The Santa Fe Trade

 

By Helen Haines, 1891

The Spanish in present-day New Mexico

The Spanish in present-day New Mexico

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 that 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.

South Platte River, Colorado

South Platte River, Colorado

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.

Zebulon Pike entering Santa Fe, New Mexico by Frederic Remington

Zebulon Pike entering Santa Fe, New Mexico by Frederic Remington

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.

Their route, the only one then known, was westward to the Colorado mountains and then down the Rio Grande to Taos, New Mexico; and after a long but uneventful journey, they succeeded in reaching Santa Fe. Their arrival at the capital could not have been at a more inopportune moment. The liberal principles fostered by Hidalgo had just been vigorously quenched, the revolutionary leader had been arrested and shot, the royalists were once more supreme, and all foreigners, but especially Americans, were believed to be the agents of a new revolution and were objects of the most intense suspicion. The unfortunate traders, who were as yet hardly aware of their dangerous situation, were instantly arrested as spies, their entire stock of merchandise confiscated, and themselves taken to the jails of Chihuahua and Durango, where they were rigorously confined for the space of nine years. During this period several efforts were made for their release by Congressman Scott of Missouri, and letters were sent by Secretary Adams to the king of Spain and the viceroy of Mexico, but nothing was effected, and it was not until 1822, when the revolutionary party under Augustine de Iturbide became once more predominant, that the unfortunate Americans were set at liberty by order of the new emperor of Mexico.

Auguste Chouteau

Auguste Chouteau

Before the return of McKnight and his unlucky companions, and in the year 1815, Julius de Mun and Auguste P. Choteau proceeded with a large party to the waters of the Upper Arkansas River, where they engaged in hunting and trading with the Indians. A year later they entered New Mexico and visited Taos and Santa Fe; at the latter place, they were hospitably received by Governor Mainez, who gave them full liberty to hunt and trade north of the Red River and east of the mountains. Notwithstanding this permission, in June 1817, during the governorship of Don Pedro Allande, a force of Spanish dragoons arrested Choteau, De Mun, and 24 others, and brought them to Santa Fe, also opening the caches made by the trappers and taking articles to the value of over $30,000. At the capitol, the Americans were court-martialed, imprisoned for two days, and dismissed, without recovering their property. They immediately returned to St. Louis and entered a suit for damages against the New Mexican authorities; the action dragged on until 1836, and it is not known if it was ever definitely settled.

William Becknell blazes the Santa Fe Trail

William Becknell blazes the Santa Fe Trail

Notwithstanding the personal misfortunes of these early adventurers, their narratives only induced others to fit out expeditions. In 1822 an Ohio merchant named Hugh Glenn, who kept a small trading station at the mouth of the Verdigris River, fitted out a party and proceeded by a circuitous route up the Arkansas River toward the mountains, encountering many dangers and privations, but finally reaching Santa Fe in safety. In this same year, Captain William Becknell of Missouri, with four friends, started from the vicinity of Franklin, in his native State, with the intention of trading with the Comanche. When near the mountains he met a party of Mexican rangers who induced the Americans to accompany them to New Mexico, where, though their stock of merchandise was small and of little value, the members of the expedition cleared a handsome profit. The captain returned to Missouri alone the following winter, leaving his company at Santa Fe. His favorable reports stimulated others to embark in the trade, and in May 1823, Colonel Cooper with his sons and about ten others left Franklin with $5,000 worth of goods, transported by pack-horses, and arrived safely at Taos.

