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McPhersonSentinel - McPherson, KS
  • Speaker tells tales of life on the Santa Fe Trail

  • In its hay day, the Santa Fe Trail was a path to great profit.
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  • In its hay day, the Santa Fe Trail was a path to great profit.
    William Becknell was one of the first traders to open trade between the United States and what was then Mexico’s Santa Fe settlement. Mexico had just liberated itself from Spain and was eager for trade goods.
    In 1822, Becknell took a group of three wagons to Santa Fe and returned with a profound return on his investment.
    A Miss Fannie Marshall reportedly made a $60 investment and received a $900 return when Becknell returned from his trip to Santa Fe.
    Chris Newton of Hutchinson presented a talk on the trail during a Santa Fe Days event Friday at Maxwell Wildlife Refuge near Canton. Newton dressed in an costume similar to what might have been worn during the time period.
    The Santa Fe trail runs roughly south of present U.S. Highway 56 and passes a mile south of the Maxwell Refuge in McPherson County. It also passes through Lyons, Council Grove, Larned and Dodge City.
    Newton began by describing the Conestoga wagons that were used on the trail. The wagons had boat-shaped beds and white muslin tops. The wagons required three teams of work horses, mules or oxen to pull them.
    These wagons were first constructed in Lancaster, Pa., when George Washington was 2 years old.
    The horses were trained through plowing. The commands yee and haw signaled the horses to go either to left or the right.
    “A good Conestoga wagon driver would claim he could lie down in the road, send the horses down by voice command, turn them around and have them come back over the top of him,” Newton said.
    Another expression common in American vernacular is “I will be there with bells on.” This generally means someone will be attending an event with enthusiasm. The origin of this phrase also dates back to the time of the Conestoga wagon.
    The teams of horses all had bells on their harnesses. The lead team had five bells, the second team had four bells and the last team had three bells.
    If a wagon team had to request assistance, for example when they were stuck in the mud, they had to give up their bells.
    Arriving at your destination with all your bells was a matter of pride, Newton said.
    The wagons were driven by either a mule skinner or a bulllwhacker. A mule skinner typically road on the wagon, and the bullwhacker walked along side the wagon with a long whip he used to move the oxen onward.
    The mule skinners and bulllwhackers regularly had competitions on whom could be more accurate with their whips. They would set up stakes and try to knock coins off of the tops of them, Newton said.
    Page 2 of 2 - The average size for a wagon train was about 30 wagons.
    The wagon drivers would get up before dawn in the morning drive until mid-morning. During the heat of the day, the livestock would be let out to graze. Then in the evening as the weather cooled, the wagon train would move onward until night.
    Parties would set out for Santa Fe as early as they could in the spring. Some had teams that starved to death because the grass had not yet greened, and others were caught in late spring blizzards and froze.
    Once the wagon trains reached Santa Fe, they had to pay taxes on their goods. As a result, some traders would hide part of their cargo and sneak it into the city later. Santa Fe officials sought to stop this by charging a $500 tax per wagon.
    Traders decided to build wagons to justify that $500 tax.
    The back wheels of these wagons were 7 feet tall, and the front wheels were 5 feet tall. Twelve teams of horses, mules or oxen were required to pull the massive wagons.
    Newton used wooden cutouts and people to represent the wagon and its many teams. The entire audience was required to make a representation of the setup. Because the wagons and their teams were large and hard to maneuver, the wagons road four across the trail.
    The wagon trains only lasted until the late 1860s. By 1870, the Santa Fe railroad had reached Santa Fe, which meant trade goods were moved by rail.
    However, to this day, trail ruts can be seen in the prairie where the massive Conestoga wagons and their teams compacted the ground in wide swaths.

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