Francois Xavier Aubry was a French Canadian merchant, wagon train captain, and explorer of the American Southwest. His achievements include speed records riding the Santa Fe Trail and early exploration of the 35th parallel north-west of the North American continental divide.
Aubry was born on a farm near Maskinonge, Quebec, Canada on December 3, 1824, to Joseph and Magdeleine Lupien Aubry. At the age of 18, he moved to St. Louis, Missouri where he took a job as a store clerk. He soon learned of the profitability of hauling goods along the Santa Fe Trail. The young entrepreneur saved his money to purchase several wagons and draft animals and got a loan to purchase trade goods.
On May 9, 1846, the 21-year-old Aubry left Independence, Missouri with a trader’s caravan, making his first trip along the Santa Fe Trail. After selling his goods in Santa Fe he made enough money to pay off his loans. The next year he moved to Independence to work full-time as a trader on the Trail.
Aubry soon decided that speed was the key to maximizing his profit and began making two annual trips along the trail instead of the customary single trip per year. On December 22, 1847, he left Santa Fe and despite being harassed by Indians and adverse winter weather, he reached Independence in only 14 days, beating the previous record by 10½ days. Afterward, he received much publicity in the nation’s press, causing newsmen to dub him “Telegraph” Aubry.
Aubry continued to look for ways to further increase his speed and in 1848 made three trips between Independence and Santa Fe. On one trip, he made the journey in just five days and 16 hours, breaking his own record, winning $5,000 in wagers, and earning the name “Skimmer of the Plains”.
By 1849 Aubry was one of the leading frontier merchants and he believed that Chihuahua and Texas showed promise as trading venues. In February he, along with another merchant named Charles White, traveled to Chihuahua, Mexico via El Paso Texas. At some point, Aubry and Charles White established a new mercantile in El Paso. After they had wholesaled their goods, Aubry returned to Independence, Missouri on August 23rd. Along the way, his caravan had been attacked by both Apache and Pawnee, but they suffered no losses and Aubry immediately proceeded to purchase goods for a return trip to Santa Fe.
During the summer of 1849, Santa Fe Trail traffic had been grave for a number of wagon trains, many of them had been attacked or their stock was driven off. The turmoil prompted Santa Fe Indian Agent, James Calhoun to request more troops on August 15th, noting that “the Indians, generally, are in bad temper — the number of troops are not sufficient here to keep upon them a proper check.”
Though he heard about the danger, Aubry was determined to make another trip. Leading a large caravan that included 10 wagons owned by Ceran St. Vrain and 13 wagons owned by James White, they departed Westport, Missouri on September 15th. At some point along the trail, Aubry decided to send his wagon master, William Calloway, ahead to Santa Fe for fresh mules. James White, who considered himself “a veteran of the trail”, made the decision to go with him in order to get his family to Santa Fe more quickly. Aubry argued against this idea but James was determined. He loaded his wife, Ann, daughter, Virginia, an employee named Ben Bushman, and a black nursemaid into two carriages. They were accompanied by a German traveler named Lawberger and two of Aubry’s Mexican employees.
The smaller caravan in the lead was attacked near the Point-of-Rocks along the Cimarron Cutoff in New Mexico on October 24th. In what is known as the White Massacre, the warriors killed all of the men, sparing only Ann White, her child, and her servant, who they took as captives.
Aubry reached Santa Fe on October 30th and when he heard the news of the attack and kidnapping, he offered $1000 for their release and promptly hired both Pueblo Indians and New Mexican friends to rescue the captives. Later Ann White was killed and the daughter and nursemaid were never found.
Aubry then made Santa Fe his permanent home to continue to explore the potential market in Chihuahua, Mexico. Seeking to bypass the expense of goods purchased in Missouri, he left Santa Fe on December 1, 1849, with 20 empty wagons, crossed Texas where he purchased goods in Victoria, and then proceeded to via El Paso to Chihuahua. He returned to Santa Fe in early June 1850. Although this new route was financially rewarding, it proved to be difficult. During the journey, Aubry ran into a severe snowstorm and lost 40 mules in one night and Indians made the frontier especially dangerous. He would make the trip only one more time in 1850. Afterward, he wrote to the Daily Missouri Republican from San Antonio, Texas admitting that Indian problems in Texas were so severe and distances so great that San Antonio-El Paso Road could not replace the St. Louis-Santa Fe route. The Republican specified other problems, including the Chihuahua market glut, the shortage of grass and water, and “the class of whites known as gamblers, horse thieves and cut throats.”
In late 1850, Aubry discovered an alternative to a portion of the Cimarron branch of the Santa Fe Trail that reduced the distance to travel by 52 miles and provided access to more water. This detour became known as the “Aubry Cutoff“.
In 1852, Aubry’s attention turned to California when he decided to take a caravan down the Rio Grande and Gila Rivers. From there he proceeded to San Francisco, via Tucson and Los Angeles, arriving with 3500 sheep, 100 mules, and 10 wagons of supplies.
After selling his goods, he along with ten Americans, six Mexicans, and a black cook began to make their way back to New Mexico. Returning along a different route, the party crossed the Tejon Pass on July 10, 1853, before reaching the Colorado River on July 23rd. They then crossed Arizona’s central mountains, where they began to be harassed by Indians (probably Yuman or Mohave). On August 14, an Indian chief feigning friendship approached Aubry’s campsite. However, the Indians’ manner changed quickly and they attacked the Aubry party, injuring nearly every member. However, Aubry and his men were able to fight off the Indians with their pistols, killing 25 attackers and wounding others in the process. Following this, the party continued to fight skirmishes with the hostile natives until they reached the Zuni Pueblo in New Mexico on September 6.
Following his return to Albuquerque, Aubry gave a report of his journey to New Mexico Territorial Governor David Meriwether, writing, “I am satisfied that a railroad may be run almost mathematically direct from Zuñi to Colorado [river], and from thence to the Tejon pass in California.”
In late 1853, with the assistance of other Santa Fe businessmen, Aubry prepared to make a second trip to California. Driving some 50,000 sheep, he reached Los Angeles on January 10, 1854, before proceeding to San Francisco. They left San Jose, California on July 6 with a group of 60 men and arrived in Albuquerque, New Mexico on August 18 without incident.
On the day of his return to Albuquerque Aubry went to a store operated by the Mercure brothers to buy a drink on August 18. Here, he ran into Richard Hanson Weightman, a former Territorial Delegate to the United States Congress and editor of Albuquerque’s Amigo Pais. Weightman had published an article with which Aubry had disagreed and an argument arose between the pair which escalated to violence. Aubry drew his gun but it misfired and Weightman stabbed him with a knife. Weightman was arrested on murder charges but was acquitted when it was decided he had acted in self-defense.
Aubry, who was just 29 years old, was buried in Santa Fe’s Rosaria Cemetery.
Following his death, Aubry’s diary was discovered in his saddlebags and accounts of his final journey were published in newspapers from St. Louis to New York. This spawned the interest of the railroads and eventually, the Atlantic and Pacific Railroad was built mostly along the route that Aubry had explored.
© Kathy Weiser-Alexander, updated December 2019.