International Trade on the Santa Fe Trail, 1821-1846

The Sibley Survey, 1825-1827

Surveyors on the Plains

Surveyors on the Plains

Missouri traders like Augustus Storrs requested that the US government survey and mark a permanent road over which Santa Fe trade could be conducted. They additionally requested military protection from future threats such as Indian interference, to what Missourians believed would be a continuously expanding trade route. The Missouri legislature supported the traders’ cause, as did Missouri senators Thomas Hart Benton and David Barton. Benton forcefully guided a bill through Congress, calling for a survey of the trail from Missouri to the international border along the north bank of the Arkansas River. The result of these efforts was the passage of a bill on March 3, 1825, providing for the survey of a “highway between nations” and for treaties to be made with the Indians through whose lands the road passed.

The survey began in July of 1825 and became known as the “Sibley Survey,” after George Champlin Sibley who led the survey team, which included Benjamin H. Reeves and Thomas Mather. The Santa Fe Trail Survey Expedition embarked from Fort Osage in present-day Sibley, Missouri on the Missouri River. The expedition surveyed and marked the trail between Missouri and Santa Fe, and the surveyors kept extensive notes and records. Rather than survey the route then in use by traders, the Sibley Expedition followed and marked – by erecting earth mounds – a somewhat different route. Some historians suggest that the Sibley Survey never fulfilled its purpose. This was partly because the survey ended in Taos, New Mexico with a branch road to Santa Fe from Taos surveyed later. Upon completion of the survey in 1827, the surveyors’ records were sent to Washington, but unfortunately for traders and travelers of the Santa Fe Trail, little of the valuable data was published or made public knowledge. Within a few years, the earth mounds had disappeared, leaving only wagon ruts to mark the trail to Santa Fe. Sibley thought the survey was unnecessary because he agreed with the wagon men that they already knew the route to Santa Fe, even without man-made markers. Indeed, Sibley later echoed the contention by some individuals that the traders themselves had already performed the task of marking the Santa Fe Trail. He stated in his journal, “The road as traveled is already well enough marked by the wagons, any mounds put up would be soon thrown down by the buffalo and Indians.” The Sibley Survey had little effect upon the development of the trade or the trail; however, it did provide national publicity.

Osage Indians by George Catlin

Osage Indians by George Catlin

As provided in the 1825 bill authorizing the survey and marking of the road to Santa Fe, treaty negotiations were undertaken with the Osage and Kanza tribes. Two treaties – one with the Great and Little Osage on August 10, 1825, and one with the Kanza on August 16, 1825 – were identical except for the preliminary and concluding paragraphs specifying the tribe. The first four articles provided that “in consideration of the friendly relations existing” between the two Indian Nations and the US, the Indians would: allow the road to be surveyed and marked; agree that the road would be “forever free for the use of the citizens of the United States and the Mexican Republic… without hindrance or molestation”; “render…friendly aid and assistance” to traders when it was within their power; agree that the “road aforesaid shall be considered as extending to a reasonable distance on either side, so that travelers thereon may, at any time, leave the marked track, for the purpose of finding subsistence and proper camping places.” The fifth article required that each tribe receive $500 in money and/or merchandise from the United States government in payment for the considerations enumerated.

The Commissioner of Indian Affairs, William Clark, along with Benjamin H. Reeves, George C. Sibley, and Thomas Mather, carried out the negotiations. The meetings between the Osage Indians and the US commissioners took place at Council Grove, a rendezvous campsite on the Neosho River in what is now Morris County, Kansas; the treaty with the Kanza was signed at Sora Creek (Dry Turkey Creek), southwest of present-day McPherson, Kansas. The treaties were signed by Reeves, Sibley, Mather and 16 members each of the Osage and Kanza tribes, including seven Osage chiefs and four Kanza chiefs. Tariffs and Taxes Issues with fair trade, Mexican tariffs, and duties continued during the first two decades of the Santa Fe trade. Despite the enormous profits to be made on American goods sold at Santa Fe, the traders had to surrender some of their profits to the Mexican authorities in the form of customs duty. Customs duty on dry goods was officially 25 percent; in actual practice, however, this often varied from 10 to 150 percent. The duty was based on the arbitrary value placed on the goods by the Mexican officials at the customhouse. Corruption was rampant, and during the early years, Mexican officials received as much as a third of the duty for their personal use in addition to any bribes that changed hands. During the 1830s, while serving as the customs collector at Santa Fe, Manuel Armijo experienced difficulties keeping up with the ever-changing Mexican tariff schedules. A variety of duties and taxes existed at that time including national import duties, state excise taxes, taxes on animals and wagons, taxes on the establishment of a retail shop, and taxes on required documentation. Each port of entry also seemed to employ its own tariff schedule. Recognizing these difficulties, Armijo shifted from ad valorem duties to a flat $500 impost on every wagon. Santa Fe traders, in response, started using larger wagons pulled by ten or 12 mules, or reloading goods into fewer wagons outside Santa Fe, leaving the empty wagons until their return trip. As a result, Armijo removed the per wagon tax in 1839.

American traders regularly argued that the Mexican trade duties resulted in them being taxed twice on the same merchandise, once when it was imported from Europe and again when it was taken into Mexico. In order to place American traders on equal footing with Mexican competitors who were importing directly from Europe, one Missouri merchant proposed that the U.S. should create a rebate or debenture of American duties for Santa Fe traders who were being impacted by this double taxation. Between 1831 and 1845 American traders appealed to Congress for help. It was argued that this would improve American traders’ ability to reach markets farther south in Mexico and increase the value of the Santa Fe trade. In 1842, the acting US consul in Santa Fe sided with the traders. Congress, however, refused to act at that time.

Mexican Wagons

Mexican Wagons

American traders also were worried about the increasing influence of Mexican merchants and were concerned that these businessmen threatened their own business interests. During the 1830s a merchant class began to emerge in Santa Fe, consolidating capital, beginning to control markets, trading in the US, and dealing directly with wholesalers. By the late 1830s, Mexican traders had gained dominance over the trade and were transporting the bulk of the goods bound to Santa Fe. They were involved in all aspects of the trade in Santa Fe, as well as in Missouri, the eastern US, Mexico, and California. Many wealthy Hispanic merchants established their own contacts with wholesalers and merchants in the eastern US, bypassing American merchants and businessmen in Missouri. On March 3, 1845, however, the US Congress passed the Drawback Act. The law allowed traders to be reimbursed for all but 2.5 percent of the US duties of foreign merchandise if advance notice of intent to re-export the goods to Mexico was given and provided that they were shipped to Mexico in original packages with certified invoices by way of Independence, Missouri or either Van Buren or Fulton, Arkansas. In addition, the goods were subject to inspection by American customs agents, and traders were required to provide a bond of three times the US duties. Trade increased dramatically in the year after the passage of this legislation, increasing the value of goods transported over the trail to Mexico.

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