This Fall marks the 200th anniversary of the opening of the Santa Fe Trail between Missouri and New Mexico. The article in the link below provides an overview of what happened and why the Trail is important in the history of the United States and New Mexico.
This Fall marks the 200th anniversary of the opening of the Santa Fe Trail from Missouri to New Mexico. I was going to write a piece about why the Trail was important to the U.S., then I found this. I think it pretty much covers everything I was going to say…..
About this time 200 years ago, a man named William Becknell was on his way from Missouri to the Rocky Mountains to trade with the Indians. Or so he said. This is his story, as told by the Kansas Genealogy website. I love the old-fashioned language used in this report. I think it may closely reflect how he would have described what happened. I hope you enjoy it as much as I do.
Captain William Becknell
“The first successful venture to Santa Fe over the Santa Fe Trail was made by Captain William Becknell. With him, according to Gregg, were “four trusty companions.” They left Arrow Rock, on the Missouri, near Franklin, but in Saline County, September 1, 1821. On the 13th of November they met a troop of Mexican soldiers, who prevailed upon them to voluntarily go, in their company, to Santa Fe, whither they were returning. At San Miguel they found a Frenchman who acted as interpreter for them. They were accorded a friendly reception at Santa Fe, and provided the facilities necessary to dispose of their goods. These sold at such rates as astonished the Missourians, calicoes and domestic cotton cloth bringing as much as three dollars a yard. The enterprise proved most remunerative. The party set out on the return journey on the 13th of December and reached home in forty-eight days.
That adventure may be said to have established the Santa Fe trade, and Captain Becknell had justly been called the father of the Santa Fe Trail, for that which he followed was accepted as The Trail from the Missouri River to Santa Fe.
The favorable termination of the trading-journey of Captain Becknell being extensively told on the borders of Missouri, others determined to engage in that commerce. Colonel Benjamin Cooper organized a company which left Franklin for Santa Fe early in May, 1822. His nephews, Braxton, and Stephen Cooper, were members of the party, which numbered some fifteen souls. They carried goods to the value of some five thousand dollars to Taos, using pack-horses. The result of the expedition must have been satisfactory for the Coopers remained in the trade for some years, Braxton Cooper meeting his death at the hands of the Comanches some years after this first trip across the Plains.
Captain Becknell was resolved to continue in the trade which had given him such good returns. Within a month after the departure of Colonel Cooper he again took the trail from Franklin to Santa Fe. The value of his cargo was about five thousand dollars, and there were thirty men in the expedition. On this journey he abandoned the use of packhorses and used for his transportation, wagons drawn by mulesthe first wagon-train over the Santa Fe Trail and the first to cross the Great Plains. It was four years before Ashley took his wheel-mounted cannon into the valley of the Great Salf Lake, eight years before Smith, Jackson & Sublette went into the Wind River country with wagons, and ten years before Captain Bonneville drove wagons into the valley of Green River. This first caravan to depart from the usual means of transportation used three wagons.
This second expedition of Captain Becknell was the pioneer party over the Cimarron Route of the Santa Fe Trail. Captain Becknell had, through his travels, conceived the true geography of the Southwest. It was plain to him that the nearest way to Santa Fe from the Arkansas River was to the southwest by the Cimarron. When he had arrived at that point afterwards known as the “Caches” he turned south. He was not familiar with the country which he was entering. It bore a desert aspect and proved entirely destitute of water between the Arkansas and the Cimarron. The supply carried in canteens was exhausted at the end of two days. It seemed that they were destined to die of thirst on those parched and blasted plains. They killed their dogs and out off the ears of their mules to drink the blood, but this desperate expedient served only to aggravate their suffering. The mirage taunted them with the appearance of water rippling against the shores of false lakes. They had, however, come near the Cimarron without knowing it. They resolved to turn about and try to regain the Arkansassomething they never could have done. In the last extremity, when despair was settling upon them, some of the party observed a buffalo coming up from a depression they had not before seen. It seemed to come up as from the depths and stand upon the burning plain with distended sidesas though gorged with water. It was immediately killed and opened. The stomach was filled with water taken but a few minutes before from the Cimarron. This filthy water was drunk as nectar from paradise. Search was at once made for the stream whence had come this lone providential buffalo, and the Cimarron was found. Water was carried back by the refreshed travelers to those perishing on the desert, and the party was saved. The journey was continued over that route, and water was fortunately found in quantities sufficient to enable the party to reach San Miguel.
