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(1821) William Becknell left Franklin, Missouri, pioneering the route

that would become the Santa Fe Trail.

“The new nation of Mexico (receiving independence from Spain in 1821 reversed Spain’s ban on trade with the United States. Taking advantage of this new commerce, Missouri trader William Becknell and 20 men with trade goods left Franklin on an 800-mile journey to Santa Fe. By 1824, the trail was well established and trade continued between the white settlers and the Mexicans and Indians in the Southwest for the next 24 years. Independence would eventually become the starting point on this hard and dangerous journey. Yet, there was much to be gained by the trade route. Mexican silver stimulated the Missouri economy. And, the Mexican burro was introduced to German settlements by way of the trail. German settlers mated their Belgian draft horses with the burro to produce the true Missouri mule”.

The Santa Fe Trail can be thought of as America’s first commercial highway, covering about 800 miles across Missouri and the Great Plains. The route connected Santa Fe, New Mexico with the newly formed state of Missouri. The trail head started in Old Franklin, Mo, then on to Arrow Rock to Independence Missouri, ending the journey in Santa Fe New Mexico. Much of the trail follows the Missouri River.

William Bucknell pioneered the trail in 1821 with the idea of opening up new markets for Missouri goods. This was a very active trail until 1880 when the railroad arrived in Santa Fe.

Courtesy of: Missouri Bicentennial Timeline

Greg James pic.jpg

The Santa Fe Trail, Pre-1821 to 1850

The Santa Fe Trail was first officially started when William Becknell left Franklin, Missouri in September 1821 with a small group of men. Becknell had made a series of bad business deals, was deep in debt and facing jail time if his debts were not paid soon.  In May 1821 Becknell advertised in the Missouri Intelligencer for men to go with him on the trip.

In August of the same year a meeting was held in the home of Ezekiel Williams. There were 17 people at the meeting. The Becknell party left on 1 September 1821 and arrived in Santa Fe on 16 November the same year. While on their trip they were met by a troop of Mexican soldiers who informed them that Mexico had gained its independence from Spain and that they would be welcomed in Santa Fe. The group left Franklin with $300 worth of trade goods and returned with $6000 in silver.

This excursion was not without risks. There had been several who had made the same trek only to have bad outcomes. In 1804 Baptist Leland went to Santa Fe but did not come back. In 1805 James Pursely also went to Santa Fe but did not come back. In 1806 Zebulon Pike went as a government agent. He pretended he was lost, and the Mexican government took him prisoner to Chihuahua for 6 months. In 1812 Robert McKnight, James Baird and Samuel Chambers with 10-12 others made the trip. They were arrested and kept 9 years in Chihuahua. In 1817 August Pierre Choteau made the trip and he was arrested in Santa Fe.

The group headed back to Franklin on 13 December. Only one of the four who came with Becknell on the initial trip to Santa Fe was in the return trip.

Becknell’s second trip to Santa Fe left Franklin on 22 May 1822 with 21 men and 3 wagonloads of goods worth $3000. They returned earning $91,000.

Becknell’s third trip as a member of a party of 81 men, 25 wagons, 200 horses and mules and $30,000 of trade goods yielded $180,000 in silver coin and $10,000 in fur pelts.

Two main routes developed early to traverse the trail. The northern, more mountains route took about 77 days to travel. The southern or Cimarron route took a few days less to travel. Sometimes wagons had to be taken apart to go over mountainous areas and put back together. Wagons broke down and soon parts were strewn along the trail.

The Cimarron route was smoother but was called the Journey of death by the Mexicans because it was so dry. Summers could be hot and dry on both routes and winters could be so full of snow and ice and bitter cold. Rivers could be flooded or completely dried up. Problems such as dust storms, gnat swarms, rattle snakes, buffalo stampedes, etc., always made for a hazardous trip. Indian raids became more of a problem the larger the trade trips became.  After a while, wagons took the place of pack horses/mules because they could haul more goods.

The Cimarron route was 865 miles in length and 75% of the trade took place through that route. The Northern route was 909 miles in length and 25% of the trade took place through that route.

Up until the Mexican American War in 1847, international trade both ways took place. Then in 1848-1850 trade was national in nature as New Mexico became a United States Territory. 

The first wagons used on the trail were farm-type wagons. Then as the volume of trade goods increased Conestoga-type wagons from Pennsylvania became the norm. Later the Conestoga-type wagons were built in Missouri.  

Benefits of the Trail: 

  1. The profits that were brought back added needed money into Missouri and Boonslick economies;

  2. The Trail opened the way for the California gold rush and the Oregon Trails;

  3. Facilitated westward movement of people all the way to the Pacific Ocean.

  4. Probably helped enable New Mexico to become a territory, and then a state.


Although the Santa Fe Trail did not originate in Cooper County, many of the supplies needed for the Trail came from Cooper County merchants and manufacturers.  After the 1827-28 floods, Westward trade in Boonville was greatly increased. Although the trade route brought new population and businesses to Cooper County, many people left the County to participate in the trade opportunities in Santa Fe and/or the California Gold Rush, and decided to stay in California, Oregon, or Washington. While the Becknell group weren’t the only ones looking for a better trade route to Santa Fe, they were the first to arrive there. Many such trips followed by Becknell and others.

Because of William Becknell’s efforts to open the trail, he is known as the “Father of the Santa Fe Trail.”

Sources:, Encyclopedia Britannica, Wikipedia, Ann Betteridge

Source: Ray Glendenning, South Howard County Historical Society researcher.


Santa Fe National Historic Trail: Although the NPS map does not show the trail in Cooper County, we do know some traders were from Cooper County and trading parties left on occasion from Boonville after purchasing supplies.

Wikipedia- Excellent article and map.

Boone’s Lick Road Association - Excellent information on their website.


The Boone’s Lick Road Association (BLRA), incorporated in Missouri in 2011, is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization. Our mission is twofold: First, we want to preserve and tell the fascinating stories of the first major road into the heart of Missouri. Secondly, we hope to secure federal recognition of this road as a National Historic Trail. We aim to be the most comprehensive and authoritative source for information and research into this historic trail.


Other References:

Conastoga Wagon..jpg

Original Conestoga Wagon – Wayne Lammers' Collection


Modern-Day Conestoga Wagon

South Howard County Historical Society

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