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International Trade on the Santa Fe Trail, 1821-1846

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The Beginnings of Legal Trade


William Becknell blazes the Santa Fe TrailSeveral Americans sought the distinction of being the first to reach Santa Fe, New Mexico with the intention of trading legally. Although Jacob Fowler and Hugh Glenn were discovered trapping beaver streams north of Santa Fe in 1821, Captain William Becknell is credited with the establishment of the Santa Fe Trail, and as the first successful American trader to reach Santa Fe in 1821, thus receiving the title of “Father of the Santa Fe Trail.”


Becknell was born in Virginia in about 1787. He first appeared in the Boon’s Lick country of central Missouri in April, 1812 when he joined the US Mounted Rangers. By 1815, he had become involved in a series of business ventures including the salt trade and a ferry service across the Missouri River. In 1817, he established a residence in Franklin, Missouri. The Panic of 1819 cost Becknell dearly. Unable to repay personal loans he had taken out, Becknell was arrested on May 29, 1821 but was released on a $400 bond. By the summer of 1821, the 34-year-old frontiersman had accumulated a debt of $1185.42 owed to five creditors, and he faced the prospect of prison. On June 25, 1821, prior to official news of the change in government in Mexico, Captain William Becknell placed an advertisement in the Missouri Intelligencer, looking for men to accompany him on his trading venture westward. The stated purpose of the proposed expedition was the trading of horses and mules, presumably with the Indians, and the catching of wild animals. Members of the expedition were to provide their own equipment and an equal part of the capital for the trade. The men met and elected Becknell to lead their expedition. The August 14, 1821 edition of the Missouri Intelligencer reported that 17 men assembled at Ezekiel Williams’ cabin and set September 1, 1821 for the party, led by William Becknell, to cross the Missouri River at the Arrow Rock ferry. Still contested is whether Becknell anticipated the opening of the Mexican border to legal trade or whether he was the benefactor of circumstance, having originally intended to trade with American Indians. Becknell would have been aware of the Mexican declaration of independence in February, 1821 and the Mexican revolt against the Spanish prior to his departure. Not until September 27, 1821, however, did Mexico legally divorce Spain, yet the Becknell party crossed the Missouri River above Franklin and departed from the natural landmark known as Arrow Rock on September 1, 1821, as planned.


The party crossed the Arkansas River in the vicinity of Walnut Creek then followed the south side of the river into Colorado where they followed the Purgatoire River and Chacuaco Creek southwest, entering New Mexico through Emery Gap. Becknell and company, after an uneventful trip, met a troop of soldiers from Santa Fe on November 13th. They traveled with the soldiers to San Miguel del Vado and into Santa Fe where Governor Facundo Melgares greeted them warmly. Becknell’s timing was advantageous – he and his trading party arrived in Santa Fe on November 16, 1821. Their trade goods, including calicoes and domestic printed cloth, sold at high prices in the isolated Mexican outpost. Having experienced the profits to be gained by this type of trading venture, Becknell was anxious to return to Franklin and to prepare an even larger volume of goods for his next trip to Santa Fe. To this end, he departed Santa Fe on December 13, 1821. The successful Becknell arrived in Franklin on January 30, 1822, after only 48 days’ travel. William Becknell was the first American trader into Mexican Santa Fe by only two weeks. Soon after Becknell, Thomas James, who viewed Santa Fe as a market for textiles, arrived on December 1st. Hugh Glenn and Jacob Fowler, both trappers and American Indian traders from southeast Colorado, departed for Santa Fe on January 2, 1822. Enormous profits were to be gained for the effort expended and the risk taken by traders participating in the Santa Fe trade.


