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.
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.
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.
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.