Digital History

Westward Expansion

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Digital History ID 3255



The Santa Fe and Oregon Trails were the two principal routes to the Far West. William Becknell, an American trader, opened the Sante Fe Trail in 1821. Ultimately the trail tied the New Mexican Southwest economically to the rest of the United States and hastened American penetration of the region.

On September l, 1821, Becknell left Arrow Rock, Missouri, with a band of men and $300 worth of goods on pack animals. Two months and nearly 800 miles later his caravan arrived in Santa Fe. During the journey, Becknell had been forced to drink the blood from a mule's ear and the contents of a buffalo's stomach to survive when he could find no water.

The Santa Fe Trail served primarily commercial functions. Mexican settlers in Santa Fe purchased cloth, hardware, glass, books, and the region's first printing press. On their return east, American traders carried Mexican blankets, beaver pelts, wool, mules, and Mexican silver coins.

In 1811 and 1812, fur trappers marked out the Oregon Trail, the longest and most famous pioneer route in American history. Travel on the Oregon Trail was a tremendous test of human endurance. The journey by wagon train took six months. Settlers encountered prairie fires, sudden blizzards, and impassable mountains. Cholera and other diseases were common, and food, water, and wood were scarce. Only the stalwart dared brave the physical hardship of the westward trek.

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