First Legal Americans Arrive in Santa Fe

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.

Nov. 16 illlustration.Santa Fe Trail map.1826.cropped

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, Fur Trappers 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.

Book Review: Youth on the Santa Fe Trail

 

Kattell.Youth On The Santa Fe Trail cover
Youth on the Santa Fe Trail
by Camilla Kattell
Light Horse Publishing, November 2015
ISBN-13: 978-0996675406

We tend to forget just how young many of the travelers on the Santa Fe Trail were. I suppose this is because we associate the Trail with merchant caravans more than we do with family settler groups.

In Youth On The Santa Fe Trail, Camilla Kattell reminds us that some of the most famous voices from that famous road were not yet twenty when they travelled it. In addition to Christopher “Kit” Carson, these young people included the soon-to-be mountain man Richens Lacey Wootton, future authors Francis Parkman, Jr. and Hector Lewis Garrard, diarist Susan Shelby Magoffin, and—youngest of them all at age seven—Marian Sloan Russell.

One of the things I especially appreciate about this book is that Kattell includes information about travelers I was unfamiliar with, including James Ross Larkin, an early health seeker on the Trail, sportsman William B. Napton, and New Mexico native José Librado Gurulé.

But Youth on the Santa Fe Trail does more than provide a concise biography of these travelers. It also provides context for their particular story and, in doing so, helps us to understand their world. For example, Kattell’s portrayal of Susan Shelby Magoffin helped me to see this young woman in a way I hadn’t before.

When I read the Magoffin diary a number of years ago, I was frustrated by what I saw as her very narrow view of the world. Youth on the Santa Fe Trail reminded me that Magoffin’s strict, rather puritanical, upbringing would naturally make her look askance at women smoking cigarettes and church hymns set to apparent dance tunes. What I saw as a narrow mindedness can also be viewed as a difference in cultures which Magoffin was doing her best to assimilate. Kattell expanded my view of this young woman’s perspective.

While Youth On The Santa Fe Trail is about the youth who traversed the Santa Fe Trail, it is certainly not only for young readers. It will give you a new appreciation for the Trail’s travelers, the impact they had on both their destination, and the way their experiences on the trail shaped that impact. I recommend it for anyone interested in the history of the Trail and of New Mexico.

 

Ewing Young, On The Move Again

On Sunday, January 1, 1832, Tennessee-born Ewing Young was once again on the move. Young had arrived in New Mexico in 1822. In the following ten years, he’d trapped the San Juan, Gila, and Salt Rivers, as well as the Colorado as far as the Grand Canyon. That was during the trapping season. The rest of the year, he kept busy hauling goods from Missouri over the Santa Fe Trail and selling them in Taos and Santa Fe.

Apparently all this activity wasn’t enough for Young. In 1831, he was looking for further adventure and profit. He recruited thirty-six other trappers** and headed farther afield. Young had a Mexican passport that allowed his party to travel to Chihuahua. But he and his men made no attempt to even look like they were headed south from Taos. Instead, they moved almost straight west to the Zuni villages.

There they traded for supplies, then moved across country to the headwaters of the Black River, in what is now eastern Arizona, and down it to the Salt. From the upper Salt, they crossed to the Gila River, then trapped the Gila to its junction with the Colorado. This is where they landed on the first day of 1832.

Jan 1 illustration.Young, Ewing.young man
Ewing Young as a young man

The group’s beaver catch hadn’t been very good. They were apparently all using the same traps, ones with a defect that allowed the beaver to escape from the sprung device. Young must have thought he’d solved the problem with the traps, because he made one last effort to gather plews by trapping down the Colorado to tidewater. When that didn’t work either, the larger group split up and Young and twelve men headed to California.

California had been Young’s destination all along. His business partner David Jackson was already there, trying to gather enough horses and mules to make it worthwhile to drive them east to the New Orleans markets. But by the time Young arrived in California, Jackson had only been able to collect about a quarter of the animals they needed.

The men with Young scattered at this point, some of them remaining in California and others returning to New Mexico and points East. Young himself stayed to hunt sea otter, and eventually settled on the West Coast. He’d wandered over a decade before he landed there.

Sometimes it takes a while for a man to settle down.

 

**Young’s band of trappers included Job F. Dye, Sidney Cooper, Moses Carson, Benjamin Day, Isaac Sparks, Joseph Gale, Joseph Dofit, John Higans, Isaac Williams, James Green, Cambridge Green, James Anderson, Thomas Low, Julian Bargas, Jose Teforia, John Price, J.J. Warner, and William Day.

Sources: Robert Glass Cleland This Reckless Breed of Men, Knopf, 1950; Leroy R. Hafen, editor, Fur Trappers and Traders of the Far Southwest, Utah State University Press, 1997;  Leroy R. Hafen, editor, Mountain Men and the Fur Trade of the Far West, Vol. I, Arthur  H. Clark, Spokane, 2000.

