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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Spring Equals Trappers in Taos

It happened every spring in the early 1800s: Taos was invaded by trappers, either future or current. It made law enforcement rather complicated

In 1817, Jules DeMun didn’t even make it to Taos before he was headed off by a contingent of Spanish soldiers, who had been sent out in response to rumors in Taos that DeMun and his partner Pierre Chouteau had 20,000 Americans camped on the Purgatoire River, set to invade New Mexico. Even though the rumors weren’t true, DeMun and Chouteau were ordered to return to St. Louis. Somehow, they talked the soldiers into allowing them to travel north before heading east, ostensibly to avoid the Pawnee. Of course, they didn’t head directly to St. Louis. They trapped, supposedly outside of the boundaries of New Spain.

When news of Mexico’s independence from Spain reached the United States in 1821, things only got worse. Trappers and merchants could now enter New Mexico legally, but they still had trouble following Mexico’s rules. Up to this point, the Sangre de Cristo mountains had provided a protective barrier between Taos and incursions from the eastern plains. But they didn’t stop the Americans. In fact, the mountains were a great place to cache furs before smuggling them east to Missouri without paying export taxes. And Taos was still the favorite way to enter, especially if you were doing something slightly illegal. There were just so many ways to get there from the Santa Fe trail, which paralleled the mountains between it and Taos.

March 8 Illustration.Dick Wootton.Twitchell vol 2 source
“Uncle Dick” Wootton, Source: Leading Facts of New Mexico History, R.E. Twitchell

It got so bad that Mexico Customs Officer Juan Bautista Vigil y Alarid had to deputize Rafael Luna as Taos’ border guard. Even that wasn’t enough. Eventually, Alarid authorized Luna and Taos Alcalde Severino Martinez to use the militia to intercept the Americans.

Calling out the militia seems like overkill until you realize how valuable the furs in question were. In 1837, “Uncle Dick” Wootton brought furs worth $25,000 into Taos. And that’s just what he was willing to pay the tax on. The trappers had incentive to skirt the law. And the Mexican authorities had incentive to try to keep them from doing so.

And so each spring the dance began again….

Sources: Den Galbraith, Turbulent Taos, Sunstone Press, Santa Fe, 1983; Leroy R. Hafen, Fur Trappers and Traders of the Far Southwest, Utah State UP, Logan, 1997; Joy L. Poole, editor, Over the Santa Fe Trail to Mexico, U of Oklahoma Press, Norman, 2015; David J. Weber, The Taos Trappers, U of Oklahoma Press, Norman, 1971.