International Trade on the Santa Fe Trail, 1821-1846

Hispanic merchants were especially significant to the trade during the trail’s early years. By the end of the 1830s, a number of wealthy traders from Chihuahua, Sonora, and the Santa Fe area had established business relationships with suppliers in the eastern United States and in Europe. They regularly traveled between Mexico and the United States with trade caravans, buying goods directly from eastern wholesalers, and transporting the bulk of goods between New Mexico and Missouri. Mexican merchants transported merchandise to Missouri opened stores in Santa Fe, and transshipped goods south into Chihuahua and central Mexico. Many Mexican merchants viewed the Santa Fe Trail as only a portion of a much more extensive trade network connecting to the eastern US and even to Europe. Specifically, Mexican merchants from Chihuahua, Durango, and El Paso del Norte viewed Santa Fe and the trail itself merely as one phase of a corridor of international commerce. Their perspective of the Santa Fe Trail is emphasized by the continuation of trading ventures during the Mexican-American War despite being labeled “greasers” and traitors by some of their compatriots. When threatened, Mexican merchants protected their investments in the Santa Fe trade by volunteering military service and making financial contributions to resist disruption of this type of commerce by Texans, American Indians, and Americans. Among the Hispanic merchants known to have been involved in this trade were the Chaves family, the Otero family, the Delgado family, the Manzanares family, Manuel Alvarez, Don Antonio José Chávez, Juan B. Escudero, Ramon García, Pedro Olivares, Estvan Ochoa, Juan Otero, Juan Perea, Estanislao Porras, and J. Calistro Porras. Many Mexican families sent their children to schools in the eastern United States, further emphasizing that the Santa Fe Trail was not only a means of commercial trade but also one of cultural and international exchange.

By the early 1840s, as noted above, New Mexican and interior Mexican merchants played major roles in the Santa Fe trade. Manuel Alvarez, a native of Spain, was one of the Hispanic merchants who viewed Missouri as “a mere way-station” on a commercial trail that led from New Mexico to Europe and various points in between. Alvarez operated a store in Santa Fe from 1824 until his death in 1856. He succeeded Ceran St. Vrain as US commercial agent in Santa Fe in 1839. Alvarez made several buying trips to eastern markets, including trips in 1838-1839, 1841-1842, and 1843-1844. Upon his return from a business trip to the eastern United States in August 1843, Alvarez was prevented from reentering Mexico because Mexican President Antonio López de Santa Anna closed all northern ports of entry into the country. As a result, Alvarez went to England, Spain, and France via Chicago and Philadelphia and departing from New York. Throughout his travels, he purchased goods and kept abreast of events in New Mexico. Alvarez conducted most of his business through the London-based firm of Aguirre, Solante, and Murrieta, which acted as his agent. He deposited $3000 in a London bank, using the interest as payment for goods purchased abroad. Despite the reopening of the northern ports of entry into Mexico, Alvarez did not hasten his return to Santa Fe. Instead, he returned to New York on May 1, 1844, where he purchased an additional $4000 worth of merchandise. Allowing for brief sojourns in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, Alvarez arrived in Missouri around June 1, 1844, where he remained for an additional two-and-a-half months, arranging shipment of his merchandise from Independence, Westport, and St. Louis to Santa Fe. Alvarez personally arranged the transportation of his goods over the Santa Fe Trail with Charles Bent, whose shipping company transported the goods from Independence to Santa Fe for nine cents per pound. The types of merchandise Alvarez had transported included textiles, sewing utensils, lace, buttons, combs, shovels, knives, and belts – some of which he had acquired from the New York-based firms of Hugh Auchincloss and Sons; Lockhart, Gibson and Company; Walcott and Slade; Robert Hyslop and Son; William C. Langley; and Alfred Edwards and Company.