The misfortunes of the party under Baird, which went out in 1812, the members of which were imprisoned so many years at Chihuahua, did not quench the passion for trade over the Plains in their leader. In 1822 he induced some adventurers at St. Louis to join him in taking a trading expedition over the Santa Fe Trail. He was joined also by Samuel Chambers, who had aided in securing the cargo to be carried, and who had descended the Canadian in 1821. The expedition consisted of some fifty men and an ample supply of horses and mules. It left Franklin late in the season and was overtaken by severe weather on the Upper Arkansas. It took refuge on an island in that river, no doubt for the reason that it was covered with willow and cottonwood timber. So rigorous did the winter prove that these men were compelled to remain there three months, and most of their animals perished from exposure and starvation. This calamity left them without the means to carry their merchandise into New Mexico. They were under the necessity of concealing their goods there while they went to New Mexico for horses and mules to carry in their lading. They left the island and went up the north bank of the river some distance where they dug pits or “caches” in which they placed their goods, covering them in very carefully. They then went to Taos, where they secured the necessary animals, with which they returned and on which they packed their merchandise to that town. The several pits were left unfilled when the goods were removed, and they stood open there on the Trail for many years. In Gregg’s day they were still open and their walls were covered with moss. They came to be a marking point on the Trail, and this point was known as the “Caches.” The “Caches” were about five miles west of the present Dodge City, Kansas.
In the year 1823, there is record of but one expedition from Missouri to Santa Fe. Early in May Colonel Cooper left Franklin with two packhorses laden with goods valued at two hundred dollars. He returned the following October with four hundred “jacks, jinnies, and mules” and some bales of furs.
Gregg erroneously dates the commencement of the Santa Fe trade from the year 1824. And he falls into another error in saying that the first wagons were used in the trade that year. At the Franklin Tavern, about the first of April, 1824, there was a meeting to discuss the trade to Santa Fe. The point of assembly for the expedition that year was fixed at Mount Vernon, Missouri, and the time was set for the 5th of May. Each man was to carry a good rifle, a dependable pistol, four pounds of powder, eight pounds of lead, and rations for twenty days. The expedition was composed of eighty-one men, one hundred and fifty-six horses and mules, and twenty-five wagons. Thirty thousand dollars was the value of the goods carried. The expedition started on the 15th of May, 1824, crossing the Missouri about six miles above Franklin. The organization for the long journey was effected as soon as the caravan was well under way. A. Le Grand was elected Captain. M. M. Marmaduke, later Governor of Missouri, was one of the party. The Arkansas River was reached on the 10th of June, and the expedition arrived at Santa Fe on the 28th day of July. The financial results of the venture were satisfactory.
It is not necessary to the scope of this work to present an account of every expedition over the Santa Fe Trail, and it is not the intention to do so. The design is to give a historical review of the Trail which will furnish the student or casual reader of history such information as will establish in his mind a clear but not a detailed outline of this important highway of the Plains.
By the year 1825 the Santa Fe trade had assumed sufficient proportions to attract the attention of Congress. There was also a growing apprehension of the wild Indians of the Plains. While there had been no trader killed on the Trail and no robberies of enough importance to report, there was a gathering of Indians along the way, and it was feared that outrages would be committed. Congress, in the winter of 1824-25, passed a bill (approved March 3, 1825) authorizing the President to have the Santa Fe Trail marked from Missouri to the frontiers of New Mexico. The Commissioners appointed to carry that act into effect were enjoined to secure the consent of the Indians whose lands were infringed, to the survey and marking of the road. For that purpose a treaty was entered into, at Council Grove, between the Great and Little Osages and the Kansas Indians on the 11th day of August, 1825. The object of the treaty and what resulted from it will be best shown by the instrument itself. There were in fact two treatiesone with the Osages and one with the Kansas. As they are identical in terms, except as to the preliminary paragraphs, only that with the Osages is given.”
On Monday, July 1, 1850, the first stage-transported U.S. mail left Independence, Missouri for Santa Fe, New Mexico with eight men guarding the mule-drawn coach.