Army train on the Santa Fe TrailDue to the opening of trade relations between the United States and Mexico and the extreme profits from Becknell’s first successful trade expedition, other expeditions were organized almost immediately, and the Santa Fe trade was initiated. Becknell set off on his second trading mission with 21 men and three wagons, embarking from Franklin, Missouri on May 22, 1822. Another trading party, led by John Heath, left after Becknell but soon caught up with his entourage, so they traveled together to Santa Fe. Some scholars contend that this expedition signaled the first transportation of goods to Mexico that was intended for civilian, not American Indian, trade. This was the first American attempt to use wagons in crossing the plains since Becknell’s first trip utilized only pack animals. The use of wagons required the party to adopt a trail route that avoided the mountains; this new route partially followed what became the Cimarron Route. Although more strenuous due to the scarcity of water between the Arkansas and Cimarron Rivers, the Cimarron Route was shorter and much less rugged than the later Mountain Route through Raton Pass. Wagons could easily traverse the new route, where scaling the Mountain Route proved treacherous. On his 1822 journey, Becknell and party crossed the Arkansas River in Rice County, Kansas then followed the south side of the river for eight days before heading southwest into Spanish country. Employing the Cimarron Route also meant the crossing of La Jornada (Spanish term meaning “the journey”), a 60-mile waterless portion of the route where high temperatures usually prevailed. Josiah Gregg, author of the book Commerce of the Prairies, suggested that Becknell’s second expedition was closest to failure on this portion of the Santa Fe Trail; Gregg’s father, Harmon, was a member of Becknell’s expedition. By late July 1822, Becknell was in San Miguel, New Mexico. After continuing on to Santa Fe, he returned to Franklin, Missouri in October, 1822. Becknell’s second trading party brought $3000 worth of trade goods to Santa Fe, and the party enjoyed the rewards of a 2000 percent profit on their investment. The demand for American and European goods was emphasized by the instance of Becknell and others selling even their wagons, worth $150, for $700. The profits derived by Becknell from this trip went a long way toward pacifying his creditors back in Franklin.




The End of the Santa Fe Trail by Gerald Cassidy, about 1910Several other trading parties were assembled quickly with a view to trading with the Mexicans. Colonel Benjamin Cooper and 15 men left Franklin, Missouri with a trading party in early May of 1822. Like Becknell, Cooper took the Cimarron Route, encountering hard times when they reached La Jornada. The problem arose when the trading party expended its water supply. They were forced to kill their dogs and cut the ears of their mules in order to have hot blood to drink to survive under the extreme weather conditions. On the verge of abandoning the expedition, they chanced upon and killed a buffalo. They utilized the stomach water from this animal to quench their thirst, and subsequently found water in the vicinity, as had the buffalo. This trail incident was once believed to have happened to Becknell’s party, but it is now believed to have actually happened to the Benjamin Cooper party in 1823. Cooper’s party was forced to return to Franklin after horses strayed from their camp at night. Even then, the handful of men that was sent out after the horses was robbed of their guns, clothes, and six of their horses by Osage Indians. James Baird and Samuel Chambers, imprisoned ten years earlier for illegal trading, also led an expedition to Santa Fe in the autumn of 1822. The Baird-Chambers trading expedition experienced a severe snowstorm, which forced  them to spend the winter in camp near the Arkansas River. When spring came, the traders had no means of transporting their goods since most of their draught animals had perished in the winter cold. The traders cached their commodities on the north bank of the Arkansas River and went to Taos, New Mexico where they purchased mules and returned for their merchandise. The place where the traders hid their goods became known as “The Caches” and was an important mile-marker and campsite for future travelers.


After 1821 the Santa Fe trade supplied much needed manufactured goods and also provided economic success for New Mexican merchants and for those who supplied goods traded to US markets. While much of the wealth from the trade augmented established rich traders, others profited by supplying products and freighting along the trail. As the wealthy class in New Mexico, the wealthy controlled the trade of their goods and benefited greatly from the amount of merchandise that American traders shipped into their markets. They also separated themselves from and maintained economic control over the “commoners” and poor. Augustus Storrs, a native of New Hampshire and Franklin, Missouri postmaster who traveled to Santa Fe in 1824 as part of the first trade caravan, described the conditions prevailing in Santa Fe upon his arrival:


Although necessity has limited their artificial wants, they have not, within themselves, all the necessaries and conveniences of life. Iron is difficult to be obtained, and sells at $100 per cwt., although the country abounds in ore. Woolen  goods are scarce and dear, yet the Internal Provinces produce twice the quantity of wool necessary to clothe their inhabitants. All plates, dishes, bowls, water vessels, and every description of castings, are supplied by a substitute, manufactured from clay, by the civilized Indians. This ware is superior of its kind, and is the invention of the aborigines. They are almost entirely destitute of artisan's tools of every description, and their implements of agriculture, such as carts, ploughs, harrows, yokes, spades, etc. are universally destitute of the least advantage of iron-work. Their spinning is done by the sole use of a wooden spindle, operated by a twirl of the thumb and finger. These particulars are, in themselves, too trifling for enumeration, but, when considered in relation to the late administration of the government, and the condition of the people, and the practical consequences to be deduced by statesmen, they become more important. From them, also, may be inferred the variety and extent of supplies demanded by that market. It will be remembered that I speak of New Mexico only, to which my personal observation was limited. Report speaks more favorably of the condition of the other Internal Provinces. Santa Fe was established in 1610 in a narrow valley unoccupied by American Indians. The city was irregularly laid out except for the public square, while the immediate environs of the city consisted of farms."  


