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The Santa Fe Trail
Digital History ID 538

Author:   James Josiah Webb

Annotation: Before 1820, traders from the United States who ventured into the Mexico's northern frontier had been imprisoned and their property confiscated by Spanish officials. But in 1821, William Becknell opened the Santa Fe Trail, which tied the Southwest economically to the United States and hastened Anglo-American penetration of the region. Becknell's eight-hundred mile journey from Missouri to New Mexico took two months. When he could find no water, Becknell drank blood from a mule's ear and the contents of a buffalo's stomach.

The Santa Fe Trail served primarily commercial functions. From the early 1820s until the 1840s, an average of eighty wagons and 150 traders used the trail each year. Mexican settlers in Santa Fe purchased cloth, hardware, glass, and books, much of which was later shipped south into central Mexico. On their return to the United States, American traders carried Mexican blankets, beaver pelts, wool, mules, and silver. By the 1830s, traders had extended the trail into California with branches reaching Los Angeles and San Diego.

By the 1850s and 1860s, after the United States conquered the Southwest, more than five thousand wagons a year made the two-to-three month journey along the trail. The Santa Fe Trail made New Mexico economically dependent on the United States and brought many Anglos into the areas that would become Arizona, California, Colorado, and New Mexico. In this selection, a Santa Fe trader describes conditions in the New Mexican capital.

Document: My first arrival in Santa Fé was in October [1844- after a journey of seventy days, which at that time was not considered a specially long trip.... The people were nearly all in extreme poverty, and there were absolutely none who could be classed as wealthy except by comparison. The Pinos and Ortizes were considered the ricos, and those most respected as leaders in society and political influence; but idleness, gambling, and the Indians had made such inroads upon their means and influence that there was but little left except the reputation of honorable descent from a wealthy and distinguished ancestry. The houses were nearly all old and dilapidated, the streets narrow and filthy, and the people, when in best attire, not half dressed....

A look at the resources of the country was not encouraging. The only products, beyond the immediate needs of the people, were wool (which would not pay transportation), a few furs, a very few deerskins, and the products of the gold mines, which did not amount to more than $200,000 a year when in bonanza, and very seldom to anything near that amount. Another resource of the country was from the proceeds of sheep driven to the low country in large flocks (amounting to from 50,000 to 100,000 a year), the proceeds from which would be in the hands of a very few of the ricos. And the only chance I could see of getting any portion of it was from the little that might be in the hands of a very few who might want to start a little store and had not yet got in the way of going to "the States" for goods, or [who] might indulge in the national propensity of gambling and thus put some portion of it into general circulation.

The system of peonage, or voluntary servitude, was a fixed institution. The wages of the laborers was only from three to six dollars a month, and a ration to the laborer only. From this he would have to support his family and pay the dues to the priest for marrying, baptizing, and burial of seven dollars and upwards, according to the ability and ambition of the individual desiring the services. An inflexible rule with the priests was: no money, no marrying; no money, [no] baptizing; no money, no burying.... As a consequence the poor were extremely so, and without hope of bettering their condition. The priesthood [was] corrupt, vicious, and improvident. Is it strange, then, that with such a heartless, demoralized, and utterly impious, yet very religious, priesthood, the people in such abject poverty could see no merit in virtue or honesty?

Source: James Josiah Webb, Adventures in the Santa Fe Trade, 1844-1847; ed. Ralph P. Bieber (Glendale, Calif., 1931), 91-104.

Source: James Josiah Webb, Adventures in the Santa Fe Trade, 1844-1847; ed. Ralph P. Bieber (Glendale, Calif., 1931), 91-104.

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