William Becknell — Father of the Santa Fe Trail

c. 1790–April 25, 1865

William Becknell (c. 1790–1865) was a trader who blazed the Santa Fe Trail in the early 1820s.

William Becknell, Painting, Cooper

William Becknell by David Cooper. Image Source: Saatchi Art.

Who was William Becknell?

William Becknell was a trader and explorer who is most well-known for blazing the Santa Fe Trail. He settled as a merchant in Missouri after the War of 1812 and organized an expedition to trade with Indians in the southern Rockies in 1821. When he learned about Mexico’s newly acquired independence from Spain, he traded his goods in Santa Fe, making a considerable profit. He organized a larger expedition the following year, shortening the route by using the “Cimarron Cutoff,” which also allowed easier travel for wagons. This established the Santa Fe Trail, which became a major route of commerce between Mexico and the United States and helped Americans migrate westward. Becknell continued in the Santa Fe trade for several years, participated in the Texas War for Independence, and settled in Clarksville, Texas, where he died in 1865.

Santa Fe Trail, Becknell's 1822 Route
Santa Fe Trail, Becknell’s 1822 Route. Image Source: National Park Service.

William Becknell Facts

  • Date of Birth: William Becknell was born sometime around 1790.
  • Parents: His parents were Micajah Becknell and Pheby Landrum.
  • Date of Death: Becknell died on April 25, 1865, around the age of 75.
  • Buried: He is buried in a private cemetery in Clarksville, Texas.

William Becknell’s Life and Career

Very little is known about the early life of William Becknell. He was born in Western Virginia around 1790, possibly in the Kentucky Territory. He migrated west and may have settled in Missouri after the War of 1812.

Becknell’s 1821 Expedition

In 1821, Becknell was part of an expedition that took pack animals from Missouri to Colorado, where they intended to trade with Native American Indians along the southern Rocky Mountains and trap animals for their furs.

The expedition departed Franklin, Missouri, in August and traveled roughly 100 miles west to Fort Osage, just north of Independence, Missouri. In October, they met a group of Mexican soldiers who were traveling to Mexico. The soldiers told Becknell and the others that Mexico had won its independence from Spain and they would be able to go to Santa Fe to trade their goods. 

When New Mexico was under Spanish control, it was illegal for American traders to do business in the southwest. New Mexico had been closed off to Americans since Zebulon Pike’s Second Expedition in 1806.

The opportunity to travel to Santa Fe appealed to Becknell and his associates, so they decided to go there instead of the Rocky Mountains. They were successful in Santa Fe and made enough profit that Becknell was determined to return the following year. On his way back to Missouri, Becknell took a different route, which inspired him to find a new route to Santa Fe.

Becknell’s Blazes the Santa Fe Trail

In 1822, Becknell organized a larger expedition that included the first wagons filled with approximately $5,000 worth of goods to travel to Santa Fe. In order to make the trip with the wagons, Becknell altered the route to Santa Fe so he could avoid the mountain passes. 

The expedition traveled across the Kansas plains and followed the Cimarron River south into New Mexico — known as the “Cimarron Cutoff.” Although the expedition was successful — and lucrative — it was still difficult due to weather conditions and a lack of water. Despite the difficulty, the new route — the Santa Fe Trail — quickly became a major route into Mexican territory. Becknell’s route helped dramatically increase the trade between the United States and Mexico.

Soon after, hundreds of merchants, traders, and wagon trains were using the Santa Fe Trail. It was so widely used that it drew the attention of Native American Indians, who posed a threat to anyone on the trail. The United States government responded by sending the U.S. Army into the territory to help defend against attacks.

Later Life of William Becknell

Becknell continued to travel to Santa Fe for the next few years. In 1825, the U.S. Congress hired him to lead an expedition to survey the trail. 

By 1828, he settled at Arrow Rock, Missouri, and established a ferry across the Missouri River. He was elected to serve in the Missouri General Assembly in 1828 and again in 1832. Becknell left Missouri for Texas in 1835 and settled in Clarksville in Red River County, Texas. 

The following year, he fought for Texas independence in the Texas Revolution as a member of the Red River Blues. After the revolution, he was a militia commander and acquired a significant estate. He died in April 1865.

William Becknell Significance

William Becknell is important to United States history for the role he played in blazing the Santa Fe Trail. The trail allowed Americans to migrate westward and opened trade with Mexico.

Citation Information

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  • Article Title William Becknell — Father of the Santa Fe Trail
  • Date c. 1790–April 25, 1865
  • Author
  • Keywords William Becknell, Santa Fe Trail, Westward Expansion, Manifest Destiny
  • Website Name American History Central
  • Access Date May 25, 2024
  • Publisher R.Squared Communications, LLC
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update August 11, 2023