In To Heal Thy Heart, my novella in the recently released The Mail-Order Brides Collection, Phoebe Wagner, our heroine, travels from Kansas City to Santa Fe and then into northern New Mexico to meet her mail-order groom. Although I don't include her journey in the story, I did spend considerable time imagining everything Phoebe would have experienced upon leaving Kansas City to embark on the dusty 700+ mile trip that would take her over the Santa Fe Trail.
|Wagon ruts on the Santa Fe Trail in Kansas
In September 1821, William Becknell and five of his associates struck out from Franklin, MO, and started west. While we'd like to imagine Becknell as an insightful trailblazer, the truth is a little less heroic. Becknell, known as the Father of the Santa Fe Trail, was deep in debt and needed money. His timing, however, couldn't have been more perfect. Mexico had just declared its independence from Spain, and the residents of Santa Fe were eager to purchase the variety of goods Becknell brought in on pack horses upon reaching the mountain village on November 16. His second trip was even more profitable. Bringing with him an estimated $3,000 worth of goods, the Becknell party returned to Missouri with a whopping $91,000. In 1825, he helped surveyors hired by Congress map out the route, opening the Santa Fe Trail to any and all who had the courage to travel its length.
Harriet Bidwell Shaw was one such person. The wife of a Baptist missionary, she and her husband traveled across the Santa Fe Trail in 1861. She chronicled their journey in a diary, which is pure gold to a history lover like me. Her telling of one night on the trial made me smile:
From 1821 until 1880, when the railroad reached Santa Fe on February 9, people from all walks of life, including many emigrants, traversed the Santa Fe Trail. Although the reasons for trekking over the long, dusty Trail were varied -- trading, seeking land, or, like Phoebe, seeking love -- I believe those early pioneers all possessed something in common: the spirit of adventure. I get a sense of it every time I drive down Interstate 25, a highway that used to be little more than a dirt path, gazing at the same mountains, hills, and plains they would have seen as they sought a new life in a new land.