“Every man will fit himself for the trip with a horse, a good rifle, and as much ammunition as the company may think necessary,” William Becknell explained in a Missouri Intelligencer ad seeking men to accompany him west. “Every man will furnish an equal part of the fitting out for trade, and receive an equal part of the product.”
Ever since Zebulon Pike wandered into Spanish territory during his explorations, Spanish officials had chased American traders out of New Mexico, which was said to be rich in silver, furs, and livestock. But in 1821, Becknell heard reports of Mexican independence from Spain, so he decided to risk a trading expedition. He set out from Franklin, Missouri, with a string of pack mules, and on November 16, 1821, after several weeks of “hardships and obstacles occurring almost daily,” he arrived to a warm welcome in Santa Fe. When the traders got back to Franklin, they cut open saddlebags full of silver dollars that “clinking on the stone pavement rolled into the gutter.”
Soon other exultant Missouri traders were heading west on the 900-mile Santa Fe Trail, their pack trains loaded with cottons, silks, woolens, hardware, and cutlery. They returned with pelts, hides, and Mexican silver. On the trail, they risked heat, thirst, hostile Indians, raging prairie fires, and storms that could tear wagons apart. While blazing a path across the Cimarron Desert, Becknell himself barely escaped dying of thirst by cutting open a buffalo and drinking the water in its stomach.
But the trade was good, so the traders kept coming. Pioneer families, gold-seekers, hunters, and adventurers followed along. For his role in opening the way in the Southwest, William Becknell is remembered as the Father of the Santa Fe Trail.