Some 200 years after the establishment of the Santa Fe Trail, some things haven’t changed very much at all.

Just as varied cultures in the city work to deal with their differences and conflicts today, European and Anglo newcomers sought to find a common ground with the Hispanos who lived in Santa Fe in 1821 — the year the trail connected Americans, New Mexicans and Natives.

Historians say the Americans who came here in the 19th century were intrigued if not entranced by what they found in New Mexico, with some deciding to stay long after they’d traded goods, were introduced to new customs and, in some cases, married into families who’d been here for more than

100 years.

Their immersion into a largely Spanish and later Mexican culture was the permanent — though in some cases, unwanted — mark of the trail.

“It had a profound effect,” said Susan Calafate Boyle, a historian and author of Los Capitalistas: Hispano Merchants and the Santa Fe Trade. “I do not believe most Hispanos wanted to become Anglicized. There’s all these foreigners coming in … you had a serious complication when you bring so many people in to a relatively small close-knit society, it can cause an awful lot of turmoil.

“And the derogatory way some Anglos saw Hispanos didn’t go over well, either.”

In her book, Boyle uses historical documents to capture the attitude of some of those early traders toward local residents, who were under the rule of Mexico when the trail began in 1821. Charles Bent, one of the more well-known and successful men in the territory for a time, wrote of the New Mexicans he encountered: “There is no stability in these people, they have no opinions of their own, they are entirely governed by the powers that be, they are without exception the most servile people that can be imagined.”

Such thoughts and words created predictable hostility among the New Mexicans. State Historian Rob Martínez said those coming across the Santa Fe Trail were “bringing with them their own idea of what a superior culture is.”

“The trail is the conduit through which Manifest Destiny was brought to New Mexico: the idea that the United States was chosen by God to rule from sea to shining sea,” he added. “And if anyone or anything got in the way, they were justified in taking it.”

Still, some New Mexicans learned how to capitalize on the new energy and goods traders brought. Many built their own mercantile trail deep into Mexico, where they could make a profit. Others, especially those who knew how to handle oxen, mules and other livestock, found jobs on the trail returning to Missouri and then back again to Santa Fe, Boyle said.

Over the years, a meld of Anglo and Hispano became a culture of its own, with Santa Fe as its capital.

“They did work together and cooperate because they had to,” Boyle said.

In some cases, the changes were subtle, noticeable only through time.

In others, the effects of the trail were immediate.



Historian Henrietta Martinez Christmas said the nature of New Mexicans’ dress habits changed as previously inaccessible goods such as calico, buttons and thread became available, thanks to the trail. Households were able to use the metal and iron utensils that came west, and even the indoor décor of Santa Fe homes changed as European and American goods became available.

The trail also brought new forms of religion to an area where Catholicism was dominant, almost unquestioned. Methodist, Presbyterian and Jewish leaders and members arrived. Some Anglo tradesmen took New Mexican wives, with both sides striving to learn the other’s language and customs.

“When families meld into each other, it’s both good and bad,” Christmas said. “You can create new cultures in positive ways and change them in negative [ways].”

Economically, the trail offered those New Mexicans who had some riches on hand the chance to connect with commercial trading entities on both the East and West coasts and Mexico.

Michael Romero Taylor, whose family roots are as deep as the trail’s early days, said it’s important to remember the path from Missouri to Santa Fe was a two-way route. It offered a way for New Mexicans to create a merchant class thanks to contacts made in the fledgling United States, which at the time of the trail’s founding was less than 50 years old.

“It wasn’t just about people coming from St. Louis to here,” he said. “It was a bidirectional route. Families like the Romeros and Delgados and Oteros are responsible for creating this symbiotic relationship with merchants out west and in Philadelphia and New York.”

Those families and others then set up their own businesses to take advantage of the trail’s profit-driven initiatives, he added.

“We basically say we come from a line of truckers,” Taylor said with a laugh. “They had trucking businesses on the Santa Fe Trail — wagon trains.”

As Boyle’s book makes clear, Anglo merchants moved into other parts of the state to establish business footholds. But their Hispanic counterparts often stuck close to their home base, at times cutting themselves off from expansion as the world around them changed.

New Mexico, for so long a colony of Spain, was a part of Mexico by 1821. By the 1850, it had become an American territory. By the 1860s and the Civil War, Santa Fe was desired by both the Union and the Confederacy. And by the end of the 1800s, it was clear New Mexico would soon become a state.

Massive changes in a relatively short amount of time, many of them due to a dusty path hewn by those seeking profit, influence or adventure.

Through it all came an ebb and flow of cooperation and conflict between those who’d been here for many years and those who’d just arrived.

Christmas said it’s easy to look back and see how the trail’s influence “created a whole different way of life” for the New Mexico territory.

“It’s not a bad thing,” she said. “It was going to happen eventually. Why not 1821?”

General Assignment Reporter

Robert Nott has covered education and youth issues for the Santa Fe New Mexican. He is assigned to The New Mexican's city desk where he covers a general assignment beat.

(5) comments

Lyle Corton

Interesting article, well done.

I am curious why the de facto word for non-Hispanic white people is “Anglo”. This is used across the US but people in Northern NM use it a lot.

If you look at the literal meaning of the word, it essentially means English or having some connection to England. It just seems odd we use a word to lump all non-Hispanic white peoples as English. Germans, Polish, Irish, Russians, etc, none of those are remotely English culturally or ethnically.

Lucy Lu

Perhaps “gringo” suits you better?

Lyle Corton

Sure! Perhaps we should just refer to all Hispanic people in NM as "Mexican" and see how that's received.

Ted Cloak

Perhaps it's because the newcomers mostly spoke English.

Brian Barnett

Yes I feel the same. I prefer to be considered a European American, with my English, German, French, and Irish heritage.

Welcome to the discussion.

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