Ledes from the Land of Enchantment

PBS documentary ‘The Road to Santa Fe’ looks at the famed trail west

The Santa Fe Trail was key in westward expansion in the United States. (Courtesy of Dave Kendall)

Dave Kendall’s interest in history has always been at the forefront of his life.

He enjoys learning.

It’s no wonder Kendall jumped at the chance to dive in deep to tell the story of the Santa Fe Trail in the documentary, “The Road to Santa Fe.” It will air at 8:30 pm Sunday, Jan. 30, on New Mexico PBS, channel 5.4.

The Santa Fe Trail played a pivotal role in the westward expansion of the United States.

Extending across the mid-continent from Missouri to New Mexico, it became a prominent commercial trail involving both American and Mexican merchants.

Filmmaker Dave Kendall

Over six decades, beginning in the 1820s, the trail supported a vast network of commerce, enabled the US to annex much of northern Mexico and led to the relocation of the Plains Indians.

By 1880, the construction of the railroads brought an end to the flow of freight wagons on the Santa Fe Trail, now designated a national historic trail.

“The Santa Fe Trail is interesting to me,” Kendall says. “My ancestors had some experience on the trail. I never thought about it. When I was making the film, I was getting shots along the trail and it was fun.”

Then the pandemic hit and Kendall had to pause a little with the production.

“Luckily, I was doing the film and not around too many people,” he says. “Everything I was filming was done outdoors. It made it easier.”

Kendall began his research for the documentary in 2019.

He raised the money for the film himself by submitting grant proposals.

“I took a Ken Burns’ approach to the film and used excerpts from memoirs,” he says.

Pawnee Rock in Kansas is located on the Santa Fe Trail. (Courtesy of Dave Kendall)

As his research moved forward, Kendall says there was a lot of information that eluded him.

“I had grown up miles from the Santa Fe Trail,” he says. “I worked on a series about Kansas for 20 years. One thing that evaded me was the Arkansas River. It used to be the international boundary line with Mexico. It floored me that I hadn’t learned that in history classes.”

Kendall hopes that an audience will walk away learning something because the Santa Fe Trail made a huge impact in westward expansion.

“People will take away different things, but I wanted to show how we got where we are today,” he says. “The interaction of cultures has a lot of layers. I wanted to create a documentary that gives a better sense of history.”

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