Captain Becknell’s second expedition met with very different fortune; elated with his former success and confident of still richer profits, he set out with a company of 30 men, carrying $5,000 in merchandise. In his eagerness to reach his destination the captain resolved to abandon the circuitous route heretofore followed, and, having reached the caches on the Arkansas River, directed his course straight toward Santa Fe. “With no other guide than the starry heavens, or, it may be, a pocket compass,” said Dr. Josiah Gregg, “the party embarked upon the arid plains which extended far and wide before them to the Cimarron River. The adventurous band pursued their forward course without being able to procure any water except the scanty supply they carried in their canteens; this was completely exhausted after two days’ march, and the sufferings of the men and beasts drove them almost to distraction. They were reduced to the cruel necessity of killing their dogs and cutting off the ears of their mules in the vain hope of assuaging their burning thirst with the hot blood; this only served to irritate the parched palate and madden the senses of the sufferers. Frantic with despair, in the prospect of the horrible death which stared them in the face, they scattered in every direction in search of water. Frequently led astray by the deceptive glimmer of the mirage, or false ponds, as these treacherous oases of the desert are called, they resolved to retrace their steps to the Arkansas River, but were unequal to the task and would undoubtedly have perished had not a buffalo, fresh from the riverside, with a stomach distended with water, been discovered just as the last rays of hope were receding. The hapless intruder was dispatched and a draught procured from its stomach. I have since heard one of the party declare that nothing ever passed his lips that gave him such exquisite delight as his first draught of that filthy beverage. This relief enabled some of the strongest men of the party to reach the river, where they filled their canteens and hurried back to the assistance of their comrades. By degrees, they were all enabled to renew their journey, and following the course of the Arkansas River for several days, succeeded in reaching Taos, 60-70 miles north of Santa Fe.

Santa Fe Trail Trader

Santa Fe Trail Trader

From 1821-22 may be dated the real commencement of the Santa Fe trade, as from this period the caravans increased in size and value, the worth of the merchandise transported rising gradually from $5,000 to $80,000. The fall of Spanish authority and the establishment of the Mexican government removed many restrictions from the progress of the intercourse and swelled the ranks of the traders, who found the profits of their enterprises enormous, even considering the cost and difficulty of transportation. Before the establishment of trade with the United States, New Mexico had depended entirely upon the Spanish market or the fluctuating products of Mexico for her supplies. In accordance with the usual selfish policy of Spain, all manufactured articles were imported to the colonies from Spanish ports, in return for exports of raw material. This, although profitable for the mother country, was hard on the colonists, who were forced to pay exorbitant prices for even the cheapest manufactured goods. Indeed, so odious were these restrictions on commerce considered, that in 1771, Viceroy Bucareli informed the king that trade could never prosper in Mexico until the monopoly enjoyed by the merchants of Cadiz should be removed, and begged that the colonists be allowed, at least, to remit their funds to Spain and bring back the return freights in vessels of their own. For this reason also, the war between Spain and England, in the last years of the 18th century, was of great advantage to Mexico, for, as the seas were filled with the enemy’s cruisers, the Spaniards dared not send out large amounts of coins and their trade was confined chiefly to exports from the mother country. Thus, the immense product of the Mexican mines was retained in the country and home industries flourished, many of the internal provinces, and the cities of Oaxaca, Guadalajara, and Ixtlahuaca, manufacturing large quantities of silk, cotton, and wool. Notwithstanding this growing activity in Mexican commerce, these infant industries were as yet, inadequate to supply the demand, and all manufactured articles commanded extravagant prices, especially in the northern provinces, where the expense of transportation was added to the original cost — the citizens of Santa Fe paying two and three dollars per yard for the coarsest calicoes and cheapest domestic cloths. It can easily be imagined that the reports of these prices and the profits attendant upon them should have impelled American merchants to send their goods to these remunerative markets, where the gains of one expedition doubled the cost of outfit and transportation.

