa Fe Trail, are two squat adobe buildings down the street. Legend has it that Brigadier General Stephen Kearny claimed New Mexico for the United States in August 1846, four months into the Mexican-American War, while standing on the roof of these buildings. Predictably, today one of them is a real estate office.
After stopping at the excellently named Charlie’s Spic & Span for a homemade tortilla and iced coffee, I got back on the Santa Fe Trail, aka Interstate 25, and headed toward its terminus.
Driving out of Las Vegas, I was struck by the beauty of the llano, the meadows from which the town takes its name. These grasslands must have seemed endless, maybe monotonous, to Santa Fe Trail travelers, but oh, that wide open sky! Elk grazed in bottomlands, and meadowlarks flew up like sunny yellow fireworks, singing their springtime songs.
The sun was low in the sky by the time I got back to Santa Fe. After nine hundred miles and several months on the trail, travelers pulled into Santa Fe with their loads of goods. This was the end of the trail for most of them, and it’s here that I finally began to understand the trail’s importance.
In 1821, Mexico won independence from Spain, another example of Enlightenment-era colonists rising up against faraway rulers. All of what’s now New Mexico was part of the new country’s northern provinces, far from the political center at Mexico City. Getting supplies to outposts like Santa Fe was difficult, time-consuming, and expensive. Enter American business. William Becknell, unsuccessful politician and deeply in debt, loaded up pack horses in Frankin, MO, with $300 worth of goods and headed for Santa Fe, hoping to make enough money to start repaying his debts.
Talk about good timing. Mexico had just opened its borders to international trade, and Becknell was warmly welcomed in Santa Fe, where residents willingly paid exorbitant prices for fabric and other goods. He returned to Missouri with $6,000 in profit, and future trips were even more lucrative. Becknell’s journey was not the first along what came to be known as the Santa Fe Trail, but it is the one that opened Mexico for business with the United States. Traders picked up Mexican goods in Santa Fe, things like silver and turquoise, and brought them back to the US to sell there. Businessmen in New York imported goods from London for transport to Santa Fe. The trail was part of a global trade network with far-reaching cultural, social, and economic impact. Not surprisingly, Indians were generally the losers, as their territory, autonomy, population, and traditions were trampled under wagon wheels and horses’ hooves.
When New Mexico Territory became part of the United States after the Mexican-American War, the Santa Fe Trail served as a route for military movement and communications. Sitting astride the trail, Fort Union was the largest supply depot in the region and helped the United States maintain control of its new territory. In fact, during the Civil War the Union won control of the Southwest in a battle fought along the Santa Fe Trail.
For nearly six decades the trail was a vital commercial and military route, but it shortened as the railroads were built further west. When tracks reached Santa Fe in 1880, the trail’s utility disappeared altogether. But as I’d learned during my travels, evidence of it still exists. And it turns out that you can see ruts right in tourist-thronged, adobe-plastered Santa Fe.
A Santa Fe Trail wagon thunders across a corner of the Museum of New Mexico property. “Journey’s End” captures the relief travelers must have felt and the anticipation of major profits to be had in Santa Fe. Sharp-eyed visitors can spot a few ruts nearby. More ruts are visible in nearby Amelia White Park.
Other trail sites include El Zaguan, an 1840s house right in the middle of chi-chi Canyon Road. A corral out back used to house horses, mules, and oxen for Santa Fe Trail traders.
In the center of town, the Santa Fe Trail officially ends at the Santa Fe Plaza. It’s got a DAR marker at one corner. Merchants unloaded here and sold their wares on the spot. One side of the plaza houses the Palace of the Governors, the oldest government building in the United States (in use as the seat of government since 1610, albeit by different countries). When Kearny claimed New Mexico for the United States in 1846, he raised an American flag over this building. Today an elegant hotel, the La Fonda on the opposite corner was known as the Inn at the End of the Trail, a welcome sight for saddle-sore, wagon-jarred travelers.
It was nearly full dark by the time I got to my last stop, the San Miguel Mission, a few blocks from the plaza. I couldn’t quite figure out why the mission was important in the Santa Fe Trail story, and there isn’t any interpretation explaining it. But it’s acknowledged as the oldest church in Santa Fe and one of the oldest in the United States. Santa Fe Trail travelers passed by it just a few hundred yards from the plaza, and perhaps it was a solid symbol of religious order after months on the trail. As I climbed the stairs to the church, enormous nectar-sipping moths buzzed around lilac bushes. The justly famous New Mexico light was almost faded, and the church glowed with residual warmth. I soaked up the atmosphere for a few minutes, then called it a day.
The interstate, the development, the crowds of people — these all obscured the Santa Fe Trail, as happens when time molds terrain. Still, driving a chunk of the trail and stopping at important sites helped me understand its significance and gain a glimpse into what might have been like to travel the Santa Fe Trail in the mid-1800s, when it opened New Mexico to American trade and conquest.