By Helen Haines, 1891
The acquisition of Louisiana by the United States marked a distinct era in the history of New Mexico. Before this period the Spanish provinces had been isolated, as it were, from the rest of the world; but now that this enormous tract had become American territory it was impossible for the ancient barriers to remain, and within ten years from the date of the purchase, a fluctuating but steadily increasing intercourse had sprung up between the Western cities of the United States and the northern provinces of Mexico. The Santa Fe trade, as this overland commerce was called, had no definite origin, but was rather the result of accident than of any organized plan. Beginning with the desultory traffic carried on with the Indians by Spanish and American trappers, its scope gradually extended, until the distant cities of Santa Fe and Chihuahua had become markets for the commodities of the eastern coast, and the Santa Fe trade was a recognized feature of American commerce.
The first American to penetrate the wilds of Louisiana and enter New Mexican territory was James Pursley, a Kentuckian, but his arrival at Santa Fe was antedated by that of Baptiste Lalande, a French Creole, who reached the province in 1804. In the early part of this year Lalande was dispatched on a trading expedition by William Morrison, a merchant of Kaskaskia, Illinois — then one of the extreme frontier settlements, a few miles above St. Louis, Missouri on the eastern side of the Mississippi River. He was furnished with the necessary articles for barter with the Indians, and his orders were to push up the Platte River, make his way, if possible, to Santa Fe, and report on the prospects of commercial intercourse between that city and the United States. After a perilous journey, Lalande succeeded in reaching the Rocky Mountains, then he dispatched a party of Indians into Mexico to inform the authorities of the arrival of this stranger from the distant East. A mounted troop of Spaniards set out at once and brought the trader and his goods to a small settlement some miles north of Taos, New Mexico. From Taos, Lalande proceeded southward to Santa Fe, disposing of his merchandise as he journeyed on, and making profits which exceeded his utmost expectations.
So well was the enterprising Baptiste pleased with the country, its inhabitants, and its possibilities in the line of trade, that he gave up all thoughts of returning East and settled himself in business at the capital upon the funds supplied by Morrison, to whom he neither forwarded remittances or accounted for the proceeds of the adventure. It was to collect the amount due the merchant of Kaskaskia that Dr. John Robinson, of Zebulon Pike’s party, proceeded to Santa Fe.
It was in 1805 that James Pursley, famous as the first to discover gold in what is now Colorado, entered New Mexico. A native of Baird’s Town, Kentucky, he left St. Louis, Missouri in 1803 with three companions and traveled to the headwaters of the Osage River, engaged in trapping and trading with the Indians. After many exciting adventures, in which his daring won for Pursley the title of “The Mad American,” the four hunters were capsized in a rough canoe of their own constructional at the junction of the Osage and Missouri Rivers, losing their entire stock of peltries — the fruit of a whole year’s hunt. They managed to save arms and ammunition, and soon after were hailed by a Frenchman, who was descending the Missouri River to trade with the Mandan Indians. Pursley embarked with him for the voyage, and early in the ensuing spring was sent out on a hunting and trading expedition with a large band of Paducah and Kiowa Indians and a small quantity of merchandise. They were attacked by Sioux and driven from the plains into the mountains of Colorado, where the unwieldy party — which numbered nearly 2,000 men and 10,000 animals — wandered along the headwaters of the Platte River.
Here, it was that Pursley observed strong indications of gold-bearing deposits and even obtained some of the virgin mineral, which he carried in his shot-pouch for several months. Believing, however, that he would never succeed in reaching a civilized region, and feeling that the precious metal was worthless in the wilderness, he threw his samples away from sheer weariness and disgust. After journeying some distance along the Platte River, the Indians, knowing they must by now be close to New Mexico, sent Pursley and several of their number to Santa Fe to see if the Spanish authorities would allow them to enter the province and trade with the people. This request was granted by Governor Alencaster, and the Indians returned for the remainder of the company, who after disposing of their merchandise at profitable prices departed for the East. But Pursley, now that he had, at last, reached a civilized community, did not choose to trust himself to the perilous journey across the plains. He reached Santa Fe in June 1805 and established himself as a carpenter in that city. In 1807 he was seen by Lieutenant Zebulon Pike, who described him as having made a great deal of money and being a man of strong natural sense and undoubted intrepidity. Although well treated by the authorities, Pursley was placed under continual surveillance; he was forbidden to write or send any communication to the East and was obliged to give bonds that he would not leave the country without permission from the government. This was probably due to his having imprudently mentioned his discovery to the Spaniards, who were very anxious that he should conduct a detachment of cavalry to the spot where the gold had been found. But, the sturdy pioneer, believing the locality to be within the territory of the United States, obstinately refused to divulge the secret, — for which firmness the citizens of the Centennial State certainly owe him their deepest gratitude.
For the next five years nothing is known of any Spanish-American intercourse, though it is probable that a fragmentary traffic was kept up; but the return of Lieutenant Zebulon Pike and the relation of his travels, published in 1810, stimulated general interest in the subject. The lieutenant’s account of the high prices prevailing throughout the North Mexican provinces, and the immense profits to be reaped by enterprising traders, spread like wildfire through the eastern settlements, and many of the adventurous frontiersmen — hunters, traders, and trappers, the typical pioneers of those days — determined to make their way across the unknown region of Louisiana to this new land of promise. In 1812 an expedition was organized under the direction of Robert McKnight, James Beard, Peter Chambers, and several others, in all a party of nine or ten. Believing that the revolutionary movement under Hidalgo, in 1810, had completely removed the old restrictions on trade, which rendered all foreign intercourse, except by special permission of the Spanish government, illegal, they crossed the prairies to New Mexico, following the directions of Lieutenant Pike.