International Trade on the Santa Fe Trail, 1821-1846

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, plows, 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. The 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.”

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

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

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 5,000 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.

Thomas Hart Benton

Thomas Hart Benton

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, 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 percent. 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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