Santa Fe, New Mexico

Santa Fe, New Mexico

Alvarez arrived in Santa Fe in late October or early November 1844, and the goods he had purchased in London and New York arrived in Santa Fe on November 3. Alvarez went to New York and Philadelphia the following year to purchase more goods, and no doubt, he encouraged others to follow his example. Like many other Mexican traders, Manuel Armijo traveled to St. Louis and the eastern United States to purchase goods, which he had transported from Independence to Santa Fe over the trail. Armijo also conducted business with the New York-based firm of P. Harmony’s Nephews & Company. In 1842 he lost between $18,000 and $20,000 worth of merchandise when the steamboat “Lebanon” sank “in five feet of water some 50 miles below Independence, Mo.” Another trader, Manuel X. Harmony, traveled from New York over the Santa Fe Trail to Santa Fe and on to Chihuahua with a caravan of his own goods. Mexican merchants experienced threats similar to those encountered by American merchants. The first Mexicans robbed on the Santa Fe Trail are believed to be Ramon García from Chihuahua and an unnamed Spaniard in the employ of William Anderson; both were robbed in 1823. Don Antonio José Chávez, a New Mexican who was engaged in the Santa Fe trade, operated his family’s store at the southeast corner of Santa Fe Plaza. Chávez made a number of trips on the Santa Fe Trail before he was robbed and murdered. Chávez departed Santa Fe in February 1843 with five servants and $12,000 in gold and silver, as well as some bales of fur. The small trading party reached Owl Creek (now Jarvis Creek) in Rice County, Kansas where the traders were robbed and Chávez was murdered by John McDaniel and a band of men claiming to be in the service of the Republic of Texas.

American Indians and the Santa Fe Trail

Cheyenne Warriors by Edward S. Curtis

Cheyenne Warriors by Edward S. Curtis

Several American Indian tribes were directly or indirectly tied to the Santa Fe Trail, either by residing in the land crossed by the trail or because their nomadic lifestyles routinely brought them into close proximity with the trail. Through the negotiation of treaties in 1825, the United States Congress officially recognized the presence of the Sioux, Cheyenne, Crow, Osage, Kanza, Otoe & Missouri, Pawnee, and Makah, but according to Augustus Storrs, Arapaho, Snake, Kiowa, Comanche, and Apache were also very present in the land around the trail. The treaties granted rights-of-way to the US for the purpose of establishing a road between Mexico and Missouri. Though written by the US negotiators, these treaties and agreements with the American Indians contained wording that suggests the two parties viewed each other amicably at the beginning of the trade.

As previously mentioned, Euro-American and Spanish goods that increasingly became available to American Indian groups were generally considered beneficial, as these goods often made traditional tasks easier, or they allowed these tasks to be accomplished more efficiently. Trading posts such as Bent’s (Old) Fort were constructed for the primary purpose of trading with the American Indians in the region. Built by Mexican laborers employed by brothers Charles and William Bent and partner Ceran St. Vrain, Bent’s Fort was completed in 1834, though it was an active trading post beginning in late 1833 and continuing through 1849.  Business consisted of trade in buffalo robes, furs, and horses and transport of Euro-American trade goods into New Mexico. The fort became a focal point of interaction between Hispanic, Euro-American, and the various Plains Indian tribes, including the Cheyenne, Kiowa, Arapaho, Comanche, Sioux, and Snake. Most of the tribes were, if not friendly, not openly hostile to the traders. fact, in his Congressional testimony in 1825, Storrs only attributed open acts of hostility to the Comanche and Pawnee – two tribes who other Indians and the Mexicans knew to assert their power by raiding even before the opening of the Santa Fe trade. The Comanche, especially, were a dominant force in the Southwest starting around the year 1700. A result of raids and killings by Comanche or Pawnee Indians was that American traders, in particular, began to view all Indians as unfriendly. Storrs notes an event that occurred in 1823 where 40 horses and mules were stolen in Osage Territory by Comanche. Because of the location, the Osage, who were generally friendly toward the Americans, were blamed for the robbery until the truth was discovered the following summer. Events like this happened often.

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