Santa Fe Trail Caravan

Santa Fe Trail Caravan

The next event of importance in the annals of the Santa Fe trade was the introduction of wagons; up to 1824 all goods were transported by pack mules, which necessarily limited the amount and value of the freight; but in that year the caravans which departed from Missouri employed not only the usual quota of mules but 25 wheeled vehicles, principally what were then called “Dearborn carriages.” The experiment proved entirely successful and from this period wagons were exclusively used, some of them being of great size and drawn by 10 or 12 mules. In the first years of the trade horses were used to draw the vehicles as mules were scarce and expensive, but as soon as the latter could be procured in abundance horses were discarded except for riding purposes. In 1829 oxen were tried and found, much to the surprise of the traders, to be perfectly capable of performing the duties of the trip. From this time onward the number of oxen and mules employed in the business was about equal, the superiority of the former in cheapness and strength is balanced by the greater endurance and speed of the latter.

The starting-point of the caravans was at first Franklin on the Missouri River, 150 miles west of St. Louis, but in 1831 the proportions of the trade had so increased that some spot nearer the western frontier was considered necessary, and the choice fell upon Independence, Missouri situated about twelve miles from what is now Kansas, then known as “the Indian border,” and three miles south of the Missouri River. This place gradually became the point of outfit, departure, and debarkation; here repaired the adventurer about to embark in his trading enterprise; here were procured provisions, mules, oxen, and sometimes wagons; and here the final preparations for the long journey across the plains were made. Not only was Independence the starting-point of the Santa Fe caravans, but the Rocky Mountain traders and trappers, and the emigrants to Oregon took this town in their route. During the season of departure — which was usually in May — it was a place of much bustle and activity; “here,” said Josiah Gregg, “were seen men of every class, with a little sprinkling of the softer sex. The fustian frock of the city-bred merchant, furnished with a multitude of pockets, capable of containing a variety of extra tackling; the backwoodsman in linsey or leather hunting-shirt; the farmer, with his blue jean coat, and the wagoner, with a flannel-sleeved vest.”

Among the weapons noted were “the rifle for the frontiersman, the double-barreled fowling-piece for the sportsman, scatterguns, repeating arms, pistols, and knives.” The task of organizing a caravan was no light one; the first step was the election of an officer entitled “Captain of the Caravan,” who was the commander of the expedition, and whose authority was never questioned. By him, each proprietor was notified to furnish a list of his men and wagons; if the company was a large one all the vehicles were divided into four divisions, and a lieutenant was appointed whose duty it was to inspect every ravine and creek along the route, select the crossings, superintend the encampment, and generally look after the arrangement of the wagons; watches were also appointed, usually eight in number, to stand guard a quarter of each alternate night. Besides personal arms, the caravan often carried one or two small cannons, mounted on carriages. The merchandise was packed with the utmost care, a task requiring no little skill, but in which many became adept, filling the wagons with such evenness that on their arrival at Santa Fe not one article would be disturbed or injured. A ” Santa Fe assortment,” as it was called, consisted generally of merchandise such as was usually seen in the smaller retail stores of the East, viz: woolen and cotton goods, silks, hardware, notions, etc. The principal articles in demand were cotton velvets and domestic cotton; the latter, which were by far the most called for, were brown, unbleached, and blue, and formed almost half of every assortment; in spite of their ready sale, however, they were the most unprofitable articles taken, on account of their weight and the heavy-duty imposed upon them by the Mexican authorities who, in 1837, issued a decree prohibiting the entrance of all shirtings, calicoes, and drillings. American manufactures alone were in demand, the British cottons being much less durable, and of a lighter texture. Besides the merchandise, provisions for the men were carried, consisting chiefly of bacon, flour, coffee, sugar, and salt — buffaloes furnishing all the fresh meat used on the journey.

