When William Becknell and his companions reached Santa Fe, New Mexico on Wednesday, November 16, 1821, they experienced a very different reception then they would have received a year before.
In the fall of 1820, Becknell could have easily faced jail time for entering New Mexico. But by November 1821, Mexico had completed its break from Spain and the new government welcomed the Americans it had previously shunned. Travelers from the eastern part of the continent were no longer illegal aliens and subject to arrest at any time. Instead, they and their goods were welcomed.
Becknell had about 17 men with him. Their original intent had been to trade with the Indians and catch “wild animals of every description.” However, trading in Santa Fe was a lot easier. Becknell disposed of his goods and started back to Missouri for more. Most of the men with him liked New Mexico so much that they decided to stay and spend the winter trapping.
Becknell may have left many of his men behind, but he returned to Missouri with someone who hadn’t made the outgoing trip with him. David Kirker, a member of the John McKnight and Thomas James party, which had followed Becknell across the plains but were going to Mexico to retrieve members of a previous expedition, was sent back to Missouri with Becknell. Kirker had put his party in danger by surrendering himself and his weapons to a threatening Comanche war party instead of standing up to them. The men he was with wanted nothing more to do with him.
David did not return to New Mexico, but his cousin James Kirker must have been inspired by what he heard about it. He arrived a few years later and would eventually become a byword in New Mexico and Chihuahua for a trouble-making American.
Becknell’s appearance in Santa Fe that November day was definitely the beginning of a more complex relationship with New Mexico’s neighbor to the east than had been possible in the past.
Sources: Robert Glass Cleland, Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1950; Leroy R. Hafen, FurTrappers and Traders of the Far Southwest, Utah State University Press, Logan, 1997; Marc Simmons, New Mexico, An Interpretive History, University of New Mexico Press, Albuquerque, 1988; David J. Weber, The Taos Trappers, University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, 1971.
On Tuesday, July 5, 1825 Irish-born Taos resident James Kirker became a Mexican citizen. Given Kirker’s history up to this point, this was probably not the most optimum citizenship decision the Mexican government ever made.
Kirker had left Ireland at sixteen in order to avoid being drafted by the British during the Napoleonic wars. Ironically, shortly after he arrived in New York City Kirker signed on with the Black Joke, a privateer whose mission was to raid and harass the British fleet.
This didn’t work out too well. The Black Joke was captured by the British. Fortunately for Kirker, the crew was rescued by the USS Hornet and the USS Constitution (later renamed Old Ironsides), and Kirker was returned to New York. When he got there, Kirker headed to the grocery store where he’d been working before he became a privateer, married the young widow who owned the store, and settled down and had a son.
However, Kirker was still in his late teens at this point and he wasn’t really ready to settle down. In 1817 he abandoned his family and headed to St. Louis with some Irish cousins. There, he started another grocery.
But Kirker soon got wanderlust again and in 1823, signed on with Major Andrew Henry to go up the Missouri River. This didn’t last long. Kirker quit in a dispute over terms of employment and headed to Santa Fe.
Mexico seems to have been more to Kirker’s liking. He got involved with managing the Santa Rita copper mines near what is today Silver City, New Mexico and trapped with George Yount and James Ohio Pattie and his father.
But he still wasn’t ready to settle into a routine. In 1835, Kirker obtained a license from New Mexico Governor Albino Perez to trade with the Apaches. But he couldn’t stick to the rules for trading, either. He began illegally providing weapons and ammunition to the Apaches and participating in their raids into Texas and central Mexico.
When the Mexican officials got wind of Kirker’s activities, Governor Perez rescinded his license, ordered him arrested, and placed a $800 bounty on his head. Kirker fled north across the Mexican/American boundary to Bent’s Fort.
This was shortly before Perez’s death during the tax revolt of 1837 (which some people believe Kirker machinated) and by early 1838, newly appointed New Mexican governor Manuel Armijo had invited Kirker back into the country. Kirker went. And immediately returned to his old ways, only this time (at least theoretically) on the side of the establishment.
In early 1838, he was invited to help the Santa Rita mine operators combat the Apache activities that had forced the mines to close. Kirker gathered a couple dozen men and struck an Apache village headed by Mangus Colorado near what is today Cook’s Peak. The attack was brutal but effective, and Chihuahuan officials asked Kirker to lead a full-scale follow-up campaign against the Apaches.
Kirker agreed to their proposal but his first battle was, oddly enough, at Rancho de Taos, not Chihuahua. He lured a band of Apaches into Ranchos with some unguarded horses, then ambushed them after they’d captured the animals and were heading back into the mountains.
This is where the story turns sour. Instead of attacking the Apaches and retrieving the horses, Kirker and his men forced them back into Ranchos, into the walled square around the church there, and picked them off one by one, killing them at leisure. After this ‘success,’ Kirker’s band ranged across New Mexico, Chihuahua, Sonora, and West Texas, killing Apaches and organizing local militia against them.
A change in governance in Chihuahua put a stop to his activities, but unfortunately also brought an increase in Apache attacks. Kirker was eventually redrafted. His attacks on the Apaches would result in the undying hatred of Cochise and probably actually increased the intensity of the Apache attacks until the last bands were finally subdued in the 1880s.
But Kirker wasn’t satisfied with killing Apaches. Just as he’d turned traitor to them, he also turned traitor to his adopted country. When Colonel Alexander Donovan marched his Missouri Volunteers into northern Mexico in 1846, Kirker provided Donovan with valuable information about the location, strength, and best strategies for capturing the Mexican gun emplacements at Chihuahua. He was familiar with the fortifications there because of his work for Chihuahua officials against the Apaches.
After the war, Kirker returned to Santa Fe after the war, where he participated in at least one campaign against the Utes. Eventually he headed to California, where he settled and died in early 1853. He seems to have been a model citizen there. Maybe by that time (he was in his mid-50s), he’d decided that there was more to life than adventure.
Richard Batman, James Pattie’s West, the dream and the reality. Norman: University of Oklahoma press, 1986; Leroy R. Hafen, Fur Traders and Trappers of the Far Southwest, Logan: Utah State University Press, 1997; David J. Weber, The Taos trappers, the fur trade in the far Southwest, 1540-1846, Norman: University of Oklahoma press, 1971