William Becknell & The Santa Fe Trail
81k! be ware :)
Late in the spring of 1822, a band of Comanche Indians, riding along the bank of
the Arkansas River, to the west of what is now Dodge City, may have whitnessed something
on the plains that had never been seen before since the begining of time.
To the Indians it must have been a puzzling sight, for it is
certain that none of them had ever seen the like before. What they saw was simple enough
to a white man. Merely a wagon track, but it is doubtful if any track in the history of
the United States carried the importance and the historical significance of this one.
It meant that, at last, the plains and deserts of the West had been subdued to the uses of
man; that out of the ghostly processions of centuries that had passed that way, a trail
had been blazed - the Santa Fe Trail to carry the surging power of the white man westward.
Behind that descovery lies the story that is the courage and
heroism of one man, Captain William Becknell, who has been called "The Father of the
Santa Fe Trail".
To the present day, the achievement of Becknell may seem tame and lacking in
adventurous glamour. The great plains of Kansas are now rich wheat fields. Mile-a-minute
express trains carry passengers across this stretch of eight hundred miles. Wide concrete
highways permit automobiles to speed over that expanse of country with the comfort and
speed unknown to even a King in 1822. Planes now cover in one hour what, 125 years ago,
In 1822 the country beyond Missouri was a vast unchartered land
where only the bravest and hardiest of white men ventured, and of those who did, only a
few ever returned. Great herds of Buffalo roamed the plains. Indians, war-like and surly
at the encrouchment of the white man to the Missouri River, moved in bands, ready to seek
their vengance on the hated pale face.
There were rivers with treacherous bottoms of quick-sand. Beyond
the plains lay the desert - grim, waterless and deadly, and after this, the impassable
mountains. Across these were the advance outposts of Spain in the new world, ruled by fat,
corrupt govenors, jealous of the French and Yankees, backed by soldiers that watched the
domain of Spain to see that neither of these races entered that land.
When Captain William Becknell left Arrow Rock, Missouri, on
September 1st, 1821, for his first trip West, he had no idea that he was destined to blaze
a trail the following year. He had come Missouri a few years before, lured by the hope of
adventure. As a trader he made a marked success, and he set out in 1821, for his third
trip, confident of sucess.
Yet even before he started on this trip, events were happening far
to the South that were to change the whole complexion of the West. In Mexico City, a
revolutionary army under Iterbide marched into that Capital, victors over the Spaniards.
From that moment on, the power of Spain in Mexico was forever at an end.
Crossing the plains on horseback, the captain and his party heard
nothing of the momentous happenings to the South. On the thirteenth of November they were
at Rock River. Here they were suddenly surrounded by a small body of soldiers. They had no
chance to fight and his men resigned themselves to the dungeon that had been meted out to
the American traders before them.
But their apprehension and fears suddenly changed to amazement.
Instead of taking them prisoners, the soldiers greeted them as brothers and urged them to
go on to Santa Fe. It took considerable explaining to make the Americans understand what
had happened, but when they learned of the fall of Spain and the establishments of the
Mexican government, they realized that what had happened would be an important turning
point in the history of the West.
They went into Santa Fe, disposed of their trade goods at a big
profit, and early in December, started back to Missouri with news that was to make the
frontier teem with excitement.
They arrived at Arrow Rock on January 22nd, carring their
rawhide bags of silver dollars. They dumped them on the sidewalk to prove the news they
brought home with them. The excitement in Arrow Rock rose to fever heat. News of the
overthrow of Spain had reached this frontier post months before, but nobody knew that the
attitude of the Mexican government would be friendly to American traders.
It was the dawn of a new epoch. The barriers that had surrounded
New Mexico had collapsed so suddenly that it left the traders dazed. But it did not take
Arrow Rock and the other little outposts in Missouri long to get over this frame of mind.
It dawned upon the traders that the dangers of the plains made it
possible to carry only such trade goods as would go on horse, and a fast horse at that.
The danger from Indians remained the paramount obstacle in crossing the plains. This
realization put a sudden damper on the feelings of excitement, and it seemed, for the
moment, that the chance of open trade within New Mexico would mean little after all.
However, Captain Becknell solved this problem with the
announcement that he was taking a wagon train across the plains and desert to Santa Fe.
This was received with boisterous laughter. For more than a week it was a new frontier
joke. People referred to Becknell's wagon train as the 'Caravan of Death'.
Aptly named when it was known that crossing the plains on fast
horses was dangerous and uncertain enough, but to take huge wagons, drawn by slow-moving
oxen meant fairly certain suicide and death.
Absurd - utterly insane, was the verdict of the frontier to
Captain Becknell's plan. How could he hope to take heavy wagons over the mountains at
Raton when it took a week to get one horse over them? The veteran traders and trappers
that had crossed the plains could advance a score of convincing reasons why the
undertaking was fool-hardy and certain of failure. Undetterred, Captain Becknell went
ahead with his plans and on May 22nd, he had three wagons loaded with merchandise,
twenty-four oxen, and twenty-one men.
This man was a veteran of the plains himself. He knew as well as
any person in Arrow Rock the dangers he would encounter - and he knew the odds that were
against him even getting to the Arkansas River. The very absurdity of his plan was as
evident to him as anyone else.