 

Spoiled Meat Nearly Starts Indian War

In mid November, 1875, the Utes and Apaches gathered at New Mexico’s Cimarron Indian agency for their treaty-mandated weekly distribution of food, and their patience ran out.

Both tribes had been complaining for several years that the flour doled out to them was hardly fit for anything and that the distributed meat was from worn-out Santa Fe Trail oxen too tough to eat. But the meat they were offered in mid November 1875 was worse than anything they’d seen yet. It was rotten.

This was the last straw. The Apaches, at least, had had enough, and shots rang out. The agency employees retreated into the agency office, in what is now Cimarron’s Old Mill Museum.

With Indians firing into the mill, and agency staff firing outside, several people, including Indian agent Alexander G. Irvine, were injured.

Nov 23 llustration.Aztec mill.j.s. pierce collection
Aztec Grist Mill, Cimarron, New Mexico. J.S. Pierce Collection

Eventually, the Apaches withdrew. In spite of his wounds, Irvine headed to the telegraph office and wired Fort Union for reinforcements, which arrived the next day. The troop officer went to the Apache camp and talked them into a meeting in Cimarron. But the gathering wasn’t a productive one. Irvine was interested only in who’d fired a gun, not the quality of the food he’d been distributing. He issued an ultimatum: If the Apaches didn’t hand over Juan Barilla, Juan Julian, and a man named Chico, he’d stop distributions entirely.

The Apaches refused this proposal and headed back to camp. But somewhere along the way, Juan Barilla was unlucky enough to get himself arrested and thrown into the Cimarron jail. On Tuesday, November 23, he attempted to break out and was killed in the ensuing scuffle.

The Apaches were furious. They wanted someone to pay for what they viewed as Barilla’s murder.

Irvine just wanted out. He resigned his position and suggested that the Army take over. The authorities at Fort Union not only agreed to this proposition but wired General Nelson A. Miles in Kansas for help.

As a well-known Indian fighter, General Miles could have been expected to move immediately into action against the Apaches in the Cimarron area. Instead, he took the time to do a little investigating and concluded that the government had failed miserably in its responsibilities toward the Native Americans assigned to the Agency. He put a military man in charge at the Mill, established new procedures, and left town satisfied that he’d averted serious hostilities.

Whether Juan Barilla’s friends and families were satisfied is another question entirely. But at least they had better food distributed to them after his death.

Source:  Lawrence R. Murphy, Philmont, a history of New Mexic’s Cimarron Country, UNM Press, Albuquerque, 1972.

There’s Always a Way – Fur Trapping Under Mexican Law

On Friday, October 29, 1824, Santa Fe Trail originator William Becknell swerved from the Trail he’d inaugurated three years before and instead got a license from the Mexican government to go trapping. He may have been the first American to do so.

Getting a trapping license that October was complicated. Four months earlier, the Mexican government  had ordered New Mexico’s governor to ban all non-citizens from trapping. Only Mexican nationals were allowed to hunt beaver, although even they needed a license to do so. The process required the applicant to pay a fee, provide information about the number of hunters in the party, the type of hunting to be done and the weapons used, and the length of the planned expedition.

The American trappers got around the new restrictions by asking Mexican citizens to apply for the permits, then allow the Americans to hunt under their licenses. This subfertuge seems to have done with the Governor’s knowledge: Becknell sent Governor Baca a letter to confirm receipt of the permission he’d obtained through Manuel Rada, the priest at Santa Cruz de la Canada.

oct 29 illustration.pixabay

And Becknell wasn’t the only trapper to do this. A year later, Sylvester Pratte and Jean Pierre Cabanné went through customs collector Juan Bautista Vigil y Alarid to get a permit.

However, there was a slight problem with this approach. Different officials read the law differently, and difficulties could develop. For example, in May 1826, the Taos alcalde confiscated the pelts of Sylvestre Pratte and Francois Robidoux, even though they both had permits issued by the Governor. (Robidoux’s had been obtained through Juan Bautista Vigil.) When Pratte and Robidoux protested the seizure, Santa Fe officials ordered the alcalde to return the plews.

But this approach made life uncertain. Additional conflicts occurred the following summer over plews brought in by Ewing Young and his trappers.

And there was another solution to the license problem. A naturalized Mexican citizen could obtain one without a go-between.

This fact seems to have triggered a rash of applications for Mexican citizenship. In 1830 alone, thirteen men (Abraham Ledoux, William Wolfskill, Geronimo Lonte, Pedro Laliberte, Antoine Leroux, Jose Bissonette, Amablo Para, Antonio Blanchilla/Blanchard, Jean Baptiste Trudeau, Luis Ambroise, Carlos Guara, Francisco Siote, Pierre Lesperance, and Paul Anderson) all became Mexican citizens. They joined Richard Campbell, Antoine Robidoux, John Rowland, and Gervais Nolan, who’d already made the switch.

These are the men for whom citizenship records are still extant. Who knows how many other men also decided to live by the old adage, “If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em?”