This was the first Congressionally authorized four-year contract for mail transported by vehicle between Independence and New Mexico. It had initially been set to leave Fort Leavenworth but the contract was modified to send it out of Independence instead, reducing the route distance from 885 to 840 miles.
The mail contractors in 1850 were Dr. David Waldo of New Mexico and Jacob Hall of Independence. The stage not only carried the mail, it also provided passenger service, with fares of $100 in the summer and $150 during the winter. A letter of less than half an ounce cost $0.10 and could be sent collect, postage to be paid by the recipient.
The company that Waldo and Hall formed in 1850 dissolved four years later, when Hall bought Waldo out and teamed up with John M. Hockaday to transport the mail for the next contract period. In 1857, service moved to semimonthly and the following year Hall again placed a successful bid, this time as sole proprietor. In 1862, he bid again, but the contract was awarded to George H. Vickroy and Thomas J. Barnum.
The Eastern terminus for the stage also shifted that year, moving west to Kansas City. Now the shortening of the line that had begun on the first run accelerated, responding to the growth of the railroads. Stage service to Santa Fe would end completely in 1880 with the arrival of the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe. But the idea of the stage and its symbolic connection to the American frontier would linger much longer.
For many Americans, the stagecoach symbolizes the 1800s in the West. And yet, stage mail and passenger service to Santa Fe lasted just thirty years, from 1850 to 1880. In that time, the route grew shorter and shorter, as the railroad crept toward New Mexico and finally ended the stagecoach era completely.
Morris F. Taylor’s book First Mail West: Stagecoach Lines on the Santa Fe Trail tells that story and much more. It begins with equine transport of military dispatches and goes on to describe when and how the first Post Office Department contracts were put in place and the many details connected with the mail stage system.
But this is not a dry fact-and-figures kind of book. It’s filled with the names of people associated with New Mexico history—the Bent brothers, David Waldo, Ceran St. Vrain, William W.H. Davis, Kit Carson, Governors Lane and Meriwether, and many more. It also identifies lesser-known individuals, including the stage conductors and drivers, and provides fascinating glimpses into life along the route to Santa Fe—descriptions of the stage stops, how they were operated, the people who ran them, and the dangers they encountered. In addition, because the stage had connections into Denver, there’s a good overview of the early Colorado mine fields and the towns that sprang up around them.
First Mail West is a pleasure to read and full of information you never realized you wanted to know. I recommend it to anyone researching New Mexico and Colorado history in the 1846-1880 time frame and also to those who’d simply like another approach to Old West history.
On Wednesday, May 16, 1827, a man named Ignacio Sandoval showed up in Santa Fe, New Mexico with important information for Governor Antonio Narbona. Sandoval had just returned from a trapping expedition led by an American named Ewing Young. Young, who didn’t have a permit to trap, had come back with thirteen packs of furs—probably mostly beaver—and hidden them south of Santa Fe at the Peña Blanca home of Luis María Cabeza de Baca.
Narbona, in one of his last official acts as governor, sent men to confiscate the furs. Cabeza de Baca, trying to protect them, died as a result. Manuel Armijo, who took over as Governor on May 21, promptly issued an order for Ewing Young’s arrest in connection with the illegally-obtained furs.
Young escaped incarceration for the time being, but the pelts remained confiscated. Well, most of them did. Some of them belonged to another American, Milton Sublette.
In July, Young and two other Americans obtained permission to clean the furs, which they worried had become damaged in storage. They and the local alcalde were busy shaking them out and taking inventory when Sublette appeared, grabbed a pack, threw it over his shoulder, and took off for the nearby home of Cristobal Torres.
The local authorities converged on the house, but it was too late. Sublette and his pelts had disappeared. Armijo blamed Young and called him into his office for explanations. When he threatened to incarcerate the American, Young walked out. Armijo had him arrested, threw him in jail, then released him when Young claimed a debilitating fever. But Armijo didn’t release the furs. Legally, they were now government property. They would eventually be sold, though at a fraction of what their original value.
So once again, a conflict between the Mexican administration and the Americans in New Mexico ended in a standoff, with no one the clear winner. I find this a fascinating story because it highlights the conflicts and complexities of American-Mexican interactions twenty years before the 1847 revolt at Taos, which stunned the Americans with its ferocity.
