William Becknell - Father of the Santa Fe
(1788?-1856) - A frontiersman and trader, Becknell was born in Amherst
County, Virginia around 1788 to Micajah and Pheby Landrum Becknell. When he grew up he married a
woman named Jane Trusler in 1807
in Virginia. Three years later the couple migrated to
Territory, homesteading west of present-day St. Charles in
There, he became involved
War of 1812 and
joined Daniel Morgan Boone, the son of the famed
and his company of United States Mounted Rangers as first
sergeant in May, 1813.
He saw extensive service on the frontier during the war and
promoted to the rank of ensign in July, 1814.
participated in Major Zachary Taylor's campaign against
British-backed Indians that culminated in the Battle of Credit
Island, at the site of present-day Davenport, Iowa, in
September, 1814. Later he was working under the command of
Captain James Callaway, Morgan Boone's cousin, and grandson of
Daniel Boone. Calloway,
an Indian fighter of some renown, was killed in a
battle with Native Americans near Loutre Creek in March, 1815.
Afterwards Becknell assumed command of the company and Camp
Clemson, Missouri. He was then promoted to the rank of Captain, and was long known as
Following his discharge from Federal service
in June, 1815, Becknell returned to farming, trading horses
and freighting. Unfortunately, his wife had died at some point
as he was married again to a Mary Chribbs who bore him a
daughter that same year. The couple would have four more
children over the years.
obtained a license to operate a ferry at the busy Arrow Rock
crossing of the
River and he as his family moved to
central Missouri. In addition to operating the ferry, he was
also engaged in freighting and in the salt trade. Sometime in
about 1817, he and his family moved a bit farther west to
Franklin, Missouri. In 1820, he
was an unsuccessful candidate for the Missouri House of
The next year, motivated by financial problems, he became the
"Father of the Santa Fe Trail" when he
he organized a trading party that crossed the Great Plains to
New Mexico. He left Franklin, Missouri with
four companions in September, 1821 on his first trip to the western US with a
load of freight to deliver to Santa Fe,
He traveled via what would be come known as the Mountain
Branch of the Santa Fe Trail.
History has written for years that Becknell and his
men, following the
Arkansas River, spent two days moving rocks
so the horses could get through 7,834-foot-high
Raton Pass, where Indians, Conquistadors, trappers, and
traders had already established a rough trail. However, that portion
of the journey has been called into question after the discovery of
the diary of Pedro Ignacio Gallego in 1993. Mexican Captain Gallego
and his 400 men met Becknell on his first journey to Santa Fe, and his
writings, along with Becknell's own journal describing the landscape,
show more evidence that he and his men probably mis-identified the
Canadian River, and instead crossed another river or stream.
Researchers now say evidence points to a location between the Arkansas
River and Puertocito Piedra Lumbre in Kearny Gap, south of present
day Las Vegas, New Mexico.
Making it through safely they continued on to Santa
Fe where the party was welcomed (November 16, 1821) and Becknell sold the goods at a high
profit. After a month of trading, Becknell and his party left Santa Fe
on December 13th. His investment of $300 in trading goods had returned
approximately $6000 in coin. The men returned to Missouri safely in
The profits made by William Becknell’s first trading trip brought much
needed money and valuable goods into central
where the Panic of 1819 had a devastating effect on the economy. This
economic depression was caused, in large part, by a short supply of money.
With no banking system, paper money was considered worthless in Missouri,
so only gold and silver coins were accepted as payment. No markets existed
for farmers to sell their produce or for merchants to peddle their wares,
and many people were in debt. The influx of Mexican coins significantly
helped Missouri’s economy as farmers and local merchants found a new
market for their goods. The advent of legal trade with Mexico promised to
counteract the effects of the economic panic in Missouri.
he advertised for 70 men to "go westward." Thirty volunteered and they left
Missouri in May, 1822 with some $3,000-$5,000 in goods. Taking wagons this time,
they explored a new route, leaving the Arkansas River near present-day
Kansas and crossing to the
Cimarron River, thus blazing the
Trail. Though both people and animals suffered considerable hardship
nearly dying of thirst in the parched Cimarron Desert, they arrived in
Santa Fe 48 days later.
was to be the first trip to open the route to regular traffic and
military movement, which soon became the first and only international trade
route between The United States and Mexico until a railway to
Santa Fe was built
in 1880. Becknell has since been known as the "Father of the
Trail." This second trip was far more profitable than the first,
with the party returning to Missouri with a profit of around $91,000
On his third journey in 1824–25 he led a party of trappers into Colorado
and in 1825-1826, he participated in the
federal grading and marking project of the Santa Fe Trail.
His first political appointment was as Justice of
the Peace in Saline County, Missouri
in 1827. The next year, he was elected to the Missouri House
of Representatives in 1828 and served two terms. Retaining his rank of Captain, Becknell
served in the Missouri state militia during a
Native American uprising in
1829 and again during the 1832
Black Hawk War.
Afterwards he continued his frontier activities.
In 1835 Becknell sold all his Missouri property and business interests and
moved to Red River County,
the northeast portion of the state. During the
Texas Revolution, Becknell mustered a
cavalry unit known as the Red River Blues in July, 1836. The unit served along the Lavaca River until October.
That same month he reported to the capital of the Republic of Texas,
believing that he had been elected to the House of Representatives.
However, he was surprised to find on his arrival, that in fact he hadn't won
and relinquished his place to Collin McKinney who had a greater number of votes.
Later he would serve briefly as a
and commanded Red River militia companies in 1838, 1841, and 1842.
While Becknell was in Texas, he amassed a sizable
estate in land and livestock in Red River and Lamar Counties. Captain
William Becknell died on April 25,
1856, and was buried near Clarksville.
of America, November, 2015. Updated May 2016 with edits to Raton Pass
National Park Service
Santa Fe Trail Association
Missouri Santa Fe Trail
Franklin & the Start of the Santa Fe Trail
Santa Fe Trail - Highway to the Southwest
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