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.

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

Former Taos Trapper Dies in Los Angeles

On Wednesday, October 3, 1866, trapper William Wolfskill died at age 68 in Los Angeles, California, where he’d emigrated from New Mexico.

Born in Kentucky, Wolfskill had arrived in New Mexico as part of William Becknell’s second (1822) Santa Fe Trail expedition and was based in Taos for the next eight years. During that time, Wolfskill trapped on the San Juan, Gila, and Colorado Rivers, and participated in mule and horse trading missions to Missouri.

On one of those missions, in late 1824, Wolfskill joined an expedition to northwest Chihuahua led by a Captain Owens. There, they purchased horses and mules to export to Missouri. Shortly afterward, Owens was killed in an Indian raid. Wolfskill and another man rounded up the mules that had escaped capture, bought more, and took them all to Alabama, where they sold for a nice profit.

Oct 3 illustration.Wolfskill, William, ca.1831_(CHS-1765)
William Wolfskill

But the two men didn’t keep the money for themselves. Instead, Wolfskill took it to Boone’s Lick, Missouri, where he handed over the funds to Captain Owens’ family.

In late September 1830, Wolfskill left New Mexico and never returned. He led a party of about 20 men acrossed the Great Basin into southern California, in the process opening what is today called the “Old Spanish Trail.”

Wolfskill had originally intended to trap beaver in California, but when this turned out to be impractical, he and fellow trapper George Yount turned to hunting sea otter instead. This project seems to have been lucrative, because by 1838, Wolfskill had the funds to join his brother in buying a  4,000-vine Los Angeles vineyard, which would eventually grow to 85,000 vines.

Agriculture must have been more enjoyable than trapping, because three years later, Wolfskill planted the first commercial orange grove in California. These activities formed the basis of a kind of agricultural empire that would introduce the Australian eucalyptus, the soft-shelled almond, the chestnut, and the persimmon to California.

Certainly, by the time he died, Wolfskill had traveled a long way from Kentucky and accomplished a great deal besides trapping furs.

Sources: 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.