Santa Fe Trail Map

Santa Fe Trail Map

The train left Independence in detached parties and rendezvoused at Council Grove, Kansas about 150 miles distant on a branch of the Neosho River; here all arrangements were completed for the journey, the “Catch up! catch up!” of the captain rang out from his station in the foremost wagon, the answering shouts of “All’s set!” from the drivers proclaimed that everything was in readiness, and in a few moments the caravan was on its way to Santa Fe. The appearance of these long lines of white-topped vehicles was singularly impressive; the wagons advanced slowly in four parallel columns but in broken lines, often with considerable intervals between; the unceasing “Crack! crack!” of the wagoners’ whips, resembling the distant report of musketry, sounded almost as if two hostile parties were engaged in a skirmish. The rear wagons were usually left without a guard, as the horsemen all preferred to be in front, where they could be seen moving in scattered groups sometimes over a mile in advance. The evolutions of the wagons were intricate and required much skill on the part of the drivers; when marching four abreast the two exterior lines spread out and then met at the front angle, while the two near lines kept close together until they reached the point of the rear angle when they wheeled suddenly out and closed with the hinder ends of the other two, thus systematically concluding a right-lined quadrangle with a gap left at the rear corner for the introduction of the animals. Every night the wagons were formed into a hollow square, acting as a defense against Indians and a temporary corral for the cattle; outside of this square the campfires burned and the traders slept, while those whose turn it was to watch kept guard. The difficulties of the route were all surmounted by the energy of the travelers; in many places, temporary bridges of long grass or brush covered with earth were made, and sometimes “buffalo boats” were constructed by stretching hides over empty wagon-bodies or frames of poles.

The End of the Santa Fe Trail by Gerald Cassidy, about 1910

The End of the Santa Fe Trail by Gerald Cassidy, about 1910

As the wagons approached within 200 miles of Santa Fe a party of avant couriers, known in the parlance of the prairies as “runners,” pushed on in advance to the capital; they were generally proprietors or agents, and their purpose was to procure and send back a supply of provisions, to secure good accommodations for the merchandise, and, what was no less important, come to an “agreeable understanding” with the custom-house officials. When the crossing of the Red River was reached the caravan was met and accompanied for the remainder of the journey by a Spanish escort provided to prevent smuggling; here, also, a branch of the expedition usually proceeded westward to Taos. Five or six days later and the long-expected goal appeared in sight; great was the exultation as wagon after wagon descended the steep declivities to Santa Fe; the little cannons fired enthusiastic salutes, the muleteers cheered vociferously, and all was rejoicing and confusion. “I doubt, in short,” said Gregg, “whether the first sight of the walls of Jerusalem were beheld by the crusaders with more tumultuous and soul-enrapturing joy.” “The arrival,” continues the same writer, “produced a great deal of bustle and excitement among the natives. ‘Los Americanos!’ ‘Los Carros!’ ‘La entrada d,e la Caravana!’ were to be heard in every direction; and crowds of women and boys flocked around to see the new-comers. The wagoners were by no means free from excitement on this occasion. They had spent the previous morning in ‘rubbing’ up and now they were prepared, with clean faces, sleek-combed hair, and their choicest Sunday suit, to meet the fair eyes of glistening black that were sure to stare at them as they passed. There was yet another preparation to be made in order to show off to advantage; each one must tie a brand-new cracker to the lash of his whip, for on driving through the streets and the plaza publico, everyone strived to outvie his comrades in the dexterity with which he flourished this favorite badge of his authority.”

The contents of the wagons were soon transferred to the warerooms of the custom-house, and the members of the expedition spent a few days in recovering from the fatigue of their tedious journey; the wagoners and traders repaired in throngs to the numerous fandangoes which were kept up for some time after the arrival of a caravan, while the merchants were actively employed in more important labors, each endeavoring to get his goods through the custom-house before his neighbor and to supply the country dealers on their annual visit to the capital.

“The derechos de arancel (tariff imposts) of Mexico,” to quote again from Gregg, “are extremely oppressive, averaging about 100%, upon the United States’ cost of an ordinary Santa Fe assortment. Those on cotton textures are particularly so. According to the tariff of 1837 — and it was still heavier before — all plain-wove cotton, whether white or printed, paid twelve and a half cents duty yards, besides the derecho de consumo (consumption duty), which brings it up to at least 15. For a few years Governor Armijo, of Santa Fe, established a tariff of his own, entirely arbitrary, — exacting $500 for each wagon load, whether large or small, of fine or coarse goods! Of course, this was very advantageous to such traders as had large wagons and costly assortments, while it was no less onerous to those with smaller vehicles or coarse, heavy goods. As might have been anticipated, the traders soon took to conveying their merchandise only in the largest wagons, drawn by ten or twelve mules, and omitting the coarser and more weighty articles of trade. This caused the governor to return to the ad valorem system, though still without regard to the tariff general of the nation.”

