By David Clapsaddle
During the first decades of the 19th century, there were two types of roads in our young republic, improved and unimproved.
Improved roads, toll roads known as turnpikes and public roads known as highways, had drainage ditches on either side of an elevated roadbed.
Unimproved roads, having neither drainage ditches or elevated roadbeds, might well be characterized as routes, that is passageways across the countryside. In this regard, the etymology of route might be helpful.
Route is derived from the Latin rumpere, to break, literally a broken or beaten way.
Such is in keeping with another term for unimproved roads, trace. Trace refers to the scar left on the terrain by the traffic of vehicles and animals and was sometimes used with reference to the Santa Fe Road. John Taylor Hughes, en route to Santa Fe at the onset of the Mexican War, wrote, “We at length struck upon the Old Santa Fe trace.”
Never known as a trail, it to this day is known as the Fort Riley-Fort Larned Road. The same could be said for the route from Hays City to Fort Dodge.
From its advent, the route has been known as Fort Hays-Fort Dodge Road.
Regardless, the roadside marker at Alexander, Kansas, erected by the Kansas State Historical Society and the Kansas Department of Transportation is titled, “The Fort Hays-Fort Dodge Trail.”
Consideration should also be given to the routes reconnoitered by Captain John Pope and Francis X. Aubry.
In August or September, 1851, Pope scouted the area between Cedar Creek in the present Oklahoma panhandle and the Big Timbers on the Arkansas River.
His assignment was “to find a better and more direct route to Missouri, avoiding if possible the large arid plains.”
Pope was Wagon Tracks successful in finding such a route to the Arkansas, but his subsequent search for a route to the Kansas River failed. (Louise Barry, The Beginning of the West (Topeka: Kansas State Historical Society, 1972, 1038-1039)
In May 1851, Aubry made the first of several attempts to find a better route from the Cedar Creek area to the Arkansas.
Unsuccessful in his first venture, he tried again the following October. Aubry reported finding “an excellent wagon road, well supplied with water and grass.” A dispute developed as to who discovered the new way to the Arkansas from Cedar Creek.
The Santa Fe Gazette Extra of July 17, 1852, concluded, “The probability is that the civilians will generally called it Aubry’s Route, while the military will designate it as Pope’s Route.”
Regardless, neither route was ever known as a trail.
The shift from road to trail was in full swing by 1897 when Henry Inman published The Old Santa Fe Trail . Soon to follow were the markers placed by the Daughters of the American Revolution, beginning in 1906. The distribution of these markers incised with Santa Fe Trail in Missouri, Kansas, Colorado, and New Mexico no doubt influenced the preference for trail as opposed to road. There is one exception. Such markers between Bent’s Fort and Fort Union were incised with Bent’s Fort Road.
By 1930, with the publication of Robert L. Duffus’s The Santa Fe Trail, the trail nomenclature was fully in place; and in time, other books came off the press in a predictable manner.
The list is littered with examples — “Matt Field on the Santa Fe Trail, Soldiers on the Santa Fe Trail,” “Medicine on the Santa Fe Trail,” and “Murder on the Santa Fe Trail.”
There were two notable exceptions — Kate L. Gregg’s, “The Road to Santa Fe: The Journal and Diaries of George Champlin Sibley,” and Hobart Stocking’s “The Road to Santa Fe.”
In my meager library, no less than 20 titles reference the Santa Fe Trail.
One glaring example is Stella M. Drumm, editor of Susan Magoffin’s diary.
She chose to title the publication, “Down the Santa Fe Trail,” and “Into Mexico.”
This, in spite of Susan never referring to the Santa Fe Road as a trail.
Thus, the general public, history aficionados, and professional historians all are comfortable with designating the Road to Santa Fe as the Santa Fe Trail.
Such accommodation was extended to the federal government in 1987 when President Ronald Reagan signed into law the bill by which the trade route to Santa Fe was designated the Santa Fe National Historic Trail.
In addition, the national organization created to preserve, protect, and promote the trade route was officially named the Santa Fe Trail Association. It would appear that even an old curmudgeon like me will be forced to make the same accommodation.
Santa Fe Trail Association Ambassador David Clapsaddle is president of the Wet/Dry Routes Chapter.