Illegal Trappers Leave New Mexico, For Now

In February 1815, a group of St. Louis trappers led by Joseph Philibert left Taos for the Arkansas River and on to St. Louis. After five months under arrest in Taos, they were returning to the U.S. with a healthy load of beaver plews.

The entire group had been arrested by Spanish soldiers the previous September and charged with crossing the international boundary illegally. The furs they had with them were confiscated to cover the costs of their incarceration over the course of the winter. It’s not clear where they collected the furs they took back East the following spring. But they seem to have gathered enough plews to make the whole expedition worthwhile.

And to make them want to try the same stunt again. When Philibert headed to St. Louis, he went with the hope of arranging financial backing for yet another venture into New Mexico.

oct 29 illustration.pixabay

Under Spanish law, what Philibert had done and was proposing to do again was flatly illegal. Foreigners weren’t allowed across the New Spain/U.S. border without explicit permission from Spanish officials. In fact, in the five months the Philibert group was in Taos, at least four other illegal foreigners were arrested and sent to New Spain’s interior. Why Philibert’s group was allowed to remain is as much of a mystery as the source of the furs they took back to St. Louis.

What’s clear is that the border between the two countries was already extremely porous. It was almost inevitable that American trappers would continue to filter into Spanish territory. The furs there, and the money they were worth in the U.S., were just too tempting. New Mexico’s officials may have simply been bowing to the inevitable when they allowed Joseph Philibert and his band of men to remain in Taos the winter of 1814/15.

Sources:  Leroy R. Hafen, editor, Fur Trappers and Traders of the Far Southwest, Utah State University press, Logan, 1997; David J. Weber, The Taos Trappers, University of Oklahoma press, Norman, 1971.

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William Workman Orders Still For Taos Lightning

On Monday, February 13, 1826, William Workman of Taos, New Mexico sent a letter to his brother David in Franklin, Missouri. William asked David to have two 80-gallon stills shipped to him from St. Louis. Copper stills were essential in the production of hard liquor like the wheat-based Taos Lightning that William produced and sold.

Not only did William Workman’s letter ensure that Taos residents would have more liquor available to them, it also may have triggered one of the American West’s most famous runaway stories.

David Workman, a saddle and harness maker, had a teenage apprentice named Christopher “Kit” Carson. The letter from New Mexico may have reminded the young Kit that there were more exciting ways to earn a living. When he took off for New Mexico that August, he may well have traveled in the same wagon train as the stills that William Workman had ordered.

Workman manufactured Taos Lightning until 1841, when he himself had to run away, this time from—rather than to—New Mexico. Workman and his distillery partner John Rowland fled Taos for California that September, after rumors spread that they were collaborating with a Republic of Texas expedition to annex New Mexico.

feb-13-illustration-workman-william-1855-mnm-13492.jpeg
William Workman, 1855. MNM 13492

While Carson stayed in New Mexico and made him name for himself, Workman, in California and still partnering with John Rowland, obtained a Mexican land grant of over 48,000 acres and founded  Rancho de la Puente, now a cultural landmark in Southern California.

In both cases, running away seems to have been the best move either Workman or Carson could have made. They both made a name for themselves as a result.

 

Sources: Samuel P. Arnold, Eating up the Santa Fe Trail, University Press of Colorado, Niwot, 1990; Leroy R. Hafen, editor, Fur Trappers and Traders of the Far Southwest, Utah State University Press, Logan, 1997; Hampton Sides, Blood and Thunder, Doubleday, New York, 2006; Marc Simmons, Kit Carson, and His Three Wives, University of New Mexico Press, Albuquerque, 2003.

 

Fur Catch Causes Nothing But Trouble

Ewing Young had thirteen 90-pound packs of beaver fur in his possession in early May 1827, and he wasn’t interested in having them confiscated. According to the rumors, outgoing Governor Narbona was cracking down on trappers without the proper permissions and incoming Governor Manuel Armijo was likely to be even stricter than Narbona.

So Young did the only sensible thing an American trapper could do. He hid his furs at the Pena Blanca home of his associate Luis Maria Cabeza de Baca.