Farming on these arid lands was possible as a result of irrigation systems from the Santa Fe River. The majority of the residents of Santa Fe were poor, but a very wealthy minority also resided there. The church was the center of cultural life in the town and the educational system was poorly developed. By 1821, approximately 5000 people lived in Santa Fe. For the next 25 years, this town grew into the major western terminus for international trade along the Santa Fe Trail.


As trade with Mexico became more popular, numerous caravans were organized each year. The first caravan to Santa Fe left Mount Vernon, Lafayette County, Missouri on May 25, 1824. This particular caravan consisted of 81 men, 156 horses and mules, 23 four-wheeled carts, one piece of field artillery, and $35,000 worth of goods for trade; it was guided by Augustus LeGrand, a former resident of Santa Fe; Meredith M. Marmaduke, later governor of Missouri; Augustus Storrs, the Franklin postmaster; and William Becknell. Having reached Santa Fe, a few of the traders continued on to the Mexican states of Chihuahua and Sonora; others chose to return to Missouri, arriving there on September 24, 1824. Becknell’s connection with the Santa Fe Trail lasted until 1826 during which time he completed another trip to Santa Fe (August 1824-June 1825). He also aided the Sibley Survey by running mail to and from the survey party, delivering wagonloads of supplies, and acting as a guide on occasion. Another individual who played a significant role in the early years of the Santa Fe trade was US Senator Thomas Hart Benton from Missouri. In his younger days as editor of the St. Louis Inquirer, Benton ardently advocated the opening of trade with Mexico across the plains. As a senator, after Missouri became a state and the Mexican frontier was opened to trade in 1821, “he pushed the project with renewed enthusiasm.” Senator Benton was a staunch advocate for the Santa Fe trade, encouraging it through his writings and aiding it through his efforts in Congress. He saw the trade as an economic stimulus for his state and a solution to financial instability caused by quantities of worthless paper currency and shortage of hard currency. Benton’s Missouri constituents had two major concerns. Firstly, dangers posed by Indians along both primary routes of the trail were a real and frequent possibility. The Mountain Route was more difficult to traverse due to its mountainous terrain that led wagon trains through Cheyenne, Arapaho, Ute, Kiowa, Comanche and Jicarilla Apache territories. The Cimarron Route's terrain, though much less rugged, still posed the danger of much less water and a higher threat of attacks by nearby tribes such as the Comanche and Apache. Passing through Indian territory often led to attacks on wagon trains by the occupying tribes. Secondly, the customs regulations imposed on the trade by Mexican authorities was alarming to traders. After being questioned by Senator Benton, traders returning from Santa Fe to Missouri in 1824 sent their complaints and requests to Washington. In 1825 Senator Benton drew the attention of the US Congress to the growing commerce between the frontier towns of Missouri and the Mexican city of Santa Fe. As evidence he provided a statement from Augustus Storrs, a native of New Hampshire, who had traveled to Santa Fe in 1824 as part of the first trade caravan. In answer to Senator Benton’s questions, Storrs explained that the residents of Santa Fe and the other Pueblos of Mexico’s northern provinces greeted the traders from Missouri with open arms. He listed the types of goods transported to Santa Fe as cotton goods, including bolts of cloth and shirting, handkerchiefs, cotton hose, some woolen goods, silk shawls, cutlery items, mirrors, and assorted other items. In exchange, traders returned to Missouri with Spanish-milled dollars, gold and silver in bullion, beaver furs, and mules. Storrs’s testimony also explained that the American traders paid a duty of "25 per cent. ad valorem" to the government of the Internal Provinces of Mexico on goods brought into the country. Storrs indicated that rumors of impending raises in the duty were prevalent:


The certain object of this increase is to place their commerce, from the south [e.g., Mexico City and Chihuahua along the Camino Real], on a more equal footing with that of the Americans, and the measure, I have no doubt, is strongly urged by a few, who have, heretofore, monopolized the sales and fixed the prices of the country.


Storrs believed that US agents stationed in Santa Fe and Chihuahua could protect traders from the greed and unpredictability of New Mexican officials. Augustus Storrs himself was appointed US consul in Santa Fe in 1825. The duty was thought by the traders to have been arbitrarily imposed by the Governor of New Mexico and not legally by the Mexican government. However, the Mexican government also had imposed a series of arbitrary and oppressive taxes and regulations on the Santa Fe trade. Santa Fe, Taos, and San Miguel del Vado each had a customs house, though Santa Fe remained the true port of entry. Although manifests and records were kept of the goods passing through these customs houses and of the taxes levied and paid, graft and corruption were major problems. A very small amount of the revenue, which should have been paid to the government, actually found its way into the Mexican treasury.




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