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.”
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, 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.
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.
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
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.
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.