Its History, Legends, and Lore
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A detailed narrative of the rise and decline of the Santa Fe Trail as an epochal vein of 19th-century expansion, courtesy of a noted Western enthusiast.

Dary (Cowboy Culture, not reviewed), an authority on the Old West, demonstrates a firm grasp of the terrain’s history—both before and after its acquisition by the US. During the mid-19th century the Santa Fe Trail’s importance grew rapidly (as a venue for trade with Mexico and as a stable and safe route across the politically volatile landscapes of New Mexico and Texas), even as the encroachments of civilization soon changed its character almost beyond recognition. The author devotes separate chapters to the early development of Santa Fe as a strategic center of trade, to the growth of trade in general throughout the region, to the crucial role of the “Prairie schooner” (the Pittsburgh-manufactured Conestoga wagon) in the transport of goods, and to the role of the Trail in the Mexican-American and Civil wars. Dary is skilled at resurrecting the old lives of this landscape and introduces us to local characters, such as Francis Aubry (a brash trader who crossed the Trail in six days to win a $1,000 bet), Matteo Boccalini (who fled the priesthood to live an even more ascetic lifestyle in a solitary outpost along the Trail), William Bent (who established his own fort along the Arkansas River and profited from the Indian trade), and Susan Magoffin (a trader’s wife who kept a tart journal of the Trail’s privations). Most startling are the accounts of the frequent Indian raids: aggressive tribes like the Apache and Comanche attacked merchant and settler parties without mercy, often abducting those (usually women and children) whom they failed to massacre. Dary seems obsessed with “telling it like it was,” even extending to his mournful chapter “The Slow Death of the Trail” (which blames rapid railway expansion in the 1870s).

A densely populated account, rich in overlooked elements of the western experiment, executed with fine historical veracity.

Pub Date: Nov. 17th, 2000
ISBN: 0-375-40361-2
Page count: 400pp
Publisher: Knopf
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15th, 2000


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