They weren’t looking at the larger picture. The kind of high-handedness and disregard for local customs Young and Sublette displayed were common among the American trappers during the Mexican period. The 1827 incident, among many others, appears to me to be directly linked to the events of early 1847, when the newly-appointed American governor and former trapper and merchant Charles Bent was killed.
Retribution, no matter how long it takes, is still retribution.
Source: David J. Weber, The Taos Trappers, Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1971.
In early March 1872, Thomas B. Catron was named U.S. Attorney for New Mexico Territory, replacing his good friend Stephen Elkins, who’d just been elected New Mexico’s delegate to Congress. Catron had come to the Territory in 1866 at Elkins’ urging. He used his appointment to become a powerhouse in New Mexico politics and the center of what became known as the Santa Fe Ring, a group of men who sought to keep New Mexico’s political and financial power firmly in their own hands.
Catron and Elkins were business as well as law partners. They focused their efforts on anything that would increase their wealth, including banking, mining, and land speculation. Elkins left the Territory in 1877 and moved to West Virginia, but Catron stayed and continued his business and political activities. He served as Santa Fe’s mayor, president of the New Mexico Bar Association, and—perhaps most importantly—kingpin of New Mexico’s Republican party.
These positions and his control of the Santa Fe Ring enabled Catron to amass huge landholdings, many of them fraudulently. By the end of the 1800s, he reportedly owned around two million acres in New Mexico land and had a financial interest in another four million, much of it former Spanish and Mexican land grants.
It seems fitting that Catron County, one of New Mexico’s largest counties in terms of area but smallest in terms of population, is named after Catron. I suspect he was one of those people who didn’t tolerate others well unless they could benefit him in some way, so he needed a certain amount of elbow room. Naming a county for him that contains plenty of acreage but not many people seems appropriate.
Sources: Don Bullis, New Mexico: A Biographical Dictionary, 1540-1980, Vol. 1. Los Ranchos de Albuquerque: Rio Grande Book, 2007; Howard R. Lamar, Ed. The Reader’s Encyclopedia of the American West, New York: Harper and Row, 1977; Hal Stratton and Paul Farley, Office of the Attorney General, State of New Mexico, History, Powers & Responsibilities, 1846-1990. Santa Fe: State of New Mexico, 1990; Victor Westphall, Thomas Benton Catron and his era, Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1973.
I was disappointed that I wasn’t able to catch Francois-Marie Patorni’s recent talk about his book The French in New Mexico at the Santa Fe Public Library. And then I discovered it had been recorded and put up online! I hope you enjoy this as much as I did.
In early February 1826, New Mexico’s Governor’s included an American named Elisha Stanley on the list of foreigners in the country without a passport. Under Mexican law, Stanley could have been deported immediately, but he wasn’t. Instead, he became what was known as an American merchants—men who shipped goods from Missouri to sell at retail shops in Santa Fe.
Said to have a “gentlemanly deportment and a generous nature,” the merchant Stanley plays a small but important role in my newest novel No Secret Too Small, which is set in New Mexico during the 1837/38 tax revolt. He played a much bigger role in the aftermath of that revolt.
Almost immediately following the successful August 1837 insurrection against Governor Perez, the rebels began disagreeing about their next steps. Some wanted to seize and redistribute the property of all New Mexico’s ricos. Others wanted to push for church tithe and fee reform. There seemed to be as many different opinions about what ought to be done as there were people expressing them.
On top of this discord was the threat that the wealthy landowners from Albuquerque and farther south would organize, throw the new rebel government out of Santa Fe, and take power into their own hands. Some of these men—including former governor Manuel Armijo—were already sniffing around the capital, looking for ways to widen the cracks in the rebel coalition.
The new rebel governor, Jose Angel Gonzales, was so desperate to find a way out of the mess that he approached an American merchant in Santa Fe about asking the U.S. to step in and take over.
That merchant was Elisha Stanley. He didn’t agree with the idea and it was dropped. As a result, the United States’ acquisition of New Mexico was averted by almost ten years.
Stanley returned East shortly after the 1837 revolt and spent the rest of his life dividing his time between Connecticut and Missouri. He died in 1874, almost thirty years after New Mexico had, in fact, become a part of the United States. But his decision not to grab the idea and run with it had given New Mexico a little more time before the juggernaut of manifest destiny sucked it into its maw.