But he had neglected to realize that some of the men with him might have different ideas about the most sensible approach to government mandates. A member of his trapping party, Ignacio Sandoval, told officials in Santa Fe what Young was up to.

From that point on, things took a turn for the worse. Governor Narbona ordered soldiers to Pena Blanca to confiscate the furs and, in the process, Luis Maria Cabeza de Baca was killed. Then Manuel Armijo became governor on May 20 and signed an order for Young’s arrest for illegal trapping. Young seems to have talked his way out of that predicament and instead got permission to clean the confiscated furs. He and the Santa Fe alcalde were in front of the governor’s long adobe palace, shaking out and inventorying the furs, when another member of Young’s trapping party appeared on the scene. Milton Sublette grabbed a bundle of pelts and made off with them.

When Sublette and the furs disappeared, the governor blamed Ewing Young. He called Young to the palace and threatened him with jail. Young turned on his heel and walked out of Armijo’s office, but he wasn’t free for long. And when the soldiers did catch up with him, he was thrown in the calaboza, where he languished until he became ill and was finally released.

May 15 blog illustration.Armijo, Manuel.illustrated history of nm
Source: Illustrated History of New Mexico,
Reed

But he didn’t get his furs back. Many of them had been badly damaged by rain leaking through the roof of the building where they were stored, so they were sold for about two-thirds what they would have brought in good condition. The total was still a decent amount, about $3500. But it’s not clear who received the resulting funds. After all, the plews were government-confiscated property.

Sources: Carl P. Russell, Firearms, Traps, and Tools of the Mountain Men, Skyhorse Publishing, 2010; David J. Weber, The Taos Trappers, University of Oklahoma Press, 1970.

Fur Smuggling in New Mexico, 1827

In April 1827, as Thomas L. Smith returned from a rough, though productive, fur trapping season, he learned that there was a new Mexican Governor in New Mexico and he not as sympathetic as past administrations had been to Americans who trapped without the required permits. In fact, the new Governor was on the hunt for Americans with illegal furs.

Smith decided that the only way to protect his plews was to smuggle them to Taos, where the border was more porous and he was likely find someone willing to take the risk of smuggling them over the Mexican/American border to Missouri. Accordingly, Smith and his trapping partners skirted Santa Fe and headed north.

April 27 illustration.Thomas Smith.Hafen Vol IV
Source: Mountain Men and the Fur Trade of the Southwest, Vol. IV, Leroy R. Hafen

After a close brush with the law at an outlying cabin, they made it to the small settlement of Riitos. Here, they hid the packs of furs among the trees and stopped for breakfast. The people were neighborly and came out to offer the trappers tortillas and eggs. However, the local kids  discovered the packs in the trees. Smith did some quick thinking and explained that the furs were hidden because the sun would damage them. No one objected to this explanation, and the trappers continued on their way.

They hid the furs in a cave near the Rio Grande and rode into Taos the next day, where Smith was able to make the necessary arrangements. Although illegal and somewhat dangerous, Smith’s approach seems to have been the wiser one.

Ewing Young’s party cached their furs a little too close to Santa Fe, in the Pena Blanca home of a gentleman named Cabeza de Baca. De Baca’s help led to distaser for his family: When the soldiers arrived to confiscate the furs, there was an altercation and de Baca was killed.

Young’s furs were lost as well. When Young attempted to retrieve them from the Santa Fe authorities, he was imprisoned and only released when he came down with a debilitating fever. Eventually, the furs were sold at a fraction of their value. It’s unclear who ended up receiving the little money they brought in.

So, while Thomas Smith circumvented the law, he did make a profit. Ewing Young wasn’t so fortunate. It was a lesson that the American trappers would take to heart. The Mexican government would continue to try to keep the trappers under control, and the Americans would do their best to avoid that supervision.

Sources: Mountain Men and the Fur Trade of the Far West, Vol. IV, Leroy Hafen, Arthur H. Clarke Company, Spokane, 1966; The Taos Trappers, David J. Weber, U of Oklahoma, Norman, 1971.

Mexico Declares Its Independence!