But his vision extended beyond the great rolling plains and the
hordes of war-like Indians that would swamp down on him by the thousands; he was looking
beyond the treacherous quicksand of the river bottoms and the impassable mountains. He saw
at the end of all this a new Empire, a new horizon lined with gold, and the glory of this
sight caused him to laugh at the dangers that lay at his feet
Early on the that morning, his wagon train rolled down the
short and dusty main street of Arrow Rock to start on its rumbling journey across the
The whole outpost witnessed the departure, but from the crowd came
a few cheers. People do not cheer men they believe to be riding to their death. Many of
the crowd believed Becknell insane; all were convinced that he was going on a fool's
errand. But great wagons rumbled and creaked and the great whips cracked. Fifteen minutes
later the Caravan of Death had slipped over the hill and disappeared from sight.
Since the route taken by Captain Becknell became the Santa Fe
Trail, it is interesting to follow it in relation to the present day towns of the West.
From Arow Rock he went almost due West, passing the future city of (1)Independence, Missouri, a city that was to spring to life
a few years later and to assume the honor of being the starting point of the Santa Fe
Forty-one miles west of here he passed (2)Gardner, which was later to be the famous turning off
place for the Oregon Trail. By this time the wagon train had gone over seventy-five miles.
They were not in the Indian country yet, though they were now entering Kansas and would
soon be at the site of the present town of (3)Baldwin.
However, if the first seventy-five miles had little worry about
Indians, it proved another obstacle, one that had been overlooked, but which was
threatening the trip from the very begining. The spring of 1822 was exceedingly rainy, and
the heavy wagons, weighing more than seven thousand pounds each, sank into the mud almost
to the hubs. This made progress slow and laborious.
Captain Becknell, doing the work of three men, cheered his men on.
When they finally got to what is now the town of Baldwin, they ran into the famous Kansas
Gumbo mud, red, sticky and deep. The wagon train had to stop and wait for the ground to
dry before proceeding.
After a brief rest, it continued, crossing into Osage County,
following a route past the sites of the present towns of Flag Spring, (4)Overbrook, and (5)Burlingame.
Near the latter city, it crossed Bridge Creek.
Captain Becknell camped for the night on the west bank of this
creek. He and his men knew they were now in Indian territory and guards were posted to
watch for any suspicious signs. The fact that no Indians had appeared caused Becknell some
worry. When dawn came the following morning, he understood the reason.
True to indian tradition of fighting at dawn, the Osages appeared
in a band of nearly a thousand warriors. The size of the force indicated that the
straggling bands, seeing the three huge wagons drawn by oxen, a sight tthey had not seen
before, caused the Indians to wait until they were in a large force before surrounding the
At the sight of the Indians, Becknell kept his head. He ordered
that no shot be fired, and it was this order that saved the lives of every man in the
camp. Becknell knew the character if the Osages. He knew that while not as savage as the
Pawnes or the Comanches, they would steal horses and goods and kill to do this. He also
knew that trinkets and a few horses and oxen might satisfy their desire for plunder, since
the Osage had a wholesome respect for the white man's gun
So Becknel, having a Chouteau with him, adopted tactics other than
fighting, though he saw each of his men had his gun where it could be seen. Accompanied by
the Chouteau, Becknell walked out to the Chief of the band. The Chouteau did the talking,
promising trinkets as a token of friendship. The Cheif, eying the guns of the men around
the wagons, agreed to take the trinkets.
In that manner, Becknell got out of his first encounter with the
Indians safely, though he realized that dealing with the Osages was different to the
After this encounter, the wagon train pushed on slowly,
crossing into what is now Lyons County, Kansas, passing the sites of the present day
cities of Waushara and Agnes City. After Lyons County he passed into Morris County, forded
Rock Creek, and than a hundred and seventy-five miles from his starting point, he led his
train over the ridge of a high hill and looked down into a valley, the beauty of which was
to thrill the hearts of every white man that was to pass on this trail.
The valley was filled with oak, and ash, and walnut trees, a
valley broad and green and abloom with a hundred wild flowers. Three years later United
States Commissioners were to meet with the Osage Cheif in this valley, beneath the oak
trees, and effect a treaty of peace that was never broken.
And after this meeting the name of (6)Council Grove was given the conference spot. A town of this name
was started there, a town that was perhaps the most famous of all stopping places along
the Santa Fe Trail. Today it is a sleepy little Kansas city of three thousand people,
still shaded by the famous oaks.
From this valley, Becknell's wagon train pushed on, passing the
sites of the present towns of Relmick and (7)Wilsey,
coming to the famous Diamond Springs. From here he followed a line that runs south of the
present town of Herrinton and north of the town of Lost Springs, (8)Romona, Tampa and Durham, all in the future Marion County.
From this point on, he was in what was known as the Cottonwood
country. No more hardwood was encountered, a fact that was to prove serious to the
travellers over the Trail. The cottonwoods grew profusely in the river and creek bottoms,
but the wood was too soft for repairing wagons and practically useless for cooking. The
soft bark could be fed to the stock and in an emergency eaten by man.