Sources: Janet Lecompte, Rebellion in Río Arriba, 1837, Albuquerque: UNM Press, 1985; Rubén Sálaz Márquez, New Mexico, A Brief Multi-History, Albuquerque: Cosmic House, 1999; Israel P. Warren, The Stanley Families of America as Descended From John, Timothy, and Thomas Stanley of Hartford, CT, Portland, Maine: B. Thurston & Co., 1887.
On Saturday, January 27, 1838, the rebels of northern New Mexico made their last stand against the Mexican government.
They’d succeeded in their initial insurgency the previous August. In fact, for a brief time, a rebel governor controlled Santa Fe. But internal strife and a concerted effort by New Mexico’s ricos had crippled the insurrection.
But it hadn’t destroyed it. Even though Manuel Armijo had replaced rebel leader José Angel Gonzales as governor, the insurgents held on through November and December, keeping him nervous about their intentions and building their strength in the north.
However, when government troops arrived in mid-January 1838, the time had come for a final confrontation. The rebels gathered once again at Santa Cruz de La Cañada and marched south, as they had in August.
This time, they didn’t make it to the capitol. Government troops marched out to meet them, led by Governor Armijo and Lt. Col. Cayetano Justiniani and accompanied by Taos priest Antonio José Martínez.
The result of the coming conflict was by no means certain. Even with Justiniani’s dragoons and artillery men, Armijo had only 582 troops. The rebels had around 1300, including several hundred Pueblo warriors. And the insurgents held the high ground, positioned among the icy crags and hills just north of Pojoaque.
When the troops sighted the insurgents, there was a small delay as Armijo hesitated, unsure where to begin. The rebels fired the first shot, and still he dithered. But then the professional soldiers took over and the Governor found his voice. As Justiniani’s dragoons moved to the front, Armijo cried “Arriba! To die or conquer!” and the rest of his troops moved in on the rebel flanks.
The insurgents fled from the onslaught, but not for long. They regrouped 15 miles north and again took to the heights, positioning themselves among the trees and firing down at the men below. But even their superior position couldn’t beat the professionals. Armijo’s sharpshooters quickly dislodged the men above, leaving dozens wounded.
And with that, the final battle of the rebellion was over. Armijo and Justiniani marched unopposed into La Cañada. At some point that day, rebel leader José Angel Gonzales arrived there, too. His final confrontation with Armijo has become the stuff of New Mexican legend.
The story goes something like this: After the troops arrived in Santa Cruz, Armijo and Padre Martínez found lodging with the local priest. Gonzales came in and he tried to brazen it out by greeting Armijo as an equal and offering his support in exchange for the tax concessions at the core of the rebels’ discontent.
Armijo, exasperated at his attitude, refused the request. Then he turned to Padre Martínez and ordered him to hear Gonzales’ “confession so that he may be given five bullets.” Martínez complied and Gonzales was led out and executed by firing squad.
And thus ended the Rebellion of Río Arriba. At the time, it appeared to have been a completed failure. Yet, by mid-1838, two of the insurgents’ demands had been met. New Mexico now had a governor—Manuel Armijo—who was born and raised there and tended to side with the locals against outsiders. Also, in late April, the Mexican Congress granted New Mexico a seven-year exemption from the hated sales tax.
Would either event have occurred if the men of the north hadn’t risen? More importantly, would they have revolted if their concerns had been addressed in a timely manner in the first place? Questions worth considering which have applications even today.
Sources: Lansing B. Bloom, “New Mexico Under Mexican Administration,” Old Santa Fe Magazine, Vol. II, Santa Fe: Old Santa Fe Press, 1914-1915; Paul Kraemer, An Alternative View of New Mexico’s 1837 Rebellion, Los Alamos Historical Society, 2009; Janet Lecompte, Rebellion in Rio Arriba, 1837, Albuquerque: UNM Press, 1985; Rubén Sálaz Márquez, New Mexico, A Brief Multi-History, Albuquerque: Cosmic House, 1999; Pedro Sanchez, Recollections of the Life of the Priest Don Antonio Jose Martinez, Santa Fe: Sunstone Press, 2006; Ralph E. Twitchell, The Leading Facts of New Mexico History, Vol. 2, Cedar Rapids: Torch Press, 1912; David J. Weber, The Mexican Frontier, 1821-1846, Albuquerque: UNM Press, 1982.