America’s National Historic Trails

Featured Article, History, Iconic Communities, On the Road, This Week in History, Traditions
on April 3, 2012
National Park Service A limestone marker posted by the Boy Scouts of America denotes the route of the Santa Fe Trail on the Kansas prairie.

When she was 4, Faye Gaines walked barefoot across the wagon ruts between her home and her grandmother’s house near Springer, N.M. (pop. 1,047). Even then, she felt a sense of history as she followed dips in the landscape created during the 1800s by hundreds of freight and military wagons that traveled the Santa Fe Trail.

“I love the trail for what it stands for,” says Gaines, now 85. “It was a commerce trail, and I think of the hardship and the fellows who were hired on, just 15 or 16 years old and broke, and looking for
some way to survive.”

Gaines is an ardent advocate of the Santa Fe Trail, one of 19 National Historic Trails that crisscross America, and protector of the Point of Rocks landmark on her ranch near Springer. The rocky mesa, with a natural spring at its base, was a popular campsite and watering spot along the 900-mile trail linking Missouri and New Mexico.

Nearly every week, modern-day travelers follow the dirt roads to Point of Rocks Ranch where the Gaines family has lived since 1898. Faye greets visitors and shares her love of the trail, pointing out rock piles marking the graves of 11 early travelers. Only one grave bears a name—Isaac Allen—chiseled into the stone.

“If the sun is right, I can show people eight swales,” she says, indicating depressions left by mule- and oxen-drawn caravans.

Trade route
Gaines is among 700 members of the Santa Fe Trail Association who preserve and promote the trade route that merchant William Becknell established in 1821 to transport American goods to eager Spanish-speaking customers in the new Republic of Mexico.

Franklin, Mo., was the original starting point of the trail, but by 1827, the main outfitting post shifted westward to Independence, Mo., and by the mid-1840s to Westport, Mo., where goods from St. Louis, New York and Philadelphia were delivered by steamboat on the Missouri River, then loaded onto freight wagons.

Laden with buttons, cloth, thread, knives, handkerchiefs, sugar, playing cards and all manner of goods, the wagons departed on their six- to seven-week-long journey to Santa Fe. Traders sold their wagons, too, for a profit in Santa Fe, and returned with silver coins, wool and mules.

“The trail united different kinds of people and cultures,” says Santa Fe Trail Association President Roger Slusher, 64, of Lexington, Mo. “It made our country stronger.”

More than half of the Santa Fe Trail is in Kansas and last fall, association members—or “rut nuts” as some call themselves—gathered in Dodge City to share research and to visit a prairie site west of town where historical wagon tracks are visible.

“This is virgin buffalo grass that has never been plowed,” says trail buff Jim Sherer, 72, of Dodge City. “This is probably the most accessible rut site to the traveling public.”

Miles of history
Designated since 1978, America’s 19 National Historic Trails comprise more than 37,000 miles trodden by explorers, prospectors, pioneers, soldiers, traders and trappers.

Whether traveled by moccasin feet or hobnail boots, all the trails are routes that are important to our nation’s history and heritage. “Whether trade, migration or military campaigns, their use has had far-reaching effects on our culture,” says Steve Elkinton, 64, program leader for the National Park Service’s National Trails System in Washington, D.C.

The oldest trails were used by native Hawaiians during ancient times and by Spaniards who colonized the American Southwest in the 16th and 17th centuries. Other trails trace the 1804 route of explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark to the Pacific Ocean; mark the 1846 path of Mormon pioneers from Nauvoo, Ill., to the Salt Lake Valley; and commemorate the course of the fleet horsemen who in 1860 delivered mail from St. Joseph, Mo., to Sacramento, Calif.

Alaska’s Iditarod Trail follows a frozen dogsled course from Seward to Nome, and in Alabama, a 54-mile-long route memorializes a 1965 civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery.

Each trail has an organization similar to the Santa Fe Trail Association, and all are represented by the Partnership for the National Trails System (PNTS), based in Madison, Wis.

“The entire span of human history is represented by the trails,” says Ross Marshall, 72, PNTS founder. “We have forts and buildings, Pony Express stations, springs, river crossings, signatures on rock formations. All of these help answer ‘How did we get here?’”

Touchstones on the trail
All across America are reminders of the people who blazed the trails and built the structures that promoted settlement of the nation.

Prominent along the Santa Fe Trail is a tree stump in Council Grove, Kan., where U.S. agents and Osage Indians signed an 1825 treaty guaranteeing safe passage for wagons traveling through Indian land.

“Once you left civilization and started out from Council Grove, then you had to go 600 miles to Bent’s Fort, and that’s the first building you saw,” says John Carson, 54, an interpreter at the reconstructed 1840s fur trading post near La Junta, Colo., and great-grandson of frontiersman Kit Carson. “Traders made repairs on the wagons and traded for fresh animals. They’d give two old worn-out oxen and get a good one.”

The adobe fort has a blacksmith shop, living quarters and storerooms stocked as they were 170 years ago with blankets, boots, cloth, rifles and other goods that would have been for sale or trade.

At Fort Union National Monument near Watrous, N.M., the remains of the majestic adobe fort can be seen, along with a network of trail ruts.

“These are precious unique resources and critical components of American history,” says Aaron Mahr Yanez, 53, a National Park Service trails official in Santa Fe. “People need these touchstones. We lose a part of ourselves when we lose these sites.”