Home  »  Volume XVII: American LATER NATIONAL LITERATURE: PART II  »  § 2. The Santa Fé Trail

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21). rn VOLUME XVII. Later National Literature, Part II.

XIV. Travellers and Explorers, 1846–1900

§ 2. The Santa Fé Trail

The ambitious Texans, however, were not of his mind. They wanted territory and they understood that far beyond the world of intervening desert unknown to them flowed the Rio Grande del Norte, whose valley was productive and for some two centuries had been cultivated by a Spanish population with the attractive city of Santa Fè a trade centre worth owning. The story of The Spanish Conquest of New Mexico (1869) by W. W. H. Davis and El Gringo, or New Mexico and her People (1857) by the same author, who spent some years in the region, show that the Spaniards in entering and building up New Mexico had no thought of the Texans that were to be. Samuel Cozzens in The Marvellous Country or Three Years in Arizona and New Mexico (1873) gives more of the story, with modern additions, and Historical Sketches of New Mexico (1883) by ex-Governor L. Bradford Prince, who still lives in Santa Fè, is another important volume on this subject.

Although the Rio Grande settlements and the capital city of Santa Fè were so far from the outermost fringe of Texan life that the Texans actually knew little about them, these had fixed their minds on extending Texas to the Rio Grande, and to the Rio Grande it must go. Therefore they decided to march across the unknown and formally annex the old-time towns and villages, whose inhabitants were supposed to be eager to become Texans. A grand caravan accordingly was organized, partly military, partly mercantile, to proceed to the conquest. The expedition moved off into the wilderness with far rosier expectations than facts warranted. Disaster was not long in falling upon the party, and worse disaster awaited their straggling remnant at the hands of the tyrannical, cruel, and unruly governor of New Mexico, Armijo.

Probably the most interesting and valuable book on this phase of Texan enterprise, and withal one having considerable literary charm, is The Narrative of the Texan Santa Fè Expedition (1844) by George Wilkins Kendall. Kendall was one of the survivors. He was finally released from the wretched prison in Mexico into which he was cast with others who had not succumbed to the desert, or to the brutality of Armijo, at the request of the United States Minister, Waddy Thompson, whose Recollections of Mexico (1846) mentions this release of Kendall and his companions in misery, as well as the release of the prisoners taken by the Mexicans at Mier in 1842. The capture, sufferings, and release of these latter unfortunates are told by William Preston Stapp in his book The Prisoners of Perote(1845). It is interesting to note that Waddy Thompson was no longer a United States official when he requested the freedom of the captives; General Santa Anna granted the request as a personal favour. Thompson gives an estimate of Santa Anna’s character which is not so black as the usual descriptions.

Kendall printed a map, which he compiled, to give such information as was possible of the wilderness the caravan had struggled through, and in this he was aided by notes from Josiah Gregg, the living and doing business as a merchant at Santa Fè. In the year of the appearance of Kendall’s book, Gregg alone published the now famous volumes Commerce of the Prairies (1844). This is the classic of the Plains, in which he describes the Santa Fè Trail and its history. The Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fè Railway approximately follows the route of the Santa Fè Trail, and the latter almost paralleled the great Kaw Indian trail which ran about four or five miles farther south. Everywhere the possible highways had long ago been traced out by the Indians, and the main routes of the white men usually followed, with more or less exactness, according to method of transportation, these roads of the natives.

Colonel Henry Inman, who had early experience on the Plains, wrote The Old Santa Fè Trail (1897). Some of his historical data are not quite correct, but there is much of value derived from his own knowledge, and he gives accounts of the frontiersmen he had met. With W. F. Cody, the last of the “Buffalo Bills,” he wrote The Great Salt Lake Trail (1898), the trail being the one from Omaha up the Platte and to Salt Lake by way of Echo Canyon. The Santa Fè Trail has also been perpetuated in poetry, by Sharlot M. Hall with a vivid poem of that title in Out West (1903), and the modern route for automobiles by Vachel Lindsay, with a more original poem, also of that title, in The Congo and Other Poems (1914).

Many of the early travellers and explorers kept no records, and some who did refrained from publishing until long after their experiences, as in the case of Osborne Russell, who had a Rocky Mountain career between 1834 and 1843. The Journal of a Trapper from his pen did not appear till 1914, when it was privately printed at Boise, Idaho. These delays were sometimes due to the reluctance of publishers to print the writings of unknown and “unliterary” men.