|Traders arrive in the Plaza of Old Santa Fe in this 1940 calendar art from the Santa Fe Railroad|
On November 16, 1821 Captain William Blackwell and a bedraggled, exhausted pack train loaded with trade goods stumbled into the already ancient city of Santa Fé de Nuevo México. He was the first American trader to reach the remote city after traveling about 900 miles from Missouri in a less than two months.
At age 34, Blackwell was an archetypical frontier figure by turns setter, land speculator, soldier, politician, trail blazer and merchant trader. He was born in 1787 or ’88 in Amherst County, Virginia, tobacco country in the western part of the state which had been frontier itself a generation earlier. His Revolutionary War veteran father was a middling land owner and local squire. As a younger son unlikely to inherit the family land and too poor to by developed farmland in the region, young Blackwell had no choice by to look west.
In 1810 with his young wife Jane and small children, he traveled all the way to the infant Missouri Territory to homestead west of St. Charles. He was probably already associated with Daniel Boone’s extensive family who were moving their interests from Tennessee into the new Territory.
In the War of 1812 Blackwell enlisted in Captain Daniel Morgan Boone’s United States Mounted Rangers which fought a dangerous frontier guerilla action against British armed and led native auxiliaries in the far west. He served with distinction in the Battle of Credit Island against the Sauk and Fox where American forces were under the overall command of Major Zachary Taylor. Later he took command of beleaguered Fort Clemson near St. Louis which was under siege when senior officers were killed or wounded. After that action he was promoted to Captain.
At the end of the war Blackwell mustered out of the Federal service, though he quickly got a captaincy in the Territorial Militia. By 1815, after his first wife died in childbirth, he moved with his new bride, Mary to the area around Boone’s Lick in central part of the territory. He managed the salt business for the Boone family and eventually bought it outright. He also operated a ferry on the Missouri River and dabbled in land speculation and other business ventures.
But in the failure of frontier wildcat banks in the Panic of 1819 ruined him. In 1821 He was sued by creditor for notes he had signed to purchase land and was even briefly jailed. A judge released him on terms that he must repay $1,200 ($20,000 in today’s money) within two years.
In a desperate bid to pay the debt and save his family from ruin, Blackwell set off from Franklin County with his pack train headed for storied Santa Fe. He was not the only one with the idea several other parties started out. Most never made it all, lost most of their mules and baggage along the trail, or arrived after Blackwell.
The trip succeeded beyond Blackwell’s wildest dreams. He arrived in Santa Fe just as the Mexican Revolution was ending Spain’s long standing ban on trade with foreigners and trade routes south into Old Mexico were disrupted leaving local residents starved for goods. Bolts of calico were a big hit with the colorful cloth selling for a staggering $3 a yard. So were sewing notions, baubles, and assorted hand tools. Muskets were probably also traded, as were the bulk of the pack train. After a month of trading, Blackwell and his men headed back to Missouri with about $6,000 in silver coins. A tidy profit for $300 worth of goods bought in Missouri.
In 1822 Blackwell set out again, this time with a train of heavy wagons groaning with trade goods. The wagons necessitated some adjustments to his route of the previous year. The party nearly died of thirst in the Crimson Desert and was hectored by Comanche and Apache raids. It took 48 days for the lumbering wagons to reach the city on what would become known as the Santa Fe Trail. This trip reaped even more staggering profits, estimated at $91,000 in today’s dollars. A third trip was just as successful.
In 1825 Blackwell was hired to guide a party of surveyors who officially staked out the Santa Fe Trail for the U.S. Army. Army Dragoons were subsequently posted to forts along the route to provide protection for the increasingly common caravans from desperados and Indians, even extending their patrols into unguarded Mexican territory.
Blackwell himself was now a prosperous businessman able to indulge his long held political ambitions. He quit the trail and was elected Justice of the Peace for Saline County, Missouri in 1827 and was twice elected to the State Legislature when Missouri was admitted to the union. He was twice called up for duty as a Captain of the Militia—to quell a small Indian uprising in 1827 and again in the larger 1832 Black Hawk War, where he once again faced his old Sauk and Fox foes.
But like many frontiersmen, Blackwell grew restless with increasingly settled Missouri. After his Black Hawk service he sold all of his Missouri interests and heard the siren call of Texas. He settled his family on a claim in the Red River country of northeast Texas. In the Texas War of Independence he was again a captain after organizing and leading an irregular cavalry outfit called the Red River Blues.
After the war he served for a time in the new Texas Rangers who were mostly involved in chasing down Comanche raiders and was elected to the Republic’s legislature.
By the time of Statehood and the Mexican War Blackwell was finally too old to take to the field. He died and was buried on his family ranch near Clarksville, Texas on April 2, 1856.
His Santa Fe Trail became the primary highway to the Southwest not only giving the United States a claim on lands once claimed by the Republic of Texas and Mexico, but engendering support from old Mexican settlers in New Mexico for American rule. General Phil Kearney used the Trail to move his army west and claimed Santa Fe to the general approval of the population before continuing west to conquer California.
The trail also largely staked out the route of the southern transcontinental railroad, the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe. Ironically, a last minute decision by-passed the old city leading to its economic decline in the late 19th Century. In the early 20th Century portions of the route were paved for highways.
Today parts of the trail are preserved in several states along its route. Santa Fe Trail Remains west of Dodge City, Kansas feature the longest segment, about three miles of deep wagon ruts in the bone dry land.