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.”
In the Trans-Mississippi West during the early 19th century, there were no improved roads, only unimproved such as the overland routes. This was the case with the trade route from Missouri to Santa Fe initiated by William Becknell in 1821.
Three years later, Missouri Senator Thomas Hart Benton led his state’s congressional delegation in the support of a bill “authorizing the President to cause a road to be marked out from the frontier of Missouri to the boundary of Mexico.”
On March 3, 1825, President James Monroe signed the bill into law.
Consequently, the trade route to Santa Fe became known as the Santa Fe Road or the Road to Santa Fe.
George C. Sibley, one of three commissioners appointed to oversee the survey of the Santa Fe Road, after seven years of seeking to be reimbursed $1,054 for overrun expenses of the original $10,000 appropriation to survey the road, “lost patience,” and called the trade route “Benton’s d--d Santa Fe Road.”
His Aug. 2009 claim finally settled, Sibley wrote,
“So that the whole of the business of the Road to New Mexico is at length finally and fully settled.”
Regardless, writers of the 20th and 21st centuries have consistently referred to the trade route as the Santa Fe Trail.
Although “trail” was seldom used in the 19th century to refer to the road to New Mexico, the term “Santa Fe trail” appeared in print in a U.S. Senate report and the Missouri Intelligencer in 1824.
Common use of “Santa Fe Trail” came much later.
The use of “trail” to represent overland routes may well have its roots in two books, both the result of western expeditions undertaken by two young men in 1846: The Oregon Trail by Francis Parkman and Wahtoyah and the Taos Trail by Lewis Garrard.
In the spring of 1846, Parkman, a 23-year-old Bostonian, made his way to St. Louis, upriver to Kanzas (Kansas City), on to Westport, and finally Fort Leavenworth which he called the “jumping off’ place to Fort Laramie.
From Laramie, he traveled south to Pueblo, thence eastward to Bent’s Fort and farther east on the Santa Fe Road, finally arriving back at Kanzas and then on to St. Louis.
Between 1847 and 1849, Parkman published The Oregon Trail by installments; and in 1849, the installments were incorporated into a book of the same name.
Like Parkman, Garrard, a 17 -year-old from Cincinnati, began his journey to the West from St. Louis, thence to Westport where he began his expedition on the Santa Fe Road to Bent’s Fort, on to Taos, back up to the Arkansas and eastward to Fort Leavenworth by way of the Santa Fe Road. From there, he traveled by steamboat to St. Louis. His book was published in 1850.
Both volumes are literate, well written travel narratives which have become classics of their kind. That said, the western experience of both writers was limited to a single year, perhaps, in part, the reason for which they superimposed trail upon road.
Speaking to that concept, Janet Lecompte wrote of experienced travelers engaged in the Santa Fe trade and military writers of the period as follows:
“Neither ‘Santa Fe Trail’ nor ‘Mountain Branch’ was used by prominent journalists of the Santa Fe Trail- Josiah Gregg in Commerce of the Prairies, James Josiah Webb in Adventures in the Santa Fe Trade, Matt Field in Matt Field on the Santa Fe Trail, Susan Magoffin in Down the Santa Fe Trail and into Mexico, and the military reports of Lieutenant James W. Abert in 1845 and 1846 and of Major W. H. Emory in 1846.
“Nor did I find documentary reference (although plenty of editorial reference) to those names in a cursory survey of Reuben Gold Thwaites’s series Early Western Travels and LeRoy Hafen’s Southwest Historical Series and Far West and Rockies Historical Series. The earliest reference to ‘Santa Fe Trail’ I have found is in an emigrant guidebook of 1859, and the ‘Mountain Branch’ did not show up in print until the 1860s — but a more dedicated researcher may well prove me in error. Travelers on the two branches of the trail before the 1850s generally called them the ‘Road to Santa Fe’ and the ‘Bent’s Fort Road.’ ”
(Clapsaddle serves as president of the Santa Fe Trail Association’s Wet Dry Routes Chapter)