by Nancy Christofferson
ROCKY MOUNTAIN SOUTHWEST — In early 1848, the end of the War with Mexico was under negotiation. Congress signed the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo on March 10. The United States gained the southwest, including New Mexico which then encompassed southeastern Colorado and all of Arizona, as well as California and other lands. An official census completed three years later showed this new and extensive Territory of New Mexico to have 56,984 residents.
The winter of 1847-48 had been exceedingly cold and dry on the plains. The usual trade caravans plying the Santa Fe Trail between Missouri and New Mexico were plagued by the lack of water and forage for their animals. So too were the troopers being sent west to replace those whose enlistments were up, to keep the peace among those New Mexicans not pleased to be, rather suddenly, American citizens, so the territory remained under military rule. Several wagon trains were completely immobilized that season out on the prairie when their animals played out entirely.
Trading parties were starting out from each end of the trail. Eventually, though the usual hardships were heightened, they got to their destinations.
Communication between east and west was slowed, but not halted, because what always made it through was the mail. Newspapers only one month old reached Missouri from Santa Fe. Army dispatches left and arrived at Fort Leavenworth regularly. The importance of maintaining contact with the new territory, and that territory with the United States, was obvious.
With territorial status, New Mexico was eligible for service by the U.S. post office. The first mail contract to connect Santa Fe to a route from Independence, Missouri, was let July 1, 1850. It was awarded to Dr. David Waldo, a former American who had established himself in Santa Fe and taken out Mexican citizenship. Waldo was also a merchant from Missouri who had personal knowledge of the Santa Fe Trail and its peculiarities. The $18,000 contract was the first government subsidy to mail service on the Great Plains.
Waldo was a principal in Waldo, Hall and Company, which had recently obtained new “stages” with immaculate paint, waterproofing, iron axles and real springs – basically the image of what 21st Americans picture as an old time stagecoach. However, it seems the company retained those coaches for local use at the eastern end of the trail, for what was put to work on the route were dearborn wagons (a type of carriage), “ambulances”, or closed carriages most resembling a box on wheels, and what we today call prairie schooners or covered wagons. While these were earmarked for the mail, they also carried passengers.
The contract called for use of springed vehicles, six-mule teams and service once a month on each end of the trail.
In reality, any vehicle, most of them without springs, was used to transport mail and people on the Santa Fe Trail. Six-mule teams were not unknown, but four mules were often employed, hitched to whatever wheeled vehicle was deemed suitable to make the long and rugged trip.
The route approved was the Cimarron Cutoff. Because there were no stage stations west of Council Grove, Kansas, there were some 550 miles to travel before reaching Barclay’s Fort in New Mexico. The lack of accommodations meant the wagons with, at first, eight guards and whatever number of passengers along with the drivers, to carry with them equipment for camping and supplies for “dining,” along with firearms and ammunition, fodder and personal luggage. All this of course necessitated the use of three or four wagons per trip for the price of one. Cost to the passenger was $100 in summer and $120 in the winter months when more supplies were needed. The cost to send a letter the entire distance was a nickel.
The Colorado gold rush of 1859 partially caused the building of a military outpost called Fort Wise in 1860. It was constructed on the banks of the Arkansas River in southeastern Colorado, and its presence in turn caused a change in route. In 1861 the route was changed by the government from the Cimarron Cutoff to take in Fort Wise and the Mountain Route of the Santa Fe Trail. This meant a change in the type of vehicles and increase in the number of mules because of the narrow and steep terrain of Raton Pass.
A population boom in Kansas, from 8,500 to 100,000 between 1854 and 1860, caused by territorial status that drew settlers from north and south attempting to determine whether the state would enter the union as anti-slavery or pro-slavery, resulted in a system of military forts and settlements all along the Santa Fe Trail. In the 1860s, railroads established themselves along basically the same route, and the trailheads shifted. Not only did this shorten the distance of the trail, but also meant the construction of stage stops on the still vacant prairie.
All the travelers and settlers caused much hardship for the American Indians as they experienced the disappearance of the scant natural resources their lives depended upon – notably wildlife, wood, water, and grass for their horses. As these commodities gradually but steadily vanished, tribes began to seriously try to staunch the march of whites across the plains. More forts were garrisoned to protect the trail. They were not entirely successful.
From Fort Wise the mail and passenger coaches roughly paralleled the Purgatory River. Companies changed in gaining the mail contracts, and each had its favorite route. As time went on, stage stations were built, while others were abandoned. The route, and its branches, relied on Nine Mile Canyon, Bent Canyon, Stage Canyon, Lockwood, Iron Spring, Hole in the Rock and Hole in the Prairie, Thatcher, Hoehne, Gray’s Ranch, Trinidad, Wootton’s on Raton Pass, all in Las Animas County, Willow Spring, Clifton House, Crow Creek, Vermejo River, Cimarron, Rayado and Sweetwater, all in Colfax County. Many of these locations are no longer on the map but were at one time useful stops for lodging, dining and changing teams. There was another important stage line connecting Denver to Santa Fe, along with shorter lines such as the Cucharas Pass to Vermejo, military routes and private, county and state roads connecting the post offices and settlements, and occasionally sharing facilities.
The days remaining for the Santa Fe Trail were numbered by the 1870s. While lines of travel and communication had been streamlined in terms of comfort and speed, the era of the railroad had been established. Where a stagecoach could make the trip between Trinidad and Kansas City in about eight days, a train could make the trip in mere two.
The famous Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe, usually called the Santa Fe, completed its right of way into Trinidad in 1878. From there the mail and passengers were transported south by stage coaches and wagons until the following year when the tracks reached Raton. Most of the Santa Fe Trail was abandoned, though with railroad freight costs relatively high, many tons of merchandise and other goods, especially machinery, still relied on wagon travel. Livestock was driven, not shipped, along the old ruts. But the majority of miles of trail became quiet except for the distant train whistle.
Though the trail was deserted, it was not forgotten. Mementos, memories and markers line its route through four states. Many of these are in Las Animas and Colfax counties, and deserve a visit to learn the importance of this national road to our vicinity.