In history of Santa Fe Trail, a window to Kansas’ past and our nation’s future

December 31, 2021 3:33 am

This illustrated map by by D.D. Holdread shows the route of the Sante Fe trail, including the substantial portion running through Kansas. (Santa Fe Trail Association)

The Kansas Reflector welcomes opinion pieces from writers who share our goal of widening the conversation about how public policies affect the day-to-day lives of people throughout our state. Dave Kendall served as producer and host of the “Sunflower Journeys” series on public television for its first 27 seasons and continues to produce documentary videos through his own company — Prairie Hollow Productions.

I recently finished production on a documentary about the Santa Fe Trail, which marked its bicentennial in 2021. I’ve learned a few things in the process, some of which have a bearing on current challenges we’re facing in Kansas and throughout the nation.

In case you’re not familiar with the story of the trail, here’s a brief summary:

Six men left the Missouri frontier in September of 1821, leading pack horses carrying trade goods intended for sale in Santa Fe. They crossed into “Indian Territory” as they reached the new state’s western border. (The state of Kansas would not exist as such for another 40 years.)

Moving west, they reached the Arkansas River near what is now the city of Great Bend, Kansas, and followed it toward the Rocky Mountains. At that point in time, the river in that area served as our international border with Mexico, which had just won its independence from Spain.

“New Mexico Freighters” illustrates a trek along the Santa Fe trail. The trail became an important corridor of commerce. (Robert Pummill)

They eventually encountered a contingent of Mexican soldiers, who escorted them to Santa Fe, where the governor of Nuevo Mexico welcomed them with open arms. They made a healthy profit from the sale of their goods, and the next year some returned with a few wagons full of merchandise.

Within a few years, Mexican merchants also became heavily invested in what became a two-way corridor of commerce between the two nations. The supply chain extended across the Atlantic to England, France and other European countries.

Native nations were also involved in the Santa Fe trade, engaging directly with traders or coming to trade at places such as Bent’s Fort.

That privately owned fort on the Arkansas River became a staging area for “The Army of the West” as it moved down the trail from Fort Leavenworth. This was in 1846, during the War with Mexico, after which Nuevo Mexico and all the territory west to California became part of the United States.

The war was largely predicated on the notion of Manifest Destiny — the view that the United States was destined to prevail as it expanded across the continent. The invisible hand of Providence was thought to be setting the stage for “civilization” to unfold according to a divine plan.

Later, it was also seen as part of “the plan” to remove the indigenous inhabitants of the plains, destroying the bison herds upon which they depended and relocating them to less-desirable land.

“American Progress” illustrates Manifest Destiny, the idea that the United States was meant to expand across the continent. The 1872 image is by John Gast. (Dave Kendall)

In between the War with Mexico and the Indian Wars, the Santa Fe Trail became embroiled in “the war between the states.” Conflict along the border between Missouri and Kansas started heating up prior to the war, with pro-slavery and abolitionist forces engaging in violence that gave the emerging state its image as “Bleeding Kansas.”

After the Civil War, as transcontinental railroads were built across the middle of the nation, construction crews were protected by the 10th Cavalry, an all-black contingent of “Buffalo Soldiers” formed at Fort Leavenworth. Men who previously had been enslaved were tasked with repelling those who would soon be forcibly relocated to reservations.

The 9th Cavalry Regiment of “Buffalo Soldiers” was among those founded after the Civil War. (Library of Congress)

The active life of the Santa Fe Trail came to an end when the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railroad finally arrived at Santa Fe in 1880. The slow-moving caravans of freight wagons could not compete with the speed and economics of shipping by rail.

The changes that took place in our nation over the six decades in which the trail was in operation were immense and far-reaching. The effect on the state of Kansas, which contains the greatest portion of the trail, was particularly striking. And yet, it seems that many, if not most, Kansans have little awareness of its formative influence on our state.

The lessons we might learn in studying the history of the trail and the manner in which diverse cultures converged during those years could be instructive and helpful as we continue to grapple with our multicultural heritage.

An important question presents itself, however: Will our teachers be able to effectively explore the complex and nuanced history of relations between peoples of different racial and ethnic backgrounds at this time when schools are beset by angry parents questioning how such discussions are framed?

More importantly, will our besieged democracy survive ongoing attacks on our core institutions as those who practice what might be called “critical rage theory” foment fear, distrust and outrage in the expectation that it will deliver the political outcome they desire?

It appears that the fate of our constitutional republic hangs in the balance. May we learn from the past to prepare for the future.

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Dave Kendall
Dave Kendall

Dave Kendall served as producer and host of the “Sunflower Journeys” series on public television for its first 27 seasons. He also produced documentaries and community affairs programs for KTWU, the PBS station licensed to Washburn University in Topeka. In 2015, he left to form his own company — Prairie Hollow Productions — through which he continues to produce documentary videos. “The Road to Santa Fe: A Convergence of Cultures” is being distributed to PBS stations across the U.S. and is made available for use in schools. The production has received an award of merit from the Santa Fe Trail Association.