Roads in early-day America went from water hole to water hole. Ancient herds of buffalo and elk, hearing that seasonal urge, thundered across ridges, stopping to rest at natural springs and rivers. The herds engineered the route, and the Indians followed, tracking the game. The northern tribes headed down the migrating trails to pow-wow with the southern tribes and vice versa.

When European explorers arrived, Indians led them along those migrating trails and ancient trading paths. The first Spanish explorer to venture north of the Rio Grande was Francisco Coronado in search of the Seven Cities of Cibola. He and his followers were led by the Indians out of the Southwest up what would soon become the Santa Fe Trail as far as Quivira in present-day Kansas in search of fabled gold.

After the death of the Spanish Emperor Maximilian, when Spain set up shop in North America as the world’s premier empire builder, the rest of Europe was not yet in competition. But that began to change dramatically by the 1700s. France staked a claim on the continent, as did England.

Fur trappers spread out by the thousands across the New World in search of little critters to satisfy European fashions, trading European trinkets with the Indians for their furs. When they attempted to trade with New Mexico (a name given Spain’s northern most dominion), the vice royalty quickly laid down the law – no foreign commerce allowed.

People in towns like Santa Fe, trapped under this isolationist yoke since its founding, somewhere around 1610, were forced to travel a thousand miles over torturously rough terrain on the El Camino Real (Spanish royal highway) and buy Spanish-approved goods from profiteers in Chihuahua, Mexico City and Vera Cruz.

Spain was determined to hold on to New Mexico, in spite of the fact it had no minerals or raw materials to speak of, let alone good farmland, and its people were dirt poor. Spain saw the New Mexico Territory as a buffer zone to hold Britain and France at arm’s length if they were to become too intrusive or hostile.

Less worrisome were the young upstarts on the Eastern seaboard. They didn’t even worry when those 13 colonies overthrew the British in 1776, which shocked the entire world. As it turned out, it wasn’t the size of the new country they had to worry about, it was its citizenry. After all, what rational government would grant its people the inalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness? It was surely a clarion call for unruliness of the first order and would never stand.

But much to their surprise, and the agony of the Indians, the Americans (as they called themselves) from those 13 colonies systematically began to moving westward, settling just a prairie and a few rivers away from the Great Spanish Empire.

These Americans were not just unruly. They were persistent. Time and again U.S. citizens tried to set up secret trading arrangements with New Mexicans. Nothing seemed to stop them. Jails in Chihuahua and Mexico City became homes away from home for many of the miscreants. To make matters worse, the New Mexicans were willing conspirators. After all, they were starved for things like textiles, tin, mirrors, books and weapons at reasonable prices. Spain sent in troops to arrest the unruly neighbors.

No doubt fear mounted in the Spanish court when Napoleon cut a deal with the U.S. – the Louisiana Purchase – in 1803. Americans swarmed the West and eventually Spain had to back off, allowing trade from our front door to Santa Fe down the old migrating trail known today as the Santa Fe Trail.

Reference: “The Path to Glory: A Pictorial Celebration of the Santa Fe Trail,” by Jami Parkison

To reach Ted W. Stillwell send an e-mail to or call him at 816-896-3592.