In 1806 William Morrison, a Kaskaskia, Illinois merchant, sent United States Army Lieutenant Zebulon Pike to explore the Arkansas and Red Rivers. Pike’s mission was to evaluate the possibilities of trade with New Mexico.
Leaving from Belle Fontaine, Missouri Zebulon Pike, with 75 men, was now on his way. For reasons uncertain Pike established a fort on what he claimed to be the Red River. In reality, the fort was constructed near the banks of the Rio Grande on Spanish soil. Pike then proceeded to fly the Stars and Stripes over his fortification. Understandably, the Spanish didn’t consider this arrangement a good idea. They illustrated their displeasure with a force of 100 New Mexican dragoons and militia that rode down on this invading fort and its occupants.
This fine show of Spanish military force made an excellent escort for Pike and his men who were conducted into Santa Fe to pay their respects to Governor Joaquin del Real Alencaster. After their introduction to Alencaster Pike and his men were given a grand Spanish tour, which included a 600-mile voyage to Chihuahua, Mexico to meet General Nemesio Salcedo, Commandant General of all Spanish forces in Northern Mexico.
On the way to Chihuahua a stop was made in Albuquerque where Pike and his men were wined and dined by priest. Continuing on with this involuntary vacation, in El Paso the most lovely of Spanish ladies entertained them at a ball. And so it went until reaching Chihuahua and General Salcedo who courteously relieved Pike of the burden of transporting home all his official papers. Fortunately, Pike did manage to conceal the pages of one of his journals in the barrels of some guns. In those papers Pike wrote the most encouraging descriptions of New Mexico, its landscape, and its people. So promising were Pike’s published words concerning the forbidden Spanish province that it served to inflame the seemingly endless American appetite for exploration, trade, and the possibility of a new source of gold, Spanish gold.
Such incursions as Pike had made into Spanish held territory were forbidden by its government. They preferred to keep her imperial borders closed to foreigners, and especially to any foreign trade. Spain also did not want any revolutionary ideas seeping in from outside her borders. She held a tight monopoly on colonial trade and intended to keep it that way. All trade in New Spain was conducted deep within Mexico, resulting in manufactured goods being costly as well as scarce.
As Pike observed, New Spain was virtually sealed off from the outside world. The people had almost no knowledge of young America that was to soon be knocking at their doors. The news Pike and his men brought home of the wealth in Spanish gold to be had to the southwest fired the imaginations of Americans. One other factor surely stimulated the ambitions of Americans towards the Santa Fe trade; New Spain told the Americans they could not enter her borders. That, alone, could have been enough to entice Americans to invade New Spain.
But by 1821 Mexico had broken free of Spanish rule. As an independent nation Mexico welcomed American traders. Soon could be seen long caravans of wagons and pack mules crossing the Great Plains, in the future state of Kansas, to the Great Bend of the Arkansas River. Following this waterway the traders entered the part of Kansas that would become Colorado as they wound their way over the rocky summit of Raton Pass. It was a long and dangerous journey but at last they would reach their destination. And so, the Santa Fe Trail was born.