Crossing the treacherous Cottonwood River ford at (9)Durhman, Becknell cut through what is now (10)McPherson and Rice County. The land of the Osage Indians was far
behind and the Kansas Indians appeared in small bands to cause the men of the wagontrain
The days passed slowly. The men were haggard for want of sleep.
They grumbled. The Indians that followed them, threatening at any minute to attack, frayed
their nerves. The green and flowered country of eastern Kansas had given way to the short
grass region, barren and desolate looking, monotonous and dreary and depressing. Great
herds of buffalo now dotted the plains.
Two weeks later, five miles west of the present (11)Dodge City, Kansas, Becknell crossed the Arkansas River and
struck southwest - straight into Comanche territory and into the Jornada, the desert
between the Arkansas and Cimarron Rivers.
The Comanches appeared from behind hills, but always in small
groups, unwilling to attack the wagon train. Where the large wagon train had been supposed
to attract Indians, Becknell suddenly found that the very size of it, was to prove a
The Comanches though numerous and war-like, never travelled in
large bands, except when on the war path. The year 1822 was a year of peace for them and
no great bands moved over the desert. Had they done so, Becknell and his wagon train would
have progressed only a short distance from Arkansas. The Pawnees were north and not until
several years later, when the Santa Fe Trail was travelled by numerous wagaon trains, did
this tribe of Indians give their attention to it.
The same applied to the Kiowas, Cheyennes and the Sioux, who were
later to take such a toll of life on the Trail. Other tribes - the Utes, Navajos, the
Apaches, and the Arapahoes - also appeared in large numbers.
None of these latter tribes were there when Becknell crossed the
Arkansas River and turned south. He chose the southern route because he knew, from
experience in the mountains around Raton, that it was a physical impossility to get wagons
over the divide.
Into the desert the wagon train went with only the canteens
filled with water and a compass to guide it over the glittering sand. Behind and around it
lurked the shadows of the Comanches. The men's nerves were at breaking point, waiting for
the dreaded attack to come.
At the end of two days they ran out of water. The water holes
disapeared. A day passed and the heat increased and the last of the was was used. That
night they camped with swollen tongues and bloodshot eyes. The oxen gasped for breath and
threw their heads dangerously from the thirst that was burning in to them.
When the morning came the wagons started rolling over the hard
sands. An hour passed but no water holes appeared. Another hour and the grim, stark shadow
of death hung over all. The men stumbled crazily. The oxen fell to their knees, only to be
flayed by the thirst-crazed men until they rose to their feet and stumbled a few yards
Mirages of lakes and streams and golden cities appeared before the men.
Some went screaming after these elusive mirages. Captain Becknell was the only one to keep
his head. Men turned on him with fury of murder in their wild, red rimmed eyes, but he
made them plod on through the merciless heat.
He rode out into desert and brought back the half-crazed souls that had
chased the mirages. He did not find them all. Noon came and still no water. Aftertnoon
brought no releif. Black spots were dancing in front of Becknell's eyes. He knew the end
was near. Another half hour -or hour at the most. Human endurance could stand no more One
of the wagons stopped when it's oxen had fallen, their swollen tongues out and their
chests heaving weirdly.
Thirst-crazed men crawled up to them, pricked them weakly with knives so
as to draw blood that might be sucked from their bodies. Ghastly and terrifying. Becknell
tried to struggle to his feet but his strength was gone. The sun beat down with renewed
fury, as if gloating over the failure of man to conquer the desert.
Captain Becknell raised his head. He had been seeing mirages for a
long time now and wondered if what he saw was merely another one. To the right of him, not
twenty yards away, was a herd of buffalo. He raised his gun and fired.
One of the herd floundered into the dust with a bullet through it's
heart. Captain Becknell crawled weakly over to it. He knew buffalo never ventured into the
desert without a stomach full of water.
A stomach full of water! Strange things may have saved men from dying
from thirst on deserts, but it the only known record of a wagon train being saved in this
Captain Becknell managed to carve through the flesh until he came to the
stomach. It was distended with water, gallons ot it. Years later a survivirfrom this wagon
train said "Nothing ever passed my lips that gave me such exquisite delightas my
drink of that filthy water".
The presence of the water in the stomach or the buffalo told Captain
Becknell that somewhere close by there was water. Leaving his men lying on the sand,
reprieved for a few hours from death, Captain Becknell stumbled on and in time came to the
(12)Cimarron river. Filling the canteens he carried
with him, he returned to the wagon train in time to save the lives of many of his men.
A month later, his "Caravan of Death" stood on the last
rise of the (13)Guorieta range of mountains and
it's survivers gazed down on the city of Santa Fe, New Mexico. Here was their goal,
nestling at the foot of the Sangre De Cristo mountains on the edge of the great plateau
that rolls westward towards the valley of the Rio Grand.
Eight hundred miles of hell had brought them to this moment and the men
stared as in a stunned trance. Then came the realization that they had indeed won bringing
forth a wild, half-hysterical cheer from every last man.
A new trail had been blazed - The Santa Fe Trail, over which the
surging wave of restless pioneers was to move to conquer the empire of the West.