French merchants operating along the Mississippi River in the 1730s felt sure they could make a profit if only a trade route could be opened to the Spanish provincial capital of Santa Fe. They had no idea how far it was or what kind of terrain separated the two towns. The only information they had was rumors from Indian traders who had been up the river as far as present Nebraska. Based upon this shaky evidence the merchants who had their eye on Santa Fe concluded that the headwaters of the Missouri River must be in sight of the Spanish town.
In April 1839 the two Mallet brothers and a small party set sail up the Missouri convinced it would take them to Mexico. About mid-May they passed the Platte River. The Mallets continued up the Missouri until May 29 when they realized their mistake. They were then in present-day Thurston County, Nebraska, which was the heart of Omaha Indian country. The Mallets’ skimpy diary does not reveal exactly what happened, but perhaps the Omaha convinced the Frenchmen to chart a new course. There is no record of the Omaha traveling to New Mexico, but they knew the Pawnee did and would have known the general direction to travel. Whatever happened the Mallets abandoned the Missouri and went overland almost due south as though they knew where they were going. They entered the Platte River valley near Fremont and followed the Platte and the Loup valleys for eleven days. Near Fullerton in central Nance County they turned south and traveled overland. They passed the future sites of Central City, Aurora, and many smaller communities before crossing the Republican River near Red Cloud and leaving Nebraska.
On July 22 the Mallet party arrived safely in Santa Fe. The Mallets traded the goods they had carried for so many hundreds of miles and in the spring of 1740 set out for home.
Recorded travel from the Mississippi to Santa Fe was infrequent, but Jean Chapuis and Louis Foessy probably used the Nebraska route in 1752 and there were others as well. The peak usage of the trail was in the 1820s after Mexico won its independence from Spain and the new government welcomed visiting Americans. The Robidoux brothers, Antoine, Michel, and Isadore, made four trips to Santa Fe between 1822 and 1825. By the mid-1820s Fort Atkinson soldiers decided to use it as an escape route when they deserted from the army in August 1824. They were apprehended, but some did reach Mexico. A more direct, and more famous, route to Santa Fe soon brought an end to the road through Nebraska.