Renegade Roads

The Old Snake Trade Route

Traveling a little-known route from Santa Fe, New Mexico, to Bismarck, North Dakota.

Traveling a little-known route from Santa Fe, New Mexico, to Bismarck, North Dakota.

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Indian trade routes criss-crossed the country generations before any Euroamerican travelers arrived on foot, horseback or via covered wagons.

The native people used the trading routes to exchange goods predominant in one area but rare or harder to obtain in another area. One of the common routes in the West linked the Pueblo Indian communities in present-day New Mexico with the Northern Plains tribal areas along the Missouri River in present-day North Dakota.

This route—known by some as the Old Snake Trade Route—provided a conduit between Santa Fe, New Mexico, and other Spanish/Indian towns, and the Mandan Villages in the Dakota Territory. Once in what is now Wyoming, the route branched off to the west to other trade centers, including one near the site of what would become Fort Bridger and others as far west as Ceilo Falls and The Dalles on the Columbia River in Oregon.

The first reference I ever saw to this route was in a history of Wyoming written by C.G. Coutant, who said trapper Ezekiel Williams traveled it in 1807. I saw later references in materials researched and written by another Wyoming historian, Lola Homsher, who said the first documented use by a white traveler was Williams, but that he went over the route in 1810 or 1811. Both agreed native people had used it long, long before that.

In a sense I feel a bit of kinship with this particular route, since it passed through the valley I call home and, in all likelihood, people using it would have gone very near my house, located near Encampment, Wyoming. Even so, to make this a more linear trail, I’ll begin this journey over the Old Snake Trade Route in Santa Fe and travel north.

Happy Birthday, Santa Fe!

Celebrating its quadricentennial (400 years of existence as a city) this year, Santa Fe is one of the oldest communities on this particular route, though, of course, some of the Indian pueblos have been in place far, far longer.

Visitors to Santa Fe can experience the trading culture at the 1610 Palace of the Governors, where native artisans spread their wares on blankets and rugs, selling everything from necklaces, bracelets and hair barrettes to knives. If you want to engage in some serious trading, attend the Santa Fe Indian Market (held this year on August 21 and 22), which attracts hundreds of Indian vendors. At other times of the year, and all around the plaza, you’ll find numerous shopping, dining and lodging opportunities. Then get back on the road, where you’ll travel north on U.S. 84 through Espanola and follow Highway 68, heading toward Taos.

The Road Less Traveled

Before you go to Taos, you should first make a stop at Chimayo to visit Ortega Weavers, so travel west from Espanola to Highway 76. At Ortega, you can find some of the top quality products of the region, ranging from rugs and wall hangings to clothing items like coats or vests.

From Chimayo, take the High Road (Highway 76), driving through Cordova, Truchas and Las Trampas. This diversion connects with Highway 75, which you can either drive east to Highway 68 or continue west to Highway 518, following the road north toward Taos. The drive takes longer, since it is a mountain route, but the varied scenery is well worth the detour.

Taos Pueblo reflects very well the longevity of indigenous people along this trade route; the pueblo has been inhabited for more than 1,000 years. The crumbling walls of the church, where residents of the pueblo sought refuge during the 1847 Taos Revolt, and the nearby burial ground are tangible reminders of not only the longevity, but also the trials and tribulations of the people who have called this area...

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