On Saturday, February 24, 1821, halfway between Mexico City and Acapulco, General Agustin de Iturbide published the Plan of Iguala and effectively established Mexico’s independence from Spain and set the stage for American conquest of New Mexico, California, and the land in between.

Feb24 illustration.Iturbide.Twitchell
General Augustin de Iturbide. Source: R. E. Twitchell

The plan of Iguala maintained the Catholic Church as the official religion of Mexico, created an independent limited monarchy, and established equal rights for Spaniards and creoles. The new government also reversed the Spanish policy which forbade foreign merchants to enter New Mexico, thus opening the door for William Becknell and his mule train of goods as well as the many trappers and traders who would follow him down the Santa Fe Trail.

However, the new relationship with the United States was fraught with complications. Within a few years, Mexican officials realized that the Americans were taking every opportunity to keep from paying customs duties on the goods they brought into and the furs they took out of nuevomexico. Although officials tried various measures to control the Americans, nothing was really effective. The American trappers and traders continued to be a thorn in the side of the Mexican government. In fact, it could be argued that the Americans that the Mexicans allowed in after 1821 would turn out to be a major factor in the lack of resistance to the American invasion in 1846, 25 years later.

Sources: Paul Horgan, Great River, The Rio Grande in North American History, Wesleyan Univeristy Press, Middletown, CT, 1984; : Ralph E. Twitchell, The Leading Facts of New Mexico History, Vol. II, The Torch Press, Cedar Rapids, 1912; David J. Weber, The Taos Trappers, David J. Weber, U of Oklahoma Press, Norman, OK, 1970.

Taos Gets New Mexico’s First Press

When New Mexico’s first printing press arrived in Taos in late November 1835, its new owner Padre Antonio José Martinez didn’t waste any time putting it to work. On Friday, November 27, he announced that the press was be available to residents to use to publish “literary contributions.”

Antonio_José_Martínez
Padre Antonio Jose Martinez circa 1848

The press and its printer, Jesús María Baca of Durango, Mexico, had arrived in Santa Fe in 1832, brought there by Don Antonio Barreriro, a barrister and governmental deputy from Mexico City, apparently at the behest of nuevomexico Legislature’s Secretary, Don Ramón Abreu.

Barreriro used the new press to print a short-lived newspaper El Crepúsculo de la Libertad (The Dawn of Liberty), the first newspaper in New Mexico and possibly the first paper published west of the Mississippi. Abreu may have also used it to publish the first book printed in New Mexico, a spelling primer titled Cuaderno de Ortografía.

Following Barreriro’s return to Mexico, Ramón Abreu sold the printing equipment to Padre Martinez, the priest assigned to Taos’ Our Lady of Guadalupe chapel, who moved it to Taos. Once it and its printer were in place, Martinez put them to work, with output ranging from diligencia matrimonials (the standard forms for pre-nuptial investigations) to religious books. And hopefully Taos residents’ “literary contributions,” as well!

Sources: Fray Angelico Chavez, But Time and Chance, Sunstone Press, Santa Fe, NM 1981; Richard W. Etulain, New Mexican Lives: Profiles and Historical Stories, UNM Press, Albuquerque 2002; Rubén Saláz Márquez, New Mexico A Brief Multi-History, Cosmic House, Albuquerque, 1999.

OLD BILL – 6 of 6

He had found it.

Old Bill stood on the rocky mountain ridge, hat in hand, and peered into the long green valley below. This was the larger section Three Hands had spoken of, sure as shootin’. Meandering streams glinted in the autumn light and the clouds overhead betokened more rain.

Old Bill laughed aloud, replaced his hat, and scrambled down from the rocks. His credit-bought beaver traps rattled slightly as the new mule carefully followed him down the mountainside. There’d be beaver here, he could feel it in his bones. If not in the valley itself, then surely in the streams flowing out of it through the mountains to the east.

“C’mon mule,” he said. “We’re gonna ’cuperate my losses and make us our fortune. All we gotta do is stay outta the way of  the Injuns and the Mexicans chasin’ ’em.” He chuckled. “Not to mention catamount an’ bear.”

from Moreno Valley Sketches