On about the first of September, four or five weeks after the arrival of the caravan, the return trip was commenced; the number of wagons was greatly reduced, many of those taken being sold in the province, and the return cargo —  the profits of the expedition — was of gold-dust or silver bullion, furs, buffalo rugs, wool, and Mexican blankets. The loads weighed generally about 1200 pounds, and while the outward journey occupied at least 70 days, the homeward trip seldom exceeded 40; indeed, in 1851, Frank X. Aubrey, a young Canadian and well-known scout, made the distance from Santa Fe to Independence in five days and ten hours.

George Sibley

George Sibley

When the trade was well established several petitions were sent to Congress by the people of Missouri, requesting that a road might be marked out and treaties made with the Indian tribes; in January 1825, a bill was passed granting both these requests and appropriating $30,000 for their execution. The work was never completed, however, although energetically begun by the commissioners, Messrs. Reeves, Mathews, and Sibley, and the surveyor, J. C. Brown, who made a treaty with the Osage and commenced the survey. The line of the proposed road was determined as far as the Arkansas River and designated by mounds of earth; but it never seemed to have been used by the travelers, who persistently refused to be carried off from the old trail, which had been the route of their predecessors, and which had the sanction of experience if not of scientific engineering.

The first route followed, as we have seen, was by a line almost directly westward to the mountains of Colorado, and then south to Taos. Afterward, when the trade assumed importance, a road along the Arkansas River, and then southwest to the Raton Pass was sometimes used; but the route which was the ordinary and favorite one for a long series of years was that along the Arkansas River, then across to the Cimarron River, and so entering New Mexico, proceeding in an almost direct line to the Wagon Mound — which made a conspicuous landmark — and then to Las Vegas, San Miguel, and Santa Fe. In the spring of 1837, an attempt was made, principally by Mexican merchants, to establish an independent trade with Chihuahua, leaving Santa Fe entirely out of the intercourse; but, though begun with much enthusiasm, it was found a losing enterprise and speedily abandoned.

Kit Carson

Kit Carson

The famous scout and Indian fighter Kit Carson first gained his renown by his skill and daring in guiding parties over the Santa Fe Trail, his own first trip having been made as far back as 1826; another well-known scout was Colonel A. G. Boone, grandson of the famous Daniel, who is said to have been able to speak all the Indian languages. Among the early traders and pioneers was James L. Collins, afterward superintendent of Indian affairs in the Territory, who arrived at Santa Fe in 1827, with a caravan of 53 wagons, the largest up to that period. In 1831, Joseph Gregg, whose book, The Commerce of the Prairies, is the authority on all matters pertaining to the trade, made his first trip, and in this same year Captain Jedediah Smith, the well-known Rocky Mountain pioneer, met his death. He had been separated from his party and wandered across the plains in search of water; at last a small stream was found, but as the captain stooped to drink he was pierced by a Comanche arrow and died instantly. In 1833, Charles Bent was captain of the annual caravan, which numbered 93 wagons, and the following year Thomas Kerr commanded an expedition the profits of which amounted to nearly $200,000. Among the traders of 1835 was the celebrated Captain John Sutter, who established himself in business in Santa Fe, leaving that city for California in 1838.

