Like the Cumberland Gap, Raton Pass played an important role in U.S. history: it allowed travel between Independence, Missouri, and Santa Fe, which was part of Spanish territory in North America. Santa Fe was, in fact, the single most important town in the northern part of the Spanish empire. Because Spain feared that France, Great Britain, or the United States might try to take over the southwest territories, they forbid residents of Santa Fe to trade with these nations.
But in 1821 Mexicans fought the War of Independence, in which they demanded an end to Spanish rule, a redistribution of land, and racial equality. One of the first things the newly independent Mexico did was to open trade between Mexico and the United States.
Immediately the rush was on to reach Santa Fe. In 1821 William Becknell, a Missouri trader, took pack mules and horses loaded with $300 of goods into Santa Fe. He sold the horses, mules, and goods (cloth and tools) for $6,000.
The following year Becknell loaded three large wagons with $3,000 worth of goods. He knew it was impossible to get wagons over steep, narrow, and rocky Raton Pass, so he tried a southern route across the Cimarron Desert. Called Jornado del Muerta by Mexicans, the desert proved a disaster — in order to survive, Becknell and his men had to drink the blood of their mules and kill a buffalo and drink the water from its stomach. To continue the Journey of Death would invite further disaster and, quite possibly, death. The traders turned around and headed north into the mountains to Raton Pass — a much more difficult route, but at least one that had water.
Mountain Range: Raton Mountains, a spur of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains.
Elevation: 7,834 feet
Location: On the border between Colorado and New Mexico. near the Carson National Forest.
In order to get their heavily-laden wagons over Raton, the traders unloaded the goods from each wagon, took each wagon apart, and carried the goods and wagon parts up Raton. Once they reached a wider trail, they reassembled and reloaded the wagons — and proceeded to the next narrowing of the trail, where they repeated the process. Though the trip was extremely difficult, they made a lot of money — $91,000 in sales.
Hundreds of other traders followed Becknell, hauling 6,000 pounds of goods per wagon, traveling the 800-mile Santa Fe trail in approximately 50 days. And they took these wagons over Raton Pass, where they struggled to average a half a mile a day.
The Santa Fe Trail, established by William Becknell, is commemorated by historic markers, including one at Raton Pass.
The Goodnight-Loving Trail, also commemorated by historic markers, allowed goods to move through Raton Pass from south to north — the opposite of Becknell’s direction. In this case, the goods actually moved themselves: they consisted of longhorn cattle.
When the Spanish friars who had set up missions throughout Texas and New Mexico abandoned these buildings, they left behind their cattle, which became wild. When Americans moved into Texas, more than 100,000 head of these long-horned animals roamed the range. Some Texans rounded them up and drove them north to Missouri and Kansas, selling them at high prices. Most of these cattle drivers took the Chisholm Trail north to Kansas. But after the Civil War, Oliver Loving and Charles Goodnight headed west, not north.
In June of 1866 Goodnight and Loving set out with eighteen armed cowboys and 2,000 head of cattle. They drove the cattle west, straight across the dangerous Llano Estacado. Unlike William Becknell, Goodnight and Loving were able to cross the harsh land. However, they did lose 200 head of longhorns which, water-starved, stampeded when they smelled the Pecos River. The cattle rushed headlong over the bluffs, falling into the Pecos, where 200 of them drowned.
After regrouping, the cowboys and herd moved west, where Goodnight and Loving sold most of the longhorns to the Army at Fort Sumner, in New Mexico Territory. Goodnight went back to Texas with the profits, while Loving headed north to Raton Pass, driving the remaining 800 head of cattle. He sold them in Denver, then returned to Texas.
For opening up travel and transportation between east and west, north and south, Mexico and the U.S., Raton Pass is an important part of U.S. history.
Mighty dust cloud moves,
beasts bellow, lumber upward
clanging daggered heads.
Barbara Gregorich’s previous blog on mountain passes was Smuggler’s Notch.