Follow the Santa Fe Trail to Oldest US Capital City

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Welcome to THIS IS AMERICA in VOA Special English. I'm Barbara Klein.

And I'm Steve Ember. This week on our program, we take you to a city in the American Southwest: Santa Fe, New Mexico.


We begin at the Santa Fe Trail, or what remains of it. The ground still shows the path cut deep into the earth by the wheels of thousands of wagons. The Santa Fe Trail began in the state of Missouri, the nineteenth century gateway to the wild and largely unexplored West. The trail ended about one thousand two hundred kilometers away, in Santa Fe.

Wagons traveled the Santa Fe Trail from eighteen twenty-two until a railroad replaced it in eighteen seventy-nine. No one kept a total. But records from eighteen fifty-eight show that as many as one thousand eight hundred wagons made the trip that year.

The Santa Fe Trail was an important international trade route. It carried goods south into Mexico and north into the United States. But traders were not the only ones who traveled it.

Settlers, government officials, hunters, gold seekers, soldiers and American Indians all used the trail. So did storekeepers, hotel workers, lawyers, blacksmiths -- all the people needed to expand the young nation. They found places to live and work along the trail.

The National Park Service says that in eighteen twenty-two, trade along the Santa Fe Trail totaled fifteen thousand dollars. By eighteen sixty, it was more than three million. Today that would be worth fifty-three million dollars.

The Santa Fe Trail dates back to eighteen twenty-one. A businessman named William Becknell believed he could earn a lot of money by moving trade goods from Missouri to Santa Fe. He was right.

He began his first trip in September of eighteen twenty-one. He carried his goods on the backs on mules. He reached the center of Santa Fe in November. The next year he used wagons so he could carry more goods to sell.

Eighteen twenty-one was also an important year in the history of Mexico. That was the year Mexicans got their independence after years of revolt against Spanish rule. Spain had protected Mexico's borders with laws barring trade with the United States. With the coming of Mexican independence, the Santa Fe Trail became the major trade link between the two countries.

American Indians have lived in the Southwest for thousands of years. The area surrounding the Santa Fe Trail included the hunting grounds of the Cheyenne, the Kiowa, the Comanche, the Arapaho and the Apache. It was also the homeland of the Osage, the Kaw, the Ute and the Pueblo Indians.

Early relations between the Indians and the settlers moving West were mostly peaceful. But misunderstandings and conflicting values led to violence as more people came. Mexican and American troops rode with the wagons to provide protection.

Wagon trains -- groups of wagons -- rode in four lines across the land when they passed through dangerous country. If attacked, the wagons could quickly form a circle for defense.

An average wagon train included twenty-five to thirty-five wagons pulled by oxen. They traveled about twenty-four kilometers a day. The trip in each direction could take fifty days or more.

Mules were faster. For example, in eighteen fifty-seven a stagecoach pulled by six mules took twenty to twenty-five days to travel from Independence, Missouri, to Santa Fe. The distance was one thousand two hundred kilometers. Later, a stagecoach could make the trip in thirteen to fourteen days by moving day and night and changing animals often.

Whichever kind of animal pulled the wagons, moving along the Santa Fe Trail was generally unexciting. Travelers mostly had to deal with mud, dust, insects and heat. But there was the danger not just of attacks but also floods, fires, winds and storms.


One result of the continued expansion of United States territory was the Mexican-American war. It began in eighteen forty-six. A force known as the Army of the West used the Santa Fe Trail to protect American traders. It also used the trail to take control of an area that is now New Mexico and part of California. 

The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo ended the Mexican-American war in eighteen forty-eight. It gave the United States nearly all of what is today the states of California, Nevada, Utah, Arizona, Colorado and New Mexico.

The government built a series of bases in the New Mexico territory to protect the settlers and goods moving along the Santa Fe Trail. The largest was Fort Union, about one hundred twenty kilometers from Santa Fe.

The area of the Santa Fe Trail around Fort Union was also involved in the American Civil War. By eighteen-sixty-two, the trail was the main supply line for Union forces in the Southwest.

Confederate forces moved into New Mexico from Texas. They wanted to seize the territory and Fort Union in an effort to find paths to the Pacific Ocean and to the gold fields of Colorado. But they never reached the fort.

Union forces defeated them on the Santa Fe Trail at Glorietta Pass in New Mexico. The battle secured control of the supply line for Union forces. It also ended Civil War activity in the Southwest.

Today, Fort Union is preserved by the National Park Service as an outdoor museum on the Santa Fe Trail. Visitors can explore the ruins of the buildings and the ruts made by wagons. And they can follow the path of the trail over a modern highway. A stone marker shows the spot where the Santa Fe Trail ended in the city's historic central plaza.

New Mexico became the forty-seventh state in January of nineteen twelve. But Santa Fe has a longer history of serving as a capital city than any of the other capitals of the fifty states.

Santa Fe was the capital of the Spanish kingdom of New Mexico beginning in sixteen ten. It was the capital of the province of Nuevo Mexico when Mexico became independent. And it was the capital of the New Mexico territory before the territory became a state.

The seat of government in Santa Fe for the Spanish, the Mexicans and the American territory was a building called the Palace of the Governors.

The Palace of the Governors on the central plaza is the oldest continually occupied public building in the country. Today it houses the state history museum. Local Indians sell jewelry and other handmade goods along the front of the building.

Most of the buildings in Santa Fe are low and earth colored, a mixture of Spanish and native styles. These buildings are made of adobe brick. Adobe is sun-dried earth and straw.


Santa Fe means "Holy Faith" in Spanish. All around is mountains and desert. The city is more than two thousand meters above sea level, near the southern Rocky Mountains in northern New Mexico. Magazines in recent years have listed Santa Fe among the best places to live in the United States.

Santa Fe is known especially for art. More than two hundred fifty galleries and dealers make it one of the largest art markets in the country. In two thousand five Santa Fe was named a UNESCO Creative City -- the first American city to get that honor.

City officials estimate the population at seventy thousand. The United States Census Bureau says two percent are American Indian and about half are Hispanic or Latino.

The two biggest employers in the area are government and the hotel and food service industry.

Each year more than one million people visit Santa Fe. But, like many places affected by the recession, the numbers were down in two thousand eight. A city report says economic activity last year totaled almost three billion dollars, a four percent decrease from two thousand seven.

The report says spending remains flat or in decline in the local economy. A spokesman for the Convention and Visitors Bureau, Steve Lewis, says economic activity last month was down five percent from February of last year. He says hotels have been reporting cancellations, which is rare for Santa Fe.

Santa Fe is preparing to celebrate its four hundredth anniversary. Sixteen ten was when it became the capital of Spanish New Mexico. Activities will start this September over the Labor Day holiday weekend. Three nights of concerts are planned. Leaders from Spain, Mexico and the United States have been invited, along with American Indian leaders.

The celebration will continue through two thousand ten. Organizers say they need all that time to include all that needs to be remembered about the history of Santa Fe.


Our program was written by Nancy Steinbach and produced by Caty Weaver. I'm Barbara Klein. And I'm Steve Ember. Be sure to join us again next week for THIS IS AMERICA in VOA Special English.