In the early years of the trade there was little trouble from the Indians, but as the proportion of the traffic increased and the annual caravans, the period of their passage, and their value, became known to the natives, many cruel attacks were made, and the Indians were ever prepared to swoop down upon any straggling bands of traders on their homeward journey or small parties insufficiently supplied with arms, who considered themselves fortunate to escape with only the loss of their animals or goods. The first encounter of this kind recorded took place in 1826 when a party of 12 returning traders encamped upon the banks of the Cimarron River with only four guns between them; here they were visited by a band of Indians, who noticed their defenseless condition, and after making friendly demonstrations withdrew, only to return with about 30 warriors, each carrying a lasso. They informed the Americans that they wanted some horses, and the traders, unable to resist so large a force, gave them one apiece. But the Indians were not yet contented, each brave must now have two horses. “Well, catch them!” was the acquiescent reply of the unlucky band; upon which the Indians mounted the animals they had just obtained, and swinging their lassoes over their heads plunged among the stock with furious yells, and drove off the entire herd of 500 head of horses, mules, and asses. The first murder committed by Indians took place in 1826. Two young men, members of a returning party, named McNees and Monroe, having fallen asleep by a stream since known as McNee’s Crossing, were barbarously shot with their own guns in full sight of their caravan. The bodies were buried on the banks of the Cimarron River, and as the companions of the murdered men were engaged in performing these last services a small party of Indians, who probably had no knowledge of the recent outrage, were seen to advance on the opposite side of the stream. The traders, burning with fury and a desire for vengeance, opened fire upon the Indians, all but one of whom were killed. The survivor bore the tidings to his tribe, who, in their turn, pursued the caravan for days and finally succeeded in carrying off 1,000 head of stock, although the traders managed to escape. Not satisfied with this bloodless revenge, the Indians a little later attacked a company of 20 men on their homeward trip, killing one and taking all the animals, thus compelling each of the traders to carry his share of the proceeds on his back to the banks of the Arkansas River, where it was cached until a conveyance to the United States could be procured; these shares amounted to $1,000 each, or a load of 80 pounds in silver bullion to each man.

Indian Attack by Frederic Remington, 1907

Indian Attack by Frederic Remington, 1907

These repeated outrages induced the traders to apply for government protection, and in 1829 a United States escort of three companies of infantry and one of the dragoons under Major Bennet Riley was detailed to accompany the caravan of that year past the most dangerous portions of the route. The escort stopped at Chouteau’s Island, in the Arkansas River, but as soon as the traders advanced without its protection they were attacked by Kiowa warriors and one man was killed, the assailants disappearing in safety before the arrival of the troops, who were at once summoned. Major Riley and his men remained on the Arkansas River until the autumn when they accompanied the returning caravans to Independence. This was the only protection afforded by the United States until 1834, in which year 60 dragoons under Captain Clifton Wharton acted as special escort, and again in 1843 when large detachments under Captain Cooke escorted two different caravans as far as the Arkansas River.

From the time of its re-establishment in 1844 the Santa Fe trade continued without interruption, many wealthy New Mexican merchants taking part in the business. It was not seriously affected by the war with Mexico, for the caravan of 1846, in which year Santa Fe was taken by the United States troops, contained 414 wagons and merchandise to the value of $1,752,250. Under American government the intercourse flourished; not only were the Territories of New Mexico and Arizona supplied, but the northern parts of Mexico also became a market for American goods. With the gradual extension of the railroads, however, the starting-place moved further and further westward, the forwarding establishment being transferred from Hays City, Kansas, to Sheridan, Kit Carson, Granada, La Junta, El Moro, Las Vegas, and so onward until the railroads were in operation throughout the Territory and no other mode of transportation was necessary.

By Helen Haines, excerpted from History of New Mexico: From the Spanish Conquest to the Present Time, 1530-1890, New Mexico Historical Publishing Company, 1891.

Compiled and edited by Kathy Weiser/Legends of America, updated December 2019.

Also See:

Early Traders on the Santa Fe Trail

Santa Fe Trail (Main page)

Santa Fe Trail – Exploration & Illegal Trade – Pre-1821

Santa Fe Trail Photo Gallery