Sources: Daniel J. Weber, The Taos Trappers, Norman: U of Oklahoma P, 1971

Santa Fe Trail Survey Reaches Point of Rocks

On  Wednesday, October 19, 1825, George Champlin Sibley’s Santa Fe Trail Survey expedition arrived at Point of Rocks, New Mexico. But they didn’t head to Santa Fe.

Sibley was one of three Commissioners named to head up the United State’s survey of the road between Missouri and Santa Fe that had been inaugurated by William Becknell four years earlier. The survey had two purposes: 1. to facilitate trade with Mexico and 2. to negotiate with the Native American tribes along the Trail for safe passage for future travelers.

George Sibley was the only Commissioner to cross the international boundary into New Mexico. However, when he arrived at Point of Rocks, he didn’t continue south along the Trail to Santa Fe. Instead, arguing that it was too late in the year to travel safely to the capitol, Sibley headed west across the Sangre de Cristos to Taos, where his business associate Paul Baillio was located.

Oct 19 illustration.Sibley photo.Source Noble.272.cropped

Sibley spent the winter of 1825/26 in Taos, where he completed the map of the American portion of the Trail and waited for permission to complete the Mexican portion. Although there’s no evidence he ever travelled the portion between Point of Rocks and Santa Fe, he felt confident enough of that section to note that there was no need to make physical alterations it, since “the open nature of the country” enabled wagon to pass “without the least difficulty … with no other labor than removing a few logs, poles, etc.” (Gregg, 201).

In any event, in 1827, Sibley completed his work and returned to Missouri in 1827, where he and his wife established the Linden Wood School for Girls, which would later become the Linden Wood College, and is today Lindenwood University. In Missouri, he is probably best known for this school. In New Mexico, his name is still more closely associated with the survey of the Santa Fe Trail and the mystery of why he didn’t actually travel the full length of the Trail.

Sources: Kate L. Gregg, ed., The Road to Santa Fe, the journal and diaries of George Champlin Sibley, UNM Press, Albuquerque, 1995; Leroy R. Hafen, ed., Fur Traders and Trappers of the Far Southwest, Logan: Utah State UP, 1997; Daniel J. Weber, The Taos Trappers, Norman: U of Oklahoma P, 1971

Uncle Dick Wootton Dies in Colorado

On Tuesday, August 22, 1893, Richens Lacy “Uncle Dick” Wootton died in southern Colorado at the age of 77. Mountain man, trader, road builder, and a few other things besides, Wootton packed a lot of living into those 77 years.

The Virginia-born Wootton was about 7 when his family move to Kentucky. In his late teens. He moved to an uncle’s Mississippi cotton plantation, but at age 20 struck out for Independence, Missouri and got a job on a wagon train bound for Santa Fe.

In the next 57 years, Wootton would trade with the Ute and Sioux; trap with Ceran St. Vrain, Christopher “Kit” Carson, and Old Bill Williams; scout for the U.S. Army; operate a trading post in early Denver; and drive sheep from New Mexico to California, to name just a few of his adventures. However, Wootton is perhaps best remembered for two events: His decision not to guide John Fremont through the Rockies in the fateful winter of 1848/49 and the toll road he operated through Raton Pass between 1865 and 1878.

Wootton signed on in early November 1848 to guide Fremont’s fourth expedition in search of a winter railroad route across the Rocky Mountains. But by the middle of the month, it was clear that the coming winter was going to be unusually cold and Wootton warned Fremont not to even attempt to cross the Rockies. When Fremont refused to listen to his advice, Wootton resigned. Old Bill Williams took over in his stead and the party entered the Rockies under his guidance, but Fremont wouldn’t listen to him either. Only 21 of Fremont’s original 32 men made it out alive and two of them, including Williams, would die a couple months later, trying to retrieve records and equipment that had been left behind in the mad rush to escape the snow-bound mountains.

Aug 22 illustration

But Wootton lived to have yet further adventures. His toll road through Raton Pass was another inspired decision. He and a partner built 27 miles of roads and bridges along this mountainous stretch of the Santa Fe Trail and important connection between New Mexico and Colorado Territories. They charged $1.50 for wagons and 25 cents for anyone on horseback. Herded livestock cost 5 cents a head, while Indians were allowed free passage.

The road grossed an average of $600 a month and remained operational until 1878, when the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway Company track reached the Pass from Trinidad, Colorado. Then the AT&SF bought Wootton’s toll rights in exchange for $50 a month compensation for the remainder of his life and that of his fourth wife, Maria Paulina, who was some 40 years his junior.

When “Uncle Dick” Wootton died in August 1893, he’d lived a full and adventurous life. For more detailed information about this unique mountain man from an author with access to family material, see No Time to Quit: Pioneer America Seen through the Life of Rocky Mountain Man Uncle Dick Wootton.

.Source: Leroy R. Hafen, ed. Fur Trappers And Traders Of The Far Southwest, Utah State University press, Logan. 1997;