Historically Speaking: The Santa Fe Trail

Kathie Bell
Special to the Globe
The Santa Fe Trail rut site.

This year, enthusiasts are celebrating the bicentennial of a trail which passed right through Dodge City.

The first trails in this region were animal trails which followed natural contours and geographic features. Native Americans later used these trails in their quest for their main staple, the bison.

Long before the founding of the Santa Fe Trail, Coronado and his Spanish expedition came through this region in 1541 as the first Europeans in Kansas. They were on a fruitless search for the legendary seven cities of gold.

For the next few centuries, the area was visited only briefly by various outside explorers.

Two hundred years ago, in 1821, Mexico won New Mexico from Spain which opened the city of Santa Fe, New Mexico for trade with outsiders. In September, William Becknell led a wagon train with trade goods from settlements in Missouri to Santa Fe, where he arrived on November 16. Soon after hordes of others, realizing it was safe and profitable, began using the Santa Fe Trail.

The Santa Fe was unlike the "one-way" Oregon and California Trails used by settlers to permanently relocate to the west.

Instead, traders used the Santa Fe Trail more like truckers today use Interstate highways shipping cargo both ways on the Trail. They made huge profits selling manufactured goods in New Mexico and by bringing back silver and turquoise to sell in the east.

However, there was problem. The Trail passed through American Indian territory which imperiled their lifestyle because the Trail and the people traveling it disrupted the bison migration.

As a result, American Indians raided traders using the Trail.

In response to this threat, the U.S. Army built forts along the Trail. Built in 1847, Fort Mann was the first fort in our area. Situated west of current Dodge City, it was abandoned in 1850.

The Army replaced it with Fort Atkinson which was the only military post between Fort Leavenworth, Kansas and Fort Union, New Mexico. This fort stood only four years. Another bastion, Fort Mackey, was either abandoned or renamed Fort Atkinson soon after its construction.

Though there are no visible remains of these forts, a series of markers point out their location west of Dodge City near US Highway 400.

In 1865, the U.S. Army founded Fort Dodge five miles east of Dodge City. It is the oldest permanent settlement in our area. Fort Dodge closed in 1882 and it became the Kansas Soldiers Home in 1890. The Soldiers Home functions to this day and many of the Fort's original building are still in use.

In the 1870's, construction of the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad began. Its tracks followed the path of the Santa Fe Trail. As the railroad pushed west, the eastern end of the trail moved west as train tracks replaced it.

In 1872, the railroad reached Dodge City ending the use of the Santa Fe Trail in this region. The A.T. & S.F. got to Santa Fe in 1880, permanently shutting down what remained of the Santa Fe Trail.

A fine example of ruts made by wagons on the Trail is nine miles west of Dodge City on U.S. Highway 400 at the Boot Hill Museum Santa Fe Trail rut site.

This site is on the National Register of Historic Places and is certified by the U.S. National Park Service.